Review: ‘JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?,’ starring John Ramsey, Cindy Marra, Mark Smit, Paula Woodward, John Anderson, John San Agustin and Greg Walta

January 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

JonBenét Ramsey in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Polaris/Discovery+)

“JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?”

Directed by Kim Duke

Culture Representation: The documentary “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one Asian) discussing the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, a Colorado rich girl who was brutally killed on Christmas Day 1996, when she was 6 years old.

Culture Clash: The unsolved case has been controversial because investigators and prosecutors disagree over evidence and who might be the prime suspect or suspects.

Culture Audience: “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” will appeal primarily to people interested in this case or in true crime overall, but the documentary does not reveal any new facts that are helpful to this case.

Lou Smit in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

Because there have already been so many news reports and documentaries about the JonBenét Ramsey case, any new ones that come along almost never have new information that can help make progress in the case. Almost every documentary about the case seems to have an agenda to push only one or two theories of who killed JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered on Christmas Day 1996 in her millionaire family home in Boulder, Colorado. This highly disputed case remains unsolved because there are conflicting accounts about the crime-scene evidence and numerous theories about who committed the murder.

It’s rare for a JonBenét Ramsey documentary to truly include perspectives of people who have very diverse viewpoints and theories about the case. “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (directed by Kim Duke) is one of those “agenda” documentaries, because it seems less concerned about interviewing people with a variety of perspectives and more concerned about being a one-sided tribute to Andrew “Lou” Smit, who was a prominent investigator for the Boulder district attorney’s office on the JonBenét Ramsey case. He was also an unpaid private investigator for the case when he stopped working for the Boulder D.A.’s office.

Smit (who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 75) firmly believed that an unknown intruder or intruders committed the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The documentary includes interviews with people who say the same thing (including JonBenét’s father John Ramsey), but not any interviews with people who believe in other theories. Furthermore, a copious amount of time in the documentary looks like a fawning biography of Smit instead of a well-rounded investigation that looks at all sides of this contentious murder case.

The documentary pushes a narrative that Smit was a crusading and often-misunderstood investigator who constantly battled over this case with the Boulder Police Department, because the Boulder PD immediately put JonBenét Ramsey’s parents at the top of the list of suspects. The documentary (which uses a lot of the same archival footage that have been in many other JonBenét Ramsey documentaries) includes clips from Smit’s personal diary-type audio tapes that he made during the investigation. However, these audio tapes do not reveal anything new, unless you want to hear some ranting from Smit about how he felt mistreated by the Boulder PD. An epilogue in the documentary mentions that the Boulder PD declined to participate in the film, because the Boulder PD has a policy not to comment on the JonBenét Ramsey case.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Smit refused to believe the Ramseys could be guilty because he thought that they seemed like nice people. In his audio tapes, Smit says that people like the Ramseys don’t kill their children, and he had a gut feeling they weren’t guilty. What happened to the crime investigator rule that even if people who appear to be “nice,” it isn’t enough of a reason to decide that they can’t commit a crime? It’s about evidence, not personality. It’s no wonder that Smit got a lot of criticism for not being objective enough in this case.

Smit often accused the Boulder PD of having tunnel vision by not properly looking into other suspects. However, Smit displayed a certain amount of tunnel vision of his own with very biased actions during his investigation, by going out of his way to show the Ramseys that he was on their side. The documentary mentions that during Smit’s investigation while he was working for the Boulder D.A., Smit would park in front of the Ramseys’ house every day to pray for them and even invited John Ramsey to pray with him too. While this praying activity with a possible suspect might be considered noble by some people, it’s actually very unprofessional for a murder investigator to act this way with a witness who’s under suspicion while the investigator is working on the case.

Although there have been very divisive opinions on who committed the murder, these are the indisputable facts, which have been widely reported and are reiterated in the documentary: JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home sometime during the night or early-morning hours. Her parents (businessman John Bennett Ramsey and homemaker Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey) and JonBenét’s older brother Burke, who was 9 years old at the time, were also home at the time of the murder. All of them have denied having anything to do with the murder. The Boulder D.A. cleared the Ramseys as suspects in 2008.

On the morning of December 26, 1996, Patsy called 911 to report that JonBenét was kidnapped. At the crime scene was a three-page, handwritten ransom note that was written on Patsy’s notepad and using a pen that was owned by the Ramseys. When the police arrived at the Ramseys’ 11,000-square-foot, three-story house, John and Patsy had already invited several of their friends and neighbors over to the home to comfort them. The Ramseys called some of these visitors over to the house before they called the police. Unfortunately, all of these people in the house inevitably contaminated the crime scene.

Instead of securing the crime scene and telling the visitors to leave, the Boulder police officers let the visitors stay and asked John to search the house again for JonBenét. John found JonBenét’s body in a basement-like area of the house. An autopsy determined that JonBenét had blunt force trauma to her head and had been strangled with a wiry cord that was still tightly wound around her neck. There are disagreements among investigators over whether she had been hit on the head first or had been strangled first. JonBenét had also been sexually violated with one of Patsy’s broken paintbrushes that was found near JonBenét’s body.

Although a former schoolteacher named John Mark Karr (born in 1964) confessed to the murder in 2006 and was arrested for it, it was later proven that Karr gave a false confession, and he was never prosecuted for the murder. He wasn’t even in Colorado when the murder happened, and his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Karr is now living as a transgender female named Alexis Valoran Reich.

Whatever people think about the JonBenét Ramsey case, the main theories of who committed the murder identify these four possibilities:

  • John Ramsey
  • Patsy Ramsey
  • Burke Ramsey
  • An unknown intruder or intruders

People who believe that the Ramseys were involved think that the Ramseys know more than they’re telling and that the Ramsey family is covering up the truth. (Patsy died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 49.) The severe ligature strangulation of JonBenét indicates that it was done by an adult.

Those who think Burke was the real culprit have a theory that Burke brutally hit JonBenét on the head with an unknown object during an argument, and the blow possibly left her unconscious. According to the theory, John and Patsy found out and perhaps thought JonBenét was dead, and so the parents might have panicked because they were afraid of the scandal that it would cause their prominent family.

The “Ramseys are guilty” theory usually believes that John and/or Patsy then further assaulted JonBenét to establish another cause of death and to make it look like a stranger did it, in order to confuse investigators. A kidnapping was staged to also confuse investigators, according to the “Ramseys are guilty” theory. People who believe this theory think that even if one person in the Ramsey family actually committed the physical crime, the other family members who were home at the time eventually knew about it and helped cover it up.

Most people who think the Ramseys are guilty point to clues that the killer or killers seemed comfortable taking a lot of time to commit the crime without fear of being caught in the act. There was the highly unusual and long ransom note, written on a paper and pen from the Ramsey home. Handwriting analyses ruled out John as the writer of the note, while Patsy could neither be completely identified nor completely ruled out as the writer of the ransom note.

Everyone agrees that the words of the ransom note indicate that it was written by an educated adult. The only fingerprints found on the note were those from Patsy (who said she found the note), investigators and visitors who were in the house. The intruder theory is that the intruder could have worn gloves.

Another big clue, which was not mentioned in this documentary, was that the autopsy of JonBenét found some undigested pineapple in her stomach, indicating that she died shortly after eating the pineapple. A bowl of pineapples was on the kitchen counter when the police arrived at the crime scene, but the Ramseys denied knowing anything about it and said that it was unlikely that JonBenét prepared the pineapple meal herself.

Was it an intruder? And if so, what kind of intruder would feel comfortable enough in the Ramsey home to kidnap a child but stay long enough to feed the child a pineapple meal? And why use Patsy’s notepad in the house to write the ransom note instead of writing the note somewhere else in advance?

The Ramsey family was out attending a party earlier that evening, and the intruder theory is that an intruder could have been hiding in the house for hours and written the ransom note while alone in the house. (The Ramseys did not have all of their doors locked when they were away and when they were at home.) But no one can seem to explain the sequence of events that led to JonBenét eating pineapple in the middle of the night shortly before she died.

Police found that there were no signs of a disturbance in JonBenét’s bedroom on the night of the crime. Investigators have different theories on how JonBenét could have gone from sleeping in her second-floor bedroom, to being murdered, to her body being found by her father in an area of the house that’s below ground level and was known to few people outside of the Ramsey family. John, Patsy and Burke have maintained that they were asleep when the murder happened, and that they didn’t know that something had happened to JonBenét until the next morning.

People who believe the intruder theory think that the intruder used a stun gun to subdue JonBenét, because there were marks resembling a stun gun on the side of JonBenét’s face and on her back. People who believe that John, Patsy and/or Burke were involved think that JonBenét likely went down to the kitchen for her pineapple meal voluntarily, and something happened that caused her violent death. The marks on her face and back also matched a detached section of a toy train track owned by Burke, according several news reports with details of what the police found at the crime scene.

The documentary also mentions that Smit was able to show in video evidence that an intruder could have easily entered and left the side window to the room where JonBenét’s body was found. Smit demonstrated by climbing in and out of the window himself. However, what the documentary didn’t mention is that photographic evidence at the crime scene showed that after JonBenét’s body was found, an open window in that room had undisturbed dust and cobwebs on the window sill. If there was an intruder, the undisturbed dust and cobweb evidence definitely can raise doubts that someone entered or left by that window.

A neighbor reported hearing the sound of a frightened child screaming from the Ramsey house on the night of the murder. The documentary mentions that Smit found that there was a pipe in the room where JonBenét’s body was found that can carry sound from that room to outside of the house, but the sound cannot be heard on the upper floors inside the house. It fits into the theory that John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey couldn’t hear any signs of distress during the murder, if they were asleep in their bedrooms as they claimed.

However, the documentary doesn’t question the other side of this belief: If a kidnapped child was crying out that loudly inside the house while being murdered, how did the killer know that other people in the house wouldn’t be able to hear those noises? Furthermore, several people in the documentary describe JonBenét’s murder as slow and tortuous. And yet, it’s never explained why a kidnapper/intruder would feel comfortable murdering a screaming child in her own home, in a slow and tortuous way, without any fear of being caught by other people in the house. Wouldn’t a scared intruder kill her quickly instead of slowly torturing her?

The documentary mentions the biggest evidence to support the intruder theory: unknown male DNA was found in JonBenét’s underwear and on her longjohns that she was wearing when her body was found. All of the Ramseys’ DNA did not match this unknown DNA. What the documentary didn’t mention is that police have not ruled out that this DNA could have been touch DNA, which is DNA that could have gotten there if a man, such as a store employee or factory worker, had contact with this item of clothing before it was packaged. Because John Ramsey got to JonBenét’s body before the police did, and he carried to body to another location in the house, his DNA was all over critical areas, so it did not prove either way if he killed her or not.

Because this documentary seems to have been made to convince people that the intruder theory is the only correct theory and that Smit should get the most credit for this theory, it’s an echo chamber of people who essentially agree. In addition to John Bennett Ramsey, the documentary has interviews with John Andrew Ramsey (JonBenét’s oldest brother, from John Bennett Ramsey’s first marriage); Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra; Smit’s son Mark Smit; and Smit’s attorney Greg Walta. Also interviewed are investigative journalist/author Paula Woodward, who covered the JonBenét murder case from the beginning; John Anderson, a retired sheriff of Colorado’s El Paso County; and Ramsey Family private investigator John San Agustin, a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office commander.

The beginning of the documentary lists Smit’s impressive work credentials, including his role in helping solve the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest, Colorado, as if it’s proof that he could never be wrong. He spent more than 20 years working for the Colorado Springs Police Department, in addition to experience working in a coroner’s office and as an investigator for district attorneys. He later became a private investigator who refused any payment and gifts for working on the Ramsey case. John Bennett Ramsey says in the documentary that Smit even refused his offer to buy ice cream for Smit.

And yet for all this investigator experience, Smit is heard on audio saying about the Ramsey case: “I don’t think this ransom note was written by the parents. Look at all the references to death and dying.” It’s as if Smit believes that “good” parents aren’t capable of talking about their children dying. That’s Smit’s opinion, but this opinion shouldn’t be used as proof of the parents’ guilt or innocence in this case.

In another audio clip, Smit says the Ramseys should be ruled out as suspects for this reason: “There’s no bad character with the Ramseys.” Just because someone doesn’t have an arrest record or seems to have a “nice” personality isn’t proof that someone can’t commit murder. It’s an appallingly bad assumption for a murder investigator to have, because it’s based on opinion and bias, not evidence.

This documentary makes it clear that Smit had it stuck in his head that the Ramseys (who were millionaires at the time) couldn’t possibly be involved in this heinous crime. And there’s nothing wrong with believing in “innocent until proven guilty.” But time and again, in audio tapes played in the documentary, Smit makes telling comments that show a conscious or unconscious bias that appears to be based on the Ramsey’s social class. He says he thinks that the Ramseys are too “nice” or “not the kind of people” to be involved in murdering a child. It’s all really code for “I don’t think people in this income bracket should be considered likely suspects.”

One of the most noticeable flaws in this documentary is that it doesn’t offer anything substantial about what kind of person would commit this crime. If the killer was an intruder, then who else had access and intimate knowledge of the Ramsey’s home and sleeping habits to get away with this crime so easily? None of that is mentioned in the documentary, even though Smit and other investigators surely developed profiles of possible suspects.

The documentary has a brief and vague mention of a large computer database of tips from the public and other information that Smit compiled. But he also complains in his audio diaries that the police didn’t follow up on the majority of this information. Smit acknowledges what has already been widely reported: The Boulder PD was fixated on proving the Ramseys guilty, while Smit was fixated on proving the Ramseys were not guilty. The clashes were inevitable, but they show flaws and narrow-mindedness on both sides.

In 1999, a Boulder grand jury indicted John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse related to JonBenét’s murder. However, then-Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter declined to prosecute John and Patsy Ramsey, based on lack of evidence. This secret grand jury decision wasn’t made public until 2013. John Bennett Ramsey, who gives credit to Smit for influencing Hunter to make this decision, comments in the documentary that Smit “saved our lives.”

JonBenét’s father doesn’t say anything in the documentary that he hasn’t already said in other interviews. He comments that when people ask him what he would say to JonBenét, it would be this: “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That’s my job as a dad.”

He also defends JonBenét’s participation in beauty pageants, by saying it was JonBenét, not him or his wife Patsy, who insisted on being in these contests. John and Patsy were vilified for allowing JonBenét to dress and act like an adult in these pageants, with critics claiming it was “proof” that they were bad parents. There has been speculation that JonBenét could have become a murder target because of her pageant activities.

We might never know why JonBenét Ramsey was killed and who murdered her. But her father says in the documentary that the “real tragedy” is that Patsy “has been maligned as awful. She was an amazing mother.” He also says that the Ramsey family and their supporters won’t give up until JonBenét’s killer is caught. Sadly, unless there is a confession backed up with proof, this is a murder that’s unlikely to be solved.

Smit’s family members seem to be carrying on his legacy by being interviewed about the case and by making public his audio and video recordings that he made about his investigation. Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra and his granddaughters Lexi Marra and Jessa Van Der Woerd (who have a JonBenét Ramsey podcast) were prominently featured in ABC’s “20/20” episode titled “The List: Who Killed JonBenét?,” which aired on January 15, 2021. This “20/20” news report is very similar to “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (including interviewing some of the same people), except the “20/20” report had a variety of interviewees and at least made the effort to explore Smit’s suspicions about who could have been the “mystery intruder.” Unfortunately, it all adds up to recycled information that does nothing to make a breakthrough in the case.

Discovery+ premiered “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please,’ starring Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Michael Alonga, Robert Bouvard, Claude Diaz, George Roth and Joseph Touchette

January 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Arango, also known as Adrian, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please”

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.

Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.

George Roth, also known as Rita George, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Zachary Shields/Discovery+) 

Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?

The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in their 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.

The interviewees include:

  • Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
  • Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
  • James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
  • Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
  • Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued at $3,000 at the time
  • Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
  • Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
  • George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
  • Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”

Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”

And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer in the U.S. during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.

The friends, many of whom became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidant, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.

Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”

Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.

Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”

In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.

Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”

Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.

The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.

Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.

Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.

Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”

The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”

The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point for LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.

Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.

Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘MLK/FBI,’ starring Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Clarence Jones, Beverly Gage, Donna Murch and David Garrow

January 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Martin Luther King Jr. in “MLK/FBI” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“MLK/FBI”

Directed by Sam Pollard

Culture Representation: The documentary “MLK/FBI” features an American group of white and black scholars, authors, civil rights activists and law enforcement officials commenting on American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by J. Edgar Hoover, when King was at the height of his power in the 1960s.

Culture Clash: King’s civil rights activism and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War angered high-ranking U.S. government officials, who labeled him as an enemy.

Culture Audience: “MLK/FBI” will appeal primarily to people interested in King’s legacy, the history of U.S. civil rights and reports involving government conspiracies.

Martin Luther King Jr. (speaking at podium) in “MLK/FBI” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The riveting documentary “MLK/FBI” gives a clear and precise presentation of how the FBI targeted civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. King, who was also a Baptist minister, was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. It isn’t a secret that the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, had intense surveillance of King and plotted to dig up scandalous information on him, in order to disgrace King and take away his power. The FBI documents detailing this surveillance have been declassified and are available for public viewing. What “MLK/FBI” (directed by Sam Pollard) does notably is provide an important historical context of what was going on in King’s life that escalated the FBI’s scrutiny of him.

“MLK/FBI” immerses viewers into King’s civil rights years by having almost nothing but archival footage from this era. The only exception is toward the end of the documentary, when several of the commentators who are interviewed or shown on camera during the last 10 minutes of this 106-minute film. Prior to being shown on screen, the commentators are only heard in voiceovers.

Many documentaries fall into a trap of interviewing too many people, which can often overstuff a documentary and make it too messy and unfocused. Instead, “MLK/FBI” wisely took a “less is more” approach. Only eight people are interviewed in the documentary. They are:

  • James Comey, FBI director from 2013 to 2017
  • Beverly Gage, Yale University history professor and author of “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century”
  • David Garrow, author of “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” (which is the basis of the “MLK/FBI” documentary) and “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”
  • Clarence Jones, attorney and former speechwriter who worked with King
  • Charles Knox, retired FBI special agent in counterintelligence
  • Donna Murch, Rutgers University history professor and author of “Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California”
  • Marc Perrusquia, journalist for the Memphis-based newspaper The Commercial Appeal
  • Andrew Young, civil rights activist and former politician who was executive director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1964 to 1969. King was the first president of SCLC, which was launched in 1957.

All of them except for Perrusquia and Comey (who doesn’t say much in the movie) appear on camera at the end of the documentary. But what they all have to say confirms that by the time that King was murdered, the FBI had labeled him a menace to society and he lost the support of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). In addition to King’s political activities making him a target of the FBI, his marital infidelities became the focus of a smear campaign to ruin his credibility as a moral leader.

It’s already been widely reported that the FBI’s plan, according to declassified documents, was to expose salacious details about King’s sex life. The FBI audio recorded many of his trysts with women by spying in hotels and various other places, and placing recording devices in the rooms where King was staying. King and many of his close associates had their homes “bugged” with surveillance devices, and their phones were wiretapped.

The documentary mentions that in 1977, the FBI was ordered to turn over the surveillance tapes to the National Archives. These sealed recordings can be unsealed and released to the public in 2027. While retired FBI agent Knox says in the “MLK/FBI” documentary that no good come from releasing the tapes, most of the other pundits in the documentary say that it’s in the public’s best interest to know what’s on the tapes.

There’s no doubt very explicit sexual content on the tapes, and it’s been public knowledge for decades that King cheated on his wife Coretta. But aside from the sexual content, the curiosity about the tapes has a lot to do with how far the FBI went in trying to bring down King and ruin him. Who was worse in the failings of morality and ethics? The FBI or King?

“MLK/FBI” also mentions a disturbing allegation noted in the FBI surveillance documents: During an alleged sex orgy, King allegedly stood by and laughed while witnessing an unnamed Baltimore minister rape a woman. However, Murch, Gage and some of the other documentary pundits point out that what the FBI agents reported should get some level of scrutiny and skepticism, since the FBI agents who were spying on King were rewarded for digging up the nastiest dirt possible on King. Therefore, it’s likely that some FBI agents might have been motivated to exaggerate or fabricate information that was put in the written documents.

It’s not a mystery why King became a target of the FBI. Gage comments: “The FBI was most alarmed about King because of his success. And they were particularly concerned that he was this powerful, charismatic figure who had the power to mobilize people.” Murch adds that civil rights leaders are often seen as heroes by the general public but are branded as “troublemakers” or “threats” by law enforcement: “When you look at the social movements from the point of view of the FBI, it looks very different … J. Edgar Hoover is famous for saying that he feared a black Messiah.”

Young and Jones, the close confidants of King who are interviewed in “MLK/FBI,” both say that the U.S. government underestimated King and then eventually began to fear him. King advocated for a non-violent civil rights movement, in keeping with his Christian faith. It’s a philosophy that not everyone agreed with (such as the Black Panthers and other left-wing groups) because these critics of King’s non-violent approach felt that the use of violent force was necessary to get things done.

Young comments on being involved in a grassroots movement for social change where King told activists not to use weapons and to treat their oppressors with kindness: “He let us accept the fact that what we were doing was insane … We were trusting in the power of God, and only crazy kind of people of faith would be willing to put their lives on the line and trust in God.”

What wasn’t crazy was Jones’ paranoia that King and his closest associates were under FBI surveillance. Jones found out that his own home was “bugged” and wiretapped when his wife told him about men who came to their house while Jones was away. These men claimed to be phone company employees who were ordered by Jones to work on the house’s phones.

However, what the men said was a lie because Jones made no such request. Jones says that King didn’t believe at first that the FBI would go to the trouble of spying on King. However, King got a rude awakening when the FBI sent sexually explicit recordings of his infidelities to King and his wife, with a cruel note saying that King should kill himself.

According to the documentary, the FBI also leaked some of these sex recordings to the media when King was alive, but the media refused to report these scandalous details, much to the annoyance of Hoover. Ironically, Hoover had his own sexual proclivities that he wanted to keep secret from the public. The documentary alludes to Hoover’s reported homosexuality (without mentioning that he was also a cross-dresser in private), but doesn’t sink into tabloid territory by going into tawdry details, since the movie is about King, not Hoover’s private life.

However, the documentary repeatedly names Hoover (who founded the FBI and was the FBI’s leader from 1935 to 1972) and William C. Sullivan (who was FBI director of domestic intelligence operations from 1961 to 1971) as the chief instigators of the campaign to ruin King’s life. According to Jones, the FBI under Hoover’s leadership had this attitude toward King: “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.”

King’s close friendship with attorney/accountant Stanley Levison, who got to know King through Jones, also made King a target of Hoover’s Communist-hating FBI because Levison was a known Communist associate. As Garrow explains it in the documentary, the FBI went to then-U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy Jr. (JFK) to warn the two brothers about King’s ties to Levison. RFK then advised King to distance himself from Levison, and King agreed.

But in reality, the FBI found out through surveillance that King still secretly kept in touch with Levison. The FBI took this information back to RFK as “proof” that King couldn’t be trusted. RFK then authorized the wiretaps of King. But what started out as surveillance of King as a perceived “Communist threat” turned into something much more personal when the FBI discovered that King was a serial cheater in his marriage.

The FBI surveillance wasn’t the only way that the FBI dug up dirt on King. The FBI also paid informants who were either part of King’s inner circle or had regular close access to King. It’s explained that because FBI agents at the time were almost all white men who couldn’t go undercover as black people, the FBI used black people as informants to get other inside information on King. Two of the African American informants named in the documentary are photojournalist Ernest Withers and SCLC comptroller Jim Harrison. None of this is new information, since it was reported decades ago.

The documentary also chronicles how the FBI’s vendetta against King went public when Hoover ignited a feud with King in 1964, when he told reporters at a press conference in Washington, D.C., that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” King then offered to meet with Hoover to try to sort out their differences. That closed-door meeting, which was the first and only time that King and Hoover met in person, was described as “very friendly” by King in the documentary’s archival footage of King being surrounded by reporters after coming out of the meeting.

However “friendly” that meeting might have been, it didn’t stop the FBI surveillance, and King continued to speak out and protest against racial injustice. And he also took up the cause of the anti-Vietnam War movement. LBJ was King’s ally until King began speaking out against the Vietnam War.

It’s pointed out in the documentary that in 1965, King had abided by LBJ’s request to stay publicly silent about the Vietnam War. King heeded that request until 1967, when he saw a photo spread in Ramparts magazine that had graphically gruesome photos of Vietnamese people (particularly children) who were bombing victims in the war. Footage of King’s famous 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church in New York City is included in the documentary.

King was assassinated shortly after he announced the Poor People’s Campaign protests to march near government buildings and demand more resources for financially disadvantaged people. A longtime criminal named James Earl Ray was arrested and convicted of the murder, but some of the documentary’s pundits imply that Ray was not someone who acted alone to plan this heinous crime.

In addition to a wealth of archival visual footage (which naturally includes King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington), “MLK/FBI” also includes snippets of audio recordings that were secret at the time. There’s an undated audio clip of a conversation between LBJ and an unidentified FBI agent. In the conversation, LBJ says he’s being pressured to attend a dinner in New York with King, and he wonders if he should still go. The FBI agent advises LBJ not to attend the dinner. (The clip doesn’t say which dinner this was, so viewers won’t know if LBJ actually did attend or not.)

For some added pop-culture context, “MLK/FBI” also includes clips from the 1959 movie “The FBI Story” (starring James Stewart as a loyal FBI agent) and the 1948 film “Walk a Crooked Mile,” starring Dennis O’Keefe as a crusading FBI agent who teams up with a Scotland Yard detective to track down Communists. These clips are used in “MLK/FBI” to contrast the heroic images of FBI agents in entertainment media with the sinister reality of what the FBI was doing behind the scenes to King.

Several of the people interviewed in “MLK/FBI” say that the real motive to make King a target of FBI surveillance wasn’t because he was a threat to U.S. democracy but because he was a threat to white supremacy. After all, King preached non-violence and he was definitely not a Communist. King’s colleague Young says in the documentary: “In a very emotional and volatile environment, it was very important for us to come across as reasonable, sane and patriotic—because we were. We just wanted America to be what America said it was supposed to be.” Tragically, King was murdered for these beliefs, but his civil rights legacy continues to live on.

IFC Films released “MLK/FBI” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Through the Night’ (2020), starring Deloris Hogan and Patrick Hogan

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

“Through the Night” (2020)

Directed by Loira Limbal

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Rochelle, New York, the documentary “Through the Night” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and Latinos) who are connected in some way to Dee’s Tots Childcare, a family-owned business that does 24-hour childcare.

Culture Clash: Many of the parents who are clients of Dee’s Tots Childcare are overworked and have financial strains that make it hard to afford childcare.

Culture Audience: “Through the Night” will appeal primarily to people who want an insightful look at how a childcare business works when it’s open 24 hours a day.

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

Affordable childcare is big issue for a lot of parents who have to work outside the home. And it becomes even more complicated and difficult if parents work the night shift, since many childcare facilities are only open during the day. “Through the Night” (directed by Loira Limbal) takes an intimate look at a family-owned business called Dee’s Tots Childcare (located in New Rochelle, New York) that is one of the few 24-hour childcare places in the area.

The husband and wife who own Dee’s Tots Childcare are Deloris Hogan (nicknamed Nunu) and Patrick Hogan (nicknamed PopPop), who co-founded the business sometime in the late 1990s. Deloris and Patrick take turns in their work shifts to watch the children in their care. The Hogans also have about five or six employees who help with running the business, which cares for children of a wide age range, from infants to those attending high school.

In addition to providing childcare needs (shelter, food, drinks and a place a sleep), Dee’s Tots Childcare gives some basic education in math and English for the children who need it. The childcare center also teaches gardening in a small nearby garden. The atmosphere is very much like a family home, and most of the clients come from working-class households.

Although Deloris and Patrick share duties in running their childcare center, when someone in the documentary comments, “PopPop is king,” Deloris is quick to clarify by declaring: “Actually, I’m queen and the king.” She also talks about why she started the childcare center. Deloris used to be a homemaker, but the idea to start a childcare business happened after a female friend of Patrick’s got into a car accident and asked the couple to look after her son while she was recuperating in the hospital.

Deloris comments on being in the childcare business: “It’s not just a job. This really is our life. My children, ever since they were the age of 2 years old, they had to share me with other children.” The children shown in this documentary are well-behaved and respectful. If people are looking for a comedy-styled film where the childcare center has to contend with some unruly brats, this isn’t that movie. There are plenty of fictional films with a story about kids who make trouble for babysitters.

To make their childcare center as home-like as possible, the Hogans celebrate children’s birthdays. They also give Christmas gifts to the parents and kids who are their regular clients. (Two kid siblings named Naima Harrell and Noah Harrell get a lot of screen time.) And when children in their care age out and become too old for childcare, the Hogans have a graduation ceremony for them. It’s made clear that children who are “alumni” of Dee’s Tots Childcare are welcome to come back and visit. And many of them often do.

“Through the Night” is a bare-bones documentary that is more “slice of life” than groundbreaking. A few parents are interviewed on camera and predictably praise Dee’s Tots Childcare. A registered nurse (who is unidentified) says, “It was hard to make the adjustment to leave my child with someone else for 14 years, but I felt secure with Nunu.” Another unidentified woman, who says she’s a single mother who has two part-time jobs, comments: “If I didn’t have Nunu, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Deloris, who is more talkative and has more screen time than her husband Patrick, also talks about the couple’s courtship. Deloris says that when she met Patrick, she knew pretty quickly that he was “the one” and predicted on their first meeting that they would get married. He was fixing her brother’s bicycle, and Patrick confessed later that this repair job was intentional because he had a crush on Deloris and wanted to be closer to her.

Not everything goes smoothly in the documentary. Deloris experienced major health problems during the course of filming. During a doctor’s visit for numbness in her shoulder, the doctor tells Deloris that if the numbness continues, she will have to have surgery. Deloris says that her shoulder numbness is the result of years of heavy lifting and other physical strains because of her job.

Later in the movie, things get even more serious for Deloris, as she has emergency surgery for a large tumor in her head. After the surgery, she lost 50% of the vision in one of her eyes. Her senses of taste and smell were also significantly diminished.

Despite these health problems, Deloris remains determined to still work in childcare. She also refuses to wallow in self-pity. Deloris says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself because “I could’ve been dead … I have to keep moving because I have something to do.”

Although Deloris mentions that the state of New York could improve its childcare resources, the documentary doesn’t get too much into details about what child caregivers such as the Hogans can do about it. Instead, the documentary shows that Dee’s Tots Childcare is more focused on being involved in community outreach activities. For example, there’s a scene where Dee’s Tots Childcare participates in a local Thanksgiving parade.

“Through the Night” might seem boring to some people who are expecting this documentary to be a faster-paced film. Ultimately, the movie gives a realistic and endearing portrait of how a family-owned business is surviving as a 24-hour childcare center. (“Through the Night,” which had been scheduled for a world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered the childcare industry.) “Through the Night” doesn’t pretend to have any solutions to long-term childcare industry problems, but the documentary presents a story that is relatable to a lot of people.

Long Shot Factory released “Through the Night” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The PBS series “POV” will premiere the movie in May 2021, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Dear Santa’ (2020) starring Robin Gellman, Damion DiGrazia, Gail Branham, Ashley Jones, Jennifer Jones and Matt Beresh

December 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dear Santa” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Dear Santa” (2020)

Directed by Dana Nachman 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the family-friendly documentary “Dear Santa” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian and Hispanic) group of working-class and middle-class people discussing the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa program that handles letters to Santa Claus.

Culture Clash: Letters to Santa Claus get written, but not all gift wishes can be granted.

Culture Audience: “Dear Santa” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a feel-good documentary about generosity and the spirit of Christmas.

Robin Gellman (second from left) with students in “Dear Santa” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

What happens to letters in the U.S. that get sent to Santa Claus? The heartwarming and delightful documentary “Dear Santa” gives an inside look at Operation Santa, the U.S. Postal Service program that takes care of these letters and often helps makes the wishes in these letters come true. It’s a movie that people of any generation can enjoy. And in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, there is no talk that will ruin anyone’s idea of Santa Claus, especially if anyone watching this movie believes that Santa Claus is real.

Directed by Dana Nachman, “Dear Santa” features a lot of adorable kids without being cloying. The children (who talk about Santa Claus and what they want for Christmas) are real, down-to-earth and relatable to a lot of families. These kids are obviously not “showbiz” types who see this movie as a stepping stone to a career in acting.

The adults in the documentary are either the children’s parents or they are involved in Operation Santa in some way. Many of the adults are volunteers or postal workers who call themselves “elves” in their mission to answer letters from children (especially underprivileged kids) and surprising them with gifts that were on their Christmas wish list. And the documentary shows some kids who are part of the Operation Santa program too.

According to the documentary, the U.S. Postal Service began receiving a great deal of letters to Santa Claus around the year 1907, although kids were no doubt writing to Santa for a long period of time before then. In 1912, the U.S. Postal Service officially authorized its workers and other people to begin answering the letters—and Operation Santa was born. Local post offices distribute the letters to several volunteer “elves,” many of whom work with or for non-profit charity organizations, churches and schools to coordinate giving gifts that are listed in the letters to Santa.

The way that “Dear Santa” is edited, the documentary jumps around and goes back and forth in different cities across the United States. They include New York City; Chicago; Detroit; Lansing, Michigan; Pearce, Arizona; and Chico, California. In each city, a select number of children’s letters are read on camera, and viewers get to see many of these children with their parents at home. Later in the movie, it’s shown whether or not these children get the items that they requested in their letters to Santa.

With few exceptions, everyone in the documentary is identified by their first names only. If someone’s last name is mentioned, it’s only because another person in the movie happened to verbally mention that person’s last name. The omission of last names is not just for privacy reasons, but it adds to the “mystique” when the “elf” adults talk about working with Santa.

A U.S. Postal Service worker named Greg, who’s identified in the movie as Operation Santa’s “lead elf,” talks about how different regions of the country can have different types of requests: “For instance, in New York, they’re much more into electronics than a lot of the country. You go to California—you guessed it—a lot more surfboards are being asked for. Most of the kids are just very, very polite when they ask Santa for their gifts.”

And what types of gifts are asked for in this documentary? In Lansing, a boy named Christopher is fascinated with dutch bunnies. In New York City, a 12-year-old boy named Bryan wishes he could take a limo ride around the city with his mother and other family members. In Chico, two girls (one named Victoria, the other named Lorelai) whose families lost their homes in the 2018 wildfire disaster in Paradise, California, ask for toys and household items that were lost in the fires.

Children aren’t the only ones who make gift requests to the Operation Santa program. The movie also shows adults making requests too, especially single mothers who are struggling financially. The requests are usually for children’s clothing and household items. For example, one mother asks for a new sofa. Another mother, who’s pregnant with her fifth child, asks for baby items. For many underprivileged people, food is often requested in letters to Santa.

The people who volunteer to personally handle the responsibility of giving the items requested in the letters have to go through a process of reading the letters they want to “adopt.” In 2017, Operation Rescue began digitizing the letters to make them easier to read and organize. A women named Janice, who is identified as Operation Santa’s “lead elf” in Chicago, has this to say about what people experience in the letter-reading “adoption” process: “Once they start reading, they can’t stop. We actually put tissues on the table because they cry.”

And there might be many tears shed while watching “Dear Santa,” not from sadness but from the poignant scenes of innocent children experiencing the joy of feeling wanted, loved and respected. The material gifts are just symbols of those feelings that they hope to get when they want Santa to answer their letters. And adults watching this documentary might feel nostalgic about what it was like to experience the Christmas holidays as children.

A woman named Jamie, who is identified as the lead elf in Chico, is one of the adults who unapologetically gets tearful when she does her Operation Santa work. Like many residents of Chico, she is a former resident of Paradise who lost her home in the fires. In the documentary, she says that she was making sure to be on a special lookout for Santa letters to help families who also lost their home.

The documentary shows the work of some groups that obtain, wrap and distribute the gifts for the Santa letters that they “adopt.” One of these groups is There Really Is a Santa Claus, a Chicago-based non-profit that was co-founded in 2006 by Ashley Jones, Jennifer Jones and Matt Beresh. Another non-profit is Santa’s Knights, based in New York City and founded in 2016 by Damion DiGrazia. And at P.S. 253 in New York City’s Brighton Beach district in Brooklyn, teacher Robin Gellman leads a group of students who are part of the school’s Pay It Forward program.

DiGrazia tells a poignant story about how the Operation Santa program had a profound impact on him as a child. When he was about 10 or 11 years old, his family was going through some personal hardships. His single mother was financially struggling to raise him and his two siblings.

He wrote a letter to Santa asking for an alarm clock and a radio. To his amazement and delight, he got an alarm clock radio. DiGrazia said he’ll never forget how he felt when he got that Christmas gift. And that’s the feeling he wants other kids to have when he does his work with Operation Santa, whose New York operations are headed by Gail Branham, another person who’s interviewed in the documentary.

“Dear Santa” has some scenes that look a bit contrived when DiGrazia scrambles to find enough donations so that he can fulfill the wishes of 25 letters that he “adopted.” He says he used up all his money and is “tapped out” from asking people in his network. He goes from retailer to retailer asking if they can donate items that are on the list, but he ends up empty-handed. And finally, with time running out, he has a fundraiser at a local bar. Did he get what he needed? Well, it wouldn’t be in the movie if he didn’t.

At P.S. 253 in Brooklyn, New York, the school’s Pay It Forward leader Gellman teaches kids how to evaluate requests based on what they have the budgets to buy. The students get to vote on which letters to “adopt.” And they are especially impressed with letters from kids who don’t ask for anything for themselves but for other people in their families.

Gellman comments on how Pay It Forward’s work with Operation Santa has an effect on the students who participate: “Most children don’t feel they have the power to make somebody’s dream come true like that … I think our students really develop some empathy, civic pride and an overall good feeling to be Santa and make somebody’s dreams come true.”

The documentary is inclusive of a diverse array of communities, including the LGBTQ community. In New York City, an openly gay man named Michael gets emotional when he talks about how he took a break from Operation Santa, but was motivated to start volunteering in the program again after he read a letter from a gay boy whose only wish was to get love and acceptance from Santa and God. A married lesbian couple in Detroit named Kelsey and Val, who are involved in animal rescues, are shown delivering a puppy to a family whose kids finally got their request for a dog after their mother refused for years to let them have a dog.

“Dear Santa” is not a religious movie, since the Operation Santa program is for everyone, regardless if people have a religion or not. One of the best things about the documentary is it shows how the joy of giving (without expecting anything in return) is contagious and that there’s nothing like seeing happy children. Only the most cold-hearted people won’t feel any emotions from watching “Dear Santa.” The movie will also make people think about how much they can give back to their communities—not just during the end-of-year holidays but throughout the entire year.

IFC Films released “Dear Santa” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ’76 Days,’ starring Yang Li and Tian Dingyuan

December 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

A COVID-19 patient (center) accompanied by two nurses in Wuhan, China, in “76 Days” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“76 Days”

Directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu and Anonymous

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Wuhan, China, the documentary “76 Days” features an all-Asian group of medical professionals, patients and family members who were affected by the COVID-19 shutdown when the city was the epicenter of the virus.

Culture Clash: The documentary chronicles what the crisis was like for four overwhelmed hospitals, which had to turn patients away due to overcrowding and prevented people from visiting patients due to the medical dangers of spreading the virus.

Culture Audience: “76 Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an inside look at how Chinese medical facilities and staffers handled the COVID-19 crisis at the beginning of the outbreak.

A doctor and a COVID-19 patient in Wuhan, China, in “76 Days” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the subject of numerous documentaries and news reports, with many focusing on what went wrong during this worldwide health crisis. The impactful documentary “76 Days” doesn’t have a political agenda, nor is it interested in placing any blame on why the virus spread to devastating proportions. Instead, the film is an unflinching look inside four of the hospitals in Wuhan, China, during the 76 days of lockdown that that city experienced when it was the COVID-19 epicenter.

Directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu and a Chinese news journalist who wants to remain anonymous, “76 Days” is filmed in the best format for this subject matter: completely cinéma vérité, with no archival footage, no interviews with talking heads, no voiceover narration, no re-enactments and no animation. The film is so minimalist that there isn’t even any music to trigger certain emotions.

The lockdown in Wuhan (a city of about 11 million people) began on January 23, 2020, and ended on April 8, 2020. Production of the documentary began in early February 2020. To get access inside these hospitals during the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the “76 Days” directors had to follow the same safety protocols as everyone else in the hospitals. (Wuhan Red Cross Hospital is one of the medical facilities in the documentary. )

According to the production notes for “76 Days,” Chen and the anonymous co-director are both news journalists who filmed the actual footage. Wu (a Chinese filmmaker who splits his time between living in the U.S. and China) stayed in the U.S. during filming, and he did the editing for the film. Although there is some footage of people outside of the hospitals, the majority of the film takes place in a hospital setting.

Wu explains in the “76 Days” production notes: “In production there were many discussions about what aspects of Wuhan’s city life to cover, and whether and how much to contrast the Wuhan stories with the increasingly global pandemic stories. Once I started editing, however, I quickly realized that the strongest footage was that shot in the hospitals. And since the worldwide media were already reporting extensively on the chronology of the pandemic’s evolution, I decided to tell our story in the barest fashion possible, to focus on the individual experiences and forego any illustration of the bigger environment that these personal stories happen in.”

He adds, “A few of the hardest-hit hospitals only allowed reporters and filming crews thoroughly vetted by the authorities. But that strict control was not applied uniformly to all hospitals or throughout the entire lockdown period. Early in the lockdown when the situation was dire and chaotic and there was a severe shortage of medical supplies, many hospitals actually welcomed media exposure to help them look for help. Some of the medical teams sent from elsewhere in China to support Wuhan were also open to being filmed, partly due to their desire to have their own images documented in this historical moment.”

All of this information is important context to explain the filmmakers’ choices in what is shown and what is not shown in the documentary. What viewers won’t see are bodies being taken out of hospitals, people dying on camera or other images that would be considered too disturbing or exploitative. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any raw and emotional moments in the documentary, but there’s a real sense that the filmmakers wanted to respectfully show the toll that the COVID-19 crisis took on not just the patients but also the health care workers on the front lines.

The opening scene is one of those painful emotional moments in the film: A female hospital employee in a hazmat suit wails and sobs because her father has died in the hospital and she wasn’t able to say goodbye to him. She is comforted by co-workers, but they also have to deal with the reality that she can’t take time off from work because the hospital is overwhelmed and understaffed.

One of her co-workers tells her to try to pull herself together: “What will you do if you fall sick? We all have to work in the afternoon.” It’s a situation that’s experienced by untold numbers of health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic: Not only do they have the enormous pressure of trying to save lives, but they too could be dealing with a loss of a loved one who died of COVID-19.

Another poignant moment is when a middle-aged male patient is shown having an emotional breakdown over his COVID-19 diagnosis because he is afraid of dying. As he sobs to someone about it over the phone, whoever is on the other line doesn’t seem to be very sympathetic, because the person tells him to stop crying because the doctors must be tired of seeing him get emotional. Through the tears, the man insists that he’s still a good Communist and loyal to the Community Party.

There are only two people in the documentary who are identified by name: a nurse named Yang Li and a doctor named Tian Dingyuan. Everyone else is “anonymous,” but there are certain people who featured more prominently than others. The way the documentary is edited, viewers get to see what happens to these featured individuals at various points during the lockdown.

Yang mentions all the ID cards, phones and other personal possessions of dead patients that are stored in containers in a certain part of the hospital. The loved ones of the deceased have to be notified to claim these possessions. And toward the end of the film, Yang is the one who’s shows doing this very emotionally difficult task. In one scene, she breaks down in tears when she goes outside to meet the daughter of a dead female patient and hand over the patient’s possessions. She makes a sincere apology for not being able to save this mother, and her daughter ends up crying too.

Tian is also shown to be a compassionate hospital worker. While speaking with an elderly man who is a COVID-19 patient, the patient says of the health care workers who treat the patients: “It’s so dangerous being in contact with us. You are all fearless soldiers.” The doctor replies, “Stay strong. Your wife is waiting for you.”

One of the memorable patients who gets the most screen time is an elderly man in his 70s who keeps complaining about being confined in the hospital. He’s feisty and constantly talks about how he can’t wait to leave the hospital. At one point, he tries to leave the hospital on his own around 10 p.m., but he’s confused because he thinks it’s daytime. The hospital workers gently detain him before he leave the hospital, since he’s still under quarantine.

This patient survives, and an interesting thing happens when he’s ready to be discharged: He says he doesn’t want to leave the hospital. Why? He reveals: “My hometown is too backward.” And he says of the dwelling where he lives: “There are already too many people under one roof. And they like to pick on me.”

It’s an example of how the stories of these COVID-19 patients and hospital patients in general can be much more complex than they first appear to be. This patient who at first seems to be a cranky old man who hates being in the hospital turns out to be someone who is hurting in other ways that a hospital can’t necessarily fix. This documentary only focuses on in-patient care, but it will make people wonder about what happens to COIVD-19 patients after they leave hospitals and how they will be cared for during their outpatient recoveries.

Also featured in “76 Days” is footage of a few pregnant women who gave birth while having COVID-19. Fortunately, their babies survived, but the babies had to be quarantined from the parents. One young couple couldn’t bring their baby daughter (their firstborn child) home for a period of time that’s not stated in the movie but it’s implied to be at least two weeks. The documentary has some brief footage of the couple at home as they prepare to bring their daughter home.

When they arrive at the hospital on homecoming day, the wife comments to the husband that she hopes that their daughter is pretty. The husband says that she should be more concerned with their daughter being healthy. The wife replies confidently that she knows their daughter is healthy and it would be great if she’s also pretty. When these new parents finally get to bring their child home, there are the expected tears and emotions.

Early on in “76 Days,” the problem of not having enough room for patients is shown when a female nurse and a male co-worker have to literally barricade themselves behind a door, where people are frantically pounding to get inside. The nurse has to yell that only people with COVID-19 symptoms are allowed inside, and only a few people at a time. It’s an order that many of the people outside aren’t too happy with, but they have no choice, since many hospitals hit hard by COVID-19 had to have the same policy.

Even though some groups of people are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, the virus doesn’t care who it infects. Yang makes this comment: “Rich, poor, revered or despised—fate befalls all.” There will continue to be debates over the politics and solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic. And even though “76 Days” takes place in China, the documentary insightfully shows how compassion and the challenging pandemic effects on patients, their loved ones and health care professionals have more similarities than differences around the world.

MTV Documentary Films released “76 Days” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,’ starring Gretchen Sorin, Allyson Hobbs, Craig Steven Wilder, Christopher West, Fath Ruffins and Eric Avila

December 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ben Chaney (center) and his family in the car on the way to the funeral of his brother James in Meridian, Mississippi, on August 7, 1964, in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” (Photo by Bill Eppridge/Courtesy of PBS)

“Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America”

Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people and one Latino) of academics, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by African Americans who’ve taken various modes of transportation, especially cars, in the United States.

Culture Clash: African Americans are often the targets of bigotry, violence or other acts of hate for driving or traveling.

Culture Audience: “Driving While Black” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-researched historical accounts of racial bigotry in America, but the movie lacks perspectives from young people and in-depth coverage of recent “driving while black” controversies.

A crowd attacking cars driven by African Americans in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)

There are tragically too many stories, both known and unknown, of people of color being refused service, getting harassed, assaulted or killed because of their race. The documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” gives a mostly somber historical chronology of how race plays a role in the mistreatment of black people who travel by motor vehicle in America. Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns, the documentary has a very scholarly tone, since most of the people interviewed for the film are academics.

The movie, which has the usual blend of talking heads and archival footage, can come across as too dry and stodgy for some viewers. No one under the age of 50 is interviewed in the movie. And shutting out that youthful perspective is a strange choice for this documentary, because young people are often the most vulnerable and frequent targets of racism for “driving while black.”

Because a great deal of “Driving While Black” is about what happened before the 21st century, “Driving While Black” might also disappoint people who are expecting more current events to be the primarily focus of the film. The movie is told in chronological order, so it isn’t until the last half-hour of this nearly two-hour film that people will see modern examples of racist incidents caught on video, involving African Americans who were harassed in or near their cars and were sometimes killed. News clips and viral videos are shown of these incidents, but the documentary doesn’t try to investigate or reveal anything new.

In other words, don’t expect to see any groundbreaking insight into some of the most notorious “driving while black” incidents that are widely described as racist because of controversial police actions against Rodney King, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Richard Hubbard III or Jacob Blake. All of these incidents stemmed from these unarmed African Americans being stopped by police while in or near a car. The documentary has brief snippets of video clips from these incidents but doesn’t interview anyone involved.

Even though the title of the movie is called “Driving While Black,” the documentary actually covers all major forms of transportation (except airplanes) and how transportation pertains to racial bigotry. The movie begins with an overview of how Africans were captured and brought to America in ships as slaves in the 1600s. “Think of the trauma and the terror and the violence of that forced mobility,” comments Stanford University historian Allyson Hobbs.

The movie covers how white racists who want to control where and when African Americans could go is a shameful part of American culture, harkening back to the slave days when slave owners would viciously beat or kill slaves for not following orders on where the slaves could or could not go. Controlling and limiting a slave’s movements were obvious ways to keep them in captivity. Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Craig Steven Wilder comments on this slavery era: “Right away, you have some elements of racial profiling, from the very beginning of the black experience in America.”

And after the Emancipation Proclamation freed U.S. slaves in 1883, many former slaves were left homeless and their mobility was limited by the types of housing that was denied to them by white racists. The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War gave way to a backlash against racial progress, and the Jim Crow era made racial segregation legal in the U.S. until the Civil Rights Act in 1964 outlawed it. Part of the American Dream includes ownership of land, which is a dream that is all too often denied to people because of their race.

Carolyn Finney, author of “Black Faces, White Spaces,” comments: “Land isn’t just about land. It’s about political and economic power, the power to choose. It’s about the freedom to move freely in space.”

The documentary covers the Great Migration during the Jim Crow era, when many African Americans from the South migrated North and West for better opportunities in housing and employment. Kathleen Franz, a historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, comments that lynchings of African Americans in the South fueled a lot of this migration. But even though many U.S. states outside of the South during the Jim Crow era technically didn’t make racial segregation legal, that didn’t mean that racism didn’t exist outside the South. Many African Americans and other people of color still came up against racial barriers all across America during the Great Migration.

It’s stated many times throughout the documentary that for most white people, taking a road trip means a fun-filled vacation. For many African Americans, taking a road trip can be fraught with danger. That’s because it’s part of African American culture to know, usually through first-hand experience, that being black means you will experience what it’s like to be questioned, stopped, harassed or attacked in places where you’re minding your own business and not breaking the law—just because someone might decide that you don’t belong there because of the color of your skin. The movie doesn’t say that it can’t happen to other races in America, but rather that this type of racism is more likely to happen to black people in America.

“Driving While Black” co-director Sorin is one of the commentators in the movie. She says in the beginning of the film: “Mobility is essential to freedom. I think the automobile is emblematic of the importance and the value of mobility in free society. But it also goes beyond mobility and allows us to understand the way that African Americans have moved forward in this country and the way that African Americans have been pushed back.”

Cars are usually a status symbol, so African Americans who drive luxury cars are often held under more scrutiny on the road than white people who drive the same cars. And even fame and money can’t make a black person immune to this racism. Many highly paid black celebrities have gone public about being pulled over by the police for “driving while black” and doing nothing wrong.

African American contributions to the auto industry are included in the film. Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson notes that black people have often been tasked with doing the most dangerous jobs in auto factories, such as working foundries where steel was forged or lifting engines. And unfortunately, black neighborhoods are often targeted for destruction, as highways and freeways were and still are frequently planned to be built though these neighborhoods, forcing many of the residents to move. Writer/filmmaker Lois Elie comments on how a neighborhood’s racial population and property values are always factors in construction of highways and freeways.

As black people in the Jim Crow era started to have more access to cars, it became important to know which businesses and areas were safe for people of color on road trips. There were several guide books, such as “Smith’s Guide,” “Grayson’s Guide” and the most well-know one of all: “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was first published in 1936 by its creator Victor Hugo Green, an enterprising African American entrepreneur who had no previous publishing experience.

The documentary includes an interview with real-estate salesperson Howard Glener, whose father took a chance on Green to print the first editions of the book, which many other white publishers refused to print. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” (which inspired the Oscar-winning 2018 movie “Green Book”) was widely distributed, with Esso gas stations being one of the publication’s main distributors.

As historian Hobbs mentions in the film, road trips for black people during the Jim Crow era had their pros and cons. On the one hand, the road trips gave black people more freedom and mobility. (These road trips were often to look for work or to visit family members.) On the other hand, Hobbs says that road trips gave black people more “exposure to more violence, indignity and humiliation.” Travel guides such as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” certainly helped many road travelers, but it could never cure the cancer of racism.

Not all of “Driving While Black” is about the doom and gloom of racism. One of the great things to come out of these travel guides was the sense of community that developed between businesses that welcomed black customers during the Jim Crow era when other business refused to serve black people. The Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans is mentioned as one of the more well-known establishments that was a haven for black people during the Jim Crow era. And several African Americans began to build their own upscale communities, such as Lincoln Hills, Colorado. Nancelia Jackson, a Lincoln Hills resident, calls it a “country club for black people.”

Dooky Chase’s, an African American-owned restaurant in New Orleans was one of the businesses that was in the travel guides listing safe places where black people could go during road trips. The documentary includes interviews with Dooky Chase’s owner Leah Chase and her daughter Stella Chase Reese (the manager of Dooky Chase’s) who offer their perspective and fond memories of the community of customers that the restaurant has had over the years. However, Chase laments that a lot of that community started to fade away after racial integration, because she says that wealthier black people began to gravitate to businesses owned by white people.

Cars played an important role for black people during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, when people were boycotting public transportation (such as buses and trains) that were racially segregated. Many civil rights activists organized carpools in their communities. Wilder comments, “It’s a wonderful way of thinking of how black people deployed the automobile to challenge Jim Crow.”

During the documentary’s last half-hour, there’s some discussion about how smartphones and social media have helped expose the types of racial profiling and racist police brutality that have been committed against black people who are driving or on the road. Fath Ruffins, a curator/historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, compares this media exposure to when the civil rights movement was broadcast on TV in the 1960s: “Something similar is going on today, where people who are not African American have begun to see, ‘Wow, there is really a tremendous difference in what driving around America and being black is than the average white American.'”

But being exposed to these racial differences and wanting to do something about racial injustice are two separate things. Jackson says that there is “widespread indifference or complicity by whites” in police violence against black people who are pulled over in traffic stops. Pasadena City College historian Christopher West gets emotional and tears up when he talks about the fear and sadness that he has for his children and other black children who have to get “the talk” about how to act when they’re being racially profiled. “Driving while black means driving while afraid,” West says with heartache in his voice.

Other academics interviewed in the documentary include Herb Boyd, historian and author of “Black Detroit”; film director /George Manson University Professor Spencer Crew, who is interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University. And other interviewees include Alvin Hall, creator/host of Driving the Green Book podcast; Walter Edwards, chairman of Harlem Business Alliance; Candacy Taylor, cultural documentarian/author of “Overground Railroad”; Jennifer Reut, historian/founder of Mapping the Green Book Project; Gary Jackson, a Denver County court judge whose great-grandfather co-founded Lincoln Heights; Five Points business owner Mae Stiger; journalist Tamara Banks; and Alison Rose Jefferson, historian/author of “Living the California Dream.”

People who already know a lot of African American history probably won’t discover many new facts that they didn’t already know if they watch “Driving While Black.” However, the documentary offers a lot of intelligent and thoughtful commentary, as well as important archival material (photos, videos and audio recordings) to give a deeper understanding of this history. Some of the archival material includes recordings and interviews with people who lived through the Jim Crow era.

Overall, “Driving While Black” is recommended for anyone who wants a broad historical context for why so much racial injustice is still happening in the United States. “Driving While Black” co-director Sorin wrote the 2020 nonfiction book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” and this documentary can be considered a visual companion to the book. Just like the book, the documentary is a sobering declaration that the history of racism continues to repeat itself.

PBS premiered “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” on October 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan,’ starring Shane MacGowan

December 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Shane MacGowan in “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” (Photo courtesy of The Gift Film Ltd./Magnolia Pictures)

“Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan”

Directed by Julien Temple

Culture Representation: The documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of Irish-British singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, who is best known as the former lead singer of The Pogues.

Culture Clash: MacGowan has had lifelong battles with drug addiction, mental illness and the prejudices between Irish and British cultures. 

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of MacGowan fans, “Crock of Gold” will appeal primarily to people interested in an unflinching look at what happens when a self-destructive artist ruins his health and career and knows that his best creative days are behind him.

A 1988 photo of Shane MacGowan in “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” (Photo by Andrew Catlin/Magnolia Pictures)

A lot of hedonistic rock stars would like to think that they can be like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Despite being an admitted and notorious alcoholic, drug addict and heavy smoker (the only drug he’s admitted to quitting is heroin), Richards is still able to function and do tours with one of the most successful rock bands of all time. He says he’ll never retire. And because of his down-to-earth, roguish charm, as well as his influential legacy of legendary songwriting and musicianship, Richards isn’t just a respected rock star. He’s beloved.

But the reality is that Richards is something of a medical miracle and truly an exception to the type of lifestyle that leaves most people dead before they reach middle-age or living a deteriorating existence plagued with myriads of health problems once they reach a certain age. It’s exactly this reality faced by Shane MacGowan, the Irish-British singer/songwriter who’s best known as the former lead singer of The Pogues. Richards is 14 years older than MacGowan, who was born in 1957, but MacGowan looks much older than most people in his own age group. Although there’s a noticeable tone of celebrity worship in the documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” the movie also shows without judgment that celebrities aren’t the invincible gods some people would like to think they are.

Johnny Depp (who’s had his own very public battles with substance abuse) is a producer of the documentary. And he’s a longtime friend of MacGowan and of Richards. (Depp directed a documentary about Richards in the 2010s that remains unreleased.) Depp appears throughout “Crock of Gold,” in scenes in a pub where he, MacGowan and MacGowan’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke are gathered for a very obviously intoxicated MacGowan and Depp to trade quips and memories about their lives and friendship.

It’s a microcosm of what this documentary is about: a select number of MacGowan’s family and friends reminiscing with him about his past, while mostly avoiding talking about his present or future. And it’s obvious to see why. The present-day MacGowan is confined to a wheelchair and barely coherent. Everything he says in the movie—from his past interviews to the interviews that he filmed for this documentary—has to have subtitles, not because of his thick accent but because he’s constantly slurring his words. It should surprise no one that he drinks alcohol during the documentary interviews and never seems to be sober.

On the one hand, “Crock of Gold” (directed by Julien Temple) veers into “hero worship” territory where people are afraid to say the obvious out loud: MacGowan is a mess and a faded shell of his former self. On the other hand, no one really has to say it out loud. It’s all painfully obvious from the footage that’s in the movie.

The problem with making a documentary about an often-incoherent celebrity who rambles a lot is that the documentary can be incoherent and rambling too. Although “Crock of Gold” is worth watching as the definitive visual biography of MacGowan, the movie also tends to be unfocused and repeat itself like, well, a drunk who can’t stop talking about how great he thinks he is. Simply put: This 124-minute movie could’ve used better editing.

There are only so many times that we need to hear MacGowan say how he was chosen by God to save Irish music, or brag about his intoxicated shenanigans over the years, or preach about how much he loves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) before it gets too boring and repetitive. The movie tends to overstate MacGowan’s influence in worldwide pop culture. He’s actually revered mostly in Europe, not so much in other continents. And everyone who participated in this documentary knows that MacGowan made his best music in the 1980s, because that’s the decade that gets the most screen time when discussing MacGowan’s creativity.

When watching “Crock of Gold,” it becomes apparent that the filmmakers couldn’t get a lot of recent interview footage for MacGowan to film for this documentary. Instead, there’s a mishmash of quotes from interviews that MacGowan did over the years for various media outlets. Some of these interviews are shown as archival video clips in the documentary, but most are used as voiceovers. Therefore, viewers can’t really be sure which period of time the voiceover comments were made in, because they’re not identified by year or media outlet.

The other way that “Crock of Gold” fills up its screen time is through animation, stock news footage and a random selection of unrelated film clips to depict MacGowan’s commentary. It’s a technique that documentary aficionados will see right away as an indication that the filmmakers just didn’t have enough original, exclusive footage of MacGowan to fill a feature-length film, so they had to resort to these gimmicks. Ralph Steadman fans will at least enjoy his eye-catching and unique animation of MacGowan’s several tales of hallucinations that MacGowan had while he was stoned. During one of those hallucinations, MacGowan says that he was in a hotel suite in New Zealand sometime in the late 1980s and imagined that blue Māori ghosts were telling him to be just like them, so he proceeded to paint himself and the entire suite blue while naked.

In “Crock of Gold,” there are many references to how MacGowan’s Catholic upbringing shaped him as a person; Irish folklore and “the luck of the Irish”; stereotypes of Irish people being drunks; and the love/hate relationship that MacGowan has with British culture. (He was born in Pembury, Kent, England; was raised in County Tipperary, Ireland; and his family moved back to England when he was 6 years old.) And there are some not-so-subtle comparisons that MacGowan makes of himself to Jesus Christ, just because MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.

In the beginning of the film, MacGowan is heard in a voiceover saying: “It’s God-given. I’ve been chosen to lead us out of the wilderness. God looked down on this little cottage in Ireland and said, ‘That little boy there, he’s the little boy that I’m gonna use to save Irish music and take it to greater popularity than it’s ever had before.'”

Apparently, MacGowan wants to forget about Van Morrison, the first world-famous Irish rock star who had a lot of Irish culture in his music. And, of course, Irish superstar band U2 was a commercial success, years before MacGowan ever released his first album with The Pogues in 1984. U2’s first album, “Boy,” was released in 1980, and U2’s Irish anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released in 1983.

In another voiceover, MacGowan also comments: “I’m sure, because I was born on Christmas Day, I was born lucky. I thank Christ for that.” But is MacGowan so “charmed” and “lucky,” considering all of his health problems and his admitted inability to no longer be the type of creative person he once was? Viewers will have to decide if they would want to be like MacGowan, and how much value should be put on “fame” when fame can’t buy health or happiness.

In the documentary, it’s clear that humility is not one of MacGowan’s virtues. He admits that he can be a difficult and “aggressive” person. And there’s a flash of his bad temper that’s shown during an interview, when he asks a female employee (it’s unclear if she’s a part of the film crew or an assistant), who’s not seen on camera: “Can you put on some recording? Some Northern soul? Tamla Motown?”

She responds by saying it can wait until later, after they’ve finished filming. (Obviously because she knows that having background music would mean having to get clearance for the music rights to use in the film.) MacGowan then snaps haughtily, “No, now! Or I don’t say another fuckin’ word!” It’s quite the display of obnoxious entitlement from a has-been rock star.

That’s not to say that MacGowan didn’t make great music, but even he knows that his relevancy as a prolific music artist is now over. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat this fact, but it also doesn’t fully acknowledge that, given this irrelevancy, MacGowan doesn’t need to be coddled and worshipped as if he’s still making great music. This is very much a nostalgia film for MacGowan and anyone who appreciates the talent he had in the past.

MacGowan’s arrogant tantrum in this movie is an indication of what the filmmakers probably had to go through to get the exclusive interview footage that did end up in the documentary. A producer’s statement in the movie’s production notes confirms that it was difficult for the filmmakers to get MacGowan to open up for new interviews, so they enlisted the help of MacGowan’s wife Clarke and MacGowan’s friends Depp, Gerry Adams (former leader of the Irish political party Sinn Féin) and Bobby Gillespie (lead singer of the Scottish band Primal Scream) to interview him for the documentary.

The unidentified producer comments in the film’s production notes: “Various trips were made to Dublin during the course of 2019 in order to catch Shane in his natural habitat, although only a few attempts proved successful. More nuanced methods were required in order to capture those notorious, honest profundities native to Shane, that Julien was searching for. Ever distrustful of the cameras and any unnecessary lighting equipment, Shane would reveal himself when less proved to be more, surrounded by those he trusted. And it was through these conversations between Shane and this special coterie of specific individuals that the film began to grow.”

Depp’s pub interview with MacGowan is more like a conversation of humorous recollections. Their banter also includes MacGowan saying that before he was famous, he made money as a “rent boy.” MacGowan quips, “Just hand jobs. It’s just a job in hand.” MacGowan also tells Depp that Depp has probably never had to be a rent boy because Depp’s good looks gave him a lot of opportunities. “You’re a sugar cube baby,” MacGowan says to a chuckling Depp. “You’re so cute, you make me sick, actually.”

In another part of the interview, they joke about Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise. (Depp has said that Richards was the biggest influence in how Depp portrays the “Pirates of the Caribbean” character Jack Sparrow. Richards has also appeared in multiple “Pirates” movies as Jack Sparrow’s father.) “What made you think I was able to stay away during ‘Pirates’?” MacGowan aks Depp. Depp replies with a laugh, “What makes you think I did?,” implying that he had a hard time staying awake too.

MacGowan’s interview with Adams focuses a lot on Irish history. It’s here where MacGowan gives a lot of commentary about his affinity for the IRA and how his songwriting was an extension of his ideological beliefs. MacGowan mentions more than once that he didn’t become an IRA soldier, but he became a musician instead to express his political views.

Gillespie’s conversation with MacGowan is mostly of MacGowan rambling about the music he made with The Pogues and his difficulties in the band. MacGowan gets the most personal and most vulnerable with Clarke, a journalist whom he married in 2018, after several years of being together as a live-in couple. They clearly love each other deeply, not in one of those showboat “I’m married to someone famous” way, but in the “ride or die” way that people who’ve been through the depths of despair together decide to stay together, no matter what.

The movie delves into the darkest parts of MacGowan’s personal history with his own reflections on his harrowing experiences with addiction and mental illness. He describes growing up in a very dysfunctional household, where he was encouraged to drink alcohol and even get drunk from the age of 6. MacGowan explains that a lot of people in Irish culture at the time believed that the younger a person starts drinking alcohol, the less likely that person will become an alcoholic because that person will learn at an early age how to handle alcohol. Obviously, that theory didn’t hold true for MacGowan, who also began smoking and doing drugs before he became a teenager.

The Catholic religion was also a big influence on Shane. As a child, MacGowan says he seriously contemplated becoming priest up until the age of 11. He thought it was an ideal job at the time because he saw the perks of the job as being able drink alcohol and smoke whenever he wanted.

“There was booze and cigarettes in heaven. That’s what I was told,” he says in the documentary. As an adolescent, Shane says he became so disillusioned with religion that he became an atheist. He mentions that his drug hallucinations about life had something to do with why he changed his mind about religion. But later on in his life, Shane says that he made peace with his Catholic upbringing.

Shane and his younger sister Siobhan (who was born in 1963) both say in the documentary that they grew up in a very permissive household. Their father Maurice MacGowan was a department-store clerk whom Shane describes as a “left-wing, IRA socialist supporter,” while Shane’s mother Therese was “beautiful” and “a brilliant singer.”

Maurice, who is now a widower, is interviewed in the documentary. There’s also archival footage of Maurice and Therese interviewed on TV about Shane. Maurice says in “Crock of Gold” how his relationship with Shane changed during Shane’s childhood: “He and I were like pals, until he was 12 and discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc. … and sniffing glue.”

Shane comments that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted as a child, as long as he went to Mass. As an example of how his family was strict about religion but permissive about other things, Shane mentions that his Aunt Nora was the “religious leader” and “religious fanatic” of the family who also gave an underage Shane alcohol and cigarettes and taught him how to gamble. Shane also mentions: “My main hero when I was small was my Uncle John” and Shane says that his Aunt Ellen “was a shit-hot fucking concertina player.”

Shane identifies as Irish, but technically, he’s a British citizen too, since he was born in England and lived there for a great deal of his life. He talks a lot in the film about how moving back to England as a child was a major trauma for him, because Irish people experienced a lot of bigotry and violence from British people. Shane says that Irish people are always negatively stereotyped as being drunks, but he fails to see the irony that he has willingly reinforced that stereotype.

Shane remembers being bullied for being Irish, and he says that he grew to hate British culture. (When playing war games as a child, he says he always wanted to be an IRA soldier, not a British soldier.) And he also expresses his disdain for how British culture places a lot of emphasis on a family’s social class to determine how people will be treated in British society.

However, Shane says that he grew to love British culture too. As a teenager, around the same time that his parents split up, he discovered the London nightlife scene and punk music. The Sex Pistols had an enormous influence on him. (There’s archival footage of Shane in the front row at several punk concerts, including the Sex Pistols.) As for Irish artists, Shane cites poet Brendan Behan as another major influence: “He was the Irish writer I identified with the most.”

Shane’s youthful rebellion and drug addiction were seemingly intertwined. After winning a writing contest, he got a literature scholarship to attend the prestigious Westminster School, but he was expelled when he was caught being a drug dealer to the school’s students. This movie review doesn’t really need to rehash all of the sleazy and horrific drug-addict/alcoholic stories about him, some of which he talks about in the film. Tabloids, other media outlets and Shane himself have exhausted that topic.

However, Shane mentions that his parents let him and his druggie friends party a lot at the MacGowan household because his parents thought it was safer for them to do drugs in the house instead of in random places. Shane says that the most frightening experience that he had with drugs was when he was a teenager and took LSD with two friends named Jez and Sarah. Unfortunately, Sarah freaked out during her acid trip and threatened to jump off of the apartment’s balcony, while his father got very angry at what was going on.

Luckily, they were able to talk Sarah off of the balcony and she changed her mind about killing herself. And shortly afterward, she ended up becoming Shane’s girlfriend. (He describes seeing rainbows when they had sex.) This near-death experience with Sarah didn’t scare Shane off of drugs though, because he seems to almost be proud for being known as a hardcore alcoholic/drug addict who’s survived longer than people thought he would.

Shane is also candid about his mental-health struggles, which he’s talked about before in many other interviews. He says in the documentary: “I had my first nervous breakdown at 6 years old,” which he says was triggered because he was so unhappy in England. Later in the documentary, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice talk about the times that Shane was involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities and the heartbreak it caused the family. They both say that Shane was never really the same after The Pogues’ grueling 1988 tour, which they believe broke him in many ways.

The documentary doesn’t reveal anything new about Shane’s career as a musician before, during and after The Pogues, a now-defunct band that was formed in 1982. There’s the expected archival concert footage and interviews of Shane and The Pogues over the years, but his former band mates are not interviewed for this documentary. The filmmakers wisely chose to not interview talking heads who are music industry “experts,” because that would go against Shane’s enduring punk spirit.

Frank Murray, the manager of The Pogues from 1985 to 1990, died in 2016, at the age of 66. Shane describes Murray as someone who acted like he wanted to be another member of The Pogues. And he mentions that Murray got a 20% cut of all of The Pogues’ concert revenues and music publishing. Siobhan hints that Murray was a greedy taskmaster because she partially blames the unrelenting Pogues tour schedule in 1988 as being the reason for Shane’s massive nervous breakdown that year.

Even before the breakdown, Shane says that he was getting sick of being in the band, which had commercial success with hit songs such as “Fairytale of New York” and “The Irish Rover.” In “Crock of Gold,” Shane repeats the story about how he went into a coma, after falling out of a van while the band was on a 1991 tour in Japan. When he woke up from the coma, the rest of the band fired him because his out-of-control drinking and drugging made him too unreliable.

Shane says his ouster from the Pogues was a “relief” for him. He went on to form another band (The Popes) and launched a solo career, but his creative output after The Pogues wasn’t as well-received by fans or critics. He gives credit to “Fairtyale of New York” duet partner Kirsty MacColl (who died in a boating accident in 2000, at the age of 41) for making the song the big hit that it was, but he also expresses mixed feelings about having that type of popularity.

By contrast, Shane doesn’t have much that’s good to say about Elvis Costello, who produced The Pogues’ 1985 second album “Rum Sodomy & the Lash,” which had the hit song “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” Shane says he fired Costello from producing the follow-up album to “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” because Costello was a “fat fuck” who was on a health-food diet and didn’t tolerate Shane’s decadent lifestyle. Shane also says that he wanted to fire Costello earlier, but the situation was complicated because Costello was romantically involved at the time with Pogues bassist Caitlin O’Riordan, who left the band in 1986. Costello and O’Riordan were married from 1986 to 2002.

But if you think “Crock of Gold” has Shane sharing a lot of inside stories about his musicianship or songwriting process, forget it. Except for a brief explanation of what inspired “Instrument of Death” (the first song he says he wrote) and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” Shane doesn’t give further insight into how he crafted any of his songs. Most likely, his brain is too fried to remember a lot of great stories that he could’ve told about what it was like to create some of his songs that his fans love the most.

Instead, “Crock of Gold” seems intent on reminding people about Shane’s legacy in music. The end of the film includes footage from the 60th birthday tribute to Shane that was held at Dublin’s National Concert Hall in January 2018. Guest artists included U2 lead singer Bono, Nick Cave, Sinéad O’Connor, Gillespie and Depp. At the show, Shane was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Ireland president Michael D. Higgins.

When interviewer Adams asks Shane if he’s writing any new songs, Shane replies, “I’ve run out of inspiration at the moment.” In the interview with Clarke, she asks Shane what he wishes most to happen in his life. His response: “I’d like to prolifically write songs again.” And then, he gives a long pause before adding, “And I’d like to be able to play pool.”

Although anyone can see the damaging effects of Shane’s alcoholism and drug addiction (he will only admit to giving up heroin), his family members insist in the documentary that Shane doesn’t really want to die. These declarations from his family members can either be considered being optimistic or being in denial.

His sister Siobhan comments, “I certainly don’t think he has a death wish. It’s probably the opposite. He’s probably one of the people who doesn’t accept death at all, I don’t think.” Shane’s wife echoes that belief: “People think he’s got a death wish. When in actual fact, that’s not the case. He just doesn’t enjoy life without a drink.”

Even though Shane hasn’t lost his sense of humor, it’s clear that he’s deeply unhappy when he thinks about how he’ll never be able to recapture his glory days. His eyes also express a lot of fear and sadness when he talks about how his creative output isn’t what it used to be. For all of the tales that are told in “Crock of Gold” about sex, drugs and rock and roll, people can judge for themselves how it all worked out for Shane MacGowan and if his lifestyle choices were really worth it in the end.

Magnolia Pictures released “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD and DVD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Baby God,’ starring Wendi Babst, Cathy Holm, Quincy Fortier Jr., Jonathan Stensland, Brad Gulko, Dorothy Otis and Mike Otis

December 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

A 1966 photo of Cathy Holm with her daughter Wendi in “Baby God” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Baby God”

Directed by Hannah Olson

Culture Representation: The documentary “Baby God,” which was filmed in various parts of the U.S. but centers primarily on activities that occurred in Nevada, features an all-white group of people discussing the actions and repercussions of the late Dr. Quincy Fortier, who illegally inseminated an unknown number of women with his semen from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Culture Clash: Several of Fortier’s secret insemination children and their mothers found out years later what Fortier did and had varying reactions to these crimes and violations of their family genetics. 

Culture Audience: “Baby God” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about family secrets or true-crime issues that involve medical doctors.

Wendi Babst in “Baby God” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The advertisements for home DNA test kits paint a heartwarming picture of people finding out great things about their ancestors and other biological relatives. What the ads never show is the dark side of taking these DNA tests, such as when people find out shocking and vile things about their biological heritage. That’s how numerous people discovered that Dr. Quincy Fortier, a Nevada obstetrician/gynecologist/fertility specialist who died in 2006 at the age of 94, was the biological father they never knew they had.

The reason why people would be horrified or ashamed that Fortier is their biological father is because Fortier illegally impregnated (through artificial insemination) an unknown number of women with his own semen instead of the semen of the correct sperm donors, without the women’s knowledge and consent. Based on DNA test results, it’s estimated that Fortier committed these heinous acts from the 1940 to 1980s. The fascinating but disturbing documentary film “Baby God” (directed by Hannah Olson) is about several women and children whose lives were permanently altered by Fortier’s genetic crimes.

Fortier was a prominent doctor who opened hospitals in Las Vegas and later in the rural town of Pioche. He was even named Doctor of the Year in 1991 by Nevada’s Clark County Medical Society. But beginning in the late 1990s, when DNA tests started to become more prevalent and accessible, Fortier was sued several times by people (former patients and/or their children) who were directly affected by his illegal inseminations. In most cases, the lawsuits were settled out of court. And the doctor never lost his medical license.

One of Fortier’s former patients who is interviewed in “Baby God” is Cathy Holm. Her daughter Wendi Babst (born in 1966; Babst is her married surname), who was one of Fortier’s secret insemination children, is also interviewed in the documentary. Holm says that when she first saw Dr. Fortier as a patient, she was a 22-year-old wife in Las Vegas who longed to become a mother.

“All my friends were having babies right off the bat, but we didn’t have one,” remembers Holm. “It wasn’t easy to easy to get pregnant.” None of the fathers who were affected by Fortier’s crimes is interviewed in this documentary. “Baby God” director Olson says that many of these deceived fathers have either died, are under gag order due to settled lawsuits, or they simply weren’t available to be interviewed for the documentary.

Holm adds that even though there was a lot of society pressure on a young wife to become a mother, “It wasn’t just the pressure. I wanted kids. Nobody had any solutions until I went to Dr. Fortier … He was listed in the phone book as a fertility specialist.”

Babst was Holm’s first child. And over time, Holm says, she noticed that her daughter didn’t resemble Holm or Holm’s husband. She also says that her daughter was a lot smarter than the other children in her class at school. Something that’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary is what people believe are the shared characteristics that Fortier’s biological children inherited from him. These character traits include above-average intelligence, piercing blue eyes and a tendency to be emotionally aloof.

In the documentary, director Olson uses an effective visual technique by showing a close-up montage of blue eyes of the children who are interviewed in the documentary, so viewers can see the ocular similarities. (Almost all of Fortier’s insemination children in the documentary have blue eyes.) And observant viewers will notice that several of the children have a nervous tick of scratching, usually their leg. It’s something that the directors “shows, not tells,” but it’s implied that this scratching habit is a characteristic that the children could also have inherited from Fortier.

“Baby God” includes footage of several of the children meeting each other, some for the first time. The other insemination children in the documentary include Brad Gulko, who has a doctorate in human evolutionary genomics, born in 1966; Mike Otis, born in 1949; Brent Leavitt, born in 1984; and Michael Cleaver, born in 1984.

Babst, who is a retired police detective, put her investigative skills to good use when she found out that Fortier was not only her biological father but also the biological father of numerous other people she never heard about or met before. In the documentary, she describes how she discovered this shocking fact after taking a DNA test that she got from Ancestry.com: “When I noticed that I had half-sibling matches, I knew something wasn’t right. The only name I kept seeing was Fortier.”

Babst was able to find several other half-siblings who were conceived in the same way that she was. By her own admission, she became obsessed with finding out how far Fortier’s crimes went. In one of the documentary’s unsettling scenes, Babst visits the abandoned Pioche Hospital where Fortier had his practice. At this hospital, she finds some of the birth record announcements of babies who were delivered by Fortier. It might never be known how many babies he delivered in his career were his biological children. But based on Babst’s reactions to finding these records, the thought has crossed her mind many times.

During Babst’s investigation, some of which is shown in the documentary, she uncovered a web of lies that went beyond what Fortier did. She also found out that several other people knew for years about the crimes that Fortier was committing, but they did nothing to stop him. These enabling or complicit actions explain why Fortier was able to get away with what he did for so many years.

Dr. Frank Silver and Dr. Harrison Sheld, two retired former employees of Dr. Fortier, are interviewed separately in the film. They say they’re not surprised that Dr. Fortier illegally impregnated so many women because they say that it’s common for male fertility doctors to have a mentality of secretly wanting to spread their genetic lineage to as many people as possible. Silver and Sheld say that they both donated sperm many times in the past, but never illegally inseminated anyone. Sheld begins chuckling when he discusses finding out about the numerous children he fathered through sperm donations.

Silver comments that at the time Fortier committed these crimes, no one had any idea that DNA testing would be invented. Although Sheld and Silver stop short of admitting that they helped cover up any of the doctor’s misdeeds, their attitude seems to be that if they did know about Dr. Fortier illegally inseminating patients, they probably weren’t going to report him because he was their boss. And these two former employees of Fortier don’t seem at all sympathetic to the victims who’ve been hurt by these widespread crimes.

However, one of the self-admitted enablers who’s interviewed in the film is Quincy Fortier Jr., who calls his father a “brilliant man … He understood the human body.” Fortier Jr. says in the documentary that his mother Ruth and the six children (four daughters and two sons) she raised with Fortier Sr. all knew for decades that Dr. Fortier was illegally inseminating his patients with his own sperm. Fortier Jr. says that his father explained it to them by saying that he was helping women conceive because these women were desperate to have children.

But the documentary includes information that not all of the female patients who were impregnated by Dr. Fortier wanted to have a child at the time they got pregnant. Shockingly, one of the patients who was impregnated against her knowledge and consent was Dr. Fortier’s own stepdaughter Connie, who was reportedly a virgin when she got pregnant through artificial insemination. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Dr. Fortier, who practiced other types of medicine even if he wasn’t technically licensed for it, insisted on having his children as his patients. Connie is not interviewed in the documentary, but the movie includes someone reading parts of a letter that Connie wrote years ago that directly addressed her stepfather’s crimes.

The result of that pregnancy was a son, born in 1965, who was adopted. His name is Jonathan Stensland, and he is also interviewed in the film. (As with all of the insemination children who are interviewed in “Baby God,” a DNA test proved that Fortier is their biological father.) In the documentary, Stensland remembers that he had a chance to meet Dr. Fortier and that the doctor was a master of avoiding topics if he didn’t want to discuss them.

“Conversations with Quincy, he doesn’t want to talk about anything that means anything,” remembers Stensland. “I can remember a feeling of mendacity. You try to listen to somebody who’s wiggling away.” Stensland also hints at a dark side to himself that he believes he could have inherited from Dr. Fortier when he thinks about what motivated the doctor to commit these crimes: “I think it was violence … I feel like the consciousness of the violence was born into me.”

“Baby God” also has an interview with Dorothy Otis, another one of Dr. Fortier’s patients who was impregnated by him when she didn’t want to get pregnant. At the time, she was living in Pioche (she now lives in Concord, California), and Dorothy says that she originally went to see Dr. Fortier about an infection. Otis’ son Mike was born as a result of this pregnancy. Just like Holm, Dorothy is a mother who didn’t find out until decades later that Dr. Fortier was the biological father of her child.

Dorothy comments that the man whom she thought was Mike’s father for all of these years was very abusive to her and Mike (her son Mike also confirms these abuse allegations), so she says she has mixed feelings about Dr. Fortier being the biological father: “I’m relieved, because I didn’t think much of what we thought was Mike’s father.” However, she says of insemination crimes committed by Fortier and other doctors: “I think it’s a terrible thing to do to people, but I wouldn’t have had Mike.”

When Dorothy found out that she was pregnant, even though she didn’t feel ready to have a child at that time in her life, Dr. Fortier convinced her that the pregnancy was a blessing. And in those days, Dorothy says doctors were trusted as much as priests. For many people, doctors are still held in such high regard that they can’t fathom the idea of a doctor committing morally reprehensible crimes. This type of blind trust meant that, especially before DNA testing existed, Dr. Fortier’s crimes went undiscovered for a long period of time.

Two of the people who still have this unwavering trust in Dr. Fortier are his adopted daughters Nannette Fortier and Sonia Fortier, whom he adopted in his 50s, after he and Ruth got divorced. Fortier Jr. says that Connie’s pregnancy was one of the main reasons for the divorce. Nannette and Sonia are both interviewed in the documentary.

Nannette didn’t allow her face to be shown in the film, although “Baby God” has archival TV news footage of Nannette accompanying Dr. Fortier to court in a rare situation where a lawsuit against him went to trial. (Before a verdict could be reached, that case was eventually settled out of court too.) Nannette also mentions something odd that can be considered “too much information” about Dr. Fortier: He circumcised himself.

Nannette and Sonia reportedly refuse to take DNA tests to find out if Dr. Fortier was their biological father. And there are other things that they deny in the film too. All they do is praise Dr. Fortier and say what a wonderful father he was to them. But there are hints (Sonia’s facial expressions and the sisters’ body language) that they know more than they’re willing to say in a documentary.

Nannette has this to say to try to excuse Dr. Fortier’s illegal insemination of his patients: “Using his own sperm, to him, was no different than using his own blood.” Sonia adds, “People were so desperate to have a child and wanted it so badly … In his mind, he meant no harm.”

But there was a lot of damage done, not the least of which is that there are unknown numbers of people whose reproductive rights were violated and who now unwillingly have Fortier’s genes in their family. Many of these people still do not know. And considering that Dr. Fortier illegally inseminated women in a relatively small geographic area, it’s very likely that many of these half-siblings have met each other without knowing that they share the same biological father. It isn’t publicly known if any of them unknowingly committed incest by getting romantically involved with someone they didn’t know was a sibling, or going even further by unknowingly marrying a sibling and unknowingly having children with a sibling.

In addition to the physical, genetic and biological repercussions, there’s the emotional devastation. The people who find out that Dr. Fortier’s crimes directly affect their families have feelings of anger and sadness over this cruel violation of their families. Children can feel confusion over their identity. Parents feel betrayed. And in some cases, as what happened with Babst, there are feelings of guilt when a child finds out and has to tell a parent that the father who raised the child isn’t the biological father.

And without revealing any spoilers, some more bombshell allegations are revealed toward the end of the film. These accusations have to do with incest and pedophilia. The person accused of committing these sex crimes was never arrested or sued for these crimes.

“Baby God” director Olson (who makes her feature-film directorial debut with this movie) has a knack for gripping storytelling by showing many examples in the film of how things are not what they first appear to be, which essentially can be a parallel metaphor for how Dr. Fortier conducted his life. In the documentary, the person who makes the allegations about incest and pedophilia seems to be one way in the beginning of the film, but when this person reveals these crimes, this person’s perspective is seen in a much different way.

Thankfully, the movie isn’t stuffed with people who weren’t directly affected by Dr. Fortier’s crimes, such as talking head “experts.” And given the sensitive nature of this documentary’s subject matter, “Baby God” doesn’t feel exploitative because Olson lets the children and their mothers give their candid perspectives without interference of pesky voiceovers or other sometimes-intrusive choices that documentary filmmakers make. While being respectful of the victims, the movie also doesn’t shy away from confronting the awful, complicated and damaging mess left behind by Dr. Fortier.

Although “Baby God” is mostly about how certain people were affected by the illegal actions of one doctor (and it’s chilling to think about how many more doctors have done the same things), this documentary speaks to much bigger problems of people being afraid to report crimes if they think someone powerful is committing those crimes. The movie is also a wake-up call about putting blind faith and complete trust in certain authority figures (such as doctors) who could decide the fates of certain people’s lives. And because the movie responsibly includes different viewpoints, it also shows that when people deny that the problem even exists, that denial is one of the biggest obstacles to getting justice.

HBO premiered “Baby God” on December 2, 2020.

Review: ‘Zappa,’ starring Frank Zappa

November 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Frank Zappa in “Zappa” (Photo by Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)

“Zappa”

Directed by Alex Winter

Culture Representation: The documentary “Zappa” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and career of eccentric musical pioneer Frank Zappa, who died in 1993 of prostate cancer.

Culture Clash: Zappa spent most of his life and career challenging conventional norms, defying conservative mindsets, and trying to avoid mainstream success. 

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Zappa fans, “Zappa” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching an official biographical film about one of rock music’s most interesting and unique artists.

Frank Zappa in “Zappa” (Photo by Dan Carlson/Magnolia Pictures)

If you’re fan of eccentric musician Frank Zappa or an aficionado of independent films that make the rounds at film festivals and fly under the mainstream radar if they’re ever released, then you might know that there was a Frank Zappa documentary film called “Eat That Question” (directed by Thorsten Schütte) that got a limited release in 2016. It was an interesting but very conventional movie that was essentially a combination of archival footage and more current documentary interviews with some of Frank Zappa’s former colleagues. The documentary film “Zappa” (directed by Alex Winter) also uses the same format of combining archival footage with new interviews about Frank Zappa, who passed away of prostate cancer in 1993, at the age of 52. Neither film is as groundbreaking as its subject, but the “Zappa” film has a major advantage over “Eat That Question,” because “Zappa” has a lot of never-before-seen footage directly from the Zappa family archives.

That’s because the “Zappa” documentary was authorized by the Zappa family. Ahmet Zappa, one of Frank’s sons, is one of the producers of the movie. There’s a treasure trove of content in the movie that is sure to thrill Zappa fans who can’t get enough of seeing previously unreleased things related to the prolific artist. “Zappa” took several years to get made because the filmmakers first “began an exhaustive, two-year mission to preserve and archive the vault materials. When this was completed, we set about making the film,” according to what director/producer Winter says in the movie’s production notes.

How long did it take for “Zappa” to get made and finally released? Frank’s widow Gail Zappa, one of the interviewees who’s prominently featured in the movie for the “new interviews,” died in 2015, at the age of 70. (The movie’s end credits say that the documentary is dedicated to her.) Therefore, the movie looks somewhat dated, but it doesn’t take away from the spirit of the film, which is a fascinating but sometimes rambling portrait of Frank. (The “Zappa” documentary clocks in at 129 minutes.)

After the opening scene of Frank performing at the Sports Hall in Prague in 1991 (his last recorded guitar performance), the next approximate 15 minutes of the movie consists of a compilation of images depicting Frank’s youth, with Zappa’s voice from archival interviews as voiceover narration. He talks about his childhood and how he decided to become a musician. Diehard fans of Frank already know the story, but it’s told in Frank’s voice with a mixture of nostalgia and anger.

Born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940, Frank grew up as the eldest child of four children, in a fairly strict, middle-class home with his parents Francis and Rosemarie Zappa, although Frank describes their family as “poor” in one of the archived interviews. Francis Zappa worked at Edgewood Arsenal, a company that made poisonous gas during World War II. The family then relocated to California, where Frank’s father took a job at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to teach metallurgy.

His parents did not encourage Frank’s interest in music. In fact, they downright disapproved of it because they didn’t think it was a stable way to make a living. Frank, who was famous for being iconoclastic, showed early signs of rebellion as a teenager when he says that he took some explosive powder and attempted to blow up his high school. It’s never really made clear in the documentary if that really happened, or if it’s just part of Zappa folklore.

It was while he was a teenager that Frank says he became obsessed with film editing. He would edit the family home movies by inserting quirky footage into it, some of which is shown in the documentary. (The home movies include Frank and his siblings dressed as zombies and pretending to attack each other.) As an adult, Frank directed many short films, music videos and some feature-length movies, most notably the 1971 musical film “200 Motels.”

One of Frank’s earliest musical influences was composer Edgard Varèse, who was known for his emphasis on rhythm rather than form. In a voiceover from an archived interview, Frank says about Varèse: “I wanted to listen to the man who could make music that was strange.” And that’s exactly how many people would describe Frank’s music when he eventually developed into his own artist.

By the time Frank was a teenager, the Zappa family had moved south of Monterey to the city of Lancaster, where Frank attended Antelope Valley High School. It was in high school that he met a fellow eccentric named Don Van Vliet, who’s better known by his stage name Captain Beefheart, who would become one of Frank’s most famous musical collaboraters.

As a teenager, Frank became an enthusiast of R&B and blues music, with great admiration for musicians such as Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Elmore James and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Frank’s first band in the mid-1960s was called The Blackouts, and they played R&B and blues. The Blackouts were considered radical at the time because they were a racially mixed group of white and black musicians. The Blackouts mostly did cover songs, but Frank’s ultimate goal was to write and record his own original music.

He took a day job writing and illustrating greeting cards in his own quirky style. A few of his greeting cards from 1964 and 1965 are shown in the documentary. One of them was a “get well” card that said on the front, “Nine out of ten people with your illness …” and then inside the card it ended with the words “… are sick.” Another card said on the front: “Captured Russian photograph shows evidence of Americans’ presence on the moon first.” Inside the card, there was an illustration of a moon crater bearing a sign that reads, “Jesus Saves.”

A turning point in Frank’s life was when he bought a small recording studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and named it Studio Z. The studio (which had “no bathtub, no shower and no hot water,” he says in an interview) was mostly for music, but also rented out space for filmmaking. A group of men rented Studio Z’s services because they wanted to make a quasi-“stag film” with the men dressed in drag, but with no actual nudity or sex, according to Frank in an archival interview. The local police heard about the movie and arrested Frank, who says that he got sentenced to six months in jail (with all but six days suspended) and three years of probation.

Frank says in an archived interview that this negative experience with the law taught him all he needed to know about the political system. All he wanted to do was to make music, and he knew that living in a small town wasn’t suited for him. He eventually moved to Los Angeles.

In 1965, Frank founded the Mothers of Invention, the avant-garde rock band of rotating musicians that he performed with for the majority of his career. Tom Wilson (an African American producer) signed the band to Verve Records. The Mothers of Invention’s debut album “Freak Out!” (released in 1966) is considered a seminal recording for anything that could be considered “alternative rock.”

Frank’s quick courtship of Gail is described in the documentary as Gail being introduced to Frank by Pamela Zarubia, who was his roommate at the time, and a few days later Frank asked Gail if she wanted to have sex with him. (There’s archival footage of Zarubia describing this very fast and forward courtship.) Frank and Gail married in 1967 and had four children together: daughter Moon, son Dweezil, son Ahmet and daughter Diva. The children are not interviewed in the movie.

For whatever reason, the documentary never mentions Frank’s first marriage to Kay Sherman. (Their 1960 to 1964 marriage ended in divorce. There were no children from this marriage.) It could be a situation of the second wife wanting to erase the first wife from the family history. As is the case with authorized documentaries of dead celebrities, the filmmakers usually have to go along with whatever the celebrity’s family estate wants to put in the film and what they want to leave out.

At any rate, Frank was very open in many interviews by saying that he was not a monogamous husband and that his time spent away from home as a touring musician often took a toll on his family life. In the documentary, Gail comments on these difficulties in her marriage by sharing her secret to the relationship’s longevity when it came to any infidelity: “Don’t talk about it.”

Ruth Underwood, who was in the Mothers of Invention off and on from 1967 to 1976, says in the documentary that there were two sides to Frank: the doting family man and the raunchy rock star—something that she calls “a polarity of passion.” She elaborates: “He couldn’t fucking wait to get on the road. But then, he was very happy to come home, just to feel safe again.”

The Zappa family household, where Frank always had a home studio, became a hub of activity for the “freaks” of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon when the family lived there in the late 1960s. One of the musical acts that he produced was an all-female singing/performance group called The GTO’s (self-described “groupies” whose band acronym stood for Girls Together Outrageously), who recorded their first and only album with Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, who was a member of The GTO’s, says that famous American and British musicians would always like to hang out in the Zappa home because of all the strange and interesting things going on there. “He was the centrifugal force of Laurel Canyon,” remembers Des Barres. “It was the center of the world at that point.”

However, things got too weird (even for the Zappas) when a group of hippies moved nearby: the Manson Family cult led by Charles Manson, who would later become notorious for masterminding the 1969 murders of several people, including actress Sharon Tate. Even though at the time the Zappa family lived in Laurel Canyon, no one knew how dangerous the Manson Family would become by committing these murders a few years later, Gail says in the documentary that these Manson Family neighbors always made her feel uneasy when she would see them. And so, the Zappa family eventually moved out of Laurel Canyon.

Several of the musicians who worked with Frank are interviewed in the film. They describe him as extremely prolific and talented but someone who was an unrelenting taskmaster (making band members rehearse 10 to 12 hours a day, several days a week, including holidays) who rarely gave praise and almost never showed any affection. He could be dismissive and sometimes cruel. By his own admission, Frank didn’t make friends easily, and he didn’t care about being popular. On the other hand, according to Gail, there were some people who earned Frank’s loyalty in his life, and he was very loyal to them in return—almost to a fault.

In 1969, when Zappa decided to abruptly disband the Mothers of Invention’s original lineup, original band member Bunk Gardner says that the band didn’t even get two weeks’ notice. They were just suddenly informed that their services were no longer needed. Frank would later invite some of the original Mothers of Invention band members back into the group, but he always like to rotate the lineup and not keep it too permanent until the band ended for good in the mid-1970s.

Some of the musicians who were in the Mothers of Invention included Aynsley Dunbar, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Adrian Belew, Peter Wolf, and The Turtles co-founders Howard Kaylan and Mark Volan. And the group performed with several guests, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Eric Clapton. (The documentary has footage of Lennon and Ono on stage with the Mothers of Invention in 1971.)

Ruth Underwood believes that Frank was seemingly insensitive to other people’s needs and feelings because “I think he was so single-mindedly needing to get his work done.” Later, she gets emotional and teary-eyed when she describes a touching moment she had with Frank toward the end of his life that showed how he mellowed with age and had to face his mortality after being diagnosed with cancer.

Despite Frank’s reputation for being a bossy and gruff control freak, there were some good times too, and the people who worked with him say that the music made it all worthwhile. Ruth Underwood’s ex-husband Ian Underwood, a Mothers of Invention member from 1967 to 1975, says about performing live as a member of the band: “Each show was like a composition.”

Steve Vai, who was in Frank’s band from 1980 to 1982, comments about his time in the group: “When I was in it, I was a tool for the composer. And he used his tools brilliantly.” Other former colleagues of Frank who are interviewed in the film include musician Scott Thunes (who worked with Frank from 1981 to 1988), accountant Gary Iskowitz, musician Ray White (who worked with Frank from 1976 to 1984) and engineer David Dondorf.

Gardner also remembers the camaraderie among the band members: “It was exciting in the beginning, but of course it was musically difficult … I’m not a weirdo or any of those other things. But when you get around people who are naturally funny that do weird things, I ended up feeling comfortable.” Mike Keneally, a musician was in Frank’s band from 1987 to 1988, remembers comedian Lenny Bruce as being a big influence on Frank.

Frank wasn’t a typical rock star in other ways besides his music. He was very vocal about his personal choice not to do drugs. And he had no patience for anyone who let their drug use get in the way of being at their best. (He was a heavy smoker of cigarettes though.) Frank didn’t go as far as preach to people not to do drugs, since he was firm believer in individual freedoms, but he made it clear that he looked down on people who used drugs that made them “stupid.”

And just like Frank himself, his fan base was somewhat hard to categorize. The documentary shows a 2006 interview with Alice Cooper (one of the many musicians who worked with Frank) commenting: “He had the freaks and the extremely intelligent and the very artsy people behind him. And there was the whole middle who just didn’t get it.”

Despite being known as an avant-garde creative artist, Frank was also very business-minded. He didn’t care about having hit records, but he did care about making enough money to fund his art. The documentary includes clips from several archival interviews of Frank expressing that belief in various ways.

He founded his own record labels (including Bizarre Records, Straight Records and DiscReet Records) and made a lot of money through merchandising, with Gail handling a lot of the business. Frank’s bitter late-1970s split from longtime distributor Warner Bros. Records is given a brief mention in the film. Although he worked with major record companies, he always had an entrepreneurial spirit when it came to releasing his music. And he wasn’t afraid to go outside of his comfort zone, such as recording and conducting classical music and other orchestral music. The documentary includes some footage of him working with the Kronos Quartet.

Gail says in the documentary that even though Frank believed that smart musicians should care about being paid for their work, he also believed that getting rich shouldn’t be the main motivation to make music, because most musicians can’t make a living as full-time artists. She comments on being a full-time musician: “You have to be out of your mind to begin with to take it on. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to earn an income. No one cares what composers do. And everything is against you, which makes the odds pretty fantastic.”

As for Frank’s talent as a visual artist, he wanted to design all of the Mothers of Invention album artwork from the second album onward, but he changed his mind when Cal Schenkel came along and ended up being the Mothers of Invention’s chief art collaborator. “They [Frank Zappa and Schenkel] created a world together,” says Keneally.

Another visual artist who was highly respected by Frank was claymation animator Bruce Bickford, who is interviewed in the film and whose work is included in the documentary. Bickford comments on Frank: “He was impressed with the number of figures I could sustain in animation in one shot.”

“Zappa” is told in mostly chronological order, so it isn’t until toward the end of the film that his 1980s fame is covered. Frank had the biggest hit of his career with “Valley Girl,” a 1982 duet with his then-14-year-old daughter Moon that was a parody of the teenage girl culture of California’s San Fernando Valley. Ruth Underwood says that the idea for “Valley Girl” came about after Moon slipped a preoccupied Frank a note underneath his door, asking him if he remembered her because he seemed too busy to pay attention.

In the note, Moon described the type of lingo that she was hearing from Valley girls and what was important to these teens: clothes, boys and hanging out at the Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping mall. Frank thought it would be a great idea to make it into a song recorded by him and Moon, who at the time, went by her first and middle names Moon Unit. And the rest is history.

“Valley Girl” became a surprise hit, peaking at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song was also nominated for a Grammy. And suddenly, Frank and Moon became celebrities who could be heard on mainstream radio and interviewed on shows like “Entertainment Tonight.” The documentary has footage of the Zappa family doing a photo shoot for Life magazine around the time that “Valley Girl” was a hit.

The song inspired the 1983 “Valley Girl” film, starring Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage, but the “Zappa” documentary doesn’t include any mention of Frank’s unsuccessful legal fight to prevent the movie from being made. The Zappa family has nothing to do with this “Valley Girl” movie or the 2020 movie musical remake of “Valley Girl.”

Frank’s other notoriety in the 1980s came from being a very outspoken protester against the Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) and its efforts to put warning labels on records that have sexually explicit or violent lyrics. During this period of time, Frank’s wild and freaky hair and clothes from the 1960s and 1970s were gone and replaced with shorter hair and business suits that he would wear when he testified in front of the U.S. Congress or when he would do TV interviews speaking about the subject. About his image change, he was honest about who he was: a middle-aged dad who needed to be taken seriously if he wanted to get his point across to politicians and other officials who were in charge of making decisions that affected the music industry.

Although the PMRC achieved its goal of having the music industry voluntarily place warning labels on records, Frank toyed with the idea of becoming a politician. He talks about it in a few interview clips shown in the documentary, and he seemed to have mixed feelings about running for president of the United States. On the one hand, he seemed open to the idea because he wanted to make big changes in American society. On the other hand, he expressed a distaste for how a lot of the government is run and not liking the idea of having to live in the White House.

He never did run for public office, but Frank’s 1990 visit to what was the country then known as Czechoslovakia was a life-changing experience for him. He was welcomed as a hero of democracy, and Czechoslovakia appointed him as a Czech ambassador for U.S. trade. Apparently, this appointment didn’t sit well with influential members of the U.S. government, because Czechoslovakia eventually rescinded that title from him.

Frank’s health problems are included in the documentary in a respectful way. He was confined to a wheelchair for about nine months after being physically attacked on stage by an audience member in 1971. The recovery experience made him “find out who my real friends are,” as he said in a TV interview that’s shown in the film. The documentary includes footage of Frank in the final two years of his life, in the studio and on stage, such as his last concert appearance in 1992 in Frankfurt, Germany, where he got a standing ovation that lasted for more than 20 minutes.

The “Zappa” documentary could have used tighter editing, but overall the movie is a fairly even-handed look at the life of a unique and influential artist. The movie doesn’t really reveal much about his life or his personality that Frank’s diehard fans didn’t already know about, based on all the interviews he gave over the years. What makes this film stand out is the rare footage of Zappa at home, in the studio and on stage, because this footage gives some meaningful context to the very full life that he led.

Magnolia Pictures released “Zappa” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on November 27, 2020.