Review: ‘On Broadway’ (2021), starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, George C. Wolfe, Hugh Jackman, Tommy Tune, John Lithgow and Alexandra Billings

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ian McKellen in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” (2021)

Directed by Oren Jacoby

Culture Representation: The documentary “On Broadway” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one African American, one mixed-race person and one Asian) discussing the history of Broadway theater productions, from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Culture Clash: Broadway has weathered its share of ups and downs, including theater shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ibeing in crime-ridden areas; the AIDS crisis devastating the Broadway community; and criticism that Broadway shows are too elitist and too expensive.

Culture Audience: “On Broadway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a documentary that presents a very optimistic view of Broadway without delving too deeply into controversial subject matter.

Broadway theaters in New York City in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” is everything that you might expect a documentary to be that celebrates the history of Broadway shows from the 1950s to the 2010s. Expect to hear stories about Broadway’s highs and lows, but don’t expect to hear anything too scandalous. Directed by Oren Jacoby (an Oscar-nominated documentarian), “On Broadway” probably won’t be revealing enough for people who are Broadway trivia fanatics. This documentary is for people who want to see a selective history of Broadway, presented like a love letter instead of a scathing exposé of the dark sides of the business.

It’s a traditionally made documentary that mixes archival footage with exclusive documentary interviews. It looks like some of these interviews happened about 10 to 15 years before this 2021 documentary was released, while other interviews took place in or close to 2018/early 2019, when this documentary was completed. And a few of the people who were interviewed for the film have since passed away. For example, the documentary has exclusive interviews with celebrated playwright August Wilson (who died in 2005, at the age of 60) and Broadway producer/director extraordinaire Hal Prince, who died in 2019, at the age of 91.

“On Broadway” had its world premiere at the 2019 DOC NYC film festival, so this movie does not include any extensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Broadway, when theaters were shut down from March 2020 to August 2021. However, the movie’s epilogue does have a brief mention of the pandemic shutdowns and New York City’s long-delayed plans to re-open Broadway theaters in September 2021. It fits the tone and messaging of the rest of the documentary: Broadway, also known as Great White Way, is also the Great Comeback Kid.

“On Broadway” begins with testimonials from actors and other creators who’ve made their marks on Broadway, which consists of a cluster of designated theaters in New York City’s midtown Manhattan. Tony-winning actress Helen Mirren (“The Audience”) says that the first time that she went to New York City to rehearse for her Broadway debut (a 1994 production of “A Month in the Country”), she remembers looking at the Manhattan skyline and thinking: “‘Will I conquer New York? Will I survive it, even?’ The whole concept of Broadway has this very romantic, very heroic, very legendary kind of feel to it.”

Alec Baldwin (who earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the 1992 Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”) has this to say about Broadway: “New York is a place that when 8 o’clock at night rolls around, the curtain is opening on some of the greatest performances around the world, in one city. It is almost incomprehensible the amount of talent that is on display at that one moment.”

Tony-winning actor Hugh Jackman (“The Boy From Oz”), who has also won an Emmy Award for hosting the 2005 Tony Awards ceremony, comments: “As a performer, Broadway is different from anywhere else on the planet. You feel the audience are leaning in, they’re wanting to have a great time, they’re ready to enjoy it. It’s the most palpable I’ve ever felt—that connection with an audience.”

The documentary includes the expected footage and commentary about how influential Broadway is to actors and actresses. Tony-winning actress Christine Baranski (“The Real Thing,” “Rumors”) says with great fondness: “‘Company’ was the first musical I saw on Broadway. And I just thought, ‘Okay, this is the New York theater!” The documentary has brief archival clips of several stars who starred in Broadway shows before they became famous for their work in movies, such as Lithgow, McKellen, Mirren, Viola Davis and Courtney B. Vance.

Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk”) says that Broadway is more than just a bunch of buildings. “Something that ends up resonating with people ends up inhabiting those buildings. And it creates a kind of strange, odd, wonderful energy.”

Wolfe continues, “And all of a sudden, those buildings become kind of a church that attracts these devotees who become empowered by what’s on that stage. But at the same time, it’s a commercial landscape. And every day, you have to pay your rent. That’s the key to Broadway.”

The debate over art versus commerce certainly applies to Broadway, which is a tough business for a production to make a profit. Most Broadway productions end up being money-losing investments. The Broadway shows that run for years are the ones that are like winning the lottery.

In addition to having a narrative history of Broadway, the documentary includes an all-access profile of “The Nap,” a British imported play about snooker players that debuted on Broadway during the 2018-2019 season. “The Nap” (which had a limited run from September to November 2018) was considered financially riskier than a typical Broadway show, since it didn’t have any big-name stars and because snooker is a game that’s largely unfamiliar to American audiences. “On Broadway” followed the Broadway production of “The Nap” from its rehearsals to opening night.

The documentary includes interviews with “The Nap” playwright Richard Bean, “The Nap” Broadway director Daniel Sullivan and “The Nap” co-star Alexandra Billings, who made her Broadway debut in the show. As one of the first transgender actors to portray a transgender character on Broadway, Billings expresses gratitude and amazement at how far she’s come in overcoming personal setbacks (including drug addiction and homelessness) to end up starring in a Broadway show. She says, “The Broadway journey: There’s so much history attached. We need to remember our history.”

“On Broadway” takes viewers through a chronological history of Broadway with an impressive array of archival footage and various commentaries from Broadway insiders. The 1950s through the mid-1960s are described as the Golden Age of Broadway. Business was booming, and Broadway shows often influenced pop culture in music and in movies.

However, by the late 1960s, with the counterculture movement becoming a major force in society, Broadway was considered old-fashioned and out-of-touch by many people. In addition, the streets of midtown Manhattan’s Times Square, where almost all Broadway theaters are located, became increasingly crime-infested. As a result, by the mid-1970s, many Broadway theaters were shut down, and Broadway experienced a major slump. New York City was also on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

Tony-winning actor John Lithgow (“The Changing Room” and “The Sweet Smell of Success”) remembers, “The theater district in those days: You can’t believe how different it was. It was so down on its luck.” The documentary mentions that Broadway attendance dropped from 10 million people in 1969 to 4.8 million people in 1972.

However, during this economically depressed period of time for Broadway, new talent emerged that pushed Broadway to new levels of creativity. Musical composer Stephen Sondheim and the aforementioned groundbreaking producer/director Prince are named as the two luminaries who had the most influence on the new and original Broadway shows that emerged from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Prince and Sondheim worked separately for most of ther projects. However, their collaborations included “Company” and “Pacific Overtures,” which are named as examples of Broadway musicals that were reactions to criticism that Broadway was outdated and playing it too safe. Plays and musicals began to include topics that were once considered taboo on Broadway, including war protests, the feminist movement, LGBTQ rights and abortion.

The documentary notes how the majority of the theaters were dominated by three theater owners in the 1970s: The Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters. Out of financial desperation, the Shubert family let attorneys Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard B. Jacobs take over the Shubert Organization in 1972.

The leadership change at the Shubert Organization led to a rethinking of investment strategies, by doing something that was groundbreaking at the time: Giving more freedom to the artistic people in Broadway, such as allowing them to spend time workshopping a production instead of just rehearsing. Broadway icons such as director/choreographer Bob Fosse and choreographer Michael Bennett were among those who benefited from this strategy.

Nederlander Organization managing director Elizabeth McCann says of this period of time when Broadway was in an economic decline: “They were all desperate for product.” One of the first new productions that Shubert invested in was Fosse’s “Pippin,” because the company believed in him.

New York City’s slow but eventual clean-up of Times Square led to closures of strip clubs and porn theaters and the arrival of more family-friendly businesses. In 1995, the Walt Disney Company began leasing the New Amsterdam Theater in a deal that’s considered a game changer in Broadway. In collaboration with the 42nd Street Development Project, Disney agreed to renovate the theater, which re-opened in 1997. As part of the deal, the New Amsterdam Theater is the exclusive home of Broadway productions that are based on Disney intellectual property.

The documentary singles out several Broadway productions as groundbreaking in their own ways. In the 1970s, “A Chorus Line” broke Broadway box-office records at the time and was the first Broadway show to be owned by a nonprofit group: the Public Theater. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” broke racial barriers on Broadway for having African Americans as a majority of its cast. “Annie” broke the stereotype that a Broadway show needed a rave review from the New York Times to be a long-running hit. The smash hit “Nicholas Nickleby,” with its eight-hour running time, broke the conventional practice of limiting a Broadway show’s running time to two or three hours.

By the late 1970s, Broadway was in full comeback mode, aided by the “I Love New York” ad campaign that featured Broadway shows. Popular shows on Broadway, such as “Grease” and “The Wiz,” were made into movies. Broadway in the 1970s and the 1980s had a British invasion, led by composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh. Separately and together, Webber and Mackintosh brought numerous hits to Broadway, such as their collaborations on “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” (The documentary includes brief clips of an interview with Mackintosh.) The 1980s also saw a rise of acclaimed Broadway plays by and about LGBTQ people, most notably Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.”

The 1990s ushered in a resurgence in Broadway’s popularity with young people, thanks largely to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” “Angels in America” (from playwright Tony Kushner) and “Rent” also brought frank depictions of the AIDS crisis into major storylines for Broadway shows. The 1990s was also the decade where the Disney-fication of Broadway began to take hold in the trend of turning movies into long-running Broadway musicals. The smash hit “The Lion King” was an obvious standout. Also in the 1990s, a Broadway trend began that isn’t going away anytime soon: jukebox musicals built around the hit songs of famous music artists. “Mamma Mia!,” based on ABBA songs, is considered the first blockbuster in this jukebox musical trend.

Even with several Broadway hits being churned out that are based on pre-existing entertainment, the phenomenal success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” proves that Broadway audiences are still hungry for completely original productions. In the documentary, “Hamilton” is credited with bringing more multiracial audiences than ever before to Broadway. “Hamilton’s” race-swapping of historical figures and incorporation of rap/hip-hop are also cited as groundbreaking for a Broadway show.

“On Broadway” wants to have such a relentlessly “cheerleader” attitude about the Broadway industry that it tends to ignore some uncomfortable topics, such as racism. Instead, the movie’s way of discussing Broadway’s race relations is to focus more on the accomplishments of Broadway’s prolific people of color (such as Wolfe, Wilson and Miranda) who were able to break racial barriers in the world of Broadway. Sexism and the #MeToo movement aren’t mentioned at all. The movie’s epilogue acts as if the abuse scandals that led to the 2021 downfall of Broadway mega-producer Scott Rudin just didn’t exist. The documentary gives no acknowledgement that Rudin’s fall from grace was big news that shook the Broadway industry.

Although the documentary does acknowledge the devastation that the AIDS crisis inflicted on the Broadway community, one of the movie’s flaws is that it could have had more coverage on what the Broadway community has done in response to the AIDS crisis. The documentary gives more screen time to Broadway people protesting and crying over the 1982 demolishment of the Morosco Theater, the Helen Hayes Theater and the Bijou (to make way for the Marriott Marquis in Times Square) than it gives to Broadway people doing something about the AIDS crisis. For example, “On Broadway” could have had a segment about the work of the nonprofit group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It’s a glaring omission.

Although “On Broadway” overlooks several social justice issues that directly impact Broadway, the documentary gives some recognition to the fact that Broadway gets a lot of criticism for being overpriced and elitist. At the same time, Broadway has also gotten backlash from the other end of the spectrum: Some people think that Broadway is catering too much to unsophisticated audiences, by relying heavily on movie adaptations and jukebox musicals for new Broadway shows.

Broadway producer Robert Fox comments on overpriced Broadway tickets: “I find gouging people unappealing. And I think people are being gouged. The amounts of money that people ar being asked to see things are insane. But it’s not called ‘show charity.’ It’s called ‘show business.'”

“The Nap” Broadway director Sullivan says that the high cost of putting on a Broadway show and the high risk of the show being a money-losing failure are aspects of the business that won’t change anytime soon: “Paying the kind of money you have to pay to put anything on a Broadway stage is almost foolhardy. But the excitement can’t be about the money. The excitement is about finding fascinating new work and taking that chance of putting it before the public.”

While “old school” Broadway people might gripe about the increasing number of movie adaptations and jukebox musicals that end up on Broadway, the general consensus by people interviewed in the documentary is that these adapted Broadway shows won’t replace the need for original content. Tony-winning actor James Corden (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) comments: “You’ve just always got to keep an eye on what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s going to inspire the next kid who thinks, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to write a play.'”

“On Broadway” includes interviews with people representing a cross-section of various jobs in Broadway—mostly people who are actors, producers, directors and theater officials. Among those interviewed are director/producer Lynne Meadow, director Jack O’Brien, the Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, producer Manny Azenberg, director Nicholas Hytner, producer Sonia Friedman, producer Albert Poland and producer Nelle Nugent. Other people interviewed include playwright David Henry Hwang, theatrical ad agency director Nancy Coyne, city planner Carl Weisbrod, lighting designer Natasha Katz, former Jujamcyn Theaters president Rocco Landesman, The New 42nd Street founding president Cora Cahan, Sardi’s maître d’ Gianni Felidi, and theater journalists Michael Riedel, Jeremy Gerard and Michael Paulson.

Even though “On Broadway” glosses over many of the ongoing problems in the business of Broadway, the documentary is entertaining and can be informative to people who have limited or average knowledge of this great American platform of performing arts. Broadway has been written off as “dead” many times, but the message of the documentary is that when Broadway is in a rut, Broadway should not be underestimated to climb out of that rut to thrive once again.

Tony-winning actor/director/choreographer Tommy Tune sums up the resilience of Broadway by saying: “Broadway is like some old 42nd Street hooker. She just keeps plugging. And sometimes, she has new shoes on. And sometimes, she has old, broken-down shoes.”

Kino Lorber released “On Broadway” in select U.S. cinemas and in virtual cinemas on August 20, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and DVD is on October 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson,’ starring Kenneth Johnson Sr., Jackie Johnson, Kenyatta Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Malik Austin, Mitch Credle and William Anderson

August 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kendrick Johnson in “Finding Kendrick Johnson” (Photo courtesy of Kendrick Johnson Family/Gravitas Ventures)

Finding Kendrick Johnson”

Directed by Jason Pollock

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Valdosta, Georgia, the true crime documentary “Finding Kendrick Johnson” features a predominantly African American group of representing the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way the case of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old student from Valdosta who died a suspicious death in his high school gym in 2013.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that Johnson was murdered due to racism and jealousy, and the crime was covered up because the main person of interest is the son of a white man who was an FBI agent at the time of Johnson’s death.

Culture Audience: “Finding Kendrick Johnson” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that investigating mysteries that involve civil rights issues and racial injustice.

Kenneth Johnson Sr. and Jackie Johnson in “Finding Kendrick Johnson” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

In the never-ending flow of true crime documentaries that are being made and released, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” has an emotional resonance that might stay with viewers longer than most movies about unsolved mysteries. This film is clear from the beginning about its agenda of taking the side of the victim’s family. The purpose of the movie, according to an announcement early on in the film, is to bring more awareness and present new facts in the baffling death case of Kendrick Johnson, so that people can make up their own minds.

He was a lively and beloved 17-year-old who was a student at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. In 2013, his bloodied body was found stuffed in a gym mat in a school gym, and he is believed to have died the day before while classes were in session. His death was initially ruled as an accident, but his family has been fighting to have the death ruling changed to homicide and for justice to be served. And they think they know who committed the alleged crime.

This documentary (which is narrated by actress Jenifer Lewis, one of the movie’s executive producers) does a very good job of putting the case in the context of America’s very shameful history of racism, since many people believe that Johnson’s death and how authorities mishandled the investigation have a lot to do with racism against African Americans. Sensitive viewers should be warned: The documentary has several nauseating photos of murdered people (including Emmett Till) after they were lynched or beaten to death. There are also very graphic photos of Johnson’s dead body, including his bloodied and swollen face.

Directed by Jason Pollock, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” also uncovers video surveillance footage that seems to damage the credibility of former Lowndes High School student Brian Bell, who has been named repeatedly as someone who might know more about Johnson’s death than he’s willing to admit. Bell, who has not been named as a suspect, has maintained that he was in a classroom at the time of the death and that he never saw Johnson that day. However, surveillance video footage that was uncovered by filmmaker Pollock and his team—and revealed to the public for the first time in this documentary—shows Bell walking less than two feet behind Johnson in a school hallway on the day that Johnson died.

What exactly happened in that gym on January 10, 2013, which everyone agrees is when and where Johnson died? What people don’t agree on is how he died. Was it an accident or was it murder? And if it was murder, who committed the crime? Because this case has gotten a lot of media coverage, most of “Finding Kendrick Johnson” might not be surprising to people who already know a lot of the facts related to the case.

However, the filmmakers seem determined to do more than rehash previous news reports and joined in the family’s quest to uncover more evidence to re-open the case. (The outcome of all this hard work is revealed in the movie’s epilogue.) Several family members are interviewed, such as Kenneth Johnson Sr. (Kendrick’s father), Jackie Johnson (Kendrick’s mother), Kenyatta Johnson (Kendrick’s older sister), Lydia Tooley Whitlock (Kendrick’s aunt) and Barbara English (Kendrick’s grandmother).

They all describe Kendrick as loving, playful, and the type of person who was the most likely in the family to cheer someone up when they were feeling down. He was a well-liked student who played on the school’s basketball team. Kendrick’s two other siblings—Kenneth Johnson Jr. and Kenya Johnson —are not interviewed for the documentary. Kenneth Sr. (a truck driver) and Jackie have lived in Valdosta their entire lives, as have their children.

Kendrick’s parents both say that when Kendrick didn’t come home on the night of January 10, 2013, they instinctively knew by midnight that he was dead. His body was found by a female student in the school gym on January 11, 2013, at about 10:30 a.m. Many people immediately suspected foul play because his body was upside down in a rolled-up gym mat that was about 6 feet tall. Blood was near his head, and his face had significant bruising, as if he had been in a recent fight. There were also recent cuts on his hands that looked like fight injuries.

There were three pairs of athletic shoes near the body that could have had crucial clues, but some people in the documentary believe that the shoes were evidence that was either tampered with or not properly tested. According to the photos taken by investigators, the first pair of shoes were black with orange laces and with mysterious red splotches that looks a lot like blood. The owner of these shows has not been identified, and investigators will only say that the red splotches were not blood.

The other two pairs of shoes belonged to Kendrick: one was pair was white, and these shoes were located beside his body, inside the gym mat. The other pair was black, and these black shoes were identified as the ones that Kendrick would wear for his everyday activities, not his gym activities. After his body was found, the documentary states that the black shoes look liked they had been meticulously cleaned—too pristine for anyone who was wearing those shoes on a regular basis and who was unlikely to wash the shoes at school that day.

Investigators initially presented a theory that Kendrick accidentally died while trying to reach for his white athletic shoes in the center hole of the rolled-up the gym mat, and he accidentally go stuck and suffocated to death. It was common for people to use different shoes inside the gym and outside the gym. Those who did use different shoes often had a habit inside the gym of placing the shoes they weren’t using underneath rolled-up gym mats that were stacked vertically.

Therefore, people who believe that Kendrick died from foul play say that it doesn’t make sense that he would try to get his gym shoes by crawling through the center of a rolled-up gym mat when all he would have to do is move the gym mat to retrieve the shoes. Kendrick was 5’10” and the rolled-up gym mat he was found in was about 6 feet tall. His shoulders were about 19 inches wide, while the rolled-up gym mat his body was found in had a center hole that was 14 inches wide.

Nevertheless, the initial ruling by investigators was that Kendrick accidentally died by squeezing himself into the center of the gym mat and suffocating to death. Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigator Stryde Jones is seen in archival news footage being one of the chief people who was adamant in stating that Kendrick’s death was an accident. And what about the bruises on Kendrick’s face and the blood near his head? The ruling was that those injuries could have happened while Kendrick was stuck and trying frantically to get out from inside the gym mat. Does that make sense to you?

The documentary also mentions there were are also signs that come crucial evidence was tampered with or went missing:

  • Time-stamped video surveillance footage inside the school from 12:04 p.m. to 1:09 p.m. on January 10, 2013—which is widely believed to be the time frame in which Kendrick died—has gone missing or is unaccounted for, according to several people interviewed in the movie. The documentary includes surveillance footage that is available, including the last images of Kendrick alive in the school.
  • A gray hooded sweatshirt with blood on it was found near Kendrick’s body, but Kendrick did not own the sweatshirt, and no one has claimed ownership of it. The documentary states that this sweatshirt has not been tested for DNA.
  • The blood on the gym walls was tested and did not match Kendrick’s blood. According to investigators, the blood belongs to another person whom they say they have not been able to identify.
  • Kendrick’s organs were removed (which is standard procedure in an autopsy), but somehow the organs ended up missing. The medical examiner’s office, police crime lab and the funeral home that were in contact with Kendrick’s body will not take responsibility for the missing organs. Kendrick’s body was exhumed twice to be re-examined. During the first re-examination, newspaper shreddings were found where Kendrick’s organs should have been.

The Johnson family hired an independent investigator named Dr. William “Bill” Anderson, whose specialty is forensic autopsies and clinical pathology. Because Dr. Anderson was not the person who did the first autopsy of Kendrick’s body, he had to rely on autopsy photos and the official medical report to try to make some sense of the initial analysis of the organs that have gone missing. Dr. Anderson says in the documentary, “One of the things that immediately stuck out was the findings that the lungs had no fluid.” Dr. Anderson adds that lungs filled with fluid is a telltale sign of asphyxia, so he thinks it’s highly unlikely that Kendrick died from suffocation.

What really happened? Several people, including Kendrick’s family members and his good friend/schoolmate Malik Austin, say in the documentary that they believe that Kendrick was killed during a fight, probably with more than one person. At the top of their suspect list is Bell, who had previously lost a fight that he started with Kendrick on a school bus. Austin was one of several people who witnessed this altercation on the school bus. He says that Bell was the one who instigated it, like a “bully.” Kendrick only fought back in self-defense, and he easily won the fight.

But to say that Bell had a motive isn’t evidence. Bell, who was a star on the Lowndes High School football team at the time, has always maintained that he had nothing to do with Kendrick’s death. One of the flaws in the documentary is how it doesn’t say either way if there’s proof that Bell was truthful in his alibi that he was in a classroom during the time that Kendrick died. Where are the witnesses who could corroborate that alibi if it’s true? If the alibi isn’t true, and he snuck out of class during the time of Kendrick’s death, there’s no surveillance footage available.

Brian Bell’s father, Rick Bell, was an influential FBI agent at the time of Kendrick’s death. People who believe that Kendrick was murdered say that it’s been covered up by a vast conspiracy because of Rick Bell’s connections. There’s also been speculation that if Brian Bell committed the murder, then he had an accomplice because Brian Bell allegedly knew he wouldn’t be able to fight Kendrick on his own.

The documentary presents some hearsay evidence from an unidentified female witness (who was underage at the time, so her identity is protected), who gave a statement back in 2013 that she heard from a female friend that Kendrick had slept with her, even though this female friend was dating another guy whose father worked for the FBI. According to what this unidentified hearsay witness heard, the jealous boyfriend, who knew about the infidelity, admitted to his girlfriend that he got revenge on Kendrick by killing him, with help from a male friend who had recently transferred back to Lowndes High School.

This hearsay statement, which would not be admissible in court, goes on to mention that the brother of the jealous boyfriend knew about the murder and didn’t feel comfortable helping his brother cover it up. Brian Bell has a brother named Branden Bell, who has also publicly denied anything do with Kendrick’s death and stated that his alibi was that he wasn’t even at the school when Kendrick died.

The documentary has archival news footage of Brian and Branden Bell proclaiming that they had nothing to do with Kendrick’s death. It’s not stated in the documentary if the filmmakers reached out to Brian, Branden and/or Rick Bell (who since resigned from the FBI) to get any comments or interviews. Even if the filmmakers did reach out to the Bell family, it’s unlikely that anyone in the Bell family would want to participate in the documentary, which is admittedly biased in favor of the Johnson family.

The documentary also does not mention the name of the “transfer student” who was an alleged “accomplice” in Kendrick’s death. And the name of the cheating girlfriend isn’t mentioned either. Those are gaps in the documentary that needed filling in, even if to state whether or not the filmmakers tried to contact these possible witnesses to get comments or interviews. There’s a brief caption in the documentary that all people alleged to be involved in Kendrick’s death have denied any involvement.

The Johnson family and their supporters (including activist Stephanie Martin) say in the documentary that they had hope that U.S. attorney Michael Moore (not to be confused with filmmaker Michael Moore) would make progress when he announced that he was re-opening the case because there was too much doubt that Kendrick’s death was accidental. However, the hope turned to disappointment when Moore abruptly resigned as U.S. attorney in 2015, and he went to work for a private law firm. Jackie Johnson doesn’t mince words when she says why she thinks that Moore quit as U.S. attorney: “Those people scared him out of his job.”

Kendrick’s case then took an highly unusual turn, when seven judges recused themselves to review the case, and the case was moved all the way from Georgia to Ohio. Keep in mind that the crime took place in Valdosta, Georgia, where Kendrick, his siblings and parents have lived their entire lives. Atlanta-based civil rights activist Tyrone Brooks says in the documentary that “it was mind-boggling” that the case was moved to a state thousands of miles away from Georgia, when Kendrick and the scene of his death have nothing do with Ohio.

Mitch Credle, a Washington, D.C.-based homicide detective who investigated the case for the U.S. attorney’s office, sums up why he thinks there are too many suspicious signs that point to a cover-up: “What made me think that everything was a cover-up was—for me, as an experienced homicide detective—that first meeting with the medical examiner. Body parts were missing. Evidence was missing. That’s another red flag.”

Later in the documentary, a stunned Credle is shown for the first time a still frame from the video surveillance footage that shows Brian Bell walking close behind Kendrick Johnson in a school hallway on the day that Kendrick died—a direct contradiction to Brian Bell’s longstanding claim that he never even saw Kendrick that day. Is he lying or his memory faulty? Credle expresses shock and dismay that he never saw this surveillance footage before it was brought to his attention by the documentary team. And this longtime homicide detective thinks that this footage severely damages Brian Bell’s credibility in relation to this case.

Although “Finding Kendrick Johnson” is about this particular case, the documentary also wants viewers to look at the bigger picture of how many other people—particularly black people—have experienced racial injustice in a U.S. system of law enforcement that disproportionately treats black people worse than other races. The documentary asks the question that people who aren’t naïve know the answer to: If Kendrick Johnson had been white, and if a black schoolmate had been rumored to be involved in his death, how would the outcome in the case been different?

The documentary includes some history of racial injustice against black people in the Valdosta area, including the notorious 1918 lynching of pregnant Mary Turner. She and her unborn baby (who was ripped from her womb and stomped to death) were murdered by an angry white mob just because she protested the lynching of her husband. Although many people would like to think that America’s worst racism is in the past, the point that the documentary makes is this type of damaging racism that has been passed down from generations just doesn’t suddenly go away when new civil rights laws are passed.

It remains to be seen what the final outcome of the Kendrick Johnson case will be, but his family members and other supporters say that they will never give up their fight to get justice for Kendrick. Regardless of how people think Kendrick died, his death is still a tragedy. “Finding Kendrick Johnson” might not have the answers to his death, but it seems like the documentary has the noble intention to help the Johnson family find some measure of peace in their ongoing nightmare with the legal system.

Gravitas Ventures released “Finding Kendrick Johnson” on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021. The movie is set for release in select U.S. cinemas in October 2021, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Meat Me Halfway,’ starring Brian Kateman, Marion Nestle, Eric Adams, Will Harris III, Anita Krajnc, Ethan Brown and David Katz

August 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Brian Kateman eating a Carl’s Jr. Beyond Burger in “Meat Me Halfway” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Meat Me Halfway”

Directed by Brian Kateman and Journey Wade-Hak

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the documentary film “Meat Me Halfway” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) discussing the factory farming industry’s effects on the environment and individual choices on whether not to eat meat.

Culture Clash: The debate continues over choices to be a meat eater versus being a vegan/vegetarian.

Culture Audience: “Meat Me Halfway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting various perspectives on how the food and drinks we consume not only affect our health but also the environment.

Brian Kateman and Eat Just vice president of product development Chris Jones in “Meat Me Halfway” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Meat Me Halfway” is not a preachy documentary that pushes a one-sided animal-rights agenda. It’s a well-rounded film with diverse viewpoints and options to help people decide if they want to be meat eaters or non-meat eaters. The filmmakers are very up front with their intent to give information to meat-eating people about why and how meat eating can be gradually reduced or eliminated from someone’s diet. However, the filmmakers also realisitically know that eating meat is a human lifestyle choice that isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Meat Me Halfway” co-directors/co-writers Brian Kateman and Journey Wade-Hak make their feature-film directorial debuts with this documentary and are also two of the movie’s producers. Kateman also serves as the documentary’s narrator, interviewer and on-camera guide during his cross-country journey in the U.S., to look at various sides of the meat-eating debate. As the co-founder president of the non-profit group Reducetarian Foundation, Kateman believes in the approach that getting a lot of people to stop eating meat can be effective if people gradually reduce their meat consumption, instead of pressuring people to immediately stop eating meat.

In the beginning of the documentary, Kateman appears on camera and makes this statement: “One of the reasons why I wanted to make this documentary is I’m confused. I’m a guy who wants to end factory farming. And I start a non-profit organization to make that happen. And so many people seem seriously pissed off about it. There are so many alarms going off from scientific bodies about the problems with our food system—particularly factory farming. And yet, meat consumption continues to climb.”

Factory farming, as opposed to organic farming, puts an emphasis on mass producing animals that can be slaughtered for meat or used for dairy products. Most people have seen photos or videos of these types of farms, which keep the animals in tightly confined, often unsanitary quarters that can only be described as cruel. However, whenever big money is involved, don’t expect there to be immediate changes to the factory farm system when the system is allowed under the law.

That leads anti-factory farming activists to take the approach that the best way to make changes in the system is to reduce consumer demand for meat. That doesn’t mean that the majority of the world will become vegetarians or vegans in a short period of time. But groups such as the Reducetarian Foundation want to educate people on the individual and environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption.

It was a good creative decision to make Kateman appear on camera and share his thoughts and reactions to what he finds out during the making of this documentary. He brings an engaging, likable tone to the film that will keep viewers interested. Kateman also reveals some of his own personal stories about how pressure from peer groups and his family (he was raised as a meat eater) affected his diet and nutrition decisions over the years.

Let’s face it: A lot of pro-vegan/vegetarian documentaries use either or both of these off-putting approaches: scare tactics with a lot of gruesome slaughterhouse footage or academic/scientific lectures with a lot of dull talking heads. Thankfully, “Meat Me Halfway” takes neither approach, which makes this documentary very accessible and relatable to everyone, regardless if you eat meat or not. The movie also makes excellent use of animation to illustrate many of the facts and figures mentioned in interviews.

“Meat Me Halfway” doesn’t shame people who eat meat but gives valuable information to anyone who might want to choose to reduce or stop their meat intake. There have already been many documentaries that go into the scientific details about the direct ties to meat consumption, carbon emissions and global warming/climate change. “Meat Me Halfway” quickly reiterates these scientific findings, but climate change not the main focus of the film.

Bill McKibben, a Schumann distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College in Connecticut, comments: “A fight is on to see not if we can stop global warming—at this point, it’s too late for that—but to see if we can stop it short of the point where it takes out the kinds of civilizations we’re used ot having.”

Dr. Marion Nestle—who is a Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University—thinks it’s kind of outrageous that in this day and age, when it’s been proven that diet is directly linked to health that this outdated practice is still going on: “Doctors are not taught nutrition in medical school.” She also believes that when it comes to the U.S, food industry, any system that benefits corporations the most will be the hardest to change.

Nestle also asks this question that she thinks animal-rights and nutrition activists need to answer in order to better communicate their agendas to the general public: “Who [in the business world] would benefit if people ate more heathily?” Nestle describes herself in the documentary as a responsible meat eater and someone who is in a “privileged position” to be able to seek out and buy food that didn’t come from a farm factory. She acknowledges that not everyone has those privileges, usually for socioeconomic or location reasons.

Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, believes that U.S. culture runs on an unholy alliance that was made between the corporate manufactured food industry and Big Pharma. After all, if people are more likely to be unhealthy from eating mass-produced food, the pharmaceutical drug companies benefit from all the prescription medication that they can sell. It’s cycle that’s extremely difficult to break when billions of dollars are at stake.

“Meat Me Halfway” also includes a brief exploration of the history of human food consumption. Experts who are interviewed say that meat eating has always been part of human history, but that today’s humans eat more meat that humans in ancient times simply because mass production of meat has made it more accessible than ever before. Experts such as journalist Maryn McKenna point out that the mass production of food on factory farms also coincided with the rise of anti-biotics use on farm animals to get the animals to become have “more meat on their bones” and less likely to get sick.

Other academics interviewed in the documentary include Dr. Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London; Dr. James McWilliams, professor of history at Texas State University; and Dr. Paul Freedman, Chester P. Tripp professor fo history at Yale University; Authors and journalists who weigh in with their thoughts include “Meathooked” author Marta Zaraska, journalist/food historian Bee Wilson and journalist Mark Bittman.

Several animal-rights activists are interviewed in “Meat Me Halfway,” such as Toronto Pig Save founder Anita Krajnc, Animal Outlook executive director Erica Meier, Beyond Carnism president Dr. Melanie Joy and Farm Sanctuary president/co-founder Gene Bauer. Among the people who advocate for animal welfare, there are those who believe that meat eating and meat sales can’t be realistically eliminated, so they instead are pushing for better treatment of animals that are raised to be sold as meat. Meanwhile, others think that meat eating is never ethical and should be stopped completely.

Meier says, “Supporting any level of slaughter is wrong.” During Kateman’s interview with Krajnc, he asks her if she thinks it’s acceptable for people to decide to gradually stop eating meat, on their own terms. She replies, “I don’t think it’s an acceptable premise to say one should eat less meat. When we go to slaughterhouses and see the animal victims, every individual matters.”

Krajnc then invites Kateman to a protest gathering that takes place at a Farmer John slaughterhouse in Los Angeles. The purpose of the gathering is to line the streets with animal rights activists, as the pigs are being transported in trucks to the slaughterhouse, and spray water into the thristy pigs’ snouts and mouths, to give the pigs some comfort before they’re killed. The activists do not do anything illegal, such as block traffic, but they sometimes carry signs to show their condemnation of slaughtering animals.

Kateman expresses trepidation at first about going to this activist gathering, because he doesn’t think he wants to experience what he knows will be disturbing sights, sounds and smells of pigs being forced to die. But he ends up going anyway, and it’s an extremely emotional experience for him. He’s moved to tears. The movie includes the sounds of pigs squealing in horror as they are driven into the slaughterhouse.

Kateman said was most painful to him was to make eye contact with a pig inside one of the trucks, and he felt the pain and fear that the pig was experiencing. He also expresses disgust at the slaughterhouse’s outside wall mural paintings , which depict pigs frolicking on a farm, as if Farmer John is a happy and peaceful place for pigs. Kateman says these murals make a hypocritical mockery of what goes on inside the slaughterhouse.

However, the documentary includes the perspectives of people who are trying to make the meat industry more humane in how it treats animals who will inevitably killed for meat. These advocates want better living conditions for animals and less painful ways for the animals to die. One of those people is Daisy Freund, ASPCA director of farm and animal welfare, who monitors farms and gives them ratings based on how well these farms treat animals.

Freund recommends to Kateman that he visit White Oak Pastures, a non-factory farm in Bluffton, Georgia, because White Oak Pastures has received among the highest ratings in the U.S. for its humane treatment of farm animals that are raised for future meat consumption. White Oaks Pastures owner Will Harris III, with his Southern drawl and wry sense of humor, is one of the more memorable personalities in this documentary.

Harris gives Kateman a tour of White Oak Pastures and allows the documentary cameras to record anything except the actual slaughter of animals. Harris explains that what sets his farm apart from most other farms is that the animals are not confined into tight spaces and are instead allowed to roam in their natural habitats. “Animals need to express instinctive behavior,” Harris says,

In addition, Harris says that White Oak Pastures has its own slaughterhouse on the property, so that the animals raised on the farm won’t be transported in a truck for long distances. The documentary has footage in the slaughterhouse of dead animals (such as cows and chickens) being skinned and gutted. Harris says that White Oak Pastures uses a heart electrode device to paralyze and kill the animals, and he claims scientists have told him the animals experience quick and painless deaths using this method.

“Meat Me Halfway” clearly endorses the idea that people should be eating more plant-based food instead of meat. It also responsibly acknowledges that the types of food that people have access to are usually determined by socioeconomic status and location. And that often means that low-income areas (especially those populated by people of color) are frequently at a disadvantage.

One of the people who talks about this problem is Eric Adams, who was president of New York City’s Brooklyn borough at the time he was interviewed, but he has since gone on to become the Democratic nominee and widely predicted winner of the 2021 New York City mayoral race. Adams comments, “I believe, depending on where you live, your zip code determines the quality of fruits and vegetables you’re going to receive. Far too many quality stores and supermarkets really don’t believe that inner city communities will like that quality of food.”

Of course, it’s a myth that lower-income people don’t want quality food. It’s just that the closest food stores to them might not have the high-quality food stores that are more in abundance in higher-income areas. Olympia Auset, founder of the mobile grocery seller Süpermarkt that services low-income neighborhoods, is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. She says she’s seen first-hand how low-income people are often deprived of getting fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, because many of her customers tell her how far out of the way they would have to travel to get this type of produce that’s easily available in other neighborhoods.

One of the reasons why the mass-produced meat industry is such a juggernaut is because food that is mass-produced tends to be less expensive than organic food. Plant-Based Food Association founder Michele Simon comments that the three most powerful deciders in food choices are taste, price and convenience. It’s mentioned multiple times in the documentary that people are more likely to change their eating habits if it will cost them less money. The problem for a lot of people who don’t have the luxury of spending whatever they want on food, healthier food is usually more expensive than less-healthy food.

So what are meat eaters to do if they want to become a vegetarian or vegan but they don’t want to give up the taste of meat or dairy products? That’s why there’s currently a boom in companies that make and sell plant-based food that tastes like meat and dairy products. Several leaders of these companies are interviewed in the documentary, including Beyond Meat founder/CEO Ethan Brown, Miyoko’s Creamery founder/CEO Miyoko Schinner, Clara Foods founder/CEO Arturo Elizondo, New Age Meats founder/CEO Brian Spears and Finless Foods co-founder CEO Michael Selden.

“Meat Me Halfway” also takes viewers inside a few food labs where these vegan foods are crafted and perfected, like food scientists putting together the right healthy ingredients for a recipe. New Age Meats director of biological Dr. Nicholas Legendre says that these foods go through similar testing processes before being put on the market that any other meat and dairy products would have to go through to get FDA approval.

There’s a scene in the movie where Kateman visits Eat Just headquarters in San Francisco and gets to be one of the first people to taste a meatless chicken nugget that the company is testing. Kateman gives this new product his a positive response by saying it really does “taste just like chicken,” Eat Just vice president of product development Chris Jones seems very happy with Kateman’s reaction and says it’s the highest compliment to hear that this meatless “chicken” tastes like real chicken.

Not everyone is a fan of vegan “meat” products. New York University’s Nestle says that she doesn’t really trust what kind of experimental ingrdients could be in these types of products, and that she would rather eat real meat instead. The documentary also mentions that there have been some reports (unverified by any major scientific organization) that making vegan “meat” uses more environmental resources than what it takes to process real meat. These are claims that Beyond Meat’s Brown vehemently denies and says that the opposite is true, at least for his company.

One of the most personal aspects of “Meat Me Halfway” is when Kateman interviews his meat-loving parents Russell Kateman and Linda Kateman at the parents’ home on New York City’s Staten Island. Both parents are skeptical that eating less meat can help the environment. Russell says, “I think it’s a joke.” Linda adds, “We haven’t seen any proof.”

Russell also admits that he’s not very concerned about global warming. “I’m more concerned about the temperature in the house.” Russell and Linda (who are both in their 60s) also say that’ve never heard of avocado toast and they’ve never eaten avocados before in their lives. The documentary includes footage of David serving Russell and Linda some avocado dip with potato chips, and the parents have a lukewarm reaction to the taste of avocado.

About two years later, Russell has undergone a transformation that won’t be detailed in this review, but it’s shown in he documentary. Let’s put it this way: There’s a scene later in the movie of Russell and Linda at a dinner table with plates filled with avocado. That scene looks a little too staged, but the point is that Russell and Linda have become more open about eating more fruits and vegetables, compared to their first interview that was shown in the documentary.

At 80 minutes long, “Meat Me Halfway” is a well-paced and informative film that will give people of any food persuasion a lot to think about what their food choices can be. The movie’s greatest strength is how it includes an admirable variety of perspectives, so that viewers can make up their own minds on the meat-eating debate. The commentators are passionate about what they believe without being overbearing in trying to convince people to agree with them. It’s never easy to do a documentary about the intersections between food, health, environmental issues and animal rights, but “Meat Me Halfway” presents it all in a cohesive manner that can resonate with plenty of viewers of diverse backgrounds and food lifestyles.

1091 Pictures released “Meat Me Halfway” on digital and VOD on July 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World,’ starring Chance the Rapper

August 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chance the Rapper in “Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World” (Photo courtesy of House of Kicks and Park Pictures)

“Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World”

Directed by Jake Schreier 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago on April 8, 2017, the concert documentary “Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World” features a racially diverse group of performers and about 1,500 audience members (mostly white and black, with some Latinos and Asians), who are mostly young people, gathered for a concert by Chance the Rapper.

Culture Clash: Whimsical and carefree childhood themes are on stage, while the song lyrics sometimes address social unrest and drug use. 

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Chance the Rapper fans and people who like hip-hop, “Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World” will appeal to people who enjoy high-energy concert films that are creative without being too extravagant and over-the-top.

Chance the Rapper in “Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World” (Photo courtesy of House of Kicks and Park Pictures)

On April 18, 2017, Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper held a secret concert in his hometown of Chicago. About 1,500 people were invited to watch him perform songs off of his breakthrough 2016 mixtape album “Coloring Book,” plus other notable tunes. (Based on who’s in the audience, most attendees were under the age of 30.) The result is this concert documentary that doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in its production and staging, but it’s a lively showcase for Chance the Rapper and his charismatic showmanship.

At 64 minutes long, it’s a briskly paced film that’s perfect for people who want a fairly quick dose of Chance the Rapper performing live. However, if the documentary had been 90 minutes or longer, it would have benefited from more behind-the-scenes footage of how this show’s production elements were put together. According to what Chance the Rapper says in the movie, the basic elements of the production happened in just a few weeks. It took a lot longer than a few weeks to plan it though.

In an interview shown before the movie gets to the concert footage, Chance the Rapper says that he had a vision for years to do a show like this—steeped in childhood nostalgia but reflective of who he is as an artist who expresses adult experiences. In keeping with the “Coloring Book”/childhood theme, fans who were invited to the show were transported to the venue in yellow school buses. One of the stage props is a Sunday Candy store.

Before getting to the concert footage, the movie begins with some grainy, archival footage in black and white of Chance the Rapper (whose real name is Chancellor Jonathan Bennett) at age 8 or 9, performing at a talent contest by singing and doing some Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves (including the moonwalk) and being elated when he won the contest. Then there’s a standard montage of people who work with Chance the Rapper talking about how great and visionary he is. It’s fairly predictable commentary that you would expect from people on a celebrity’s payroll.

Tour manager Colleen Mares says that Chance the Rapper becoming a husband and father affected his spirituality in a positive way. Choir director Rachel Robinson echoes those thoughts, by saying, “His musical journey is parallel to his spiritual journey.” Other people who weigh in with their praise include film director Jake Schreier, production designer Michael Apostolos, drummer Greg “Stix” Landfair, sound engineer Jabari “Jack Red” Rayford and choreographers Pause Eddie and Ian Eastwood.

In all, there were about 100 people in the crew who worked on the show, according to what Chance Rapper says in the documentary interview. He says his first thought in deciding to do the concert was: “How do we mic the audience?” He adds that he didn’t want it to be the type of concert film where the audio from the audience was toned down. He wanted the concert to feel fully immersive. “I like creating experiences,” he says.

As an example of how important sound is in enhancing the visual experience, he demonstrates in a kitchen how hearing a running faucet before you walk into a room can affect your anticipation of what to see in the room. And then, the movie shows how perspectives change when you see faucet with running water, but you don’t hear the water. Chance the Rapper is obviously fascinated with the technical aspects of filmmaking, which is why if this documentary has been longer, it definitely needed more behind-the-scenes insight into his decisions for how this concert was staged and filmed. (He’s one of the documentary’s producers.)

Not much in this concert will be surprising to people who saw Chance the Rapper on his “Coloring Book” tour, since this concert was filmed during the tour. At times, there’s a choir on stage. There’s also a string orchestra led by a conductor. For “Same Drugs,” he sings and plays the piano while sitting next to someone dressed as a bird wearing a hippie-like headband. Even though Chance the Rapper has collaborated with many artists, there are no surprise guest apperances in this concert documentary.

Some of the concert highlights include his rousing renditions of “Blessings Part 1” and “Blessings Part 2” with the choir and getting the audience to sing along like it’s a church revival. A more contemplative moment comes with “Summer Friends,” where it’s just Chance the Rapper on stage accompanied by a keyboardist using a vocal effects processor, as they’re bathed in a soft white lighting glow. Other songs performed in the film include “D.R.A.M. Sings Special,” “Everybody’s Something,” “Windows,” “Angels,” “All Night,” “We Go High” and “All We Got.”

The show features high-energy hip-hop backup dancers. And there’s some theatrical acting on stage too, with a set piece constructed like the outside of a nightclub and a bouncer who won’t let hopeful patrons past the security rope. It’s a little corny and better-suited for a Broadway show, but at least it does not take up too much of the concert.

Chance the Rapper is not a highly accomplished dancer (he lets his backup dancers do the flashy dance moves), but he’s very good at commanding the stage. He also excels at connecting with his audience. One of the highlights of the film is toward the end, when he goes down to the audience level in the front row to touch people hands and give them high-fives. He also namechecks Chicago multiple times, and says at one point, “Chicago, thanks so much for all you’ve done for me!”

“Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World” is self-distributed through Chance the Rapper’s House of Kicks company, exclusively at AMC Theatres for a limited time. It’s reportedly the first time that a music artist has self-distributed a film with AMC Theatres. Considering that Chance the Rapper is not touring in 2021 (he’s only scheduled to perform at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in 2021), seeing this documentary in a movie theater will be the closest that most of his fans will have to experiencing a full Chance the Rapper concert with some late 2010s nostalgia of how his shows were back then.

This documentary is not the type of giant concert spectacle that people will be talking about for years. Nor is it extraordinary when it comes to the concert’s production theme, set designs, costume design or choreography. However, it’s very enjoyable to watch, especially for people who are inclined to like hip-hop or at least have an appreciation for music with catchy beats. And it’s a good way for people unfamiliar with Chance the Rapper to get a sense of who he is as an artist on stage.

House of Kicks and Park Pictures released “Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring World” in U.S. cinemas (exclusively in AMC Theatres) on August 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Enemies of the State’ (2021), starring Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart, Gabriella Coleman, Adrian Humphreys, Carrie Daughtrey, Brett Kniss and Larry Butkowsky

August 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

A 1990s family photo of Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart and Matt DeHart in “Enemies of the State” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Enemies of the State” (2021)

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the U.S. and Canada, the true crime documentary “Enemies of the State” features an all-white group of people discussing the controversial case of computer hacker Matt DeHart, an American who became a fugitive of the law with his parents Paul and Leann DeHart when they defied his house arrest and they all fled to Canada.

Culture Clash: Matt DeHart was accused of luring underage teenage boys into creating child pornography, but Matt and his parents claim that Matt is not guilty of these charges, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy to prevent Matt from going public about dangerous secrets he uncovered about the U.S. government.

Culture Audience: “Enemies of the State” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about international fugitives or government conspiracy theories and don’t mind if there are no easy solutions presented at the end of the movie.

Re-enactment actors Christopher Clark, Joel Widman and Suzanne Pratley in “Enemies of the State” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The documentary “Enemies of the State” comes across as a compilation of interviews and re-enactments rather than an investigation that reaches a firm judgment about what really happened in a case involving numerous accusations. People who don’t mind open-ended conclusions to a movie will probably like this documentary more than people who expect mysteries to be solved by the end of the film. The movie keeps viewers guessing on who’s really telling the truth.

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, “Enemies of the State” does a fairly good job of presenting various perspectives of a complicated matter. At times, the documentary looks like a TV-movie-of-the week docudrama, because a lot of screen time is devoted to re-enactments with actors. However, the documentary’s subject matter is intriguing enough and presented in clear-enough ways that it will be easy for viewers to determine the angles that the filmmakers chose to take in presenting this story.

Some of the major questions put forth in the documentary are: “Is computer hacker Matt DeHart guilty of treason against the U.S. government?” “What classified government information did he uncover?” “Is he a patriot or a traitor for wanting to reveal this information?” “And how credible is he when he’s been accused of being involved in child pornography?”

Here are the known facts that all of the involved parties agree are true: Matt DeHart (who was born in 1984) was part of the computer hacking movement called Anonymous, consisting of people who work covertly to expose corruption secrets of authorities. In 2008, Matt enlisted in the U.S. National Guard, where he was an intelligence analyst whose job included working in the National Guard’s drone unit.

In 2009, Matt was honorably discharged from the National Guard, due to his issues with depression. In January 2010, the DeHart home in Newburgh, Indiana—where Matt lived with his parents Paul DeHart and Leann DeHart—was raided on a warrant to search for child pornography that Matt was accused of soliciting from underage teen boys whom he met online. No child porn was found during this raid.

Shortly after this raid, Matt and Paul went to the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., to seek asylum, but their request was denied. They made a similar request to the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., and were also turned down. In April 2010, Matt moved to Canada to become a college student. He first lived in Montreal and then moved to Prince Edward Island. He applied for a student visa at the U.S. border and was taken into custody by FBI agents.

Matt was kept in custody in Bangor, Maine, until he was transferred to Tennessee, where was jailed for 21 months. In May 2012, he was released but kept under house arrest and living with his parents in Newburgh. On April 13, 2013, Matt and his parents were in Deerhart, Indiana, when they secretly left the U.S. and fled to Canada.

Matt was deported back to the U.S. in March 2015. He pleaded guilty to child porn charges in November 2015, and received a 72-month prison sentence in February 2016. Matt was released from prison in November 2019.

Here’s where things start to get murky and where people’s stories conflict: According to Paul and Leann (who are interviewed in this documentary), Matt was drugged and tortured by the FBI when he was first arrested in 2010. The DeHarts say that Matt was targeted because he had uncovered some bombshell information about the U.S. government, and the government was afraid that Matt would make the information public through his Anonymous activities. Leann says that Matt also had ties to Wikileaks, as has been widely reported. According to captioned statements in the film, representatives for the FBI and the U.S. National Guard declined to participate in the documentary.

Matt’s parents also claim that shortly after their home was raided in 2010, Matt went to Mexico, where he gave a valuable flash drive with a lot of the classified information to an unidentified friend from the United Kingdom. Matt and his parents have refused to publicly say who this mystery friend is. Some people who know about Matt’s story believe this person exists, while others believe that the friend is a complete fabrication.

Leann claims that Matt asked her to look at the classified files that he uncovered, as a safety precaution, in case anything happened to him. She breaks down in tears when she says that what she saw convinced her that Matt was a target because of the dangerous information that Matt discovered about the U.S. government. In the documentary, the most scandalous thing that Leann talks about is that she found out from the classified files that the anthrax poison attacks of 2001 were “perpetuated by the CIA, in order to drum up support for [George W.] Bush for the Iraq War” and that the CIA’s involvement was “covered up by the FBI.”

Viewers won’t get to see Matt being interviewed for this documentary. It’s not revealed until the end of the film that he agreed to be interviewed on camera, but he never showed up for the interview. Therefore, his parents do all the talking for him in this documentary. And it’s clear that Paul and Leann will do anything for their only child.

Paul and Leann are both veterans of the U.S. military, which they say makes their current disllusionment with the U.S. government so devastating to them. Paul was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force, while Leann was an electronic warfare voice intercept operator in the U.S. Army. In other words, these parents have first-hand knowledge of how U.S. government surveillance works in the U.S. military.

Leann says that when she and her husband asked Matt if the child porn charges were true, he vehemently denied it, and the parents say they believe him to this day because of what they say they know the U.S. government is capable of doing. Leann gives her thoughts in the documentary about what she says is the U.S. government’s persecution of Matt: “We decided as a family that we were going to fight this as a family. Little did we know it was a mistake.”

And she has this to say about the U.S. legal system, which she says has victimized her, Paul and Matt: “The truth does not matter.” During an interview in the DeHart home, Leann says that they decided to live as recluses in a secluded area. She confesses that she feels paranoid every time she sees a heliciopter, plane, car or strangers walking near their property because she thinks it could be the government spying on them.

Paul and Leann sound like upstanding American citizens, right? Not according to Michael Terry, a former attorney representing Matt. Terry went from being an ally of the DeHart family to being an outspoken critic. In the documentary, Terry says that he and the private investigator he hired could find no evidence to support the DeHarts’ conspiracy claims. Terry says that he now believes that Paul lied about the government conspiracy as a way to distract people from Matt’s child porn charges.

Terry gives a damning interview by essentially saying that Paul is mentally unstable and dangerous. Terry also comments that he became alarmed by Paul and Leann’s “control over Matt’s decisions.” One of the last straws for Terry, which led him to quit working with the DeHarts, was when he says that during a meeting, Paul began babbling to him about seeing the windows in the room vibrate at that moment. According to Terry, Paul tried to convince Terry that the U.S. government was causing the windows to vibrate because the government was spying on them.

As for the child pornography charges, the law enforcement officials interviewed in the documentary present compelling evidence (text messages, email and phone recordings) to show that Matt solicited nude and other sexually explicit photos and videos from two underage teenage boys whom he sought out online. (The photos and videos are not shown in the documentary.) Paul and Leann don’t deny that this evidence exists, but they say that Matt only pleaded guilty because he was pressured to take a plea deal by the prosecution.

The Middle District of Tennessee’s U.S. Assistant Attorney Carrie Daughtrey, one of the prosecutors in the child porn case against Matt, says that Matt used a false online persona of being a teenage girl to get the teen boys to masturbate on camera. The evidence uncovered also showed that Matt used another fake persona with the underage teens who were part of the child porn case: Matt pretended to be a mobster’s son and used that lie to intimidate his victims into not telling authorities about the illegal sexually explicit contact that Matt had with them.

Brett Kniss, a former police detective for the police department of Franklin, Tennessee, says that the real victims in the Matt DeHart case are those whom Matt manipulated into making child porn, as well as their families. (None of these witnesses is interviewed in the documentary.) Kniss was directly involved in the child porn investigation, and he doesn’t mince words when he says that what Matt did was despicable. Kniss also says the investigation uncovered a third underage teenager to be an alleged victim, but Kniss says this accuser was afraid to get involved in the case by making a formal complaint.

Kniss doesn’t really comment directly on the DeHarts’ government conspiracy theory. However, Kniss does want people watching the documentary to know that Matt initially denied having anything do with child porn but pleaded guilty after he found out about all the evidence against him. In other words, Kniss believes that if Matt could lie about being involved in child porn, then he could lie about anything else.

The DeHarts have their share of supporters who are outraged because they think Matt was set up by the U.S. government on the child porn charges, in order to silence Matt over what he knows about the U.S. government. The supporters consider Matt to be a “hacktivist,” a term used for computer hackers with activist intentions. Many people consider Anonymous and Wikileaks to be part of this “hactivist” movement.

One of Matt’s supporters is Larry Butkowsky, who is the DeHart family’s immigration lawyer. In the documentary, Butkowsky essentially repeats a lot of the claims that Paul and Leann make. Also interviewed in the documentary are DeHart family supporters such as Matt’s former psychotherapist Ralph Nichols; Lily Tekle, who was Matt’s immigration attorney in Canada; Matt’s former criminal defense attorneys Mark Scruggs and Tor Ekeland.

Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University instructor who is an expert on Anonymous, says in the documentary she’s inclined to be on Matt’s side because she believes he found out information that the U.S. government wants to be kept from the public. Coleman says that she first heard about Matt when he contacted her in 2009 to claim that he had secret CIA information. Coleman comments that uncovering classified government information “was the main reason why the government went after hackers and hactivists who were part of Anonymous.”

The documentary also interviews DeHart family friends such as Jonathan Barrier, Josh Weinstein and Michon Hemenway, who is Barrier’s mother. Because the DeHarts were a military family, they moved around a lot during Matt’s childhood and teen years. Barrier and Weinstein knew Matt when they attended the same high school (in Indiana for Barrier, in New Jersey for Weinstein), and they both describe Matt as an eccentric computer geek who had a rebellious streak and a sense of grandiosity about himself.

Weinstein says that when Matt ran for the school’s student-body president, he “hired” two friends to pretend to be his bodyguards during the campaign. Matt would act like a real government official who needed to be protected. And when Matt lost the election, he put dead fish in one of the school’s main vents, so that the stink of the fish would permeate on campus.

Hemenway compares Matt to the smarmy Eddie Haskell character from the classic “Leave It to Beaver” comedy series. Eddie Haskell was a troublemaker and a bully, but he put on a smooth-talking polite persona to authority figures, in order to fool them. Hemenway says of Matt: “He can talk himself into any situation, good or bad. He can talk himself out of any situation.”

While in high school, Matt formed a computer hacker club called KAOS (an acronym for Kaos Anti-Security Operations Syndicate), which was an early indication that he would become immersed in the hacker community. In the documentary, his parents say that although they never really encouraged Matt’s computer hacking activities, they didn’t discourage it either. “We raised him to think critically,” says Paul. “We raised him to be free.”

Based on these interviews in the documentary, what emerges is a portrait of the DeHarts as a family that gave only child Matt a lot of leeway in pursuing his interests, even if those interests could get him in trouble. Paul and Leann DeHart essentially think of Matt as a good, misunderstood son with some mental health issues made worse by torture from the U.S. government. And because Paul and Leann went on the run to Canada with Matt, resulting in all three of them becoming fugitives, it shows how far these parents are willing to go to protect him.

Other people interviewed in the documentary don’t really take sides but comment on what they’ve observed in this case. Investigative journalist Adrian Humphreys wrote about Matt’s case extensively for the National Post in Canada. Humphreys says that when he began the investigation, “I didn’t realize at that point how bizarre and twisting and turning and complicated the story would really be.” Carmen Mullholland, a former nurse at Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, Maine, says in the documentary that she witnessed Matt being incoherent and unsteady on his feet while was in custody, but she denies stories that Matt was given Thorazine when he was in that jail.

The documentary’s re-enactment footage is a bit of a distraction and used more than it should be, for the sake of creating melodrama. For example, when Paul describes seeing Matt in prison, curled up in a fetal position and twitching on the floor, there’s a re-enactment of that. The actors portraying the DeHarts are Joel Widman as Matt, Christopher Clark as Paul and Suzanne Pratley as Leann, who are mostly silent in the re-enactments. But when the actors are supposed to speak in certain scenes, their voices are dubbed over with audio recordings of the real Matt, Paul and Leann DeHart. That’s what happens in re-enactment scenes depicting the DeHarts’ 2014 immigration hearings in Canada.

There’s a lot of people who feel strongly about either side of this complicated case. The documentary doesn’t advocate for one side or another, but it does show how Matt’s child porn legal issues and his government conspiracy issues can be thought of as intertwined or separate, depending on who’s being interviewed. Is he telling the truth about one or the other issue, both issues, or neither issue? “Enemies of the State” is the type of documentary that lets viewers make up their own minds.

IFC Films released “Enemies of the State” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Val,’ starring Val Kilmer

August 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Val Kilmer in “Val” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and A24 Distribution)

“Val”

Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in various parts of the world, the documentary film “Val” features an all-white group of people, including actor Val Kilmer, talking about his life, career and legacy.

Culture Clash: Kilmer opens up about his throat cancer, his reputation for being a “difficult” and “eccentric” actor, and conflicts he’s had in his career and personal life.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Val Kilmer fans, “Val” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction movies about people with cancer and mainstream movies from the 1980s and 1990s.

Jack Kilmer in “Val” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and A24 Distribution)

When actor Val Kilmer made his feature-film debut in the 1984 comedy “Top Secret!,” he probably never imagined that his best movie would be an emotionally moving documentary where he looks back on his life while battling throat cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and he now has to use a voice device to speak. The cancer might have robbed Kilmer of the speaking voice that he used to have, but it hasn’t robbed him of his spirit. The documentary “Val” (directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo) beautifully captures that spirit of this admittedly very flawed human being.

It’s refreshing that the documentary “Val” isn’t like most celebrity documentaries, which are usually filled with interviews of people praising the celebrity and padded with footage that’s already been widely seen by the celebrity’s fans. “Val” is told in Val Kilmer’s own words, with his son Jack Kilmer (who is also an actor) providing much of the voiceover narration. It’s essentially an intriguing movie version of his 2020 autobiography “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir.”

The “Val” documentary also greatly benefits from all the personal archives that Val (who was born on December 31, 1959) admits he has been obsessively compiling from a very young age. Long before social media existed, he was filming himself and his experiences as much as possible. In the beginning of the documentary, he gives a brief tour of the warehouse-sized storage that he has for all the film footage, recordings, photos, scrapbooks and other personal memorabilia that he has amassed. So much of this footage is in the documentary that Val is credited with being a cinematographer for this movie.

Therefore, many of the highlights of “Val” include previously unreleased footage that can be raw, hilarious or sometimes uncomfortable to watch—but never boring. People who watch “Val” can see moments where his fixation on filming his experiences sometimes annoyed people around him. It’s an indication of how this documentary is a lot more honest than most documentaries would be about how a celebrity’s need to be filmed as much as possible can get very negative reactions from people close to the celebrity.

Val comments in the documentary through Jack’s voiceover narration: “I’ve lived a magical life. I have thousands of hours of videotapes and reels I’ve shot of my life and career. I’ve kept everything, and it’s been sitting in boxes for years … I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time. Now that it’s more difficult to speak, I want to tell my story now more than ever—a story about my life that is also not my life.” Val then says of his life story in his own voice (which became impaired do to caner radiation treatments), “I know it’s incomplete.”

The documentary opens with some of this personal behind-the-scenes footage of Val on the set of 1986’s “Top Gun.” In this action flick about hotshot aviators in the U.S. Navy, he co-starred along Tom Cruise, with Val in the role of antagonist Tom “Iceman” Kazansky. “Top Gun” was Val’s third movie and his first big blockbuster. To this day, much of the memorabilia that he’s asked to autograph is for “Top Gun.”

In the behind-the-scenes footage, Val is shown goofing around in a film-set trailer with “Top Gun” co-star Rick Rossovich. Val holds up a cigarette pack up to his ear like someone would hold a phone to place an order. Val says, “More sex, more drugs, more wine, more headaches, more ulcers, more herpes, more women. And less of Tom Cruise!”

It’s an example of Val’s offbeat sense of humor. Val says in the documentary that although he and Cruise had a real rivalry on the set of “Top Gun,” to mirror the rivalry that their characters had in the movie, they actually became friends in real life. Val says he still has a cordial relationship with Cruise. He also comments that he wasn’t a fan of the “war-mongering” aspect of “Top Gun,” but he appreciates that people enjoyed the movie. Val also jokes in this behind-the-scenes “Top Gun” footage that he’s been fired from every movie he’s ever done.

All joking aside, Val opens up about a tragedy that had a profound impact on him: the death of his beloved younger brother Wesley. Val is the middle of three sons of industrialist/real-estate developer Eugene and Gladys Kilmer, who got divorced when he was 8 years old. The three children (Val, his older brother Mark and younger brother Wesley) were raised in a comfortably upper-middle-class household in Chatsworth, California, where his high school classmates included future famous actors Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham. The Kilmer kids also had a charmed life at that time, which included living in a home that used to be owned by Roy Rogers, one of Val’s early idols.

Val describes his father as a business wheeler dealer, who owned a company called Liberty Engineering, and who used his power and influence to get full custody of his kids in the divorce. Val says his mother Gladys was “a spiritual woman who loved horses,” “an enigma” and “strong but aloof.” She eventually remarried and moved to Arizona. The three Kilmer brothers had a passion for filmmaking from an early age and spent a lot of time making short films together. There’s footage of one of those childhood short films called “Teeth,” which is about a killer shark.

Val says that Wesley was an aspiring film director and “an artistic genius whose imagination dwarfed mine.” In addition to acting in homemade short films, Val got involved in acting in school plays. And he was thrilled when, at age 17, he got accepted into the Juilliard School, a prestigious artistic university in New York City. Val claims he was the youngest people to be enrolled as a Juilliard student at the time. (The documentary has no verification from Juilliard to determine that this claim is true.)

While at Juilliard, Val says that he and other students helped create a playwright department because the school didn’t have one at the time. He collaborated with other students to stage the play “How It All Began,” based on German terrorist Michael Baumann’s memoir. He says, “I experienced the joy of performing my own words on stage. It was life-changing.” The play was so good that the students were invited to perform it on a real New York stage with paying customers, not just within the confines of the school.

The documentary includes new footage of Val taking his son Jack to Juilliard to show him around the school. Val points to an oversized photo of one of Juilliard’s former students, and asks Jack if he knows who that person is. Jack says no, and Val says it’s Kelly McGillis, who was one of the co-stars of “Top Gun.” In another part of the movie, Val says he and McGillis became good pals while filming “Top Gun,” partly because of their Juilliard connection.

While in his first year at Juilliard, Val got devastating news: Wesley died of an epileptic seizure while in a jacuzzi. He was 15 years old. As he says in the documentary, “My confidant disappeared into dust. Our family was never the same.” He also describes “being raw with grief” during his first year at Juilliard. And he says that his father Eugene became “a detached and vacant version of himself.”

After graduation, Val went on to do some work in New York theater. In 1983, two years after graduating from Juilliard, he had his first big Broadway break with a starring role in the play “Slab Boys.” In a self-deprecating tone, he talks about getting bumped from the play’s first-lead role to the third-lead role, after Sean Penn became available for the first-lead role, and Kevin Bacon got the second-lead role. There’s backstage footage of all of these future famous actors goofing around in a dressing room during their “Slab Boys” experience.

There’s also footage of Val getting lectured by acting coach Peter Kass during a rehearsal where Val was asked to tap into emotions of wanting to die, and Val says he’s never really felt those emotions. Kass gets irritated and shouts at Val in front of the group that everyone has had those feelings, but some actors are more honest about it than others. “There’s no way you’ve never had those thoughts!” Kass bellows.

Kilmer might have lost out on the starring role in “Slab Boys,” but he got a starring role in the action comedy “Top Secret!,” his first feature film. It was a spy caper with a plot that he calls silly and confusing. He filmed the movie in London, where by chance he saw a play called “The Genius,” directed by future Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle.

Co-starring in “The Genius” was a British actress named Joanne Whalley, whom Val says he became infatuated with at first sight because of her beauty and talent. He quips in the documentary, “She was brilliant, and I was making fluff.” Val says that he went back to see the play several times because of Whalley. And he even followed her to a pub after one of the shows, but he was too shy to approach her.

She and Val didn’t meet until years later, when they ended up co-starring together on the 1988 fantasy film “Willow.” They got married in 1988. Their daughter Mercedes was born in 1991, and Jack arrived in 1995. The couple relocated to New Mexico (the home state of Val’s paternal grandfather) and got divorced in 1996.

The former couple went through a contentious custody battle because Val wanted to stay in New Mexico, while Whalley wanted to raise the kids in California. The documentary includes an audio recording of Val having a heated phone conversation with her about their custody arrangement. (Only his voice is heard, not hers.)

There’s some family footage from happier times, including Val’s wedding and home videos of him being a doting father when the kids were young. Val also doesn’t shy away from talking about the bad times, such as when he lost a lot of money from shady business deals that his father got Val mixed up in after Val became a movie star in the 1980s. Val says that he had the choice to either sue his father or just pay off his father’s debts, and he chose to pay off the debts.

Whatever pain was caused by Val’s divorce, his children certainly have a good relationship with him now. He lights up every time he’s around them. And in one of the movie’s more poignant moments, Val, his ex-wife and their kids are shown as they gather in Arizona for the funeral of Val’s mother, who died in 2019. It’s the part of the movie where Val seems to be the most vulnerable. He puts on one of her necklaces, and he tears up when he says, “I miss my mama, but I had a vision that she was so happy with her youngest son.”

“Val” also has some insightful footage about some of his experiences in his more famous movies. Many of his fans already know that he used Method acting to immerse himself in the role of rock singer/poet Jim Morrison for 1991’s “The Doors,” directed by Oliver Stone. There’s some behind-the-scenes footage of him rehearsing in character as Morrison. He admits in the documentary that making “The Doors” was an all-consuming process that was very difficult on his marriage: “For my wife, Joanne, it was total hell. Home was just another place [for me] to rehearse.”

“The Doors” movie got mixed reactions from critics and audiences, but almost everyone agreed that Val’s uncannily accurate portrayal of Morrison was the best thing about “The Doors.” (Val did his own singing in the movie.) Although he’s never been nominated for an Oscar for his acting, his highly praised performance in “The Doors” was the closest that he came to getting an Oscar nomination. In several interviews over the years, Val has said that out of all of his movie roles, his portrayal of Jim Morrison was the one that personally affected him the most.

For his starring role in 1995’s “Batman Forever,” he hated the heaviness of the Batman suit because it limited his movements and ability to hear. He says in the documentary, “It was a struggle for me to get a performance past the suit, until I realized my role in the film was just to show up and stand where I was told to.” Ironically, Val says that when he got the call to do the movie, he was in a bat cave in Africa. Who really knows if that’s true? But it makes a great anecdote.

Even though “Batman Forever” was a massive hit and he was offered millions to do a follow-up “Batman” movie, he declined the offer and chose instead to do the 1997 spy film “The Saint,” because he got to play a character who had different personas like a chameleon. And it seems Val dodged a bullet by doing that next “Batman” movie, because it was 1997’s much-ridiculed “Batman and Robin,” starring George Clooney as Batman. (The documentary includes some satirical home video footage of a present-day Val and his son Jack dressed as Batman and Robin, respectively.)

At times in the documentary, Val acknowledges that his reputation for being a “difficult” actor was probably accurate. “I’ve behaved poorly, and I’ve behaved bravely,” he says. However, from watching this documentary, you get the feeling that Val has no overall regrets about his career choices because he feels lucky that he’s had a lot of great experiences and got to work with many of his actor idols. He describes the day that he finished shooting “Batman Forever,” he walked onto the set of his next movie: 1995’s crime drama “Heat,” directed by Michael Mann and co-starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. “‘Heat’ felt like an indie film,” Val remembers.

Val also got to work with Marlon Brando, perhaps his biggest actor idol, in a movie that had a much more tortuous production: 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which was a massive flop. Tensions were already running high because the movie’s original director (Richard Stanley) was fired, and replacement director John Frankenheimer did not endear himself to many people in the cast and crew. Two of the principal actors (Bruce Willis and Rob Morrow) quit the movie. Val was the replacement for Willis as the Dr. Montgomery character. Val calls the “The Island of Dr. Moreau” a “doomed” movie. And it also has bad memories for him because he got served divorce papers on the film set.

Behind the scenes, Val and Frankenheimer clashed on the set. (The movie includes footage of some of their arguing.) The way Val describes it, Frankenheimer didn’t really know how to direct the movie, and the director was more concerned about rushing to finish the over-budget movie than the quality of the film. Val also says that Frankenheimer made the mistake of alienating Brando by not listening to any of Brando’s suggestions.

Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes footage shows that Val insisted that he could only act in a scene if he was in the right frame of mind. Frankenheimer was also clearly irritated by Val filming this behind-the-scenes footage, which includes Frankenheimer ordering Val to turn off the camera, and Val ignoring the request, which caused Frankenheimer to get even angrier. In other behind-the-scenes footage on the film set, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” co-stars David Thewlis and Fairuza Balk look like they know they’re stuck in a disastrous movie and are trying to make the best out of a horrible situation.

A laugh-out-loud moment in the documentary is some footage revealing that things got so bad during filming of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” that Brando refused to come to work on some days, so they got his body double named Norm to film some of Brando’s scenes. Brando’s Dr. Moreau character wore heavy white makeup, so it was possible to disguise that it really wasn’t Brando in the scene where the character wasn’t required to speak. (It probably wasn’t funny at the time, but it’s funny to look at now.) A priceless moment in the documentary is footage of Val sneaking up on Brando, who’s resting in a hammock at night, and Val pushes the hammock like someone would push a child on a swing.

Not all of the documentary is about showing Val’s life at the height of his career. There’s also footage of a post-cancer Val attending fan conventions, which he says he needs to do to supplement his income. He makes money at these events by meet-and-greet sessions, where fans pay to get his autograph and get photos with him. At a tribute event in Texas for Val and his 1993 film “Tombstone,” Val has a moment alone where he looks sad and makes a confession.

Val says, “Sometimes I have the blues about having to fly around the country. I don’t look great, and I’m basically selling my old self, my old career. For many people, it’s the worst thing you can do … But it allows me to meet my fans. What ends up happening is I feel really grateful rather than humiliated, because there are so many people.”

Before his voice was impaired by cancer, Val was able to fulfill his dream of portraying Mark Twain (one of his artistic idols) on stage. In order to pay off his debts and get the money for the play, he sold 6,000 acres of land that he owned in New Mexico and that he had hoped would be part of his legacy to his children. He spent years writing the one-man play “Citizen Twain,” which went to several U.S. cities and probably would have continued as a touring production if Val hadn’t had gotten cancer.

Val seems to have taken his health condition in stride and wants to make the most out of the time that he has left on this earth. The documentary mentions that after his cancer diagnosis, he founded HelMel Studios a Los Angeles-based gathering space for artists. And one of the most memorable things he says in the documentary perhaps best sums up why his life story can resonate with so many people: “I don’t believe in death. And my whole life, I’ve tried to see the world as one piece of life. When you pull back from the planet, you see that we are all one life source.”

Amazon Studios and A24 Distribution released “Val” in select U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021. The movie’s premiere on Amazon Prime Video is on August 6, 2021.

Review: ‘The Body Fights Back,’ starring Josephine Morondiya, Imogen Fox, Rory Brown, Hannah Webb and Michaela Ginghell

August 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Attendees of The Real Catwalk, a “flash mob” event promoting body positivity in London in 2019, in “The Body Fights Back” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Body Fights Back”

Directed by Marian Võsumets

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the London area, the documentary film “The Body Fights Back” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Most of the people in the documentary speak out against diet culture, which they say can do psychological and physical harm to people who think being thin is the answer to happiness.

Culture Audience: “The Body Fights Back” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting a sociological context for why diet culture has become so pervasive and what can be done to prevent people from falling into diet culture’s dangerous traps.

Josephine “Mojo” Morondiya in “The Body Fights Back” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary film “The Body Fights Back” is very up front with its agenda: It’s a blistering indictment of the harm caused by diet culture and the diet industry’s responsibility in causing this damage. This movie does not promote obesity or unhealthy eating habits. Instead, it examines what causes people to believe the myth that being thin automatically equals happiness. There’s also considerable discussion about what can be done to foster a culture where people can have more acceptance of various body types for themselves and others.

“The Body Fights Back” is the feature-film debut of Estonian director Marian Võsumets, who chose to focus most of her interviews and other filmed footage on people who live in the London area. The documentary could have benefited from a wider inclusion of people who live in countries outside of the United Kingdom. A few people in the U.S. and Australia are interviewed by videoconference calls, but viewers can assume that the filmmakers had budget constraints that prevented them from traveling around the world to get a truly global and in-person view of this problem. The perspectives voiced in the movie are a fairly good representation of what many people in Western countries experience and think about diet culture.

It’s important to distinguish between “diet culture” and “health and fitness culture.” “The Body Fights Back” is not a criticism of health and fitness culture, which is when people want to take care of their bodies in healthy ways through diet and exercise. By contrast, diet culture promotes the idea that only thin or toned people are healthy and happy, and that in order to achieve a certain level of health and happiness, people need to diet by whatever means necessary.

Diet culture has been sold to people as an aspirational lifestyle, and it has become a gigantic industry that generates billions in profits. Although men and boys can certainly get caught up in diet culture and in wanting to look a certain way, women and girls are more likely to develop the most harmful effects of diet culture—eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Bodybuilding and weight lifting (which can lead to steroid abuse) often overlap with diet culture, since people who are obsessed with having certain muscle tones are usually obsessed with dieting.

The documentary interviews several experts who give their opinions of diet culture, but the movie also puts a spotlight on five individuals (in their 20s or 30s) who have personally experienced the harmful effects of diet culture. These five people are:

  • Rory Brown, a personal fitness trainer who says he developed an eating disorder when he was obsessed with his diet and workout routines.
  • Imogen Fox, who has gone through extreme weight gain and weight loss that have left her with permanent health damage.
  • Michaela Ginghell, who has had lifelong insecurities about being big and tall.
  • Josephine “Mojo” Morondiya, who has been plus-sized all of her life and admits that her past childhood traumas have contributed to her weight issues.
  • Hannah Webb, a recovering anorexic who developed her eating disorder when she was 15.

According to what these five interview subjects talk about in the documentary, they all have something in common: They admit that they had low self-esteem since their childhoods. Some of them have been in therapy over these self-esteem issues, but acceptance of their bodies is still a daily struggle for them.

The general consensus in the documentary is that people with harmful obesity and/or eating disorders need to be treated for psychological issues that are causing these health problems instead of thinking that changing their diets will be enough. Diet culture can take advantage of people who are vulnerable to insecurities about their bodies. And in many cases, the results are disastrous and dangerous to people’s health.

Brown says that when he was a kid, he got constant criticism from certain family members. It spilled over into how he felt about his physical looks, and he began to think, “When I look like this [toned], then I’ll be happy.” He confesses that he became addicted to fitness workouts and weight lifting in his quest to make himself look muscular.

For years, Brown says, he thought of food of being in two categories: “good” or “bad.” And so, he was fanatical about counting the food calories that he would consume. He got into the habit of having grueling workout sessions every day, and then “rewarding” himself about once a week by eating piles of junk food in one sitting.

Brown says that he would often force himself to vomit if he felt like he over-ate. And the binging caused him enough shame that he would over-exert himself in workouts, out of fear of gaining wait from his eating binges. “I started to lose my mind,” he says. He also admits his diet/workout obsession ended up ruining a relationship that he had with a girlfriend.

Brown adds that he didn’t understand until it was almost too late that this vicious cycle of extreme dieting and binging was the very definition of an eating disorder. He credits his recovery to being in therapy. And now, he says that he no longer sets rules for himself on what he can and cannot eat. He also imparts the same philosophy to his clients as a fitness trainer.

Fox was very overweight for most of her life. At one point, she had to use a wheelchair to move around, so she knows what it’s like to experience discrimination as a disabled person. Her eating habits got so damaging that she was hospitalized for lung failure, heart failure and sepsis. She lost such a drastic amount of weight in a short period of time that she now has very wrinkled, sagging skin on her abdomen, arms and legs. She also has a breathing apparatus implanted in her chest. And she says that social gatherings that involve food still give her some anxiety.

In the documentary, Fox says one of the lowest points in her up-and-down weight journey was when she was in the hospital, and a nurse started lecturing Fox while Fox was suffering on the hospital bed. Fox was conscious but unable to respond because of a tube in her mouth. According to Fox, the nurse berated her and shamed her by saying that Fox wouldn’t have been in this situation if she hadn’t been overweight.

Fox says that even though she now has a thin physique, most people wouldn’t know that underneath her clothes, she has sagging skin wrinkles where parts of her body had excessive fat. She comments that people come up to her and tell her that she looks great simply because she’s thin. She says it’s an example of how people have no idea that she has health problems and assume she’s healthy because she’s thin on the outside.

Fox credits her wife with helping her through tough times in this difficult weight journey. Fox says that being in a relationship with her lifetime love partner gave her the motivation not go back to the type of weight that almost killed Fox. “I wanted to transform,” she says of her weight loss to a healthier size.

Ginghell says that being big and tall made her the target of teasing and bullying when she was in school. And she says that when her parents got divorced when she was 8 years old, it deeply affected her. Her father was very strict about what types of food she could eat, while her mother was very lenient. The mixed messages confused her and added to her turmoil about her body weight.

Ginghell comments, “Growing up, I definitely turned to food to escape.” She says she knew her eating habits were becoming a serious issue when her father took her to a dietician. At the time the documentary was filmed, Ginghell says she’s still struggling with being a certain size, but she’s trying to learn not to let herself or other people make her feel bad about it.

Morondiya, who has the liveliest personality of all the interview subjects, believes that almost everyone who has eating disorders or who over-eats is in some kind of emotional pain and is trying to compensate for it by how and what they eat. She includes herself in this profile, because she says she’s a survivor of abuse and has had lifelong issues with low self-esteem.

“My biological mother was really abusive to me and my body,” Morondiya says. “And that’s when I started really hating who I was. She’d always say to me that my face was beautiful and I was really pretty, but it was a shame that my body didn’t match. And hearing that, your mum’s voice becomes your voice. You are the product of your environment.”

Morondiya also opens up about being a survivor of sexual abuse. She says that she was molested by a biological family member when she was an underage child. “That was never really dealt with,” she says of this abuse. “I was told it was my fault. ”

More sexual abuse continued in her life when she was raped at age 13. She got involved in a series of abusive relationships as an adult, which she describes as letting people violate her body because she didn’t respect herself. Morondiya says that she’s still working on her self-esteem, but she’s in a much better place now than she was in the past because she’s learning that she doesn’t need other people’s approval to like herself.

Hannah Webb talks about her harrowing experience being hospitalized for anorexia for several months. Her illness caused her to drop out of school. Her mother Joyce Webb, who’s also interviewed in the documentary, says she still feels guilty for not having noticed earlier that Hannah’s initial weight loss might have been a sign of something more disturbing. Hannah says that she developed an eating disorder around the same time that her father had been diagnosed with throat cancer and she was being teased at school because of how she looked.

Hannah comments that her parents, other family members and her close friends (whom she all describes as loving and supportive) helped save her life because they didn’t give up on her, even though she often wanted to give up on herself. Mother and daughter also talk about how Hannah had a hard time adjusting to recovery at first because food was really a control issue for her, and she angrily resented anyone who told her what to eat.

Kimberly Wilson, a chartered psychologist, explains in the documentary: “Eating disorders are never about food. When something goes wrong with eating, we know there’s something [else] really fundamentally going wrong. That’s why treatments for eating disorders are long and complex and intense.”

While most people with anorexia and bulimia are females who want to be thin, males tend to get eating disorders that are generally related to wanting to be muscular. Scott Griffiths, a body image researcher at Australia’s University of Melbourne, talks about muscle dysmorphia, a psychological affliction (which mostly affects young men) to obsessively want a muscular physique. “It’s not dangerous, per se, but it is debilitating,” Griffiths says. “People who have high levels of anxiety, it can ruin their life. And we see a similar thing with muscle dysmorphia.”

Alan Flanagan, a nutrition researcher at the University of Surrey, has this scathing comment about diet culture: “I think it’s celebrating a disordered behavior in relationship with food. And it’s an attempt to legitimize the behavior by giving it another name. Take the ‘cheat meal’ concept and look at it for what it is. I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s a disordered behavior to engage with, with food.”

The experts in the film say that a big problem with diet culture is that diet plans are mass-produced as a “one size fits all” remedy for everyone. In reality, not everyone can lose weight in the same way and at the same pace, just by buying a so-called “diet remedy.” The fashion, beauty and media industries get a lot of blame in this documentary for perpetuating “ideal” body images and physiques that are unattainable for most people.

In addition, diets are notorious for failing over a long-term basis. People can temporarily lose weight through a diet plan, but it’s harder to stick with that plan for longer periods of time. Jenna Daku, a disordered eating therapist, compares misguided weight-loss plans that consist of extreme dieting and eating binges to being like trying to push a beach ball into the water.

Registered dietitian Pixie Turner and linguist/body image researcher Maxine Ali each comment that diet culture puts pressure on people to be thin because being thin is equated with an image of being more likely to be a “good person.” Turner comments, “Just because dieting is popular doesn’t mean it’s risk-free either.” Nadia Craddock, a body image researcher at the University of the West of England, adds: “The diet industry wouldn’t be as profitable if we didn’t subscribe that being fat is bad.”

There are also socioeconomic and gender issues in diet culture. Women are the majority of target customers for diet culture because in most societies, women are under more pressure than men not to be overweight. People judge women’s weight more harshly than they judge men’s weight, and these judgments have an effect on how people perceive attractiveness and power. If you don’t believe it, think about how many overweight men become leaders of countries, compared to overweight women. Think about how female celebrities are much more likely than male celebrities to get media coverage for how their bodies look.

National Health Service surgical doctor Joshua Wolrich comments, “There is an element of diet culture coming from a patriarchal society where women are told what they should look like. And a lot of the time, it has been from men. And so, I think it’s very appropriate that feminism touches on diet culture and definitely has a role to play in combating it.”

Author/speaker Kelsey Miller says that anti-fat biases extend to many areas of society, including education and the justice system. “It’s much more than ‘I don’t like the way the person looks.’ It really affects all areas of life.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that low-income areas are more likely to have cheap fast-food places that have low-quality food with high fat content, which is why obesity can affect low-income people disproportionately higher than people with higher incomes who can afford healthier diets. Low-income areas are also less likely than higher-income areas to have access to fresh and organic food.

“The Body Fights Back” has interviews with two very different immigrants living in London who are examples of how contrasting perspectives can be, when it comes to “privilege” and how people are treated, based on their physical looks. Tenisha Pascal, who is originally from a Caribbean country that she does not name, says she experienced culture shock when she moved to England at age 17, because of how differently people perceive big women.

“Where I’m [originally] from,” Pascal says, “the thicker you are, the more celebrated you are. Men don’t have a problem with your size. It was very different to transition from the love I had felt for myself as a 17-year-old coming to the U.K. Women, instead of complimenting themselves, would always talk negatively about their bodies … They don’t want to show their curves.” The documentary shows Pascal and Morondiya attending the annual Notting Hill Carnival (a street event for Caribbean culture), which they both say is one of the few public events in London where large-sized women can feel welcome to show off their bodies.

Johannes Schrey, who’s originally from Germany, admits that he has “thin privilege” and that he knows because he is tall man who is not overweight, people automatically see him as an authoritative figure. Schrey comments that his culture shock in moving to London was to see that fast-food places are much more prevalent than in Germany. He also admits that he’s very judgmental when he sees an overweight person eating junk food.

And even though white men hold the vast majority of power and wealth from diet culture and other industries that benefit from diet culture, Schrey doesn’t believe it’s fair to say that white men have a lot of control over weight-related images that affect people’s self-esteem. Schrey comments, “Everybody loves targeting us [white men as villains], but there’s no actual proof of that, no board of white men saying, ‘We need to have these things’ … I’m certainly not part of it.” Dr. Wolrich, who is white, has this counterpoint: “When men say [of sexist patriarchy], ‘It’s not me’ or ‘It’s not all men,” I don’t think that’s helpful.”

Someone like Schrey would like to dismiss the reality that there are no corporate boards of white men who decide what goes in the marketplace of diet culture. But the fact is that white men really are the majority of the corporate boards of companies that make decisions on what are Western standards of “attractiveness,” when it comes to people’s weight. That doesn’t mean that all men on these corporate boards are sexist. However, it’s an issue when the majority of diet culture is aimed at women, and yet women are not the majority who control the companies, media images and decisions on how weight can affect people’s lives.

Think about how women are pressured to lose pregnancy weight as soon as possible after giving birth, and you have an idea of how diet culture tends to negatively affect women a lot more than it negatively affects men. Morondiya admits that at this point in her life, she doesn’t want to have any children, mainly because she’s terrified of any pregnancy weight she might not be able to lose after giving birth. It’s also mentioned in the documentary that social media platforms have made it worse in giving people “physique envy” that puts more pressure on people to fall into diet culture’s traps.

Some grassroots groups are starting to push back against the patriarchal ways that try to dictate how people should feel about their body weight. The documentary includes footage of Health at Every Size, a social justice movement that is aimed at deconstructing the myth that being thin always equals health and happiness. There’s also the Anti-Diet Riot Club, whose founder Rebecca Young Brown is also shown briefly in the film. And the documentary features a 2019 “flash mob” event called The Real Catwalk (founded by Khrystyanna Kazakova) that took place in London’s Trafalgar Square, where dozens of people (many of them scantily clad) gathered to celebrate body positivity and acceptance.

“The Body Fights Back” acknowledges that in the 21st century, some progress has been made in the fashion industry giving more representation to plus-sized people in ads, on runways and in clothing options. However, some fashion brands are still resistant to change and deliberately exclude larger sizes. Several people in the documentary comment that people have the power to vote with their wallets, by being informed about which companies brands have inclusivity values that align with theirs and by supporting those companies accordingly.

“The Body Fights Back” clearly advocates this belief: People who’ve lived with insecurities over their weight don’t need to be body-shamed but should be shown compassion when it comes to weight that can improve their physical and mental health. It’s a much more difficult journey for some than it is for others. And many times, people who lecture others about their weight might not know the entire health history of the people who are on the receiving end of the lecture.

These lectures could be well-meaning, but they could also be doing psychological damage that will cause people to feel even worse about themselves, which could lead to more unhealthy eating. In other words, unless you are that person’s medical doctor, telling someone how they should lose weight can not only be inappropriate but could also do more harm to that person. Weight loss that goes beyond losing a few pounds or a few kilograms should be something that’s a personal decision and should be discussed with an individual’s medical doctor.

“The Body Strikes Back” does a very good job at showing the human side of these personal and often and painfully sensitive issues. Rather than waste time trying to single out any particular diet culture companies that are the most damaging (which might have led the documentary to include information that could easily become outdated), director Võsumets wisely focused on individuals who are pro-actively making improvements in their lives and the lives of others, when it comes to self-esteem and body inclusivity. When people are discriminated against because of their weight, it’s not just an aesthetic issue or health issue. It’s a civil rights issue.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Body Fights Back” on digital and VOD on July 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Ailey,’ starring Alvin Ailey

July 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Ailey”

Directed by Jamila Wignot

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the biographical documentary “Ailey” features a group of white and African American people (and one Asian person) discussing the life and career of pioneering dance troupe founder/choreographer Alvin Ailey, who became one of the first African Americans to launch a world-renowned dance troupe and dance school.

Culture Clash: Ailey, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58, struggled with the idea of going public about his HIV diagnosis, and he experienced problems throughout his life, due to racism, homophobia and his issues with mental illness.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Alvin Ailey fans, “Ailey” will appeal primarily to people who interested in the art of fusion dance and stories about entrepreneurial artists who succeeded despite obstacles being put in their way.

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo by Jack Mitchell)

The documentary “Ailey” is a very traditionally made biography of a very non-traditional artist. Although the movie can be at times be slow-paced and dry, it’s greatly boosted by having modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey as a very fascinating subject. Ardent fans of Ailey will get further insight into his inner thoughts, thanks to the documentary’s previously unreleased audio recordings that he made as a personal journal. The movie also does a very good job at putting into context how Ailey’s influence can be seen in many of today’s dancers and choreographers.

Directed by Jamila Wignot, “Ailey” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. New York City was Ailey’s last hometown, where he found fame as one of the first prominent dancers/choreographers to blend jazz, ballet, theater and Afro-centric culture. His work broke racial barriers in an industry where U.S.-based touring dance troupes were almost exclusively owned and staffed by white people.

Born in the rural town of Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey says in audio recordings that his earliest memories were “being glued to my mother’s hips … while she worked in the fields.” Ailey’s father abandoned the family when Ailey was a baby, so Ailey was raised by his single mother Lula, who was a domestic worker. She supported him in his dream to become a professional dancer.

Ailey’s childhood experiences were shaped by growing up poor in the racially segregated South. In the documentary, he mentions through audio recordings that some of his fondest childhood memories were being at house parties with dancing people and going to the Dew Drop Inn, a famous hotel chain that welcomed people who weren’t allowed in “whites only” hotels and other racially segregated places. Another formative experience in his childhood was being saved from drowning by his good friend Chauncey Green.

By 1942, Ailey and his mother were living in Los Angeles, where she hoped to find better job opportunities in a less racially segregated state. It was in Los Angeles that Ailey first discovered his love of dance and theater, when he became involved in school productions. A life-changing moment happened for him happened at age 15, in 1946, when he saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. It sparked a passion to make dance his career. And that passion never went away, despite all the ups and downs that he encountered.

In the documentary, Ailey has this to say about watching the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for the first time: “I was taken into another realm … And the male dancers were just superb. The jumps, the agility, the sensuality of what they did blew me away … Dance had started to pull at me.”

But his interest in becoming a dancer was considered somewhat dangerous at the time, because ballet dancing was something that boys could be and still are viciously bullied over as something that’s considered “too effeminate.” Carmen de Lavallade, a longtime friend of Ailey’s, comments in the documentary on what she remembers of a young Ailey before he found fame: “He was beautiful! He didn’t dare let anyone know he wanted to be a dancer, because he would be teased or humiliated.”

But at this pivotal moment in Ailey’s life, it just so happened that Lester Horton opened the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles in 1946. Don Martin, a longtime dancer and Ailey friend, says in the documentary that their mutual love of dance prompted Ailey to join Horton’s dance school, where Ailey thrived. Horton became an early mentor to Ailey.

The documentary doesn’t go into great detail over Ailey’s experiences as a student at the University of California at Los Angeles or when he briefly lived in San Francisco, where he worked with then-unknown poet Maya Angelou in a nightclub act called Al and Rita. Instead, the “Ailey” documentary skips right to the 1954, when Ailey moved to New York City to pursue being a professional dancer. In 1958, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), which also has an affiliated school.

George Faison, an AAADT dancer/choreographer from 1966 to 1970, comments: “Alvin entertained thoughts and dreams that a black boy could actually dance” in a prominent dance troupe. Ailey shares his thoughts in his personal audio recordings: “It was a universe I could escape into, so that it would allow me to do anything I wanted to do.”

Ailey’s breakthrough work was 1960’s “Revelations,” which was a then-unprecedented modern ballet about uniquely African American experiences steeped in church traditions. The piece was revolutionary not just because it had a majority-black group of dancers and touched on sensitive racial issues but also because it used blues, jazz and gospel instead of traditional classical music. “Revelations” remains Ailey’s most famous performance work.

Mary Barnett, an AAADT rehearsal director from 1975 to 1979, remembers the impact that “Revelations” had on her: “I was moved to tears seeing ‘Revelations’ … I was studying ballet, I was studying dance. This was more of a re-enactment of life.”

Judith Jamsion—an AAADT dancer from 1964 to 1988 and AAADT artistic director from 1989 to 2011—has this to say about what “Revelations” means to her: “What took me away was the prowess and the technique and the fluidity and the excellence in the dance.” Jamison is often credited with being the person who was perhaps the most instrumental in keeping AAADT alive after Ailey’s death.

A turning point for “Revelations” was when the production went on a U.S.-government sponsored tour of Southeast Asia. It’s one thing to be a privately funded dance troupe. But getting the U.S. government’s seal of approval, especially for a tour that could be viewed as a cultural ambassador for American dance, gave AAADT an extra layer of prestige.

However, “Ailey” does not gloss over the some of the racism that Ailey encountered, including tokenism and cultural appropriation. Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who co-founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, has this to say about what it’s like to be an African American in an industry that is dominated by white people: “Oftentimes, black creators are used. Everybody used him [Ailey] as, ‘See, this is the progress we’re making. And see, we’re not racist, we have Alvin Ailey.'”

AAADT movement choreographer Rennie Harris (who created 2019’s “Lazarus” for AAADT) comments on Ailey’s mindset in wanting an African American social consciousness to be intrinsic to his work: “You came here to be entertained, but I have to tell my truth.” Harris adds that this way of thinkng influences his own work: “I’m still feeling the same way, as anyone would feel if you’re feeling unwanted by the [dominant] culture.”

Throughout the documentary, Harris and AAADT artistic director Robert Battle can be seen in rehearsals with AAADT dancers to show how Ailey’s legacy currently lives on with other generations of dancers. This back and forth between telling Ailey’s life story and showing present-day AAADT dancers could have been distracting, but it works well for the most part because of the seamless film editing by Annukka Lilja and Cory Jordan Wayne. The documentary has expected archival footage of Ailey interviews and past AAADT performances of Ailey’s work, such as 1969’s “Maskela Language,” 1970’s “The River”; 1971’s “Cry” and “Mary Lou’s Mass”; 1972’s “Love Songs” and 1975’s “Night Creature.”

The “Ailey” documentary includes analysis of some of Ailey’s biggest influences. It’s mentioned that “Cry” was a tribute to hard-working and supportive black women, such as his mother Lula. “Maskela Language” was inspired by the death of Ailey’s early mentor Hampton. Santa Allen, who was an AAADT dancer from 1973 to 1983, comments: “Choreography really was his catharsis.” As for his genre-defying work, Ailey says in archival footage, “I don’t like pinning myself down.”

The documentary has some commentary, but not a lot, on Ailey’s love life. He was openly gay to his close friends, family members and many of colleagues, but he avoided talking about his love life to the media. Ailey was apparently so secretive about his love life that the only serious boyfriend who’s mentioned in the documentary is a man named Abdullah (no last name mentioned), whom Ailey met in Paris and brought to New York City to live with him.

According to what’s said in the documentary, Abdullah left Ailey by climbing out of the apartment’s fire escape. The movie doesn’t mention why they broke up, but Ailey seems to have channeled his heartbreak into his work. Another aspect of Ailey’s personal life that he didn’t easily share with others was his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Only people in his inner circle knew about these struggles, according to what some people in the documentary say.

AAADT stage manager Bill Hammond says that by the 1970s, Ailey was a full-blown workaholic. “I think he took on too much,” Hammond comments. Other people interviewed in the “Ailey” documentary include “Lazarus” composer Darrin Ross; Linda Kent, an AAADT dancer from 1968 to 1974; Hope Clark, an AAADT dancer from 1965 to 1966; and Masazumi Chaya, an AAADT dancer from 1972 to 1966 and AAADT associate director from 1991 to 2019.

Ailey’s determination to keep his personal life as private as possible also extended to when he found out that he was HIV-positive. Several people in “Ailey” claimed that even when it was obvious that he was looking very unhealthy, he denied having AIDS to many of his closest friends, out of fear of being shunned. It was not uncommon for many people with AIDS to try to hide that they had the disease, especially back in the 1980s, when it was mistakenly labeled as a “gay disease,” and the U.S. government was slow to respond to this public health crisis.

Because dance requires a certain athleticism, having a physically degenerative disease such as AIDS was not something that Ailey wanted to be part of his legacy. According to Jones, many gay men at the time wanted to edit themselves out of the AIDS narrative. “He was part of the editing,” Jones says of Ailey.

And that shame caused Ailey to isolate himself from many of his loved ones. “He was alone,” adds Jones of Ailey not sharing much of his suffering with several people he knew. (On a side note, Jones is the subject of his own documentary: “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters,” which was released in the U.S. a week before the “Ailey” documentary.)

But toward the end of Ailey’s life, it was impossible for him to continue to hide the truth, even though he refused to go public with having AIDS. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is when Jamison describes being with Ailey on his death bed at the moment that he died: “He breathed in, and he never breathed out. We [the people he left behind] are his breath out.”

“Ailey” is an example of documentary that’s a touching reminder that how someone lives is more important than how someone dies. The storytelling style of this documentary doesn’t really break any new ground. However, people who have an appreciation for highly creative artists will find “Ailey” a worthy portrait of someone whose life might have been cut short, but he has an influential legacy that will continue for generations.

Neon released “Ailey” in New York City on July 23, 2021, and in Los Angeles on July 30, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021.

Review: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,’ starring Anthony Bourdain

July 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Bourdain in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (Photo courtesy of CNN/Focus Features)

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”

Directed by Morgan Neville

Culture Representation: Taking place in various places around the world, the biographical documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians) discussing the life and career of celebrated food expert/TV host/writer Anthony Bourdain, an American of French-Jewish heritage who lived on America’s East Coast for his entire life.

Culture Clash: Bourdain, who committed suicide in 2018 at the age of 61, struggled with many personal demons in his life, including being a recovering alcoholic/drug addict and his battles with depression.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Anthony Bourdain fans, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about famous world travelers and stories about celebrities who struggle with mental health issues.

Anthony Bourdain in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (Photo courtesy of CNN/Focus Features)

What does it take for someone to be truly happy? The answer depends on the individual person. Not everyone can find true happiness, even when people have all the outward appearances of success. Award-winning TV host/food expert/writer Anthony Bourdain had fame, fortune, physical health and many people in his personal life who loved him. But in private, he struggled with finding long-term true happiness and inner peace within himself, according to the people who knew him best.

It’s one of the main takeaways of the riveting and emotionally poignant documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” which focuses on how Bourdain dealt with becoming a celebrity in his middle age. Even with all of his achievements, admiration from fans around the world, and having a great support system of loved ones, Bourdain found that all of it wasn’t enough to make him truly happy and content. All the people interviewed for this movie are either Bourdain’s family members, close friends or work colleagues, who all call him Tony.

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” is respectful but does not sugarcoat the emotional damage left behind by Bourdain’s suicide by hanging. At the age of 61, a little more than two weeks before his 62nd birthday, Bourdain killed himself on June 8, 2018, in his hotel room in Kaysersberg-Vignoble, France. Several people in the documentary share their thoughts on what they think went wrong.

But make no mistake: “Roadrunner” is mostly a celebration of Bourdain’s life, which was unpredictable, wild and filled with extreme ups and downs. The documentary (which includes a lot previously unreleased archival footage) isn’t fully biographical, because there’s not much discussion of Bourdain’s youth. Bourdain was born in New York City, on June 25, 1956, to French American father Pierre Bourdain and Jewish mother Gladys Bourdain. Anthony and his younger brother Chris Bourdain (who’s interviewed in the documentary) went to school in New Jersey. By all accounts, they had a happy childhood and loving parents.

Chris remembers, “We didn’t do a lot of traveling when we were kids because my parents were not rich.” According to Chris, the Bourdain family visited France a few times in his and Anthony’s childhood, because their father had relatives there. It was in France that Anthony first began to appreciate the art of making cuisine. Chris also says that he and Anthony were big fans of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s “Tin Tin” graphic novels, about a globetrotting young journalist named Tin Tin who solved mysteries.

It’s also mentioned in the documentary that Anthony had a fascination since childhood with novels and movies about adventures and risky experiences in foreign countries. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness” and director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now” were particularly impactful on Anthony. The influence of these “danger in the jungle” stories can be seen in a lot of episodes of Anthony’s TV shows.

After high school, Anthony attended Vassar College for two years before dropping out to pursue a career as a chef. He paid his dues working as a cook in Massachusetts restaurants. Known for his acerbic wit and rebellious streak, Anthony also developed an addiction to drugs (especially cocaine and heroin), which he publicly revealed years ago when his 2000 memoir “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” was published. In several interviews in his life, Anthony said that he quit hard drugs in 1988, without ever going to rehab.

The Bourdain biography in the “Roadrunner” documentary really begins in the early 2000s, when Anthony found fame in his 40s as the best-selling author of “Kitchen Confidential.” The book detailed a lot of “dirty laundry” about what goes on behind the scenes at top restaurants, as well as Anthony’s own personal misdeeds. At the time that “Kitchen Confidential” was published, Anthony was the executive chef at Brassierie Les Halles, a French eatery in New York City’s Manhattan borough. (The restaurant went out of business in 2017.)

The “Roadrunner” documentary includes an interview with former Brassierie Les Halles owner Philippe LaJaunie, who says about the “Kitchen Confidential” book: “I didn’t know it was being written. I didn’t know it was being published.” LaJaunie also comments on what Anthony was like when he was a Brassierie Les Halles employee: “He was always behind on the rent … and living paycheck to paycheck. So, when there was this opportunity [to become rich and famous], he was ready.”

Anthony eventually quit the restaurant business to become a full-time TV host/world traveler. And just like how quickly he became a book author, Anthony didn’t spend years pursuing TV fame, because other people approached him first with this opportunity, shortly after the best-selling success of “Kitchen Confidential.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Bourdain was a celebrity chef, he didn’t like to cook at home until he became a father and reveled in doing stereotypical “dad” things, such as cooking for backyard barbecues.

During the rise of the #MeToo movement, Anthony expressed remorse over being a part of a restaurant culture that enabled abuse. “Kitchen Confidential” was the inspiration for the short-lived 2005 “Kitchen Confidential” comedy series, which starred Bradley Cooper and was televised in the U.S. on Fox. The “Roadrunner” documentary has a very brief clip of from this failed sitcom.

According to several people interviewed in the documentary, although Anthony had a public persona of being brash and outspoken, he was actually a very shy and romantic person in private. He also never felt completely comfortable with his celebrity status, since he didn’t plan to become a world-famous writer and TV personality. In fact, getting his first book published was an opportunity that came to him very easily because his writer friend Joel Rose happened to be married to someone who worked for Bloomsbury Publishing, which ended up publishing “Kitchen Confidential.”

As Rose tells it in the documentary, the idea for Anthony to write a book came to Rose when he showed one of Anthony’s storytelling emails to his wife Karen Rinaldi. In the “Roadrunner” documentary, Rinaldi remembers her reaction to that email: “I read it, and I was like, ‘That is fucking awesome!’ I’m going to make him an offer he basically can’t fucking refuse!” And just like that, Anthony got a book deal, without ever experiencing years of rejections from book publishers, which is what most first-time book authors experience.

One of the things that’s very noticeable about the people interviewed in “Roadrunner” is that almost all of them were in Anthony’s life for decades, which is a testament to their mutual loyalty. Throughout the documentary, an interesting editing technique is used for these longtime friends and colleagues, by showing archival footage of the interviewee (going as far back as the late 1990s or 2000s) and then fading to new interview footage that the person did for the documentary.

“Kitchen Confidential” made Anthony famous, but becoming a TV host of an international food show made him a bona fide rock star of the culinary world. He hosted several TV shows in his career, beginning with “A Cook’s Tour,” which was on the Food Network from 2002 to 2003. That was followed by two series on the Travel Channel: “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (from 2005 to 2012) and “The Layover” (from 2011 to 2013). His last TV series was CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which was on the air from 2013 to 2018.

Zero Point Zero production company co-founders/spouses Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins, who were Anthony’s creative partners for his entire TV career, talk about coming up with the idea for Anthony to star in his own TV show. Anthony, Tenaglia and Collins traveled to several countries for six weeks, beginning in December 2000, to film test footage for a possible TV pilot episode. The “Roadrunner” documentary includes some that footage.

At this point in his life, Anthony was far from being a world traveler. He had only been outside the U.S. a handful of times. As Collins describes this six-week journey: “Lydia and I had just gotten married. And then we had Tony, a guy who we barely knew. It was like three idiots trying to figure each other out.”

Tenaglia says that even though Anthony had no experience hosting a TV show at the time, he was up for the challenge. Traveling to various countries over a six-week period tapped into his adventurous side. Tenaglia remembers, “I think he was excited to go on this journey to see if reality matched the imagination.”

However, things didn’t go smoothly. It might surprise some people to know that Anthony’s gift for gab didn’t come easily to him on camera during the filming of that test footage. Collins explains, “Tony was naturally a very shy human being. And to get him to make contact or interact [with strangers] wasn’t his natural state.”

The first country they went to was Japan. Tenaglia says that Japan has a formality to its culture that made it difficult for Anthony to relax when interacting with people on camera. Tenaglia and Collins remember thinking that Anthony was so quiet and reserved in the Japan footage that they began to wonder if it was a huge mistake to think he would make a great TV host.

But when they arrived in the less-formal Vietnam, Anthony began to loosen up on camera and found his groove, according to Collins and Tenaglia. Anthony’s fascination with “Apocalypse Now” certainly helped. His TV shows were not about presenting food in a slick and shiny TV studio. He liked to get down and dirty with the locals.

In terms of food TV hosts, he was groundbreaking. His mass appeal had a lot to do with the fact that he wasn’t a food snob: He was equally comfortable at small, greasy eateries as he was at the most lavish and highest-rated restaurants. He was very open about his love for cheap fast food as well as exotic and gourmet cuisine. He was endlessly curious in talking to local people about their customs and cultures. His conversations and commentaries were often more interesting than the food that was on the show.

And he was fearless in eating almost anything. One of the more notorious things that Anthony ate on camera was a cobra heart that was still beating. The documentary includes that footage, as well as some footage of Anthony and other people killing animals to eat. This is not news to anyone who’s familiar with his TV shows. However, vegans, vegetarians and other people who don’t like to see animals killed for food might want to avoid this documentary or cover their eyes during these scenes in the movie.

Celebrity chef David Chang, who was one of Anthony’s closest friends, says in the documentary that he was fascinated by Anthony’s far-reaching fame. Chang states that no matter where they went in public, there was a “non-stop barrage” of attention on Anthony, from people who treated Anthony like a star. Chang remembers asking Anthony how he handled this lack of privacy with such composure. Chang says that Anthony’s response was: “Being nice to someone and being gracious to them, if that’s my job, it certainly beats being a middling line cook at a struggling restaurant.”

This “man of the people” image didn’t necessarily make him the most easygoing and most pleasant co-worker behind the scenes. Although former co-workers praise him in the documentary for being generous, witty and loyal, they also say that he could be rude, stubborn and egotistical. There’s archival footage of Tenaglia on the six-week “test footage” trip where she privately calls Anthony a “pain in the ass” over his “lack of communication.”

He demanded excellence from himself and from people around him because he hated mediocrity. As his longtime agent Kim Witherspoon says, “I don’t think Tony was afraid of failure. And that was hardwired [in his personality].” He took risks in his career, but he was never the type of celebrity who precisely plotted to have worldwide fame. People in the documentary say that his attitude toward taking new opportunities was, “Why not? If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”

In the “Roadrunner” documentary, celebrity chef/restaurateur Eric Ripert fondly remembers the first time he met Anthony, who was a great admirer of Ripert even before meeting him. Instead of it being a private meeting, Ripert says with a laugh, “He showed up with a TV crew.” Ripert says of Anthony’s on-screen persona: “The challenge was to be real and at the same time be the host of a TV show.”

Tragically, Ripert was the one who found Anthony’s dead body in the hotel room. In the documentary, Ripert says he won’t publicly talk about that day or his thoughts on the suicide. And it’s very understandable that he won’t. People have different ways of trying to heal from that kind of trauma. In the documentary, Ripert talks about the good times that he had with his longtime pal. There’s some endearing footage of them together that’s in the movie.

Other friends who are interviewed in the documentary include musician Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age fame), artist Dave Choe, musician Alison Mosshart, artist John Lurie and Big Gay Ice Cream co-founder Doug Quint. Anthony’s former TV colleagues who share their thoughts include producer Helen Cho, cinematographer Todd Liebler and directors Tom Vitale, Mo Fallon and Michael Steed. Vitale hints at all the hell-raising that went on behind the scenes when he comments, “What made it into the show was—as far as I was concerned—the least-interesting parts of the trip.”

Anyone who’s seen Anthony’s TV shows already knows that traveling to all these different countries to eat the local cuisine did not exist in a glamorous bubble for him. He was deeply affected by tragedies going on in many of these countries. When the TV crew was in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, they saw how a simple act of giving the starving locals some leftover food from the TV shoot turned into a feeding frenzy with some people pushing each other out of the way to get in line for the food. The documentary includes footage from that incident.

The documentary also includes footage from 2006 of Anthony and several of the crew members having the surreal experience of lounging out by a hotel pool in Beirut as war aircraft swarmed in the sky. Everyone was temporarily stuck in the hotel because it was too dangerous to leave at the time. In the footage, Anthony quips, “Basically, we got caught in a war.” Liebler adds, “We were spending all our time at the pool, watching helicopters come in and out. It was just a waiting game for us.”

In the documentary, Collins says that Anthony (who was an executive producer of his TV shows) was vehemently against doing an “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” episode of their experiences in Beirut, out of respect for the people whose lives were destroyed by the war violence happening while the TV crew was there. However, as Collins says, “The network felt differently,” and the episode was televised. Anthony had clout as an executive producer, but his clout on his TV show only went so far, since the TV network owned the show.

As for Anthony’s personal life, he was married twice. His marriage to first wife Nancy Putkoski (his high school sweetheart) lasted from 1985 to 2005 and ended in divorce. He was married to second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain (a mixed-martial artist) in 2007, and they separated in 2016. Anthony and Ottavia’s daughter Ariane was born in 2007.

Putkoski is not interviewed in the documentary, but she’s briefly shown in some of the archival footage. Anthony’s brother Chris comments on why the marriage fell apart: “Nancy had no interest in fame or being tied to fame, but it was a new birth for Tony. It was like he died and was reborn.”

The documentary includes personal footage of Anthony at a strip club somewhere in Asia. The footage was filmed during his divorce from Putkoski. He looks at the camera and sarcastically quips in true Anthony Bourdain style: “Nancy, I hope your divorce lawyer is paying attention to any of this footage.”

Busia-Bourdain (an Italian native who met Anthony because she used to work for his close friend Ripert) is interviewed in the documentary. She describes their early courtship as a “friends with benefits” situation that eventually turned into love. “We were the perfect match for the occasional rendezvous. I was expecting this bad boy, a little bit arrogant. Nowhere was I expecting endearing.” After getting involved with Busa-Bourdain, Anthony became a martial arts enthusiast and went through extensive training.

Several people (including Anthony in archival footage) say that for years he did not want to have children because he didn’t think he would be a good father. But when Ariane was born, it changed him and his life for the better. Busia-Bourdain comments about Anthony becoming a father later in his life: “Any doubts I had kind of dissipated when I realized how happy and excited he was that he was going to become a father.”

There are several clips of home video footage of Anthony with Ariane over the years. (His close friend Ripert calls him a very attentive father.) There’s also a more recent clip of Ariane spending time with her mother after his death. The camera is at a certain angle so that her face is not on camera, out of respect for her privacy. Not surprisingly, Ariane is not interviewed for this documentary.

Friends of Anthony say that becoming a father gave him a sense of “normalcy” that he craved and needed to have a balance for his celebrity jetset lifestyle. Homme says that he and Anthony talked a lot of about what it was like to be fathers who had to frequently be away from home because of their work. Homme gets a little emotionally choked up when he remembers that he and Anthony made plans to take a father-daughter trip together someday when their daughters got older.

In the documentary, no one really talks about why Anthony’s second marriage failed. However, people have plenty to say about Anthony falling madly in love with Italian actress/filmmaker Asia Argento, who was his lover for the last year of his life. She and Anthony met in 2017, when he filmed an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” in Rome, and they got together not long after meeting.

Argento is not interviewed in the documentary, but there’s a general sense from what people say about the relationship that it was passionate in ways that were good and bad. The highs were really high and the lows were really low. Mosshart says she knew early on in Anthony’s relationship with Argento that the relationship was “going to end very, very badly.”

Just like Anthony became obsessed with martial arts because of his second wife, he became obsessed with being an ally in the #MeToo movement because of Argento’s involvement as a #MeToo activist. Argento is one of numerous women who have publicly accused disgraced entertainment mogul (and convicted rapist) Harvey Weinstein of rape and other forms of sexual assault. She says the first time that Weinstein raped her was in 1997. There’s archival footage of her in the documentary speaking out against Weinstein, and also privately telling Anthony that she has a hard time being a happy person.

Busia-Bourdain and other people in the documentary say that Anthony getting involved in #MeToo activism was a big change for him, because he previously avoided being publicly outspoken over social justice issues. He abruptly cut off people in his life whom he thought were guilty of sexual misconduct in the past. He gave interviews and posted messages on social media to express his outrage over #MeToo injustices.

Argento had considerable influence over other aspects of his life. She began directing episodes of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” And that didn’t sit too well with several of Anthony’s longtime colleagues. Many of them stop short of saying that Argento was a destructive force in Anthony’s life, but the implication is there, judging by the way that they talk about her.

Zach Zamboni, a cinematographer for “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” from 2013 to 2017, experienced some of the fallout. Anthony reportedly fired Zamboni because Zamboni disagreed with Argento over aspects of the show. (Zamboni is not interviewed in the documentary.) Former “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” producer Cho says in the documentary that when Zamboni got fired, that’s when she knew that anyone in Anthony’s longtime loyal inner circle could be abruptly cut off in a callous way that she’d never seen before with Anthony.

Cho doesn’t even try to hide her disgust about Argento when she describes how she thinks Argento had a negative influence on the show and on Anthony’s life. Cho says that Argento’s overly stagy directing style was the polar opposite of the documentary directing style Anthony wanted for his shows. Instead of letting filmed conversations flow naturally, which was the way that it had always been done, Argento’s direction changed the show so that when people were talking to Anthony on camera, they would be told to do multiple takes of dialogue, as if they were actors following a script. The documentary includes outtake footage from the show as an example.

After Anthony got involved with Argento, many people in his inner circle became alarmed at how he drastically changed. According to his artist friend Lurie, Anthony began to become agoraphobic and more paranoid about his celebrity status. Quint offers this insight: “People think he had the greatest job in the world, but it was one there was no way to ever escape from. You couldn’t ever really go home for a day and not be Anthony Bourdain [the celebrity].”

Collins says that in the last year of Anthony’s life, Anthony wanted to do something he never had wanted to do before: quit TV entirely. Collins states that when Anthony told him he wanted to quit TV so that he could move to Italy and be with Argento, he gave his friend unwavering support to do what he needed to do to be happy. But in the end, Anthony changed his mind and didn’t go through with this idea to quit TV and move to Italy.

Shortly before he committed suicide, the celebrity gossip media published photos of Argento on an obvious romantic date with another man. Vitale said he saw firsthand how distraught Anthony was over these “affair” photos, because Anthony expressed anger that Argento couldn’t be more discreet. The documentary doesn’t mention that after Anthony died, Argento gave interviews saying that she and Anthony had mutually agreed to have an open/non-monagamous relationship. No one in the documentary blames Argento for Anthony’s death, but it’s clear that many people close to him did not think that Argento’s relationship with him was healthy.

However, several people in the documentary make it clear that Anthony had personal demons long before he met Argento. He would frequently talk in a joking manner about having thoughts of physically hurting himself and other people. (And he says that in one of the documentary’s archival clips.) And, by his own admission, he had an addictive personality that caused him to get obsessive over things that he thought would bring him some kind of happiness.

“Roadrunner” actually begins with archival footage of Anthony talking about death. It’s very much like addressing the elephant in the room right away, since most people watching this documentary already know how he died. He says in a voiceover: “It’s considered useful, enlightening and therapeutic to think about death for a few minutes a day.”

And then, he’s shown talking to longtime friend Ripert and saying, “What actually happens to my remains is of zero interest to me. I don’t want anyone seeing my body. I don’t want a [funeral] party … unless it can provide entertainment value in a perversive, subversive way. If you can throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods in the middle of rush hour, that would be epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”

As much as Anthony would joke about his own death, the documentary makes a point of showing that for all of the therapy or caring support from loved ones that he had, he felt that he couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to anyone about his suicidal thoughts on the day that he took his life. The documentary mentions that he was in professional therapy toward the end of his life, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable with therapy. It’s not too surprising, considering that he said he kicked his addictions to cocaine and heroin without going to rehab.

The documentary also lays bare the emotional trauma experienced by the people left behind. Several of the interviewees (including Busia-Bourdain, Chang, Choe and Witherspoon) break down and cry on camera when they talk about Anthony, All the stages of grief except denial are seen in this film.

Chang cries when he describes one of his most painful memories of being Anthony’s friend: “He said I would never be a good dad. That really hurt.” Mosshart comments on the suicide: “I don’t think he was cruel, but there’s a cruelty to that.” Others express guilt over not seeing any signs of suicidal distress or wishing they could’ve done more to help Anthony.

Some of the people say that the suicide affected them in ways that they didn’t expect. LaJaunie was one of the people who was in Vietnam during Anthony’s six-week journey in the early 2000s to test his TV hosting skills. LaJaunie was in Vietnam when he heard the news about the suicide, and he decided to permanently live in Vietnam on that day.

Homme said after the suicide, he didn’t work for two years. Choe didn’t cut his hair for two years after hearing about the suicide. Choe finally shaved off some of his hair on camera for the documentary, almost as if talking about his dear, departed friend was therapeutic and helped him feel comfortable to get his hair cut.

It’s evident that “Roadrunner” director Neville has compassion for the loved ones who were left behind. The documentary might also help people understand that suicides often have no logical explanation. There were no drugs or alcohol in Anthony’s system at the time of his death. And even though he was someone who wrote about his feelings for a living, he didn’t leave a suicide note.

Some of the people close to him say in the documentary that there were no big warning signs that he would do something as extreme as killing himself. Any plans that he might have had to commit suicide were kept well-hidden by Anthony. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s some haunting footage of Anthony filming something for “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” where he’s surrounded by people, but the sad expression on his face as he stares at the camera shows that he looks like one of the loneliest people in the world. It’s a somber reminder that people who look like they “have it all” can sometimes feel empty inside and mistakenly think that their lives aren’t worth living.

Focus Features released “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” in U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Kid Candidate,’ starring Hayden Pedigo

July 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

L’Hanna Pedigo and Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

“Kid Candidate”

Directed by Jasmine Stodel

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Kid Candidate” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the 2019 political campaign of Hayden Pedigo, who campaigned to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas.

Culture Clash: Many people doubted the legitimacy of Pedigo’s campaign because he was 24 at the time, he had no political experience, and he made the unusual decision not to accept campaign donations.

Culture Audience: “Kid Candidate” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in documentaries about local Texas politics and young people who run for political office.

Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

The documentary “Kid Candidate” takes a fascinating look at how a musician in his mid-20s launched an unorthodox political campaign to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas. What started as a joke turned into an experience that changed people’s lives. Directed by Jasmine Stodel, “Kid Candidate” is a lot like the independent rock musician Hayden Pedigo, who decided to become an unlikely political candidate: The movie is lean, scrappy and kind of messy with neurotic quirks. But there’s no doubt that its heart is in the right place, which makes this documentary inspiring to watch without it being overly sappy.

At 68 minutes long, “Kid Candidate” is a fairly brisk chronicle of Pedigo’s journey into Amarillo politics. What would cause someone with previously no interest in politics to launch this long-shot campaign? A longtime Amarillo resident, Pedigo had a strict upbringing by his parents, whom he describes in the documentary as people who used to have wild lifestyles but at some point decided to turn their lives in the opposite direction and became religious Christian conservatives.

Pedigo and his sister were homeschooled for their entire education. In the documentary, he talks about how music was his salvation and emotional comfort when he was growing up in a very repressive household. Pedigo’s biological family members are not in the documentary, because he was estranged from them at the time. He says that these family members (especially his parents) were embarrassed by his political campaign.

However, Hayden’s supportive wife L’Hanna Pedigo is in the documentary. She says that Hayden has had lifelong insecurities and a deep fear of failure because his parents were overly critical of him. From an early age, Hayden had a rebellious streak. He says that his father described him as a caged wild animal when Hayden was growing up. L’Hanna observes that when Hayden’s family disapproved of him running for political office, it motivated Hayden even more to continue the campaign, which she says was almost like a “fuck you” to his family.

Hayden gets emotional when he remembers a criticism that his father had for him that Hayden admits still hurts Hayden to this day: When Hayden was a child, his father would call Hayden an “unplugged alarm clock”—even when plugged in, it keeps blinking and information could not be retained because it’s not programmed correctly. It’s basically an insulting way of telling someone, “You’re not very smart” or “There’s something mentally wrong with you.”

In the documentary, Hayden admits that his political campaign started off as kind of a lark. He and his best friend Alex Fairbanks (who’s interviewed in the documentary) would make goofy short films inspired by eccentric director Harmony Korine’s 1997 avant-garde film “Gummo.” Hayden would portray a fictional Amarillo city council member as a recurring character and do spoofs of what city council members might do when they walk around the city.

A few of these videos would go viral on social media, including one that landed on the front page of Reddit. People began to wonder, “What if Hayden really did run for a seat on the Amarillo city council?” Fairbanks, who was one of those people, remembers saying to Hayden, “I was like, ‘Dude, maybe you should go for city council. People are really liking this. You could probably follow through and win.'”

The idea stuck, and in 2019, Hayden declared his candidacy when he was 24 years old. (He turned 25 during the making of this movie.) The documentary includes footage of him officially registering as a candidate for Amarillo’s city council. At the time that Hayden declared his candidacy, Amarillo (the largest city in the Texas Panhandle) had a population of a little more than 269,000 people, according to the Texas State Department of Social and Health Services.

Hayden explains the fundamental reasons why he wanted to run for political office in Amarillo: “I felt there was a lack of representation, especially amongst my age group … Even if I don’t get elected, I want this to at least inspire somebody—just to get them to vote would be a major step.”

L’Hanna, whose job in the documentary is described as a “theatrical scene and lighting designer,” says that Hayden definitely had doubts about whether or not he should go through with the campaign: “He asked, ‘Would I look stupid doing it?’ … To me, that’s the only qualification—that you’re genuine and that you care about the city and that you care about the people.”

“Kid Candidate” shows that Hayden learns, sometimes the hard way, that it takes more than enthusiasm and lofty ideals to connect with voters. He gets help from civil rights/criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn, a grizzled and sometimes gruff political expert who becomes Hayden’s friend, mentor and sometimes biggest critic during the campaign. Blackburn, who is a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, is an outspoken liberal in a city that is mostly politically conservative.

At times, Blackburn expresses frustration at Hayden’s naiveté in running a political campaign. Among his criticisms of Hayden is that Hayden is willfully ignorant about certain issues that Hayden would need to be knowledgeable about if he were on the city council. Blackburn also admonishes Hayden for getting too caught up in thinking that social media “likes” and anonymous people giving praise in a comments section will translate into votes and other real support.

Hayden finds out this harsh reality in a somewhat embarrassing way, when he announces that he’s having a rally that he’s sure will be well-attended, based on all the positive responses that he got on social media. But in the end, less than 30 people showed up. Hayden also seems awkward when greeting people at his own rally. Like a parent reminding a child to be polite, Blackburn literally has to tell Hayden to say hello to individual people at the rally and thank them for attending.

However, Hayden’s strengths as a candidate are his compassion and his ability to clearly articulate his ideas (as generic as they might be) when he seems to have memorized what he is going to say. His biggest weakness as an aspiring politician is that he seems more comfortable addressing a crowd than having one-on-one interactions with strangers. While doing door-to-door campaigning, Hayden openly admits that he hates this type of campaign work. Blackburn bluntly asks why Hayden he’s running for an elected office, if he doesn’t want to talk to potential voters face-to-face at their homes.

Even though Hayden sometimes disagrees with Blackburn and often doesn’t take his mentor’s advice, they have genuine respect for each other. It’s not mentioned if Hayden belongs to any political party, but the ideas that he put forth during the campaign are for a moderate-to-liberal political agenda. He’s especially concerned about the economic disparities between the northern part of Amarillo (a low-income area populated mostly by people of color) and the southern part of Amarillo, where the city’s wealthiest (mostly white) residents live.

And speaking of the wealthiest Amarillo residents, the documentary frequently mentions Amarillo Matters, a politically conservative and highly influential coalition that donates campaign funds and endorses candidates that it wants to have in power in Amarillo. Claudia Stravato, a civil rights activist and political science instructor, describes Amarillo Matters this way: “The elites formed an organization, pooled their money, and made sure that their elitist friends got elected.”

The documentary mentions that Amarillo Matters declined to have any of its members or representatives interviewed for this movie. However, “Kid Candidate” does a good job of including a diverse group of people to get their perspectives on Hayden’s campaign and Amarillo’s ongoing issues. This variety of viewpoints and opinions make this a fairly well-rounded documentary.

But one of the documentary’s flaws is that it offers no explanation for why none of Hayden’s political opponents is shown in the film, except for brief footage of them in a “town hall” type of panel discussion. Four people, including Hayden, were running for Seat 1 of Amarillo’s city council in 2019. Hayden’s three other opponents were Elaine Hays (the incumbent candidate), Jay Kirkman III and Rich Herman. Even if none of these other candidates wanted to be interviewed for the documentary, the filmmakers should have included information on each of these rival candidates. It would give viewers a better sense of what these candidates were like and what type of campaigns that Hayden would be up against in this election.

One way that Hayden distinguished himself from his competitors and from most politicians in general is that he refused to accept campaign donations. Any campaign videos that he made had no budget or very low budgets. He had no staffers and no promotional merchandise for his very unusual campaign. As he says in the documentary: “I don’t need the money, I don’t need the [campaign] signs, I don’t need the T-shirts.”

Hayden’s main ways of promoting his campaign were by doing media interviews, speaking to groups of voters, and going on social media. He shows a sarcastic sense of humor when he privately mocks other candidates’ campaign wording. He’s also able to laugh at himself when he reacts to Amarillo Matters’ unflattering description of him in an Amarillo Matters statement where he was listed as a “not recommended” candidate. He considers this snub by Amarillo Matters to be a badge of honor.

Even though he got a lot of criticism for having no political experience, it’s very apparent that Hayden didn’t have a specific platform of policies for his campaign. He was running a campaign on general ideas of wanting to implement change, such as increasing diversity in the city’s government and giving better access to resources to Amarillo’s underprivileged residents. Because of his youth, inexperience and his refusal to take money for his campaign, Hayden was also running a campaign where he promoted himself as an “outsider” candidate who could think “outside the box,” shake things up in a positive way, and not be easily corrupted.

During his campaign, Hayden did some traveling outside of Amarillo. He went to Los Angeles to be interviewed on Tim Heidecker’s Talkhouse podcast. Hayden also went to the SXSW Festival in Austin, to perform as a musician. His SXSW rehearsals are briefly shown in the documentary, whose soundtrack has several original songs written and performed by Hayden. Like most unknown musicians, Hayden has a day job—he was a supervisor at Santa Fe Credit Union at the time this documentary was filmed—but that part of his life is not in the movie.

Some of the other people interviewed in the documentary include Amarillo mayor Ginger Nelson, a lawyer/artist who gets tearful when she talks about what she says is the unfair and inaccurate criticism that she’s gotten as mayor. Nelson says that one of the misconceptions about her is that she’s a rich elitist who doesn’t care about the people of Amarillo. Nelson, who is endorsed by Amarillo Matters, says that it’s untrue that she comes from “old money” and that she actually came from a middle-class background.

Nelson says she decided to run for mayor of Amarillo because “I felt that God was asking me to step into an arena of influence to love people.” Nelson mentions God multiple times when she talks about how it relates to her political career, and how she will always take the high road when it comes to her critics and opponents. Meanwhile, her husband Kevin Nelson says in the documentary that anyone who goes into politics has to be prepared for others being ready to tear them down.

Hayden is shown meeting with various groups of people to get their support for his campaign. These groups include ultra-conservative Tea Party supporters (Hayden experiences some hostility at this Tea Party meeting when he says he has “progressive” plans for Amarillo); members of a South Sudanese church; and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. But the one campaign event that he says was the most meaningful to him was when he was invited to an all-night cultural celebration held by people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community.

The event, which looks like it was held at a public community center, is not a large celebration (only 10 to 20 people seem to be in attendance at any given time), but Hayden says it was the first group of people he met with during his campaign that didn’t laugh at him. Hayden and L’Hanna, who are the only white people at this event, are shown mingling with the sparse crowd and dancing past midnight, when Hayden gave a brief speech of gratitude to the approximately six people who were left in the room.

After the event, L’Hanna talks about how getting to know people in the South Sudanese community was eye-opening for her and Hayden. She begins to cry when she talks about how she found out that even though life in Amarillo might be difficult for the South Sudanese refugees, many of them told her that they were grateful to live in a place where they could sleep at night without fear of being killed by marauding military soldiers.

Hayden was invited to this event by a mass communications student/South Sudanese refugee named Agol Aloak, who became an ardent supporter of Hayden because he wasn’t a typical politician. Aloak says she has this opinion of most politicians: “You don’t know my struggles. You don’t want to help me … I really want change.” She also describes how many people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community work for corporate meat company Tyson Foods in dead-end factory jobs with unsafe and grueling conditions. She describes it as slightly better than “slave labor.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary are residents of Amarillo’s economically troubled north side, such as Tremaine Brown, owner of Shi Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food Cafe; Bol Ngor, chairman of Amarillo’s South Sudanese community and assistant supervisor at Tyson Foods; David Lovejoy, KGNC radio program director and first vice-president of the Amarillo chapter of the NAACP; and “self-employed” hip-hop artist Randolph Sims, also known as Koola. They all talk about the discrepancies in how the Amarillo city council treats their part of the city, compared to the wealthier southern part of the city.

The documentary interviewees also include dentist/Amarillo city council member Eddie Sauer; The 806 Coffee + Lounge owner Courtney Brown; Six Car Pub and Brewery owner Colin Cummings; local businessman Craig Gualtree; Hayden’s friend Grayson Carter; Texas Monthly senior editor Randy Barkett; HITTS magazine president Karen Glauber; and Hayden’s friend/street artist Malcolm Byers, who paints an impressive street wall mural of Hayden, just days before the election.

“Kid Candidate” doesn’t sugarcoat that this campaign at times took a heavy emotional toll on Hayden, who seems to have bouts of anxiety and depression. In one scene in the movie, a conversation of text messages between Hayden and “Kid Candidate” documentary director Stodel is shown, where Hayden sounds like he’s in such an emotionally dark place that he doesn’t want to even be seen on camera. Later that night, Hayden ends up going to the South Sudanese cultural event, which he says lifted his spirits considerably.

Hayden is certainly not the first person in the world to run for political office before the age of 30 or with no experience in politics. However, his unique journey as a political candidate can be used as a memorable example of someone who decided to not just talk about change but tried to make change happen—even if it meant stepping outside of personal comfort zones and risking a lot of humiliation and rejection. Regardless of how people might feel about politics, anyone watching “Kid Candidate” will appreciate that having the right to express opinions and other personal freedoms shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Gunpowder & Sky released “Kid Candidate” on digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.