Review: ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything,’ starring Little Richard

January 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything”

Directed by Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a group of African Americans and white people discuss the impact of rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, who died in 2020, at the age of 87.

Culture Clash: Little Richard experienced homophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, drug addiction and showbiz ripoffs during his many ups and downs. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Little Richard, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about music legends who influenced countless entertainers.

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” vibrantly captures the spirit of rock music pioneer Little Richard and doesn’t shy away from exploring his many contradictions. The documentary stumbles by adding sparkly visual effects to make him look “magical,” but these corny embellishments don’t ruin the movie. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” can at least be applauded for not sticking to an entirely predictable format, since the movie does a few other things in its effort to not be a typical biographical documentary.

Directed by Lisa Cortés, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary unfolds in chronological order and has an expected mixture of archival footage of Little Richard (who died in 2020, at the age of 87) and exclusive documentary interviews with family members, associates, celebrity admirers and various culture experts. People don’t have to be fans of rock music to know that Little Richard was one of the originators of the genre. However, may people who are unfamiliar with him as an artist might be surprised by how his life went from one extreme to the other, often by his own doing.

People knowledgeable about rock history will also know already that Little Richard—just like other African American artists who were pioneers in rock music—was frequently ripped off creatively and financially. He was never fully appreciated by the industry when he was in the prime of his career. It was only after he loudly complained for years about not getting the recognition he deserved that he started to receive many industry accolades.

For example, Little Richard never won a Grammy Award in a competitive category (the Grammys Awards were launched in 1960, after Little Richard’s hitmaking career peaked), but he did receive a non-competitive Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993, long after he stopped making hit records. He was in the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in January 1986, but he couldn’t attend the ceremony because he had the bad luck of being seriously injured in a car accident in October 1985. (He fell asleep behind the wheel of the char.)

Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard’s birth name) knew from an early age that he wanted to be a flamboyant entertainer, starting from when he used to dress up in his mother’s clothes when he was a child. Little Richard, who grew up in a strict Christian household, was the third-youngest of 12 children. His mother Leva Mae Penniman accepted him for who he was, but his Charles “Bud” Penniman would brutally abuse Richard for being effeminate.

Bud Penniman was also a study in contradictions: He was church deacon and a brick mason, but he was also a bootlegger who owned a small nightclub and a house where he sold alcoholic drinks, which were illegal at the time. Ralph Harper, a former neighbor of the Penniman family, has this memory of Little Richard: “He was always banging on the piano, anytime you see him.”

Muriel Jackson, head of the Middle Georgia Archives, comments on Macon’s culture: “Macon is known for its churches. It’s a conservative, religious town.” Therefore, Little Richard wasn’t just bullied at home for being who he was. He also got a lot of abuse from other people in the community.

Specialty Records historian Billy Vera says, “They called him a sissy, a punk” and much worse. Emmy-winning and Tony-winning entertainer Billy Porter (who is openly gay) adds, “I can only imagine. I’ve lived a version of that. It’s debilitating. It’s soul-crushing. And it can be deadly.”

Little Richard spent the early years of his entertainment career in that vortex of contradictions: He would play the piano or sing in the choir in the stern atmosphere of conservative church gatherings, but he would also perform in the much-less restrictive (and taboo at the time) gay-friendly nightclubs in Macon and later Atlanta. He would often appear in drag at these shows under the stage name Princess LaVonne. In those days, it was illegal for men to go in public in drag, unless they it was part of an entertainment act.

One of his frequent hang-outs was Ann’s Tic Toc in Macon. And as a teenager, Little Richard worked at the Macon City Auditorium, where it made a huge impact on him to see many artists up close and backstage. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard saw his idol Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a guitar-playing vanguard in rock music) do a concert at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945, it changed his life. His piano-playing style was influenced by how Ike Turner played piano on Jackie Brenston’s 1957 song “Rocket 88.”

Little Richard was influential to countless artists, but there were people who influenced him on his artistic image/persona. In addition to Tharpe, another performer who helped shape Little Richard’s entertainment style was an openly gay drag performer named Billy Wright, who met Little Richard at the Gold Peacock nightclub in Atlanta in 1950, and they eventually became close friends. Wright had a pompadour hairstyle, wore heavy makeup, and had a thin moustache, which all eventually became signature looks for Little Richard. Did Little Richard copy Wright? Not really, as scholar Zandria Robinson explains: “They were kind of like mirrors that come into your life and show you who you really are.

In the early 1950s, black artists were limited to performing R&B, blues, jazz and gospel. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard was looking for a record deal, he didn’t quite fit in with any of these music genres, even though he was repeatedly told that he should perform blues, according to his longtime drummer Charles Connor. Instead, Little Richard was part of a small but growing number of black artists pioneering a new form of music that combined blues and R&B and made it more energetic, raucous and sexually frank. At first, this new form of music was called “race music” (to indicate that it was performed by black artists) but eventually became known as rock and roll.

Little Richard signed a deal with Signature Records. And his music as a rock artist eventually became hits not just on the R&B charts, but made their way to crossover into the pop charts. It’s mentioned that cars being made with radios had a big impact on people, especially the young people who tended to be rock fans, being able to listen to rock music away from their parents at home. It was during the 1950s that Little Richard had his biggest and most famous hits, including “Tutti Frutti” (a song that he later admitted was about anal sex, but he changed the lyrics before recording it), “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Lucille.”

His stage act became known for his “let it all hang out” style of banging on the piano (often with a leg propped up on the piano) with passionate sexual energy that wasn’t often seen in piano players at the time. Little Richard was sexually ambiguous at a time when it was very dangerous for performers, especially male performers, to be sexually ambiguous. It’s noted in the documentary that Little Richard’s father eventually came to accept him after Richard became a local star in the Georgia music scene. Tragically, Bud Penniman was shot to death in 1952, outside his Tip In Inn nightclub. No suspect was ever charged with this murder, but Little Richard said for years that the culprit was Frank Tanner, who was Little Richard’s best friend at the time.

By 1956, Little Richard had moved to Los Angeles and brought many of his siblings with him. Several people in the documentary talk about how generous he was with family, friends and associates. Throughout it all, Little Richard’s mother was one of his biggest fans. Little Ricard’s longtime drag-queen friend Sir Lady Java (an activist/entrepreneur) says in the documentary about Leva Mae Penniman: “She was such a beautiful person. She knew who he was and what he was. And she loved him in spite of it.”

Tom Jones says in the documentary that out of the five artists who are considered the first megastars of rock and roll—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis—”Little Richard was the strongest.” By the early 1960s, Little Richard was usually named as one of the biggest influences of a slew of British artists who were making their mark in rock and roll. The Beatles (who hung out with Little Richard in the band’s pre-fame nightclub stint in Liverpool, England, and in Hamburg, Germany) and the Rolling Stones jumped at the chance to perform on the same bill with Little Richard.

Robinson says that Little Richard’s upbringing in the South both tormented him and was inherent to who he was: “The South is the home of all things queer, of the different, of the non-normative, of the other side of gothic, of the grotesque. Note that queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence and a space that is different from what we require or expect.” In other words, it doesn’t mean that queerness is more likely to be found in the South but that during Little Richard’s youth, the issues of race, social class and sexuality were more dangerous for people in certain parts of the South, such as his hometown of Macon, than in other parts of the United States.

After he became famous, Richard would change the descriptions of his sexual identity many times. Sometimes, he identified as gay. Sometimes, he identified as straight, during the periods of time when he became a born-again Christian who renounced any sexual identity that wasn’t heterosexual. Sometimes, he identified as bisexual or queer. Regardless of what his sexual identity was or was perceived to be, Little Richard could not be reasonably confused with any other entertainer because he had such a strong and distinct persona.

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, who says Little Richard was one of his biggest influences, comments on Little Richard’s persona: “It was almost like having a split personality.” The Rolling Stones were the opening act for Little Richard at the beginning of the British band’s career in the early 1960s. Jagger said he used that opportunity to study Little Richard’s onstage persona: “I would be at the side of the stage to watch him. Richard would work that audience.” Jagger, who started his career with a performing style of standing still a lot on stage, changed that style and took on some of the same techniques that Little Richard used, and which Jagger still uses today.

Tony Newman, drummer of the British band Sounds Incorporated, has fond memories of working as a backup musician for Little Richard, whom he met in London in 1962. “Nearly every night,” Newman says, “it escalated into a full-blown riot in the theater. I remember coming off of that and thinking, ‘Now this is rock and roll!”

A great deal of the documentary repeats information that music historians already know but other people might not know about how much white artists and music companies owned by white people benefited and often ripped off the work of innovative black artists such as Little Richard. Elvis Presley and Pat Boone were two of the white artists who’ve famously done cover versions of Little Richard songs. The documentary points out that while Presley often acknowledged Little Richard for being an influence that was crucial to Presley’s success (Presley publicly called Little Richard the “real king of rock and roll”), Boone was not as gracious in admitting how much Boone was profiting off of music originally made by black artists such as Little Richard. In most cases, white artists got more money and recognition for performing songs originally performed by black artists.

This documentary didn’t have to do any real investigating to reveal any big secrets about Little Richard when it came to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, because Little Richard told secrets about himself years ago in numerous interviews. The documentary includes clips of TV and radio interviews where he openly talks about indulging in sex orgies and experiencing drug addiction in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He also participated in Charles White’s 1984 non-fiction tell-all book “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” which had a lot of details of Little Richard’s decadent lifestyle. The only viewers of this documentary who might be surprised by all this information are people who don’t know much about Little Richard.

As hedonistic as he admittedly was, there were periods of time in his life in the 1950s and the 1970s, when he denounced his “sinful” lifestyle and became a religious fanatic who gave up rock music to perform gospel music. In the late 1950s, he attended Oakwood University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. These born-again Christian phases in his life often included Little Richard claiming that he was drug-free and no longer condoning of non-heterosexuality. This self-shame about his sexuality seemed to come and go in Little Richard’s life, which made him someone who was unpredictable and difficult for many people to figure out.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” includes interviews with Lee Angel, who famously told the world decades ago that Little Richard seduced her in 1955, when she was 16 years old, and he asked her to marry him, but she said no. In the documentary, Angel says she’s not convinced that Little Richard was ever 100% gay. “He slept with me, and I’m all woman,” she declares proudly, although she admits she was initially surprised that he was sexually attracted to her because she thought he was more sexually interested in men. (Angel passed away in 2022.) The documentary does not have interviews with any of Little Richard’s male ex-lovers.

During one of his born-again Christian phases, Little Richard married Ernestine Harvin, (also known as Ernestine Campbell) in 1959. They divorced in 1964. Harvin is interviewed in the documentary (audio only, not on camera) and says of her marriage to Little Richard: “Richard was the kind of husband most women would want: always positive, loving and caring.” Was Little Richard sexually confused? As scholar Jason King sees it: “He was very good at liberating other people through example. He was not good at liberating himself.”

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” also includes some mention of Little Richard’s battles and complaints about being cheated out of royalties, due to signing recording contracts and publishing deals where he received little to no money. Music attorney John Branca says that a lot of these legal issues had to do with Little Richard breaching his contracts during the periods of time when he refused to perform rock music and only wanted to do gospel. However, it’s a common story that many famous music artists, regardless of their race, regret signing deals that they later said were ripoffs where the artists didn’t get paid and sometimes ended up owing money.

Regardless of how much money or how little money Little Richard made from record sales or songwriting royalties, he still managed to be a popular live act and would tour regularly until the later stages in his life. Little Richard also dabbled in acting, usually making guest appearances and cameos in movies and TV shows. His more memorable film roles were in the 1986 comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and the 1993 action film “Last Action Hero.” The documentary does not mention the 2000 NBC TV-movie biopic “Little Richard,” starring Leon, who is not interviewed in the documentary.

One of the ways that “Little Richard: I Am Everything” tries to be different from the usual music documentary is by having artists who aren’t very famous do performances of songs that helped influence or define Little Richard. Valerie June performs Tharpe’s “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” in the segment that talks about Tharpe. Cory henry recreates Little Richard’s performance of “Tutti Frutti” at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. John P. Kee performs “Standing in the Need” during the segment talking about one of Little Richard’s gospel music phases.

During these performances and in some footage of Little Richard, the documentary has visual effects of glowing dust that floats through the air, as if it’s some kind of magical aura from Little Richard that’s being passed though the ether. It’s not as cringeworthy as sparkling vampires in the “Twilight” movies, but it looks very over-the-top and quite unnecessary. Little Richard did not lead a fairytale life. There’s no need to conjure up images that he spread some kind of mystical dust, as if he’s a character some kind of Disney animated movie. The fascinating stories told about Little Richard by himself and other people are more than enough to be intriguing.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include his cousins Newt Collier and Stanley Stewart; Little Richard’s former manager Ramon Hervey; filmmaker John Waters; ethnomusicologist Gredara Hadley; entertainment agent Libby Anthony; singer Nona Hendryx; historian Tavia Nyong’o; former Oakwood University classmate Dewitt Williams; former Little Richard road manager Keith Winslow, whose other was a teacher at Oakwood University; bass player Charles Glenn, who was in Little Richard’s band; booking agent Morris Roberts; and producer/songwriter Nile Rodgers, who says that David Bowie wanted Bowie’s 1983’s smash hit “Let’s Dance” album (which Rodgers produced) to be heavily influenced by Little Richard. The documentary could have used more interviews with female musicians other than Hendryx, but it’s an overall diverse mix of people.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” keeps the storytelling lively, thanks to some great editing by Nyneve Laura Minnear and Jake Hostetter. There’s a particularly powerful montage near the end of the film that juxtaposes archival footage of Little Richard and all the artists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him over the years, including Elton John, Bowie, Jagger, Prince, Lady Gaga, Lizzo, former “Pose” star Porter and Harry Styles. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is a perfect title for this movie, because it shows how Little Richard was at times (often to a fault) all things to many people. However conflicted he might have been in his personal life and career, this documentary eloquently demonstrates how Little Richard represents the glory and pain of expressing yourself freely, no matter what the consequences.

Magnolia Films will release “Little Richard: I Am Everything” in select U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced. CNN and HBO Max will premiere the movie on dates to be announced.

Review: ‘Say Hey, Willie Mays!,’ starring Willie Mays

January 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Willie Mays in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!”

Directed by Nelson George

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Say Hey, Willie Mays!,” a group of African American and white people (with some Latinos), who are all connected to the American baseball industry in some way, discuss the impact of former Major League Baseball player Willie Mays, an inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Culture Clash: Mays, who rose from humbe background, broke records and racial barriers in baseball, but he still experienced a lot of racism and other problems. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Mays and American baseball, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about sports heroes or people who overcame obstacles to achieve greatness.

Willie Mays and Nelson George in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is a laudatory, traditionally made documentary that doesn’t reveal anything new. However, this well-edited movie has a notable lineup of interviewees, including the great Willie Mays himself, who tell very engaging stories. “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” had its world premiere at the 2022 Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Nelson George, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” covers many of the same topics that were already covered in the 1988 book “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays,” which Mays co-authored with Lou Sahadi. However, the documentary has updates up until the 2020s and has the benefit of being able to tell the story in cinematic form. It’s one thing to read about some of Mays’ iconic baseball games. It’s another thing to see the actual footage.

From the beginning, viewers know that the documentary is going to be a praise fest for Mays. The movie opens with a montage of gushing commentary from star players and experts of American baseball who are interviewed. Baseball star Barry Bonds says, “Willie is always going to be the godfather.” (And, as Bonds describes in detail in teh documentary, Mays literally is his godfather.) Baseball star Reggie Jackson (Mays’ former Oakland A’s rival) comments on Mays: “He is the most spectacular basebally player that ever played.”

Cultural historian Dr. Todd Boyd adds, “He dominated every entirety of the game.” As many baseball fans already know, most star baseball players excel or are known for one or two positions or talents in the game. Mays was extraordinary for excelling at everything in various game positions.

Longtime sports broadcaster Bob Costas credits former New York Giants manager Leo Durocher (who recruited Mays to the New York Giants in 1950, the year thay Mays graduated from high school) with coming up with a term that’s frequently used to describe Mays: “I think he [Durocher] might have been the guy who coined [the phrase] ‘five-tool power.'” The “five-tool player” in baseball refers to a player mastering five key skills in baseball playing: (1) hitting per average; (2) power hitting; (3) running; (4) fielding; and (5) throwing.

Born in 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, May came from humble beginnings and found his baseball calling early in life. He began playing for Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League while still in high school.” In the documentary, May reiterates how much Jackie Robinson (the first African American to play in Major League Baseball) had an influence on May: “I was impressed. He could do everything.”

Robinson’s pivotal breaking down of color barriers in Major League Baseball led to the league recruiting of players from the Negro American League, a league that eventually became obsolete as baseball in the United States became racially integrated. Mays was one of those recruited players in the early years of racially integrated Major league Baseball. He endured a lot of racist abuse and discrimination from some people, but most people who were New York Giants fans were thrilled at how Robinson quickly stood out as a player who helped the team win games.

During his early years with the New York Giants, Mays lived in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he said he spent a lot of time at the Red Rooster restaurant/bar. His signature phrase “say hey” came about when he moved to New York, and he would tell people to stop by and “say hey.” Mays shares fond memories of holding court at the Red Rooster as a young man, but viewers will get the sense that he didn’t let all the attention of being a local hero go to his head.

In fact, several times throughout the documentary, it’s mentioned and shown how Mays spent much of his life using his fame and fortune to help others, especially underprivileged young people, including launching the Say Hey Foundation in 2000. “Say Hey, Willie Mays” also addresses the criticism that Mays got (including from his idol Robinson) for not publicly taking more of a political stand during the U.S. civil rights movement and the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Mays says that it was never his style to publicly talk about politics, and his way of helping fellow African Americans was through his charitable work that he often did not publicize. Boyd comments, “Willie did things for people behind the scenes.”

After winning the 1954 World Series with the New York Giants (who were the underdogs against the Cleveland Indians), Mays moved to San Francisco when the Giants relocated to San Francisco in 1958. The documentary mentions that at the time, retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio (a San Francisco native) was the biggest baseball star in San Francisco. Mays, who was a big deal in New York, was somewhat overshadowed at first by the celebrity legend of DiMaggio in San Francisco, and had to work hard to win over skeptical fans in the San Francisco area.

But even with all the accolades, fame and money that Mays had because of his baseball career, Mays still experienced harsh racial discrimination. He and his first wife Marghuerite, whom he married in 1952, were not allowed to buy a house in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood populated by white people, not because the couple didn’t have the money but because of their race. The racism involved in Mays not being able to buy this house got a lot of media attention.

After a lot of public uproar, he and Marghuerite eventually bought the house, but many of the neighbors still objected to the couple living there. Mays says in the documentary that the stress of this ordeal contributed to the eventual breakdown of the couple’s marriage. He and Marghuerite separated in 1962 and officially divorced in 1963. Mays wed his second wife Mae (who was a social worker) in 1971, and they were married until her death in 2013, at the age of 74.

While a member of the San Francisco Giants, Mays became the team’s unofficial leader, say several people in the documentary. He also defended the Spanish-speaking Latino players against racism they experienced from people who didn’t want Spanish to be spoken in the team clubhouse. Mays’ former Giants teammates Orlando Cepeda, Ozzie Virgil Sr., Juan Marichal and Tito Fuentes all praise Mays for his leadership skills and for how well he treated people. Cepeda, who was a bat boy for May when Mays visited Puerto Rico, says in the documentary: “The reason why I came to play baseball was because of Willie.”

Even though Mays was eventually traded to the New York Mets in 1972 and made it to the World Series with the Mets in 1973 (the Mets lost, and he retired that year), he will be mostly remembered for his association with the Giants. Former San Francisco Giants star Bonds, who is perhaps the most famous protégé of Mays, speaks at length and sometimes gets emotional when talking about how Mays was more than a mentor to Bonds. Mays was also a second father figure to Bonds, especially after Barry’s father Bobby Bonds (who was a former San Francisco Giants teammate of Mays) passed away in 2003. Barry says, “My dad loved Willie more than anything. Willie took all the black athletes and the time and put them on his shoulders.”

It’s fairly common knowledge among baseball fans that Mays (who received a lifetime contract to work for the San Francisco Giants in 1992) was instrumental in getting the San Francisco Giants to recruit Barry. Barry also says that Mays encouraged Barry to break Mays’ record of having the most home runs in a single season for a National League player. Barry says that Mays told him about breaking Mays’ record: ‘You better pass me, and you better keep going.'” Barry eventually did that and more: In 2001, he broke the Major League Baseball record for having the most home runs (73) in a single season.

However, “Say Hey, Willie Mays” completely ignores that Barry’s career and reputation were tarnished by his “doping” scandal, when it was revealed that he used steroids during his baseball career. If Barry and/or Mays were asked about this scandal for the documentary, it’s not in the movie. It’s also possible that Barry wouldn’t agree to be interviewed if he had been asked about the scandal in this documentary, but that isn’t mentioned in the film either. Viewers can only speculate why such a big “elephant in the room” was not addressed at all in this documentary.

The closes that the documentary that alludes to Barry’s baseball career ending in some kind of disgrace is the documentary’s use of an archival footage clip during a 2018 ceremony of Barry’s number 25 being retired by the Giants. During the ceremony, Willie gives a speech and makes an emotional plea his for Barry to get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although Barry is eligible, he hasn’t received enough votes to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, presumably because of the doping scandal.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include historian/activist Dr. Harry Edwards; Faye Davis, daughter of “godfather of black baseball” Piper Davis; Rickwood Field president Gerald Watkins former baseball player Rev. William “Bill” Greason, Willie’s friend/mentor; sports broadcaster Vin Scully; former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown; Dusty Baker, a Major League Baseball player-turned manager; San Francisco Giants president/CEO Larry Baer; and former San Francisco Giants clubhouse senior advisor Miguel “Mike” Murphy, who retired in 2023.

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” does a credible job of putting into context the racism obstacles that Willie and some of his other non-white teammates experienced and how he used those experiences to help others. Willie Mays’ son Michael Mays, who is interviewed in he documentary, says that any racism that Willie experienced was something he left behind when he played on the field, but off the field it was something he tried to turn from a negative to a positive. Michael adds, “He comes from a family where everybody helps everybody.” Boyd adds of Willie: “He had the power to open the doors for other people.”

However, the documentary doesn’t dig any deeper to find out how Willie’s close faher/son-type relationship with Barry affected Michael or other members of the Mays family. “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is certainly inspirational, but it doesn’t provide much new insight into Willie except to praise all of his glories without a full exploration of any of his failings and what he might have learned from any mistakes he made in his life. Overall, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is not a completely well-rounded or grounbreaking documentary, but it’s a treat to watch for baseball fans or anyone who likes to see biographies of people who have lived their lives with dignity and respect.

HBO premiered “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” on November 8, 2022.

Review: ‘The Exiles’ (2022), starring Christine Choy, Yan Jiaqi, Wu’er Kaixi and Wan Runnan

January 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

A 1989 photo of Yan Jiaqi (second from left), Wu’er Kaixi and Wan Runnan in “The Exiles” (Photo by Christine Choy/Film News Now Foundation/Gravitas Ventures)

“The Exiles” (2022)

Directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1989 and 2015 to 2019, in various parts of the world, the documentary film “The Exiles” features a group of Asian people (and a few white people and African Americans) discussing filmmaker Christine Choy’s documenting the lives of three leaders of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement who fled China in 1989, to lives as refugees in the United States.

Culture Clash: Choy experienced many obstacles in finishing the film and in getting the three exiles to reunite in the 2010s. 

Culture Audience: “The Exiles” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about movers and shakers in 20th century Chinese history.

Christine Choy in “The Exiles” (Photo courtesy of Exiles Film LLC/Gravitas Ventures)

In 1989, when Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christine Choy began making a documentary about three exiled leaders of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy uprising, she had no idea that nearly 30 years later, she would be the subject of a documentary about Choy finding out what happened to three exiles and trying to possibly reunite with them. The result is the riveting but somewhat uneven documentary “The Exiles.” At first, the documentary looks more like a biography about Choy than about the exiles. But the film gets better as it goes along and is a fascinating story of personal sacrifices for political beliefs.

“The Exiles” is the feature-film debut of directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein, who are both 2016 graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Choy is a film studies professor. Columbus and Klein got the idea to do the documentary because Choy was their professor and told them about the unfinished documentary that she made about Chinese exiles Yan Jiaqi, Wu’er Kaixi and Wan Runnan, who were considered the masterminds of the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy in 1989. The protests (which lasted from April 15 to June 4, 1989) tragically ended in a government massacre of an unconfirmed number of people believed to range from several hundred to several thousand.

Choy couldn’t finish her documentary about the exiles because she ran out of funding. However, she kept the footage and later digitized it. Much of that footage is used in “The Exiles.” In the production notes for “The Exiles,” Columbus and Klein comment in a joint statement: “It was our [Columbus and Klein’s] idea to track down the exiles. After seeing Christine’s original 1989 material, we thought Christine reuniting with these men after 30 years would be a good way to provide the narrative framework for revisiting the footage.” “The Exiles” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary.

The movie opens with Choy (a chainsmoker who has an outspoken and feisty personality) telling her life story in the way that’s sometimes abrasive and challenging. In an interview segment, she snaps at the filmmakers when asked how to describe herself: “How do I describe myself? Fuck you! You can describe me.”

She also says, “I live in America: the United States of a Beast. I am a thinker, but not a conventional thinker. I am a filmmaker, but not a conventional filmmaker. I am a professor, but definitely not a conventional professor. Thank God!”

Born in 1952 to a Chinese mother and a Korean father, Choy (whose birth name is Chai Ming Huei) spent her childhood living in her birth city of Shanghai, China, as well as in Hong Kong and South Korea. She moved to the United States in 1965, when she became a student at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York City. She’s been a New Yorker ever since. Choy, who was trained as an architect, received her master of science degree from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. She has also has a directing certificate from the American Film Institute.

Oscar-nominated “Joker” filmmaker Todd Phillips appears briefly near the beginning of “The Exiles,” to comment on his memories of having Choy as his film school professor at NYU: “She had a huge influence on me in my life.” (Choy amusingly appears in the background to breifly interrupt his interview.) Phillips also talks about one of the ways that Choy was different from most other NYU professors: “She smoked and drank vodka in class.”

Arlo Smith of the Black Panther Party says that Choy became a member of the Black Panthers because she provided all the films for the party for free. Smith adds, “She has Marxist/Leninist ways, but she’s a queen. She’s a diva.”

Actor/producer Jodi Long comments on Choy: “I would describe Christine Choy as a loudmouth, skinny, combative, very Chinese.” Long adds that Choy’s activism “is an important part of [Choy], and it’s an important part of the Asian American community. Her filmmaking style is very much like she is. It’s very confrontational. She really looks for injustice and how do we change that or expose that so maybe something can change.”

“The Exiles” also mentions the 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” which Choy co-directed with Renee Tajima-Peña. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Choy talks briefly about her memories of attending the 1989 Academy Awards, where she says “There were a lot of Asian journalists because I was one of the few [Asians] who ever got nominated.” She also there was “no money and no PR” for the movie’s awards campaign. Choy states matter-of-factly: “Awards don’t satisfy me.”

As far as Choy is concerned, something much more important happened to her in 1989 than an Oscar nomination: She got involved in making the documentary about Yan, Wu’er and Wan. “The Exiles” then segues into chronicling how Choy went from being assigned to cover the New York City press conference held by the three exiles (who initially fled to the United States) to doing an entire documentary about them.

Choy says in “The Exiles” that she vividly remembers her reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre: “I was shocked.” She also says that she was able to develop a rapport with Yan, Wu’er and Wan because of their shared Chinese heritage and because she knew how to speak Mandarin, which is a skill that most reporters in American mainstream media do not have. Later in the documentary, Choy says that she still considers herself to be a patriot to China: “The reason why I want to make this film is love of China.”

“The Exiles” becomes much more interesting when it doesn’t look so much like “The Christine Choy Showcase,” and the documentary gives viewers a better sense of three exiles who are the namesakes for the movie. It’s easy to see why these three exiles are fascinating enough to make an entire dcumentary about them. All three of them come from different backgrounds but shared a common cause to try to change China into a democracy.

In 1989, before they fled China for their lives and sought sanctuary in the United States, Yan was a director of political science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Wu’er was a student at Beijing Normal University. Wan was CEO of Sitong Corporation in Beijing. The footage of them from 1989 shows them to be resolute in their beliefs but reeling from shock (that hasn’t quite sunk in) that they can’t return to China to see their loved ones.

It would be giving away too much information in this review to reveal what Choy and “The Exiles” discovered about what happened to the three exiles after the exiles faded from the public eye. However, it’s enough to say that all of them are in the documentary, where they are interviewed by Choy. Wu’er was filmed in 2017, Ya was filmed in 2018, and Wan was filmed in 2019. All three of the exiles live in different countries.

Wu’er, the youngest of the three exiles, shares his memories of their lives as exiles in 1989: “We were in a traumatized state, I think it’s fair to say. He also expresses guilt that his parents “cannot travel outside of China because of me. I want to see my parents.”

As for why he got involved in democracy activism, Wu’er says: “We wanted a dialogue in 1989. That’s all we wanted.” He also says, “If I had known these would be the consequences, would I do it again? I don’t know.”

Yan, who considers himself to be the historian of the trio, was the one who originally suggested to Choy that she do a documentary about them. He says in “The Exiles” documentary: “I’ve been keeping a diary since June 4, 1989.” Of the three exiles, Yan is the most candid with his thoughts about China’s past, present and future.

Yan comments, “In my opinion, while China’s economy hasn’t stopped growing over the past 30 years, its politics hasn’t stopped going backwards.” He later adds, “I still have hope [that] China is going to change completely.” Yan also opens up about the pain of being separated from his son, whom he was forced to leave behind in China. (The movie mentions if Yan ever reunited with his son.)

Looking back on 1989, Yan says, “I was full of confidence back then. I still have confidence now, but the feeling is different. Back then, I was joyful. I felt that China was going to change in a few years. Now, I feel very disasppointed.” He adds, “I hope to step on Chinese ground again … I still see myself as a Chinese person, as an exile from China.”

Out of the three exiles, Wan appears to be the most contented with his current life, where he spends his leisure time gardening and reading poetry. He’s also talks about his experience as a successful businessman gave him the privlege to fly around the world. Wan says of his life: “I don’t regret anything.”

Yan says he still keeps in touch with Wu’er and Wan. But did these three exiles ever reunite years after they went their separate ways? “The Exiles” has that answer, but some viewers might already know the answer before seeing the movie. Choy’s individual reunions with them are poignant and meaningful.

Other people interviewed in “The Exiles” include Ronald Gray (who was Choy’s sound mixer/editor in 1989) and former San Francisco Examiner reporter Steven Chin. “The Exiles” is thankfully not overstuffed with too many talking heads. However, the movie could have used more insight and perspectives into the search for the three exiles instead of spending too much time in the first third of the movie by looking as if it’s a biography of Choy.

“The Exiles” is a movie about Choy’s quest to find the three exiles, but it’s also a movie about the exiles’ stories too. “The Exiles” could have used tighter editing to blend these two narratives together. However, the movie makes good use of the archival footage and the footage filmed exclusively for “The Exiles.” Most of all, “The Exiles” succeeds in showing how Choy’s persistence and the three exiles’ resilience are at the heart of why “The Exiles” is an inspirational movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Exiles” in San Francisco on December 9, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on January 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,’ starring Dionne Warwick

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over”

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” a group of African American and white people (and a few Latinos), who are celebrities, historians or philanthropists, discuss the life and career of entertainer Dionne Warwick.

Culture Clash: In her long career, Dionne Warwick battled against racism, misogynistic rap music and prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Dionne Warwick fans, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographies of entertainers who first made their mark in the 1960s.

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” is both a retrospective and an uplifting story about one of America’s most treasured entertainers/activists who is both celebrated and sometimes underrated for her breakthroughs. This documentary doesn’t uncover new information, but it’s a thoroughly engaging and comprehensive look at the life and career of the talented, sassy and outspoken Dionne Warwick. It would be a mistake to think that this movie won’t have much appeal to young people, because “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has meaningful themes and life lessons that can relatable to people of any generation.

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Warwick also participated in the making of the 2018 PBS documentary “Dionne Warwick: Then Came You,” which focuses mainly on Warwick’s music, whereas “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes not just her music career but it also takes a much deeper dive into her personal life and her activism. Warwick’s 2010 memoir “My Life, as I See It” also covers a lot of the same topics as these documentaries. In other words, there’s no shortage of Warwick’s first-hand accounts of her life story.

Fortunately, Warwick is a great raconteur with amusing wit and candid self-awareness. There could be dozens of documentaries about her, and she’s the type of person who will give something unique and different every time in her documentary interviews. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” which unfolds in chronological order, has the expected telling of her experiences with fame and the challenges she’s encountered when people pressured her to be something that she wasn’t but she stayed true to herself.

Born in 1940, in East Orange, New Jersey, she describes her childhood in East Orange and nearby Newark as being in a family that was “middle-class and working.” Her father had various jobs, including being a Pullman porter, a music promoter and an accountant. Her mother was an electrical factory worker who also managed a gospel singing group called the Drinkard Sisters, which consisted of relatives on her mother’s side of the family. Warwick’s maternal aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney Houston) was a member of the Drinkard Sisters. Cissy Houston is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

With all this music talent in one family, it was inevitable that Warwick would pursue a music career too. She says her first performance was at the age of 6, when she sang “Jesus Loves Me” in church. Warwick also says that it was also the first time she got a standing ovation. “Gospel will never be far from what I do,” Warwick comments.

Warwick grew up during an era when much of the U.S. had legal racial segregation, but she says in the documentary that East Orange was a very integrated city. “It was like the United Nations,” she quips. It might be why she didn’t want to be confined to doing music that was labeled as being for any particular race. During the early years of her career, racial segregation also extended to the music industry, which marketed pop music as “music for white people” and R&B music as “music for black people.” Radio station playlists also followed these narrow-minded race divisions.

It didn’t take long for people to notice her talent. In 1957, she performed with the Imperials during Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. They won that contest. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes archival footage of that fateful performance.

She then became a backup singer, with credits that include the Drifters’ 1962 songs “When My Little Girl Is Singing” and “Mexican Divorce,” as well as Jerry Butler’s 1961 hit “Make It Easy on Yourself.” She stood out as a backup singer and was eventually signed to a record deal with Scepter Records as a solo singer. Warwick comments, “Thank God for my daddy, who negotiated my contract.” Warwick’s debut album, “Presenting Dionne Warwick,” was released in 1963.

The documentary repeats a fairly well-known story about how Warwick told the music producers of “Make It Easy on Yourself” that she didn’t like the results. That experience later became the inspiration for her 1962 song “Don’t Make Me Over,” which is a statement of Warwick’s refusal to be anybody but herself. It was an issue that would come up many times when people questioned her choices in songs, performing style or even her hairstyles and clothing.

For example, Warwick says in the documentary that when she was on tour with Sam Cooke, she ignored his advice to never turn her back to a white audience when she was singing. At shows where white people and black people would attend but would be racially segregated inside the venue, Warwick says she made a point of turning to sing to the black people, which meant that sometimes her back would be turned to the white people in the audience. It was Warwick’s way of telling the black people audience that even though they were being treated like second-class citizens by racist laws, the black people in the audience mattered to her.

Warwick also tells a story about the touring party going to a racially segregated restaurant, where a waitress took their menu order, but refused to let anyone in touring party sit in the restaurant. When Warwick cancelled the order because of this racist discrimination, the waitress then called the police on the touring party because Warwick didn’t talk to the waitress in a subservient way. Warwick says that Cooke got angry at Warwick because he thought Warwick defending herself from racism would get the entire touring party arrested.

Later in the documentary, Warwick says of the civil unrest and bigotry problems in the United States and elsewhere: “All of this craziness that happened in the ’60s, unfortunately, is happening again. What has changed? Nothing. But there is hope. Love is the answer.”

Warwick’s hit collaborations with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David are duly noted in the documentary. Bacharach is one of the people interviewed in the film. David passed away in 2012, at age 91. The collaborations between Warwick, Bacharach and David resulted in Warwick’s biggest hits in the 1960s, including “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

In the documentary, Warwick talks about how her first major international success happened in Europe, but even her introduction to European audiences was marred by racism. Scepter Records put a photo of a white model on the cover of Warwick’s 1963 single “This Empty Place” when it was released in Europe, because the record company didn’t think European music buyers would respond to the song as well if Warwick’s photo was on the cover.

Warwick remembers European audiences being surprised and accepting when they would see her perform live for the first time and find out what she really liked like. She comments in the documentary: “Yeah, I ain’t white. I’m a tempting, teasing brown.”

Warwick adds, “My career really blossomed in Europe. It was exciting. I was treated like a little princess. It was a lot of fun.” She also talks about how actress/singer Marlene Dietrich became a mentor when Warwick spent time in Paris. Warwick says that Dietrich introduced her to haute couture fashion and encouraged Warwick to wear these types of designer clothes on stage.

With success comes inevitable criticism. Warwick often had to contend with people who would accuse her of “trying to be white” or “not being black enough” because her songs didn’t fit the expected R&B mold. (It’s the same criticism that her cousin Whitney Houston experienced when she became an instant crossover hit artist in the 1980s.) Not for nothing, Warwick became the first black artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal performance, for 1968’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” It was also the first of her six Grammy Awards.

Any major entertainer whose career lasts for more than 10 years has ebbs and flows. Warwick says that in the 1970s, when her career was in a slump, Arista Records founder Clive Davis (one of the people interviewed in the documentary) convinced her not to quit the music business and signed her to a record deal. In 1979, she had a huge comeback hit with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” which earned her another Grammy Award.

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” also includes a big segment on Warwick’s activism for AIDS causes. Several people in the documentary credit her with being one of the first celebrities to become an AIDS activist. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John—her song partners in the 1985 mega-smash hit “That’s What Friends Are For” (another Grammy winner and a fundraising song for the AIDS charity amfAR)—share their thoughts on the experience and the impact that the song had for AIDS causes.

John says of Warwick: “She’s a hero of mine. She was one of the first people in the music business to speak up about [AIDS].” The documentary also shows Warwick meeting with amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost and designer/philanthropist Kenneth Cole at amfAR headquarters in New York City. Frost says that Warwick’s AIDS fundraising (including donating all of her royalties from “That’s What Friends Are For”) made a crucial difference in improving healthcare, research and other assistance for people with AIDS.

In the 1990s, Warwick spoke out against rappers having misogynistic lyrics in their music, even though she got some backlash for it. Snoop Dogg talks about how a meeting that he and other rappers had with Warwick in her home made such an impact on him, he decided to no longer have degrading lyrics about women in his songs. Snoop Dogg says the turning point was when Warwick got him to really think about how he would feel if someone used those misogynistic words on her or any of his female family members.

“Not much scares us,” Snoop Dogg comments on that pivotal meeting, “but this had us shook! We were the most gangsta you could be. But that day at Dionne Warwick’s, we got out-gangsta’d.” Warwick says of that experience of having a group of gangsta rappers in her home: “My sons thought I was out of my mind.”

Warwick also talks about her personal life, including briefly dating Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s (whom she also calls her “mentor” when she first performed in Las Vegas), and having a volatile marriage to actor/jazz musician William Elliott. The first time they married in 1966, they got divorced less than a year later. They remarried in 1967 and then got divorced again in 1975.

The former couple’s sons David Elliott and Damon Elliot are interviewed in the documentary. David mentions that his mother would sometimes divert her tour, just so she could go to one of his Little League games. “Those were special times,” he comments. Damon adds, “She’s the everything of the family.”

Friends and relatives say Warwick was devastated by the deaths of Whitney Houston (in 2012) and Whitney and Bobby Brown’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown (in 2015), who both died of drowning-related causes in a bathtub. The documentary includes a clip of Warwick’s speech at Whitney’s funeral. In a documentary interview, Warwick says she misses Whitney and Bobbi Kristina tremendously and thinks about them every day. Warwick is philosophical when she says that whatever time people have on Earth is best used in service of others.

Warwick also opens up about filing for bankruptcy in 2013, which her son Damon says happened because of “having an accountant who screws you over.” Warwick comments, “If General Motors can file for bankruptcy, why not Dionne Warwick?” There’s also acknowledgement that Warwick 1990s stint as a spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network was a low point in her career.” Her son David says of her association with the Psychic Friends Network, “Unfortunately, it overshadowed her as a singer.”

As expected in a celebrity documentary such as “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” other notable people in the film have nothing but praise for the celebrity. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton mentions that when he was courting his wife Hillary during a trip to Northern California, he wanted to visit San Jose, because of Warwick’s song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” He also says that when he was president of the U.S. in the 1990s, Warwick always pushed him to approve more federal funds for AIDS causes, and he appreciated how she always told him that whatever was given was “never enough.”

Barry Gibb talks about how he and Arista Records founder Davis had to work hard to convince Warwick to record the Gibb-written song “Heartbreaker,” which became a big hit for her in 1982. Gibb says, “If you want to make a great record, make a Dionne Warwick record.” Former U.S. congressman Charles Rangel gives the type of gushing comment that many of the other interviewee say in the documentary: “She is truly one of the greatest ambassadors of good will.”

Other interviewees in the documentary, whose screen time is really just reduced to sound bites, include Jesse Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Melissa Manchester, Chuck Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson, Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell, radio DJ Jerry Blavat and National Museum of African American History director Lonnie Bunch. Because of this over-abundance of praise, the movie often veers into looking more like a tribute. However, because the documentary doesn’t gloss over some of Warwick’s low points in her life, and she talks about these low points, it’s saved from being a superficial, fluffy film.

Even when Warwick makes a self-congratulatory statement in the documentary, such as, “I am a messenger. I am carrying messages of love and hope,” it’s not too grandiose in the context of this film. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has plenty of evidence of Warwick’s lifelong actions for worthy humanitarian causes. Most of all, the documentary is testament to Warwick being an example of someone who can have staying power in showbiz without having to invent any personas and without compromising who she really is.

CNN will premiere “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” on January 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Children of the Mist,’ starring Má Thi Di

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Má Thi Di in “Children of the Mist” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Children of the Mist”

Directed by Hà Lệ Diễm

Hmong and Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2021, in an unnamed mountain village in northwestern Vietnam, the documentary film “Children of the Mist” features an all-Vietnamese group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: From the age of 12 to the age of 15, a Vietnamese girl name Má Thi Di is filmed, as she becomes increasingly likely to become a victim of child bride kidnapping, a frequently committed crime in her culture.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Mist” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries about rural Vietnamese cultures and the injustices of child exploitation.

Thào A Vàng and Má Thi Di in “Children of the Mist” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

The documentary “Children of the Mist” is a riveting and emotionally painful look at how an underage teen girl can become a victim of the rampant child bride kidnappings in Vietnam. It’s an unforgettable story of dreams and potential destroyed by sexism. Although the documentary tells the story of one girl, there are countless other girls who have experienced and will continue to experience the same devastating fate.

From 2018 to 2021, “Children on the Mist” director Hà Lệ Diễm documented the life of a Vietnamese girl named Má Thi Di, beginning when Di was 12 years old. In the documentary, which is shown in chronological order, Di lives with her parents and younger brother in an unnamed rural village surrounded by misty mountains in northwestern Vietnam. She starts off as playful and carefree, but over the years, Di grows increasingly apprehensive about the possibility that she will be kidnapped and forced to marry someone before she turns 18. In Vietnam, the minimum legal age to get married is 18 years old.

Di and her family live among Hmong people, an ethnic minority in Vietnam that has longtime cultural traditions that conflict with Vietnam’s laws. One of these conflicts is that it’s acceptable in Hmong culture for underage girls to be kidnapped by men or teenage boys who want to “marry” these girls. These kidnappings are such a “tradition” in the culture that it has become prevalent and expected, especially close to the Lunar New Year holidays.

In the production notes for “Children of the Mist,” director Hà (who is originally from the Tay community, an ethnic group in northeast Vietnam) comments in a statement: “I knew for a long time about ‘bride-knapping,’ but I used to consider it like a folkloric tradition. I didn’t realize that most of the parents were favorable to early marriage for their daughter, as they don’t trust in social promotion through school.

The statement continues, “Almost every family in these communities has once suffered abduction. As a consequence, sexual abuse and violence are very common in this region. Since I started to shoot, two schoolmates of Di were raped on their way to school. One of them was murdered. While becoming teenagers Di and her friends had fear growing in them.”

There is no sexual assault shown or even discussed in “Children of the Mist.” However, Di’s increasing fear has that it will happen to Di is visible in the documentary. That’s because, as it’s eventually revealed, Di’s feisty mother Châu Thi Kay and Di’s older sister Má Thi La were both victims of these kidnappings. At one point in the documentary, when Di is almost 15 years old, it’s mentioned that La is 17 years old when La is the mother of an infant and pregnant with La’s second child.

Di describes the anguish that her mother and other family members had when La “dropped out” (disappeared) when La was 15 and was kidnapped by the man who forced La to be his wife. (La’s husband is not shown in the documentary when La goes to visit her family.) Di comments about La being forced to marry at an illegal young age: “She wanted to have fun, but that was the end of her childhood. I won’t be that naïve.”

Still, “bride-knapping” is so ingrained in the culture, an early scene in the movie shows Di and some female friends playing a chase game called “Catch the Bride,” in a field where one of the girls has been chosen for playing the role of the person who’s supposed to be kidnapped. In another scene, Kay half-jokingly tells Di what she thinks about Di’s chances of being kidnapped: “You’re not Hmong, so they can’t force you.” At 12 and 13 years old, Di has a lot of bravado that she will never be kidnapped. As she gets older, that confidence diminishes.

Di is a bright and outgoing child who likes school, which she also uses as a refuge to her oppressive life at home. The movie has some scenes of Di and other students in their classroom. Her parents have a very small farm, where Di is expected to help out as much as possible. There are several scenes of Di, her mother and some other relatives doing harvesting activities in the nearby rice paddy fields. It’s also Di’s responsibility to help feed the animals on the farm.

In the early part of the documentary, Di is shown doing karaoke with two girls who are about the same age. As she gets older, her activities and conversations with her friends and relatives revolve more around dating boys and her family’s expectations on when she should get married. Di and the other teens in her social circle rely heavily on their phones to communicate and find out what’s going on with each other.

A scene in the movie shows Di, at about age 13 or 14, shyly flirting on her phone with a man who calls himself Pao. He wants to meet her in person, but Di is reluctant and at first won’t tell him her real named. Di never goes to meet him, and his identity is never revealed, but the phone conversation looks like a case of an older man preying on an underage teenage girl.

“Children of the Mist” shows that the family goes to community festivals and parties, where the adults often get drunk. Alcohol abuse is mentioned numerous times throughout the movie as having a negative impact on family life. Kay bitterly complains about her unhappy marriage and says that her husband Má A Pho is a drunk who often verbally abuses and beats her and Di. (This alleged abuse is not shown in the documentary. Pho is shown stumbling around a lot and acts like happy drunk.)

Meanwhile, Kay (who admits to getting drunk on occasion) has this to say about her husband: “The man has no dignity. Even our son-in-law hates him, but he still thinks he’s the king.” Pho overhears her complaints about him, and he replies, “I know you’re cheating on me.”

At 14 years old, Di tries to tune out her parents troubled marriage, and she’s preoccupied with problems in her own love life. She gripes to a friend about how an ex-boyfriend dumped her for another girl, but Di says that she doesn’t love this guy anymore anyway. Still, she cares enough to discuss at length what this ex-boyfriend’s social media activities. And when he contacts Di to try to get back together with her, Di and her friend agree that it’s best for Di to ignore him.

The documentary takes a turn when Di starts dating a teenager close to her age named Thào A Vàng. It quickly becomes apparent that Vàng is much more smitten with Di than she is with him. She doesn’t want to break his heart, but she doesn’t want to marry him either. What happens during this courtship will define what type of woman Di wants to become, which might not align with other people’s expectations.

“Children of the Mist” presents an interesting sociological portrait of how teenagers who live in a relatively isolated rural areas are often caught in a world of being required to follow ancient traditions, but they have access to the modern world through technology and are keenly aware that these old traditions aren’t forced on people in other communities. In other words, Di is very aware that she can and should have options on what she wants to do with her life.

Di talks about wanting to finish her education and get a job so that she has enough money to travel with her mother, who has never traveled outside the village. The relationship that Di has with her mother is an example of how a mother wants the best for her child but is also fearful that her child will make the wrong decisions or will be trapped in the same harmful circumstances. Di says she’s not ready to get married at this time in her life, but how much will that decision be respected by other people?

In a very telling scene that shows the family’s dynamics, Di has stayed out past her curfew, and it’s assumed that Di is with Vàng. Kay’s attitude changes from slight annoyance that Di hasn’t been returning phone calls and messages to Kay expressing so much fear that she starts crying. Her husband Pho isn’t so worried and reminds her Kay that she used to break her curfew when she was Di’s age too, and it was how Pho was able to kidnap her. This reminder gets Kay even more distressed and worried about what happened to Di.

“Children of the Mist” offers an up-close look at many aspects of Di’s life. If there’s any flaw in the movie, it’s that it doesn’t really address the alleged abuse. Viewers are left to wonder if “Children on the Mist” director Hà had footage of this abuse but purposely chose to leave it out of this cinéma vérité-styled documentary. In addition, Hà says in the documentary’s voiceover introduction that she became friends with Di—perhaps inevitable, considering the intimate nature of this documentary, but still calls into question if this close friendship compromised the director’s judgment as a documentarian.

Even with so many unanswered questions about Di’s family life, “Children of the Mist” is still a very engrossing film that shows a poignant story about what child bride kidnapping can do over time to individuals, families and communities. It’s a real-life horror story that some people have become so numb to, it’s become accepted in the culture where Di was raised. Unlike a horror movie, there’s less likely to be a “final girl” happy ending.

Film Movement released “Children of the Mist” in select U.S. cinemas on December 16, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and DVD on February 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Ellis,’ starring Ellis Marsalis Jr.

December 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ellis Marsalis Jr. in “Ellis”

“Ellis”

Directed by Sascha Just

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Ellis,” a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people), who are all connected in some way to jazz musician Ellis Marsalis Jr., discuss his life and career.

Culture Clash: Marsalis overcame obstacles in a racist music industry to become an influential jazz artist and producer. 

Culture Audience:  Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Ellis Marsalis Jr. fans, “Ellis” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an easygoing but not particularly exciting documentary about a famous jazz musician.

Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis in “Ellis”

Although “Ellis” often looks like a unchallenging tribute film to a music icon, it can maintain viewer interest because of the people interviewed in the documentary and for offering some enjoyable performance footage. This documentary about jazz legend Ellis Marsalis Jr. plays it very safe, but it’s an insightful look into his professional and personal life. He participated in this documentary, which was his last film project before he died at age 85 of COVID-19-related pneumonia in 2020. “Ellis” is also the first feature-length documentary specifically about him.

Directed by Sascha Just, “Ellis” lets the movie’s namesake do much of the talking in telling his life story. His memories and stories (which sometimes ramble and could have used tighter editing) shape the narrative of the documentary, which has the expected mix of interviews, archival footage and exclusive footage that is new to this film. “Ellis,” which is Just’s feature-film directorial debut, had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2022.

“Ellis” is told mostly in chronological order, with Ellis starting off by talking about his childhood and how he got into music. His parents (Ellis Marsalis Sr. and Florence Robertson) came from fairly different backgrounds. Robertson was a Creole from New Ellis, Louisiana. Ellis Sr. was a non-Creole from Summit, Mississippi. Ellis Jr. was born and raised in New Orleans, which has long been considered the American city most associated with jazz.

Ellis says of his early years as a musician: “I was learning the craft by way of bebop.” He took up playing the clarinet because he admired Artie Shaw. In high school, he listened to R&B, but jazz would eventually become his passion. However, because music education at the time was focused on European-based music (classic music or opera), Ellis remembers he couldn’t play jazz around the Catholic nuns who taught at the schools he attended. His mother bought him a tenor saxophone, but he also started playing the piano, which became his favorite instrument.

Instead of becoming a professional musician after graduating from high school, Ellis decided he would get a college education first at Dillard University. He graduated in 1955. His father paid for the tuition, even though Ellis says that his father (who owned a hotel on property that he owned) was skeptical that a college education would be beneficial to a black man in America at the time. Ellis Jr. saw things differently: “Being in the classroom was the closest thing between not having to pick up that mop and broom.

Ellis says of his father: “He didn’t want to work for anyone,” and Ellis Jr. inherited some of that entrepreneurial spirit by becoming an independent musician for hire. And his appreciation for education served him well when he became music teacher to help pay the bills when he wasn’t making enough money as a musician. He comments, “People who understood the economics of the situation could put a hustle together.”

Growing up in racially segregated Louisiana had an effect on him too, but Ellis doesn’t dwell on the negative experiences in this documentary. He says of spending a great deal of his life living with racist segregation: “It affected lots of stuff: the way you talked, the way you dressed, the way you studied in school.”

Ellis’ mentor at Dillard University was Harold Battiste, who would go on to found All for One (AFO) Records. As poet Kalamu ya Salaam says in the documentary about Battiste: “He had a vision that was just broader than playing music. He wanted to produce music. He wanted black people of his time and place to control and own their music.” Ellis Jr. was one of the artists who recorded music for AFO.

In the documentary, Ellis’ son Jason remember discovering an AFO Records box set at the age of 10 and hearing his father’s music and being surprised that it was so different from what he expected: “II couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was hearing the music that is not the kind of music that people think of when they think of the city of New Orleans, to this day.”

Ellis tells some entertaining stories about his travels as a young musician, when he would go on the road with Battiste and drummer Edward Blackwell. For a while, he lived in New York City, but eventually returned to New Orleans. Except a period of time (1986 to 1989), when Ellis and his family lived in Richmond, Virginia, he would live in New Orleans for the rest of his life.

Ellis met his future wife Dolores Ferdinand at a racially segregated beach in Louisiana called Lincoln Beach. He asked for her phone number, and one of his friends said to him: “Why do you want to do that? You’re not going to call her.” Ellis quips in the documentary: “He was wrong.”

The courtship of Ellis and Dolores was somewhat interrupted in 1957, when Ellis enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He comments on his military experience: “In the Marine Corps, they look for normal people they can teach how to kill people.” He also remembers that he didn’t write too many love letters to Dolores while he was in the Marines.

After getting out of the military, he and Dolores married and would go on to have six sons together: Wynton, Branford, Jason, Delfeayo, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. All of them (except for Mboya Kenyatta, who has autism) are professional musicians who have performed as solo artists and as members of the Marsalis Family band. Wynton, Branford, Jason, Delfeayo and Ellis III are all interviewed in the documentary.

Ellis describes his marriage to Dolores (who died in 2017) as generally happy but sometimes strained due the financial pressures of raising a large family on a musician’s salary that wasn’t always steady a income. Ellis comments, “I never developed a defeatist attitude about it. I always figured somehow it would work out.”

Even though money was often tight for the Marsalis family, Ellis says that Dolores told him never to give up on being a musician, even when he contemplated quitting music to become a taxi driver. To supplement his income, Ellis continued teaching music. In the 1970s, he was a teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his students included Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr. and actor Wendell Pierce. (Ellis would later be the jazz program chairperson at the University of New Orleans, from 1989 to 2001.)

In the documentary, Pierce shares his memories of having Ellis as a teacher. Pierce says that his first impression of Ellis was that he was “a wise sage with a great sense of humor … He put you at ease, and gave you a sense that you were going to figure it out.” At the same time, “He was a touch teacher and a tough mentor.”

Ellis’s children say in the documentary that he was not the type of father who pushed or pressured his children into following in his footsteps. Branford remembers that his father didn’t force him to practice music. Delfeayo adds, “Yeah, he was very laid-back. Wynton comments, “he didn’t make me play in his band,” but “I loved and respected him so much.” ” Branford adds, “He wasn’t materialistic or ambitious. He just wanted to play.”

Ellis also talks about how he and Dolores were civil rights activists who were very outspoken about their rights, and they taught their children to be the same way. Wynton says, “She was very direct about any of the issues.”

The performance footage in “Ellis” includes him performing at Jazz Fest in 1994, a Marsalis Family performance at Jazz Fest in 2001, and a 2019 solo artist performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. His songs that are featured in the movie include “Nostalgic Impressions,” “Canadian Sunset,” Magnolia Triangle,” “Basic Urge,” “Tell Me,” “After and Monkey Puzzle.” As for his favorite recordings that he’s done, Ellis narrows it down to the Ellis Marsalis Trio music that he recorded on Blue Note Records and the 1996 “Loved Ones” album that he recorded with son Branford.

Other people interviewed the documentary are Ellis’ colleagues. They include pianist David Torkanowsky, trumpeter Ashlin Parker, saxophonist Derek Douget, pianist Tom McDermott, drummer Helen Riley, guitarist Steve Masakowski, former Musicians Village director Michele Brierre, and two of his former students: saxophonist John Ellis and pianist Jesse McBride. All of their comments are essentially praise-filled soundbites that don’t offer anything truly revealing.

“Ellis” is perfectly pleasant, but the movie might come across as a bit bland for people who have no interest in jazz music. The documentary could have used more meaningful stories about how Ellis Marsalis Jr. got inspired to write certain songs, or how he felt being the patriarch of a family of musicians. The movie’s production values are adequate. Mostly, “Ellis” tells his story in a simple but effective way, even if the movie doesn’t have anything new or surprising to reveal.

Review: ‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?,’ starring Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Suzanne de Passe, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson and Billy Dee Williams

December 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Harry Belafonte in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?”

Directed by Elvis Mitchell

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” a predominantly African American group of people (with a few white people), who are all connected to the movie industry in some way, discuss the impact of African American-oriented movies that were made from 1968 to 1978.

Culture Clash: Black filmmakers and cast members had uphill battles dealing with racism and socioeconomic inequalities when making movies centered on African Americans. 

Culture Audience: “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in cinema history from 1968 to 1978, as well as how sociopolitical issues affected African American movies that were made during this time period.

Suzanne de Passe in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The title of the documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is inspired by this catchphrase being said in director Ossie Davis’ 1970 action comedy film “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” It’s a phrase that can apply to the debates and dilemmas about African American representation on screen and behind the scenes, in the art and business of filmmaking. Writer/director Elvis Mitchell gives elegant narration and an informative retrospective in this noteworthy cultural documentary, which puts a deserving spotlight on African American-oriented movies and filmmakers from 1968 to 1978.

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival) is the feature-film directorial debut of Mitchell, a longtime film critic and historian. As he explains in the documentary, he chose to focus on the years 1968 to 1978 not just because movies from that 10-year time period had a massive impact on him in his youth but also because its the first major renaissance period when movies centered on or starring African-Americans became mainstream hits in the United States and other parts of the world. Through interviews, archival footage and Mitchell’s superb analysis, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” takes viewers on a journey that is unique, informational and worth watching by anyone who loves movie history.

Mitchell begins the movie on a personal note, by describing how he developed his passion for on-screen entertainment. He says that he and his family would regularly go to the movies when he was growing up. His grandmother, who was originally from Mississippi, was particularly influential on him. She would describe movies as resembling dreams.

From an early age, Mitchell says he was keenly aware of whether or not he was seeing African Americans like himself on screen. He tells an anecdote about how his grandmother wouldn’t let him and other young people in their family watch “The Andy Griffith Show” comedy series, because there were no black people on the show. His grandmother would say about the black people who weren’t part of the American communities represented on screen: “What do you think happened to them?”

As people who are knowledgeable about U.S. history already know, what happened was that it was legal in the U.S. to segregate white people and people of color until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Since movies are often a reflection of what’s going on in society at the time, the origins of African American cinema’s first major renaissance can reasonably be traced back to the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It just so happens that 1968 was a flashpoint year for African American history that extended to filmmaking. It was the year that civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, but it was also a year that Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest movie stars in the world and the first black actor to have this type of movie star status. Poitier helped pave the way not just to have international hit movies with black person as the star but also to create more opportunities for filmmakers who wanted to make movies with a black-majority cast. It was the first time in movie history that movies with black-majority casts would become big hits and/or have an important influence on mainstream culture.

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the Black Power Movement thrived and challenged white supremacist racism permeating through all aspects of society. Mitchell comments in the documentary: “Revolt broke out in the movies too.” It wasn’t enough just for African Americans to be on screen, usually in roles showing subservience to white people. There was a movement to have more movies showing the varieties of African American people and communities that exist, including roles where African Americans could be in charge.

Actor/activist Harry Belafonte, a longtime friend of Poitier (who passed away in 2022), says in the documentary that Poitier made a name for himself in the movies by being the only black man among an overwhelming majority of white people. Although Poitier usually played upstanding, professional men, Poitier’s earliest movies were often about him having to assimilate into a white-majority community or society. The tone, whether overt or subtle, was that the characters that Poitier played in these movies had to make white people feel comfortable around him, rather than the character just being allowed to be himself without having to “accommodate” anyone.

Breaking racial barriers can be an achievement that’s diminished if the person breaking the barrier is treated or perceived as a token. Mitchell comments on the type of success that Poitier had with in the first few decades of Poitier’s career: “Unfortunately, he’s the entertainment industry’s reaction to people of color. Black success in the entertainment industry is like finding a $100 bill on the subway: an unrepeatable phenomenon.”

Belafonte says in the documentary that one of the reasons why he stopped making movies from 1959 to 1970 was that these types of Afro-centric movies just weren’t being greenlit by major movie studios at the rate that Belafonte thinks they should have been. And he didn’t want to take the same old racially demeaning roles that were often offered to African American actors at the time. Belafonte comments on how he dealt with racist attitudes in the entertainment industry, “I’m not going to do anything that I didn’t think was worthy of being done. I have a destination that answers your denial of what I could be.”

Fortunately, many African American filmmakers didn’t want to wait around for major studios to offer them opportunities. “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” gives an excellent overview of the African American independent filmmaking community that grew from the late 1960s onward. Many of these filmmakers hired large numbers of black people in front of and behind the camera.

Among the African American filmmakers who get props in the documentary for being directors who hired a lot of black people from 1969 to 1978 are Charles Burnett (one of the people interviewed in the film), William Greaves, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan (also interviewed in the documentary), Max Julian, Davis and Poitier. Julian is mentioned as one of the few African American filmmakers at the time who owned his movies. The documentary also gives credit to pre-1960s filmmakers who paved with way with African American-majority casts, including Oscar Micheaux and Alice Guy-Blaché.

Poitier made his feature-film directorial debut with the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. In the documentary, Belafonte says he believes that the movie was not a commercial success because mainstream movie audiences at the time just weren’t ready to see a movie centered on black cowboys. To be fair, Belafonte notes that black audiences didn’t really show up for the movie either. He comments that the movie’s adversaries were “black perception of itself and black perception as the world sees us.”

The documentary mentions the 1968 Western “Once Upon a Time in the West” (directed by Sergio Leone) as one of the few mainstream films of this era that actually had a black person in a significant speaking role: the character of Stony, played by Woody Strode. Although some might think of Stony as a black token, this representation mattered to a lot of people. As an example, it’s mentioned in the documentary that Isaac Hayes (who won an Oscar for composing the music to 1971’s “Shaft”) was influenced by Stony when writing film music.

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” cites director George Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” as the first hit movie to have a black man (Duane Jones, in the character of Ben) starring in an action hero role. Mitchell says in the narration that what was also groundbreaking about the film was that Ben’s race wasn’t the focal point of “The Night of the Living Dead,” because the movie was about people surviving a zombie invasion. Mitchell notes that “Night of the Living Dead” was embraced by a lot of African American militants at the time because of the parallels between what happened in the movie and what was going on with all the civil unrest in America.

Numerous other seminal feature films starring African Americans are mentioned in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” including 1969’s “Putney Swope” (directed by Robert Downey Sr.); 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (directed by Melvin Van Peebles); 1972’s “Super Fly”; 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (directed by Sidney J. Furie); 1972’s “Sounder” (directed by Marvin Ritt); and 1974’s “Claudine” (directed by Jack Starrett). Impactful documentaries during this era included the 1970 Muhammad Ali biography “A.K.A. Cassius Clay” (directed by Jimmy Jacobs) and the 1973 concert film “Save the Children” (directed by Stan Lathan).

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” also celebrates some of the breakthrough African Americans who were Oscar nominees from 1968 to 1978, including Rupert Crosse (Best Supporting Actor nominee for 1969’s “The Reivers”), James Earl Jones (Best Actor nominee for 1970’s “The Great White Hope”), Diana Ross (Best Actress nominee for “Lady Sings the Blues”), Cicely Tyson (Best Actress nominee “Sounder”), Paul Winfield (Best Actor nominee for “Sounder”) and Diahann Carroll (Best Actress nominee for “Claudine”). One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Suzanne de Passe, who became the first black woman to get a screenplay Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay), for co-writing “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Other people interviewed in the film include entertainers Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Glynn Turman, Zendaya, Billy Dee Williams, Sheila Frazier, Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin Van Peebles), Margaret Avery, Roscoe Orman and Antonio Fargas. Louise Archambault Greaves (William Greaves’ widow) and “Super Fly” cinematographer James Signorelli also weigh in with their thoughts. Williams comments on his sex-symbol status that he had, beginning in the 1970s: “It was very funny to me. It was something that had never happened to me before.”

Frazier tells a memorable story about how she was initially rejected for the leading actress role in “Super Fly.” She was so hurt by this rejection that she changed her phone number, only to find out a few months later by randomly meeting one of the filmmakers that they had been trying to contact her during those months because they changed their mind. Fishburne talks about how he was originally cast in “Claudine,” but when Diane Sands (who originally was cast in the title role) died in 1973 of leiomyosarcoma (a rare form of muscle cancer), the filmmakers decided to make major recastings for the film.

Mario Van Peebles tells some great behind-the-scenes stories about his father Melvin, who pioneered the marketing tactic of releasing a movie’s soundtrack before the movie. (“Super Fly” used the same tactic to great success.) Mario Van Peebles says that his father used to have a secretary named Priscilla, who wanted to be an actress in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” but her boyfriend at the time (a member of Earth, Wind & Fire who is not named in the documentary) wouldn’t let her. However, as a compromise, Melvin convinced Earth, Wind & Fire to write the soundtrack music for the movie.

Mario Van Peebles also tells a story about how his father came up with a clever idea to convince nervous white studio executives to distribute the potentially controversial 1970 comedy film “Watermelon Man.” The movie was about a racist white man (played by African American actor Godfrey Cambridge), who woke up one morning to find out that he had turned into a black man. Mario says that before the meeting with the studio executives, his father payed an African American sanitation worker in the building to be in the screening room and laugh at the jokes in the movie while the executives watched “Watermelon Man.” This “one-man focus group” tactic worked, says Mario Van Peebles, who describes this tactic as being “like racial jiu jitsu.”

The “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s (include those made by actor/producer Rudy Ray Moore) have their share of fans and critics. As mentioned in the documentary, the upside to the “blaxploitation” genre of this era is that they were the first major hit films to have African American women as the central action stars, not just as sidekicks or supporting players. Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson are credited with being pioneers for African American female action stars, with Grier’s 1973 film “Coffy” and Dobson’s 1973 film “Cleopatra Jones” mentioned as their most influential movies. The documentary also mentions some of the low points in blaxploitation films, including “Mandingo” and “Coonskin,” both released in 1975.

This era of African American-oriented filmmaking also gave rise to a new wave of African American movie stars who came from backgrounds other than acting. Ross was famous for being in the Supremes and had a successful solo singing career when she landed her first movie star role “Lady Sings the Blues.” Richard Pryor was a well-known stand-up comedian before he had his movie breakthrough in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Jim Brown was a football star before he launched his movie career, which included action films such as 1968’s “Kenner” and 1972’s “Black Gunn.”

One of the best things about “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which has great editing by Michael Engelken and Doyle Esch) is that this documentary doesn’t just spotlight mainstream hits but it also gives screen time to underrated movie gems that prominently feature African Americans. Greaves’ 1968 “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” is mentioned as an important experimental film from an African American filmmaker. The 1972 drama “Black Girl” (directed by Davis) is described as an often-overlooked African American movie that’s worth watching. The 1976 musical drama “Sparkle” (directed by Sam O’Steen) is cited as an influential precursor to the “Dreamgirls” stage musical and movie. The 1975 urban drama “Cornbread, Earl and Me” (directed by Joseph Manduke) was influential to 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” says “Boyz N the Hood” co-star Fishburne. And before black superheroes got their own movies with 1997’s “Spawn,” 1998’s “Blade” or 2018’s “Black Panther,” there was 1977’s “Abar, the First Black Superman,” directed by Frank Packard.

The commercial disappointment of the 1978 movie musical “The Wiz” is mentioned as the end of an era, because movie executives began to think that African American-oriented movies were starting to become less popular with the moviegoing public. It then became harder for African American-oriented movies to get financing until a new renaissance emerged in the 1990s, with hit films such as “Boyz N the Hood,” “House Party,” “Menace II Society,” “Friday,” “Set It Off,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food.” If Mitchell or any other filmmakers want to do a documentary about the 1990s renaissance of African American movies, there would be plenty of people who would be interested.

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is more than a love letter to the movies of 1968 to 1978 that celebrated African Americans. It’s also a full immersion into a fascinating culture with a narrative that is very thoughtful and almost poetic. (For example, Mitchell has this to say about some of the music of the movies featured in the documentary: “The scores weren’t just textures, but detonation of thought and sound.”) It’s a documentary that gives people a better appreciation for these movies, as well as inspiration and anticipation for any more creativity to come in African American-oriented filmmaking.

Netflix released “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Santa Camp,’ starring Dan Greenleaf, Chris Kennedy, Finbar Chiappara and Levi Truax

December 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Santa Camp” (Photo by John Tully/HBO Max)

“Santa Camp”

Directed by Nick Sweeney

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, in various parts of the United States, the documentary film “Santa Camp” features a group of predominantly white people (and some African Americans) from the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way to the annual Santa Camp and the business of dressing up as Santa Claus and his wife.

Culture Clash: While many people embrace more diversity in what Santa Claus can look like, other people are very much against having a Santa Claus who isn’t presented as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man. 

Culture Audience: “Santa Camp” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at how people are trained to be a professional Santa Claus and how this business is adjusting to having more diversity.

Finbar “Santa Fin” Chiappara and his mother Suki, also known as Mama Claus, in “Santa Camp” (Photo by John Tully/HBO Max)

“Santa Camp” is a delightful and interesting documentary spotlighting diversity issues in the business of being Santa Claus. The movie could have easily ignored these issues and just been a superficial film that focuses only on the lighthearted aspects of performers who dress as Santa Claus or his wife as a way to bring Christmas holiday cheer to the public. Those upbeat characteristics are very much a part of the movie, but “Santa Camp” is also a real-life reflection of larger, serious issues in American society, when it comes to diversity, inclusion and representation.

Directed by Nick Sweeney, “Santa Camp” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2022) was filmed mostly in 2021, when the New England Santa Society’s annual Santa Camp (held in Greenfield, New Hampshire) had three very different types of newcomers: an African American Santa; a Santa with spina bifida who uses a speech-generating device to talk; and a transgender male Santa. “Santa Camp” also features gender equality issues, as performers who portray Santa Claus’ wife demand equal pay and equal treatment.

“Santa Camp” shows the Santa Claus angle of show business. But on a larger level, “Santa Camp” also shows that how people feel about what Santa Claus should look like is really a microcosm of how many people react to those in top leadership roles who don’t fit the description of being a white, heterosexual, cisgender man, usually someone who is the age of a grandparent. The issues of diversity, inclusion and representation in relation to portraying Santa Claus speak to larger issues of how people feel about diversity, inclusion and representation in American society.

This historical fact is pointed out multiple times in the documentary: St. Nicholas (the third-century saint on which Santa Claus is based), also known as Nicholas of Bari, wasn’t white Anglo Saxon or Aryan but was actually of Greek heritage. St. Nicholas was born and lived in an area of the Middle East that is now known as the country of Turkey. However, by the 1800s, a different version of Santa Claus became popular in Europe and North America: a German character named Kris Kringle, who had distinctive Aryan features and was made to look like a jolly old man.

As Christmas and Santa Claus became more commercial in the United States and other parts of the world, the Kris Kringle version of Santa Claus became the dominant image in the United States. Coca-Cola is mentioned as a company that helped promote this image through TV commercials. And for many people, this is the only image of Santa Claus that they accept, because it’s the only image they know from their childhoods.

“Santa Camp” shows how people are adjusting to and sometimes resisting anything that doesn’t fit this dominant image of Santa Claus. The people in the documentary (and viewers watching the documentary) are faced with questions that, by their very nature, sometimes make people uncormfortable: Who gets to decide if this dominant image of Santa Claus is the only one that should be presented to the public? Who is it really helping or hurting if someone who doesn’t fit that image wants to dress up as Santa Claus? And where do you draw the line in defining what Santa Claus should look like and who has the right to look that way?

Most of the people who are interviewed in the documentary are not identified by their last names, perhaps as a way to give them an air of Claus performer mystique. The movie begins by showing a casual gathering of about six New England Santa Society men, who have decades of experience of being hired to perform as Santa Claus. One of them is Dan Greenleaf, also known as Santa Dan, who founded this group and is the co-founder of Santa Camp. He says early on in the film that the group took the initiative to reach out to more diverse people to portray Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, after he got a request for an African American Santa Claus and realized that all of the members of the New England Santa Society are white.

Another person who’s shown at this meeting is Richard “Dick” Marshall, also known as Santa Dick, who was a member of the New England Santa Society since the beginning. Sadly, Marshall died at the age of 90, during the filming of this documentary, which includes some footage from his memorial service. “Santa Camp” shows that Marshall was a highly respected and beloved member of the group, and he believed that the image of Santa Claus should be more diverse and inclusive.

At first, the men in the group are shown laughing and joking about some of the awkward experiences they’ve had when performing as Santa Claus. Santa Dick mentions meeting a boy who was so excited to meet Santa, the boy defecated in his pants. A retired advertising executive only identified as Santa Jack talks about his standard response when some kids would ask him to guess their names as “proof” he was the real Santa: “I only know the names of children on the ‘nice list.””

The mood of the conversation becomes more serious when the issue of diversity comes up. Santa Dick has this response: “For my generation, as a group, it was a little more difficult to accept. God created no junk, so [the controversy over having different types of Santas] doesn’t matter.”

Santa Dan adds, “I think the issue we run into is that people just have a specific idea of what Santa should look like. And I think, a lot of times, it’s their childhood Santa, the one they remember as kids.” When a retired communications manager named Santa Dave says that Santa Claus originated in Europe, Santa Jack quickly corrects him and says that Santa Claus was originally based on Saint Nicholas, a Turkish man.

Even with diversity issues over what Santa Claus can look like, people still have certain expectations of what a traditional Santa Claus costume should look like when someone is hired to portray Santa Claus. A suit and hat that are red and white are considered essential elements of a Santa costume. A black belt and boots are also considered requirements for a traditional Santa Clause costume.

To a lesser degree, people also expect Santa Claus to have white hair and a white beard. (According to some of the professional Santas, a long beard is more desirable than a short beard because people like to pull Santa’s beard.) And a Santa Claus who looks chubby or overweight is often expected, even if people have to wear things that make them look like they are of a heavier weight than they really are.

Beyond physical appearances, those who are successful “Santas for hire” usually have to be of a certain personality type. They have to be comfortable meeting a wide variety of strangers and dealing with unexpected or unusual situations. Some of the Santas interviewed in the documentary say that the hardest part of the job often includes how to handle unhappy children or children who make demands for Christmas gifts that they won’t realistically get. The Santas who go to Santa Camp are trained on how to deal with various difficult situations.

The “Santa Camp” documentary could have used more footage of this behind-the-scenes training, but the movie is more focused on showing the experiences of the three “non-traditional” Santas who experience Santa Camp for the first time. In addition to offering the expected workshops and discussion panels, Santa Camp has leisure activities, such as swimming and competitive “Reindeer Games,” where the participants do things like try to assemble gifts without using sight. The documentary gives some screen time to the movement of treating performers who depict Santa Claus and his wife as equals in public and behind the scenes—and having work contracts reflecting this equal treatment accordingly. In real life, Santa Camp has training for people who perform as Santa’s elves or Santa’s helpers, but these Santa assistants are not the focus of the documentary.

The three “non-traditional” Santas whose journeys are chronicled in the “Santa Camp” documentary are in their 30s and are passionate about having the portrayals of Santa Claus (and Santa Claus associates) be more diverse and inclusive, even if they experience a lot of bigotry and rejection. They all have supportive family members who are featured in the documentary. “Santa Camp” shows what happens after all three of these Santa Camp newcomers graduate from the program.

Chris Kennedy, also known as Santa Chris, is an amenities coordinator from North Little Rock, Arkansas. He says he was motivated to get professional training as a Santa Claus for hire because his daughter Emily Kennedy (who was about 7 or 8 years old when this documentary was filmed) didn’t see any African Americans as Santa Claus, and he wanted to be that role model for her and other kids. His wife Iddy Kennedy (who sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Claus) is shown as being completely supportive of what Santa Chris wants to do, with both spouses being proud of their African American heritage as they live in a predominantly white neighborhood.

Santa Chris also talks about being further motivated to go to Santa Camp after receiving a hateful, racist letter in the mail from an anonymous neighbor who objected to the Kennedy family having an inflatable, brown-skinned Santa Claus in the family’s own front yard. At first, Santa Chris doesn’t want to read the letter on camera because he says it’s too upsetting. “It was 100% an attack on me,” he comments on the letter. But then later, he reads the letter out loud during a Santa Camp gathering where the participants share their personal stories. It’s a very powerful moment in the film that moves some people to tears at the gathering.

Finbar “Fin” Chiappara, also known as Santa Fin, is from Barre, Vermont. He has dreamed for years of being a Santa Claus, especially in a parade. He has spina bifida and uses a speech-generating device to talk out loud. His constant companion is his single mother Suki, also known as Mama Claus, who says in the documentary that when Santa Fin was a baby, doctors told her that he would never walk and that he was better-off living in a healthcare facility. She didn’t take their advice and became his caretaker, while Santa Fin defied expectations and can walk. His sister Rose is in the documentary as another person in his support system.

Levi Truax, also known as Trans Santa Levi, is a transgender man from Chicago. His wife Heidi Truax often makes public appearances with Levi as Dr. Claus, and she accompanies Levi to Santa Camp. Out of all the Santa Camp newcomers, Levi and Heid are the most likely to tell jokes as a way to cope with any discomfort at being perceived as “outsiders.” Levi and Heidi experience the most blatant bigotry shown in the documentary—not from people at Santa Camp but from people who objected to an advertised event where people could meet Trans Santa Levi and Dr. Claus.

One of these events, which is featured in the documentary, had to be moved to another location because of hateful harassment and other threats, but some members of the extremist right-wing Proud Boys still showed up at the new location with protest signs to condemn the event. An unidentified woman is also shows doing a social media livestream of herself in the event’s parking lot, where she says people involved in the event are doing the devil’s work. In the documentary, Heidi says she prefers to be known as Dr. Claus instead of Mrs. Claus because she wants people to know that this Santa spouse has a Ph.D. and is the complete equal of her husband.

Throughout the documentary, it’s very apparent that those who welcome diversity in the Santa Claus community believe that diversity doesn’t mean forcing people not to believe in a Santa who isn’t a straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied man. Rather, the belief in this diversity is that if people want to see a Santa Clause who’s different from the dominant image of Santa Claus, then those options should be available. Problems and controversy usually arise when people insist that Santa Claus can only be presented in one way for everyone.

“Santa Camp” also shows the reality that how people feel about having more diverse types of Santas has a lot to do with how people feel about diverse types of people getting the same socioeconomic opportunities that white, cisgender, able-bodied men often get in preferential treatment. After all, Santa Claus and related matters have become a big business. What does that mean if people other than white, cisgender, able-bodied men get some of these Santa Claus performer jobs?

The documentary shows that Santa Camp will welcome anyone who wants to pay the fee, but Santa Camp isn’t going to guarantee any paying gigs to any of its graduates. The prevailing attitude with the white, cisgender, male Santas is that they don’t feel worried about being replaced anytime soon by a large influx of people who don’t look like them. And because being hired to portray Santa Claus is seasonal work, very few people can really live on their Santa Claus earnings alone. Some of the interviewees in “Santa Camp” include Santa Bob (a retired truck driver), Santa William (an ESL teacher), Santa Daniel (a broadcast engineer), Santa Louis (a retired fire alarm salesperson) and Santa George (a retired mold maker).

A man identified as Santa Tom comments on the idea that Santa Claus always has to be a white, cisgender man: “I don’t know if it’s a diversity problem, or just that people have accepted Santa as a certain way.” George McCleary (also known as Santa George), president of the Connecticut Society of Santas, has this point of view: “Over all of the years I’ve done this, I’ve never been asked by a child, ‘How come you’re white? How come Santa isn’t black like me?’ Kids don’t see color.”

While the statement “Kids don’t see color” might not apply to all children, many people of all ages actually do see color—and that’s not a bad thing if people are celebrated and included for their differences, not insulted or excluded because of those differences. As mentioned in the documentary, some people do request Santas that don’t fit the usual mold. “Santa Camp” shows how this event is at least making some attempts to respond to interest in having more diverse Santas.

“Representation is a big thing for our family,” says Santa Chris. He later adds as he arrives at Santa Camp for the first time, “Black Santas are not widely celebrated.” In a later scene, he says, “Being the only person of color here, it’s definitely lonely and awkward, to say the least.” The documentary shows at the end if Santa Chris thinks his Santa Camp experience has been beneficial and positive to him.

Meanwhile, Trans Santa Levi also talks about the importance of representation in portrayals of Santa Claus. He starts to cry a little when he says, “If I saw a trans Santa as a kid, it would be comforting … and empowering.” His wife Heidi adds, “It would’ve made a difference for you.”

People also want more flexibility in how the wife of Santa Claus is perceived. A Mrs. Claus performer identified only as Dianne, who is a retired spacecraft engineer, firmly believes that Mrs. Claus should be treated as an equal, not as a subservient sidekick, to Santa Claus. She says she’s against the rigid idea that Mrs. Claus can only wear dresses, and Mrs. Claus performers should have the option to wear dresses or other types of clothing.

Dianne comments, “I think everybody wants to be treated equally. How pushy do you have to be about it? I’m pushy!” All the Mrs. Claus performers interviewed in “Santa Camp” use Claus as their stage surname. They include holiday performer Bonnie Claus, nurse Mary Beth Claus, retired computer programmer Theresa Claus and box office manager Susan Claus, who says that there shouldn’t be a fantasy that Santa and Mrs. Claus have a perfect marriage: “Santa and Mrs. Claus don’t always get along.”

The documentary shows Levi and Heidi looking uncomfortable when attending a Mrs. Claus discussion panel. Heidi and Levi say that they didn’t like how the panel’s narrative was that Mrs. Claus’ main purpose is to make Santa happy and to be an example of traditional marriage as the “right” way to live. They both say that they wish they could have spoken up with their own viewpoints during this panel dicussioon. Later, during a smaller group discussion, Heidi asserts herself and says why she’s proud to be called Dr. Claus and to have a transgender partner in a relationship where they treat each other as equals. The people in the group applaud in support of what Heidi says, but it’s hard to know how much being on camera affected their reactions.

Although the “Santa Camp” documentary doesn’t do go too in depth over age issues, another minority at Santa Camp is anyone under the age of 50 who portrays Santa Claus or Mrs. Claus. It’s another reason why Santa Chris, Santa Fin, Trans Santa Levi and Dr. Claus all stand out from the vast majority of the people at this event. The age issue for Santa performers isn’t as big of a controversy because people can look older through makeup and wigs. When it comes to Santa Claus diversity, issues regarding race and non-cisgender identities seem to be the most controversial.

Regardless of how people feel about diversity in the Santa Claus image, “Santa Camp” does a very good job of showing how these issues aren’t going away anytime soon (especially in America, which has become more racially diverse over time) and that the people in the business of selling Santa Claus have to respond in one way or another to these issues. Many people who attend Santa Camp say that the Santa Claus performer community is like a “family.” As “Santa Camp” shows in endearing and sometimes tension-filled ways, the real test is how people want to define that family, who will be invited to join, and how they will be treated.

HBO Max premiered “Santa Camp” on November 17, 2022.

Review: ”Twas the Fight Before Christmas,’ starring Jeremy Morris, Kristy Morris, Jennifer Scott, Jeremy Scott, Ron Taylor, Dex Morris and Pam Morris

December 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Morris in “‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“’Twas the Fight Before Christmas”

Directed by Becky Read

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2014 to 2021, mostly in Hayden, Idaho’s West Hayden Estates, the documentary film “’Twas the Fight Before Christmas” features an all-white group of people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Controversial attorney Jeremy Morris wages a long war with a homeowner association over his annual Christmas event that he wants to have on his front lawn, with Morris claiming that he is being discriminated against because he is Christian. 

Culture Audience: “’Twas the Fight Before Christmas” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching documentaries about neighbor disputes and legal issues related to how far people will go to make their private home into a tourist attraction.

A photo of Jeremy Morris’ house in Hayden, Idaho’s West Hayden Estates in “‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Every year, there’s usually someone who makes the local news for having a house with extravagant Christmas displays that attract crowds of people who live near and far away. Sometimes, you hear about disputes because of the way the property is decorated and because the crowds bring unwanted noise and traffic to a residential neighborhood. And sometimes, as shown in “‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” (directed by Becky Read), the conflicts become so large, they result in lawsuits that make international news. The debate over individual rights versus community standards is shown in this fascinating documentary about how one man’s determination to have a public Christmas celebration in his front yard turned into an epic legal battle with a homeowner association.

At the forefront of the controversy is Jeremy Morris, the attorney who’s the plaintiff of the 2017 lawsuit that started this years-long legal conflict. After he moved to West Hayden Estates in Hayden, Idaho, in 2015, Morris became locked in bitter disputes with the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association over his annual Christmas-season event that he wanted to have on this front lawn. In addition to having thousands of lights on his property and numerous Christmas displays that you might find in an amusement park, the event included a large group of carolers, a live camel, and Morris hiring buses to bring people to the event.

In the beginning of the documentary, Morris brags that at his first mega-Christmas event in 2014, he had a 35-person choir, a live camel, and numerous displays and lights—all of which he says attracted a total of 5,000 people over several days. He is also quick to mention that this Christmas spectacle was a charity event to raise money for cancer research. However, Morris never says in the documentary how much money was actually donated to this cause as a result of the fundraising.

On December 26, 2014, Jeremy says that he and his wife Kristy (who is also interviewed in the documentary) wanted the next year’s event to be bigger and better. And so, they decided to move to a bigger house and started looking that same day. Jeremy and Kristy say in the documentary that when they found the house in West Hayden Estates, they knew immediately that it would be perfect for them. In addition to having a long driveway (which is more conducive for constant traffic), the house was near the city limits, which Jeremy says he knew would work to his advantage if there were any disputes over permits.

Before buying the house, Jeremy and Kristy say they knew the house was part of a homeowner association (HOA) with covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCRs) that they received in writing before completing the purchase. However, Jeremy freely admits that from the beginning, he felt that that he didn’t need to ask permission from the West Hayden Estates HOA for his event. He says he moved into the neighborhood with the attitude that the event was going to happen, whether people liked it or not.

The beginning of “‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” establishes that Jeremy is someone who sees himself as being on a mission to have any type of Christmas celebration that he chooses on his property because it’s an expression of his Christian beliefs. He says he’s been passionate about Christmas displays and decorations, ever since he was taught to hang Christmas lights at the age of 4 years old. The documentary’s opening scene shows him rifling through his garage to show some of his favorite Christmas decorations, including a robot given to him by his grandfather Jake (a former actor in silent films), which Jeremy says is the last thing that he has to remember his deceased grandfather.

Jeremy boasts that some people call him nicknames, such as Clark Griswold (the patriarch character played by Chevy Chase in the “National Lampoon” movies), the Christmas Lawyer or Mr. Christmas. He also says that several people advised him against participating in this documentary because they said the documentary would make him look “crazy.” He comments that he didn’t listen to that advice because people already think he’s “crazy”—and he says he likes that perception, because people will think he’s unpredictable.

Throughout the documentary, Jeremy makes extreme statements about how much Christmas means to him. “I love Christmas more than life itself,” he says in one scene. He also states in another scene: “I wanted to be the guy who saved Christmas.” In another scene, he says of his annual Christmas extravaganza: “I realized this is my ministry.” And later, he states with absolutely no irony or sarcasm: “This is not an event. This is a miracle. You don’t get permits for miracles.”

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” does a very good job of telling both sides of this nasty war between neighbors. Among the neighbors who speak out against Jeremy Morris are spouses Jennifer Scott and Jeremy Scott; Ron Taylor, a retired law-enforcement agent; and neighbors whose last names are not revealed in the documentary but who are identified by their first names: Kim, Jennifer, Julie and Jim. These West Hayden Estates residents use words such as “peaceful,” “quiet” and “friendly” to describe their neighbhorhood.

Chris and Larry Strayer, the spouses who sold their house to Jeremy and Kristy Morris, are also interviewed and describe Jeremy Morris as “very odd” and someone who asked them a lot of unusual questions about house measurements and crowd capacities before he bought the house. Peter J. Smith, an attorney for West Hayden Estates HOA, also gives his comments in the documentary.

Jennifer Scott was president of the West Hayden Estates HOA in 2014 and in 2015. She says she experienced unrelenting harassment and bullying from Jeremy Morris, who has made the same accusations about her and some other residents of West Hayden Estates. Jennifer Scott describes communication with Jeremy Morris where he repeatedly intimidated her in phone conversations, email and text messages, to the point where she had trouble sleeping and dreaded hearing from him.

Her husband Jeremy Scott (a pastor) had to intervene during one particularly hostile phone argument between his wife and Jeremy Morris, which resulted in Jeremy Scott ordering Jeremy Morris never to contact Jennifer Scott again. She resigned as president of the West Hayden Estates HOA shortly after that incident. It was later made public during the lawsuits that Jeremy Morris had recorded conversations with people involved in the disputes without their knowledge or permission. These secret recordings were legal in Idaho.

Taylor, who was vice-president of the West Hayden Estates HOA during the early years of the dispute, describes an unfinished West Hayden Estates HOA letter that was accidentally sent to Jeremy Morris in 2015, before the letter was completed and approved by the West Hayden Estates HOA. In the letter, the West Hayden Estates HOA said that Jeremy Morris’ planned Christmas extravaganza was against the written CCRs. The West Hayden Estates HOA also threated to sue him if he didn’t cancel the event. Meanwhile, several of the West Hayden Estates residents interviewed in the documentary say that Jeremy Morris was always the one who threatened legal action first, and he loved to brag about being an attorney.

But here is the crux of Jeremy Morris’ legal arguments: The letter expressed concerns about Jeremy Morris’ Christmas event being offensive to people who are non-Christians. Everyone, including Jeremy Morris, seems to agree that this letter aggravated him immensely. He perceived it to be discriminatory to his Christian beliefs and what he feels is his right to celebrate Christmas in the way that he wants on his property. Meanwhile, the West Hayden Estates residents involved in the dispute say that being against the event is not a religious issue but an issue of neighborhood safety.

Jeremy Morris describes how he fought back: “I got a thermonuclear weapon and blew it up in their face—and I call it international media.” He went to the media with the story that the West Hayden Estates HOA was declaring war on Christmas. Outlets such as Fox News and CNN did multiple news reports.

In the documentary, some of the West Hayden Estates residents who are interviewed express disgust that Jeremy Morris, in his media interviews and elsewhere, misrepresented most of the residents as atheists or non-Christians who hate Christians and Christmas. Jennifer and Jeremy Scott say that in reality, most of the West Hayden Estates residents are Christians who have religious tolerance and love Christmas. Shawn Vestal, a columnist for the Spokesman-Review, covered the dispute and says of Jeremy Morris’ media tactics: “The ‘war on Christmas’ was kind of a hoax, really.”

Jeremy Morris had his Christmas extravaganza in 2015 and 2016, but the conflicts and paranoia got so bad that accusations of death threats flew back and forth between both sides. Jeremy Morris says he had to get a gun for protection. At the time, Jeremy and Kristy Morris had one child (a daughter), and Kristy says that she was so fearful for her safety, she temporarily had to leave with their daughter to stay with Kristy’s mother in Virginia.

If people were videotaping other people at the event, the people making the videos could be accused of harassment. The Three Percenters, a right-wing group, offered to do volunteer security at Jeremy Morris’ Christmas event in 2015, and he eagerly accepted. Jeremy Morris says in the documentary that he also hired former cops and off-duty cops with guns for additional security. A police officer identified only in the documentary as Deputy Broesch says that people were questioned over these death threat accusations, but nothing happened from these alleged threats, and the matter was dropped.

As the documentary eventually reveals, Jeremy Morris isn’t just motivated by wanting to “save Christmas.” He talks about having an unwavering sense of right and wrong and standing up to bullying. He says it stems from his childhood, when he used to be bullied for being “different.” (The movie has a brief flash of a childhood yearbook photo of Jeremy when he was a student at Grace Community School in Sun Valley, California.)

Jeremy comments, “Being an attorney is a way of combating bullying of the type that you experience when you’re older. Being an attorney is a way to gain power.” But is this a situation where someone who used to be bullied becomes a bully? Kristy Morris admits about her husband’s drive to prove that he is right: “He doesn’t know when to stop.”

The other people interviewed in the documentary who are on Jeremy Morris’ side include his parents Dex and Pam Morris, who both confirm that Jeremy Morris has had a Christmas obsession since he was a child. Pam says of her son: “Jeremy’s got a good heart. He wants people to have joy. And that’s why he has this Christmas event.”

Jeremy Morris’ other supporters who are interviewed in the documentary include a man called Don (no last name given), who says he firmly believes that the governement should have as little interference as possible in people’s lives. Don thinks that the West Hayden Estates HOA has an oppressive mentality and is ruled by “badge-heavy people”—in other words, people who throw their authoritative weight around just because they have certain titles. The other people in the documentary who speak in support of Jeremy Morris are two individuals who were hired for his Christmas extravaganza in 2015: a bus driver named Blaine (no last name given) and an unnamed man who dressed as Santa Claus for the event.

“‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” has some scenes where Jeremy Morris is shown at home with Kristy and their three kids. In these scenes, it looks like a concerted effort is made to portray them as an “ideal” American family with traditional Christian values. However, there are times when the cracks in the marriage begin to show, such as when Kristy breaks down and cries over how this legal war is draining their finances and how the neighbors she thought would be her friends have turned into enemies. And despite the smiles that are frequently plastered on these two spouses’ faces, they often don’t look very happy.

Toward the end of the documentary, some of the West Hayden Estates residents are asked why Jeremy Morris is going through all this trouble in this legal war. They speculate that he wants attention and probably has ambitions to become a politician. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from watching “‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” is that when a legal dispute gets this ugly and vicious, it’s not exactly consistent with the meaning of Christmas, and there are no real winners.

Apple TV+ premiered “‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas” on November 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2022), starring Harry Turner and Samantha Zwicker

December 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Harry Turner in “Wildcat” (Photo by Trevor Frost/Amazon Content Services)

“Wildcat” (2022)

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2022, in Peru and England, the documentary film “Wildcat” features a group of predominantly white people (and some Latinos) from the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way to wildcat rescuing the the Amazon forest.

Culture Clash: A British man and an American woman become colleagues and lovers while working together in Peru to rescue wildcats, such as ocelots, but their relationship is affected by the stress of the work and their respective emotional baggage. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in nature documentaries that show how wild animals and human beings can have meaningful connections and can change each other’s lives.

Samantha Zwicker in “Wildcat” (Photo by Trevor Frost/Amazon Content Services)

The riveting documentary “Wildcat” is less about animal preservation in the wilderness and more about how saving these animals can also help save a human rescuer’s sanity and can be a beneficial healing process for people dealing with emotional trauma. It’s a movie about widespread and vast issues but told in a very intimate and personal way. People who aren’t inclined to watch nature documentaries might be surprised by how much they will be affected by “Wildcat.”

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, “Wildcat” was filmed from 2018 to 2022, and follows the personal journeys of two people involved in saving wildcats in the Peruvian Amazon from being captured and sold, as well as advocating for these wildcats to live safely in their natural habitat. Harry Turner (a British military veteran) and Samantha Zwicker (an American founder of an environmental non-profit group) met each other by chance and ended up becoming work colleagues and lovers in a relationship that was both productive and volatile.

At the time that they met in 2015, Turner was in his early 20s and a lost soul living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, stemming largely from his combat experiences in the Afghanistan war. He signed up to be in the military when he was 18 years old. After being honorably discharged from the military because of his mental health issues, Turner led an aimless life where he experienced self-harm and a suicide attempt.

In the documentary, Turner says he decided leave England and go somewhere to “disappear” where no one knew who he was. That’s how he ended up in Peru, where he met Zwicker, who was a University of Washington Ph.D. candidate and founder of Hoja Nueva (which means “new leaf” in Spanish), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the people, creatures and the environment of the Amazon region. The group’s program for wild animals is called Protect Rewild. Most of the Peru footage in “Wildcat” was filmed in the region’s Madre de Dios area, where Turner and Zwicker lived in a part of the jungle that’s described in the documentary as “five hours from the nearest town.”

Soon after Zwicker and Turner met, she asked him to help her do something that Hoja Nueva had never done before: teach an orphaned baby ocelot how to live independently in the wild. This training period for the ocelot takes about 18 months. Turner and Zwicker’s work relationship turned into a romance that went through extreme ups and downs during the making of “Wildcat.” The relationship was also tested when Zwicker had to go back to the Seattle area to continue her graduate studies, thereby leaving Turner to carry on the work in Peru, often with him having extended periods of isolation with the ocelot.

The movie’s opening scene shows Turner with one of the young male ocelots that he took care of before parting ways with him in the wilderness when the ocelot was ready to live on its own. Turner feeds the ocelot a dead bird. The ocelot jumps on Turner’s shoulder and rides on him like household pet.

Turner expresses his bittersweet feelings about letting go of an animal that he grew to love like a parent loves a child: “The reintroduction [to the wilderness] was always the one reason to put the wildcat back into the wild again. But it’s just hard. It’s hard to let go of something you love, especially if you’re letting them go into one of the most dangerous environments in the world.”

Early on in the documentary, Turner is shown with his first baby ocelot, a male named Khan, who was rescued from a tree that was cut down by loggers. Turner’s strong emotional bond with Khan is evident, and he openly says that he thinks of Khan like an ocelot son. Turner says in the documentary, “When Khan came into our hands, that’s when my life had a purpose.” Without giving away too much information, something happens to Khan that devastates Turner, and he goes into a deep depression. It takes him several months to recover.

Things start to look up about a year later, when another orphaned baby ocelot comes into lives of Turner and Zwicker. His name is Keanu, the ocelot that is featured the most in this documentary. The footage of Turner and Keanu together is heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking. It’s mostly just a delight to see the meaningful and loving bond that develops between Turner and Keanu. This bond is essentially a parent/child relationship.

Because of Zwicker’s university studies where she has to go back to the United States for extended periods of time, she is not the primary caretaker of Keanu. She’s not a background person in the documentary, but if “Wildcat” were a scripted movie, Zwicker would be a supporting character, not the main star. So much of the movie is focused on Turner, at one point, the documentary shows Turner temporarily going back to England to be with his immediate family (his parents and younger brother), and these family members then to Peru to visit him. Zwicker’s family members are not in the documentary.

“Wildcat” has some cute moments of Zwicker and Turner together as a couple, as they do things such as canoodle in bed in their ramshackle abode, spend time with the ocelot like proud parents, or going on hikes together. Turner gushes about their relationship: “We’re best friends and partners.” But things get very dark in their relationship when Turner has bouts of depression, temper tantrums, self-harming and crippling anxiety. Zwicker gets overwhelmed and is conflicted over how to handle Turner’s mental health issues.

On the one hand, Turner’s bond with Keanu has been beneficial to Turner’s recovery from PTSD and his other mental health issues. On the other hand, there’s concern over how Turner will handle the inevitable, permanent separation when Keanu will have to live on his own in the wilderness. Even if it might be obvious how this movie is going to end, it’s still compelling to watch.

Zwicker has her own emotional issues to deal with in this relationship, which might explain why she was so attracted to Turner. She opens up about having an abusive, alcoholic father and geting involved in many dysfunctional relationships in her life. Zwicker talks about how she and her mother have a tendency not to give up on people, so they stay in bad relationships longer than they should. Zwicker says of Turner, “When I came across Harry, he was extremely misunderstood … but I obviously saw something super-special in him.”

“Wildcat” shows if Zwicker and Turner break up or stay together. Regardless of where the relationship ends up, the documentary shows how these two people found each other through their mutual love of helping animals, and how the animals they rescued also taught these two human beings a few things about how to help themselves during hard times. Zwicker says in the documentary that she trusts animals more than she trusts people.

“Wildcat” is the type of fascinating documentary where viewers can tell that the filmmakers didn’t know how the movie was going to end while making the documentary. The cinematography of “Wildcat” is often breathtaking, even if a few rambling parts of this 105-minute film could have used tighter editing. “Wildcat” is a true reflection of life’s unpredictability and how taking big risks can sometimes lead to some of life’s greatest challenges and unexpected rewards.

Amazon Studios released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2022. Prime Video will premiere “Wildcat” on December 30, 2022.

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