Review: ’32 Sounds,’ starring Annea Lockwood, Edgar Choueiri, Joanna Fang, Cheryl Tipp, Fred Moten, Christine Sun Kim and Mazen Kerbaj

May 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sam Green in “32 Sounds” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“32 Sounds”

Directed by Sam Green

Culture Representation: The documentary film “32 Sounds” features a predominantly white group of audio enthusiasts (with a few Asians and African Americans and one Latino) talking about how sounds and other aural experiences affect people.

Culture Clash: People have varying degrees of how much they value or pay attention to sounds. 

Culture Audience: “32 Sounds” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of ASMR videos or who want to experience a movie that takes an up-close examination of sounds at various volumes.

Edgar Choueiri in “32 Sounds” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary film “32 Sounds” has a title that’s somewhat misleading because this movie is actually an abundance of more than 32 sounds. It’s more like a feature-length ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response] video than anything that is extraordinary or groundbreaking. The movie is inconsistent in how it labels the 32 sounds that inspired the documentary’s title. Most of the anecdotes and sounds can keep viewers interested.

Directed by Sam Green, “32 Sounds” has a meandering quality in how it features interviews with various audio enthusiasts and then usually showing them reacting to or talking about whatever sounds they’ve created, recorded or are listening to in their current location. “32 Sounds” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Ironically, for a movie that keeps repeating that it should be seen in a theater, “32 Sounds” did not have its Sundance premiere in a theater, since the Sundance Film Festival abruptly cancelled its in-person events in 2022, due to COVID-19 concerns, and the festival was held virtually instead.

In an intro to the movie, “32 Sounds” director Green and “32 Sounds” composer JD Sampson are shown thanking people for seeing the film in a theater. Green provides voiceover narration throughout the documentary. He speaks in slow, measured tones that are similar to someone who’s leading a meditation session. Green’s narration for “32 Sounds” includes several comments that assume viewers are watching the movie in a theater.

Other times, the narration can fit to wherever viewers are watching the documentary. For example, multiple times in “32 Sounds,” Green suggests that viewers close their eyes during certain segments, in order to be more immersed in the aural experience without visual distractions. People who keep their eyes open during these segments will just see a blank screen while the sound is playing.

The movie’s frequent assumptions that people are watching “32 Sounds” in a movie theater make the documentary look a little bit out of touch, since movies like “32 Sounds” typically have a very limited release in theaters in low number of cities. The movie was available to the media for review as a digital screener, as well as in-person screenings in select cities. (I saw the movie on a digital screener and used headphones to get the maximum effect for the sounds.)

More people are likely to see low-budget independent films such as “32 Sounds” when they’re released for viewing in formats that are not in a movie theater. In addition, technology has advanced to the point where it’s possible to get a theater-like sound and visual quality in home viewing, with the right equipment. It might not be as big as an IMAX screen, most most advanced home theater systems come very close to replicating what movie theater screens and speakers have to offer.

Green brings a personal touch to the documentary by talking about how he’s kept old cassette tapes of voice mail recordings. Some of these recordings are by people who are now deceased. Green states the obvious: recordings like these are more than just recordings. They are collections of memories.

This is an example of the type of narration that Green has in the film, as he comments about these voice mail recordings: “I wondered if sound is somehow a way to understand time and time passing and loss and the ephemeral beats of the present moment.” If that type of narration makes your eyes glaze over in disinterest, then “32 Sounds” might not be the documentary for you.

The documentary includes some mentions of seminal moments in aural history. Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph is noted as the most revolutionary thing to happen to sound. Also included is what is believed to be the first recording of a human fetus in a womb, with the recording made by midwife Aggie Murch, the wife of famed film editor Walter Murch. (“Womb Tone” was Walter Murch’s famous essay about this recording.) Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer, is cited as someone who believed that there are untold numbers of sounds that can’t be heard by human ears.

Famous experimental sound artist Annea Lockwood (whose specialty was composing songs from objects that aren’t musical instruments) is the person is prominently featured in “32 Sounds.” The documentary includes archival footage of Lockwood from the late 1960s, as well as exclusive footage of Lockwood filmed for “32 Sounds” when Lockwood was 81 years old.

The movie spends a little too much time being a mini-biography about Lockwood’s career, personal life and what she does in her spare time. One of the scenes in the movie includes Lockwood recording insects and other creatures at Constitution Marsh at the Hudson River in New York state. The sound mixing is played with and tweaked throughout “32 Sounds,” so that anyone can notice how the same sounds can be heard differently from various perspectives.

Cheryl Tipp, a curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive (which has more than 7 million sound items) is shown playing back the sound of the last known Moho braccatus, an extinct, small-sized bird. The recording features a male Moho braccatus giving mating calls, while rain can be heard in the background. The male Moho braccatus does not know that the last female Moho braccatus was killed during a hurricane. Tipp talks about how this recording is emotionally moving to her.

One of the more fascinating parts of the documentary are scenes with foley artist Joanna Fang, who demonstrates how sound effects are fabricated for movies. These effects are often not done with computers but by the traditional way of using hands and feet to create an illusion of something happening in the movie, whether it’s a dog walking or someone getting stabbed. Fang comments that the “cheat” sound “often sound better than the real thing.”

Edgar Choueiri, director of Princeton University’s electric propulsion and plasma dynamics laboratory, offers a scientific perspective of sounds, as he demonstrates some sounds with his lab equipment. Later in the film, Choueiri listens to a recording that he made for his future self when he was 11 years old. At the time he made the recording, Choueiri says that he vowed not to listen to the recording until after the year 2000. Choueiri is visibly nostalgic and says he went through a range of emotions when hearing his 11-year-old self making a recording to his future self.

The movie’s segments on music are rather eclectic. Green includes archival footage that he took in 2006 of left-wing activist Nehanda Abiodun (an American exiled in Cuba) grooving to a recording of McFadden and Whitehead’s 1979 hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” She says the song reminds her of the time when she and other Human Right Coalition activists were planning a protest in front of the United Nations to accuse the U.S. of human genocide. Abiodun (who died in 2019) also says in the archival footage that the song triggers memories of her efforts to free her activist friend Assata Shakur from jail.

Green also interviews Don Garcia, who is notorious in his New York City neighborhood for driving on the streets late at night and blasting Phil Collins’ 1981 hit “The Air Tonight” at full volume. Garcia gives no real explanation for why he does it on a regular basis, but he seems to enjoy the attention he gets, even if it means that some people complain about the noise. The documentary doesn’t interview anyone who has complained about Garcia’s late-night music blasting. It’s a missed opportunity for “32 Sounds” to contrast how someone’s listening pleasure could be someone else’s listening annoyance.

There’s also a segment where “32 Sounds” composer Sampson is shown (in two invisible split-screen images) playing an original instrumental song on electric guitar and on electric bass. It seems like a promotional music video segment at best. And there’s a random segment where Donna Summer’s 1976 hit “I Feel Love” is in the movie, for no other purpose but for Green to say in a voiceover that viewers can get up and dance to the song if they want to, because no one will care in a darkened theater.

All of these segments on musical sounds are cobbled together with no real theme or central concept in the documentary. The footage of Abiodun just seems to be in the movie so that Green can say that she was his “friend,” as if he has some ties to Black Power activism. Curiously, “32 Sounds” leaves out any mention of tinnitus, a hearing disorder that causes constant buzzing or ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is an occupational hazard of people (such as musicians) who have long-term exposure to loud sounds without wearing earplugs.

The documentary includes an interview with sound artist Christine Sun Kim, who happens to be deaf. She says that deaf people know a lot about the etiquette of sound. Poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten is interviewed in another segment of the movie to talk about the cultural impact of sounds. And experimental musician Mazen Kerbai shares some sound recordings he made of bombs going off in his native country of Lebanon.

Because “32 Sounds” tends to be a rambling film, it might not appeal to viewers who are expecting a documentary that’s more structured. The movie starts off saying that it’s going to showcase 32 sounds, but the numbers identifying each sound are not always shown on screen. The film is ultimately a hodgepodge tribute to diverse sounds and aural experiences, with the movie’s sound mixing intended to cause some spine-tingling or goosebumps for viewers. The “32 Sounds” documentary is like taking an aimless road trip with views that please the senses but not much will be learned from the experience.

Abramorama released “32 Sounds” in select U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Unconditional’ (2023), starring Richard Lui, Stephen Lui, Rose Lui, Luke Bushatz, Amy Bushatz, Kate Hendricks Thomas and Shane Thomas

May 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Richard Lui and Stephen Lui in “Unconditional” (Photo courtesy of Prisca Films)

“Unconditional” (2023)

Directed by Richard Lui

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, Virginia, Alaska, and New York City, the documentary film “Unconditional” features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians) discussing lives of people who need caregivers.

Culture Clash: Disabled people and their caregivers experience a high amount of stress that might not always be adequately treated, and family members might not always agree on how to deal with the end of the disabled person’s medical issues. 

Culture Audience: “Unconditional” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in very personal and memorable stories about families who are involved with caregiving for loved ones with medical issues.

Pictured from far left to right: Kate Hendricks Thomas, Matthew Thomas and Shane Thomas in “Unconditional” (Photo by Alex Wong/Prisca Films)

“Unconditional” is an informative and deeply moving documentary about people with serious medical issues and their family caregivers. The movie is made all the more personal because “Unconditional” director Richard Lui shares his own intimate story as a caregiver. Lui is the narrator of this documentary, which does not sugarcoat the despair, stress and frustrations that can happen when loved ones have to take on the responsibility of caregiving. However, “Unconditional” (which was filmed over seven years, including the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic) is ultimately a positive showcase for family love and loyalty under very difficult circumstances.

“Unconditional” focuses on the stories of three families, who each have a loved one with a life-threatening disease or medical condition:

The Lui Family: “Unconditional” director Richard Lui, who is a New York City-based anchor for MSNBC and NBC News, is shown helping take care of his father Stephen Lui, an Alzheimer’s disease patient. After his father (a retired social worker) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (which destroys people’s memories and muscle functions), Richard requested a switch to a part-time work schedule on weekends, so that he could be in his parents’ hometown of San Francisco during the week to help take care of his father, who was in his 80s at the time this documentary was filmed.

Stephen’s longtime wife Rose Lui (a retired schoolteacher) had been his primary caretaker at home, until Stephen’s medical issues required him to be moved to a nursing care facility. Richard’s two siblings Rob Lui and Kristen Lui (who are both in the documentary) also help take care of their father Stephen, who eventually lost his ability to speak. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the Lui family had to make a difficult decision on what to do when Stephen forgot to know how to swallow. After much debate, the family decided to have a risky but effective way of getting Stephen fed: having a stomach tube inserted inside him.

The Bushatz Family: Luke Bushatz is a military veteran who is living with numerous medical issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cardiac disease, a brain injury, substance addiction. He received his brain injury in 2009, when an improvised explosive device (IED) bomb went off and trapped him in a vehicle.

Luke, his journalist wife Amy Bushatz, and their two underage sons David Bushatz and Huck Bushatz live in Palmer, Alaska. Amy says that the family moved there to “get a fresh start. Luke finds it healing to go hiking in the mountains. However, he lives with the negative effects of his medical issues every day, including forgetfulness, having a bad temper, insomnia, and paranoia about being ambushed by bombs or other weapons.

Amy’s journalist specialty is giving coverage of caregivers and military families. She doesn’t mince words when she says that she’s not a saintly caregiver, which is the image that many caregivers (especially women) are expected to have. Amy admits that when Luke does something that annoys her, she will get angry and impatient with him. She says that she’s been coping with the stress by seeing a therapist. Luke and Amy both mention that their marriage nearly reached a breaking point between 2012 and 2015, because of Luke’s substance abuse problems and suicidal thoughts, which he was able to overcome with therapy.

David, the older and more sensitive of the two brothers, seems to have a better understanding of how the serious issues that his father Luke has. In the documentary, David talks about trying to be as quiet and invisible as possible because he gets afraid when his father is in a bad mood. Luke admits that he has “blackout” temper tantrums. Younger brother Huck, who has a much rosier view of his father, mainly talks about Luke being a war hero. Huck seems to be have a much stronger emotional bond to Luke than David has, while David seems to be closer than Huck to their mother Amy.

The Thomas Family: Before she was diagnosed with cancer, Kate Hendricks Thomas was a board member of the Service Women’s Action Network, a non-profit group dedicated to help women who are former and current members of the U.S. military. She and her husband Shane Thomas got married in 2014, the same year that their son Matthew Thomas as born. After her diagnosis, the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, to be closer to Kate’s side of the family, which includes her brother Matthew Hendricks, who is one of her family members interviewed in the documentary.

At the time that she was diagnosed with cancer, Kate was given only six to 10 years to live. Kate (who was in the U.S. Marines) believes she got cancer from toxic smoke and contaminated water that she had to drink while she served in combat in Al-Fallujah, Iraq. She tried to use this theory as a basis for claim for her son Matthew to get military benefits after she dies, but this claim was denied by the military. However, Kate thinks that she is correct because another woman who served alongside her in combat in the same location also has the same type of cancer.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the documentary is showing how family members cope with a loved one who is slowly dying and how the loved ones have to prepare for the inevitable death. Kate breaks down and cries when she shares her overwhelming feeling of dread of knowing that she won’t be around to see Matthew grow up to be an adult. Kate’s husband Shane also gets teary-eyed and choked up when he says in a separate interview: “I’m not ready to be a single parent.” And although Kate says she tries to be as positive and upbeat with Matthew as possible, there are moments when Matthew looks very sad because he knows his mother will die from cancer.

And although all of these middle-class families have the privilege of medical insurance and health care for their loved ones, it’s still a heavy financial burden for the family caregivers to provide what insurance does not cover. Rose Lui nearly drained her savings to pay for the nursing care facility where her husband Stephen had to be relocated. (It’s mentioned in the documentary that that it cost $10,000 a month to have Stephen at the facility.) The Thomas Family had to cope with a reduced household income after Kate (who had a higher income than Shane) was no longer able to have a job.

Disabled people who need caregivers are suffering, but one of the most important messages of “Unconditional” is that the caregivers shouldn’t neglect taking care of themselves too. Some caregivers, such as Amy, go to therapy. Rose found solace by taking up violin lessons at the age of 79. Richard got help from support groups of other caregivers. He says of coping with caregiving: “It was a lonely road until I found others.”

“Unconditional” has a no-frills approach to its directing and editing. The movie doesn’t need to be technically dazzling or artsy. The family stories in this compelling and meaningful documentary are more than enough to make an impact on viewers.

PBS premiered “Unconditional” on May 1, 2023. The movie was released in select U.S. cinemas (exclusively at AMC Theatres) for a limited engagement from May 3 to May 9, 2023. “Unconditional” will be released on digital and VOD on June 5, 2023.

Review: ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,’ starring Michael J. Fox

May 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Michael J. Fox in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of retired actor Michael J. Fox.

Culture Clash: Fox has dealt with major health issues in his life, including Parkinson’s disease and alcoholism. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious fan base of Michael J. Fox fans, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in celebrity documentaries and documentaries about health issues.

An archival photo of Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Inspiring and with superb film editing, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is a must-see documentary for anyone who wants to get a personal look at how Michael J. Fox refused to make his Parkinson’s disease into a tragedy but instead turned it into a triumph. The movie could have easily been a complete nostalgia trip, but the movie’s narrative cuts back and forth from the past to when the documentary was filmed, mostly in 2021 and 2022. It’s a visually striking contrast of Fox’s life when he was an award-winning, working actor to his current life of being a retired actor who continues to be an activist for Parkinson’s disease awareness and research. What hasn’t changed is that Fox still has a charming mix of confidence and self-deprecating wit.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim and narrated by Fox, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Story” doesn’t play coy about Fox living with Parkinson’s disease. The movie (which has several re-enactments) begins in Florida 1990, with a recreation of Fox waking up in a hotel room “with a ferocious hangover” and seeing the first signs that he had this disease: He saw one of his pinky fingers trembling uncontrollably. His bodyguard also had to prop him up when Fox tried to walk to the elevator. (Danny Irizarry, whose face is not shown in the movie, portrays Fox in the documentary’s re-enactments.)

At first, Fox assumed that his loss of muscle control was due to the heavy partying he had done the night before with actor Woody Harrelson. But as the world now knows, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, but he didn’t go public about it until 1998. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is how Fox describes hiding this disease was in many ways just as damaging to his psyche as the disease was damaging to his body.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. There isn’t really anything new in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” that he hasn’t already revealed in his memoirs (2002’s “Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox” and 2020’s “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality”) or in interviews that he’s given before this documentary was made. But there never before has been a documentary like this made about Fox with Fox’s participation. Instead of just being a boring compilaton of archival clips and interviews, the documentary vividly brings Fox’s story to cinematic life with the way the movie uses clips from his on-screen roles to cleverly match the emotions and situations that Fox describes in his narration.

By now, most people who know why Fox is famous are already aware of his career highlights. Born in 1961 in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, he rose to fame in the 1980s, with starring roles in the 1982 to 1989 comedy TV series “Family Ties” (for which he won three Primetime Emmy Awards) and his breakthrough movie role in the 1985 sci-fi time-traveling comedy blockbuster “Back to the Future.” Many people also know about several of Fox’s other movies (such as 1985’s “Teen Wolf,” 1987’s “The Secret to My Success” and the “Stuart Little” movies), as well and his TV sitcom comeback in “Spin City,” which he starred in from 1996 to 2000. Fox won his fourth Primetime Emmy Award for “Spin City.” He won his fifth Primetime Emmy Award in 2009 for being a guest actor on the drama series “Rescue Me.”

Many of Fox’s fans already know the story of how he started acting while he was a child growing up in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. As someone who was always shorter than most of his peers, Fox learned at an early age to use comedy as a way to make people like him—or at least back off a little from bullying or insulting him. In the documentary, Fox describes his teenage years as being an academically dismal student and a “serial fender bender.” He also had a rocky relationship with his retired military father, whom Fox describes as a pragmatist with a quick temper.

Fox decided to drop out of high school at age 17 to pursue an acting career full-time in the Los Angeles area. In the documentary, Fox says that he was surprised that his strict father didn’t put up much of fuss over this decision. Fox remembers his father telling him this analogy: “If you’re going to be a lumberjack, you better go to the goddamn forest.”

Like many struggling actors in the Los Angeles area, Fox was living in near-poverty and was able to book some jobs, but they weren’t enough to pay the bills. His big break as conservative teen Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties” came about because actor Matthew Broderick wasn’t available for the role, and Fox was able to win over a skeptical David Gordon Green, the showrunner of “Family Ties.” In the documentary, Fox describes the first time he made people laugh in his “Family Ties” audition was a high that was like no other: “No drink, no drug, not woman could touch that moment.”

Fox’s starring role as time-traveling teen Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” also came about because he wasn’t the first choice: Eric Stoltz was originally cast in the role and had started filming the movie when “Back to the Future” director Robert Zemeckis fired Stoltz for not being a good fit for the movie’s comedy. Just as Fox described in many other interviews and in his memoirs, for about three months, Fox kept a grueling schedule where he worked on “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” at the same time. “Back to the Future” made him a household name worldwide.

Also duly noted in the documentary is the love story between Fox and Tracy Pollan, a theater-trained actress who played Alex P. Keaton’s girlfriend on “Family Ties.” Life imitated art. Fox and Pollan fell in love, and they got married in 1988. In the documentary, Fox says one of the reasons why he fell in love with Pollan was because she wasn’t impressed by his stardom and was honest with him, even if it might hurt his feelings.

Fox and Pollan have four children: son Sam (born in 1989); twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler (born in 1995); and daughter Esmé (born November 3, 2001). All four of the kids and Pollan are in the documentary with Fox. They are shown joking around with each other and being a loving family.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” doesn’t clutter up the movie with “experts” or “talking heads” discussing Fox. Occasionally, director Guggenheim can be heard talking to Fox off-camera. One of the questions that Guggenheim asks Fox is: “Before [you had] Parkinson’s, what did it mean to be still?” Fox replies, “I don’t know. I don’t remember being still.”

The documentary frequently juxtaposes Fox’s career highs with current footage that shows the contrast of what his life is like now: He has difficulty walking and is in constant physical therapy. Falling down and hurting himself is a fact of life for him. One of the early scenes in the movie shows him taking a hard tumble on a sidewalk. In another scene, he has to have makeup applied to his fractured left cheekbone because of another fall that isn’t shown in the movie. There’s a montage of clips showing the tricks he used to do on camera to hide his shaking hands when his Parkinson’s disease was a secret from the public.

Fox also gets candid about becoming an alcoholic after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but he says he got sober in 1992. His father’s sudden death of a heart attack in 1990 also shook him to the core. Fox says it was like crossing another painful threshold in adulthood. He also admits there was a period of time from the late 1980s to the early 1990s when he became a workaholic in movies because he was under the delusion that keeping busy with work would make his Parkinson’s disease go away. His workaholic lifestyle and making movies far away from his home were taking a toll on his family life, which is why he decided to go back to doing a TV series with “Spin City.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to Parkinson’s disease resources and research, is mentioned as one of the most significant accomplishments of Fox’s life. The foundation has raised more than $2 billion, according to the documentary. Fox has also been an outspoken activist who has testified in front of congressional committees and campaigned for more government funding for Parkinson’s disease.

Despite all the information in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” that has already been revealed in other media, there’s no denying that seeing Fox open up in a movie about his life is illumninating in ways that can’t be done in a book, news article or a short interview. What emerges in the documentary is a portrait of someone who is not afraid to reflect on his life (including his past mistakes and failings) but doesn’t want to be stuck in the past. And most importantly, the movie is a positive example of how someone with a disease that weakens the body can gain emotional strength and help others.

Apple Studios released “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on May 12, 2023.

Review: ‘1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed,’ a documentary directed by W. Kamau Bell about mixed-race children and their family members

May 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kanani (center) with her mother Pica (pictured at left) and father Anibal (pictured at right) in “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed”

Directed by W. Kamau Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the documentary film “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” features a racially diverse group of middle-class family members discussing what it’s like to be in multiracial families.

Culture Clash: Mixed-race children experience issues such as racism and pressure to identify with one race over another. 

Culture Audience: “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a documentary about multiracial families, although the movie is admittedly limited to the director W. Kamau Bell’s circle of friends and family members.

Interviewees in “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed.” Pictured in top row, from left to right; father Bongo, daughter Samaya and mother Joti; siblings Myles and Georgio; mother Pica, daughter Kanani and father Anibal. Middle row, pictured from left to right: father Bryant, daughter Mila and mother Jidan; uncle Greg and niece Kaylin; paternal grandmother Janet, granddaughter Juno, granddaughter Sami and maternal grandmother Chris. Bottom row, from left to right: father Paolo, daughter Presley and mother Jenn; siblings Khalil, Anisa and Ibrahim; friends Carter and Nola. (Photo collage courtesy of HBO)

The insightful documentary “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” has wonderfully thoughtful groups of multiracial people and some of their families candidly sharing their stories. “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” director/executive producer W. Kamau Bell, who has biracial children, briefly narrates the movie and can be heard off-camera asking some of the interview questions. Bell tells viewers up front that he mostly interviewed members of family and his social circle in the politically liberal San Francisco Bay Area. All of the interviewees, except for Bell’s family members, do not have their last names revealed in the documentary. John Legend, who is also a father of multiracial children, is one of the other executive producers of the documentary.

The biggest drawback to this one-hour documentary is that there could have been more variety in the socioeconomic statuses and residencies of the interviewees. The people who are interviewed clearly have the privilege of being educated and living in an area where there are numerous interracial families. However, these advantages don’t mean that their stories are less valid or less meaningful, or that they don’t experience racism and other ignorance that all multiracial families experience at one time or another.

W. Kamau Bell (who is African American) and his wife Melissa (who is white), who have been married since 2009, have three daughters: Sami, Juno and Asha. Their eldest daughter Sami (who was 10 years old when she was interviewed for the documentary) and middle daughter Juno (who was 7 years old) have obviously been taught well about what to say about living life in a multiracial family. Like all of the kids in the documentary, they are intelligent, articulate and empathetic when it comes to race and social issues.

Juno says she wasn’t aware of how many people expect her to identify as only one race until a girl at her school incorrectly told Juno that Juno is white. Juno said she felt sad that one of her races wasn’t acknowledged. It’s a challenge that all the mixed-race interviewees say that they’ve experienced at some point in their lives: people expecting multiracial people to prefer or identify with one race over another. And those expectations don’t always come from outsiders. They often come from within a family or from multiracial people themselves.

The good news for multiracial families that is there is now more awareness and tolerance for people’s mixed-race identities, compared to previous decades, when it comes to checking racial identity boxes on documents. In the past, the box would often just say “other” for multiracial people. Now, the box is more likely to say “mixed-race” or “multiracial.”

Myles, an 11-year-old interviewee whose father is African American and whose mother is Filipina, has a brother named Georgio, who is 22 years older than Myles. Georgio and Myles, who both love to play basketball, are interviewed separately and together in the film. Georgio says that when he was Myles’ age, there weren’t as many resources and information for mixed-race people as there are now. “I’m glad that space is there,” Georgio comments about this cultural shift in American society that makes more room for multiracial people.

Georgio also says that where a mixed-race child goes to school can make a big difference in that person’s self-esteem and views of the world. Georgio remembers that when he was in elementary school, he was one of only a few kids in the school who had being black as part of their racial identities, so he identified more as Filipino, because he felt he would be more accepted that way. Georgio’s middle school had many more black students than his elementary school did, but Georgio says he wasn’t fully accepted by black people at the middle school because the black people thought Georgio wasn’t “black enough.” Georgio says he found acceptance and comfort by being on the school’s basketball team, but the racism he experienced still had an effect on him.

One of the best things about “1000% Me” is that it acknowledges the harsh reality that people of color are often judged in terms of a warped racial hierarchy, where certain non-white races are considered “better” than others. An example is a story told by Kaylin, a 16-year-old girl who identifies as black, white and Korean. Her parents are also mixed-race.

Kaylin’s mother has African American as part of her racial identity. Kaylin confesses that her mother won’t like it that Kaylin is sharing this family secret in the documentary, but she says that when her mother filled out the racial identity part of Kaylin’s school application, her mother only identified Kaylin as white and Asian, not as black. Kaylin’s mother is not interviewed in the documentary, but Kaylin’s guidance counselor uncle Greg is interviewed, because he and Kaylin have a close relationship. Greg says his white mother never liked to talk about race.

Kaylin says she felt very hurt at the time she found out that that her own mother was denying that Kaylin is partially black. But now, Kaylin says she understands why her mother did that: Because of black people’s history of enslavement and other oppression in America, Kaylin thinks her mother wanted to protect Kaylin from the racists who think black people are the lowest of all the races. It’s a pathetically racist mindset to rank one race as better than another, but it’s unfortunately true, if you look a how many people don’t have a problem interacting with any race except black people.

And oftentimes, white supremacy is internalized by people of color who want to look as white as possible in order to be accepted. Paolo (who is a Filipino immigrant) and his white American wife Jenn met through their mutual passion for motorcycle riding. They have a daughter named Presley (named after Elvis Presley), who loves to sing (she rides with her father on his karaoke motorcycle), play bass guitar and play volleyball. All three family members are interviewed in the documentary.

Paolo says that when he was growing up in the Philippines, he was taught not to get too tan because he was told that it was desirable to have the lightest skin tone possible. When he moved to America as a child, he only wanted to be friends with white people, because he thought it would make his life easier. Paolo says that it wasn’t until after Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S. that Paolo started to embrace his Filipino identity. Paolo comments that this awakening was a reaction to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, which disproportionately targeted non-white immigrants.

Speaking of immigrants in America, the documentary also addresses the issues of multiracial children who not only have more than one cultural identity but are also the children of non-English-speaking immigrants and therefore speak more than one language. Such is the case with 11-year-old Kanani. Her father Anibal is a Latino and indigenous immigrant originally from Costa Rica. Kanani’s mother Pica is a white American who was raised in the San Diego area.

Kanani and her parents, who are all interviewed in the documentary, talk about how Kanani is being raised with a strong sense of her Costa Rican heritage. Kanani says she goes to visit her father’s side of the family in Costa Rica at least twice a year, and she participates in traditional Costa Rican customs. Kanani’s parents also made the decision to teach her to speak only Spanish before she was old enough to go to school. Kanani’s parents figured that Kanani could learn English when she reached kindergarten age.

Even though the United States does not have an official language, Pica describes getting a rude awakening about the hostility that people can get in America if they don’t speak English. She said it happened when Kanani was pre-school age, and some kids around the same age got into a dispute with Kanani. One of the other kid’s mothers told Pica that the dispute wouldn’t have happened if Kanani knew how to speak English. Pica gets teary and emotional when she remembers this experience, while admitting that because she grew up a white person in America, she wasn’t fully aware that kids who aren’t white could experience this type of racism at such an early age.

Some interracial couples give their children names that are combination of both parents’ cultural heritages. A 7-year-old girl named Sumaya and her parents Bongo (who is originally from Guinea) and her mother Joti (who is originally from India) was given a name that is a mixture of these two cultures. Bongo and Joti also have another daughter, and the spouses made the unusual decision to give the two daughters different surnames. Sumaya has Boti’s last name, while the other daughter has Joti’s maiden last name.

Meanwhile, 10-year-old Mila’s full first name is Funmilayo. She was named after Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a Nigerian activist/educator. Mila’s middle name is Chow-Mei Mia’s father Bryant is an African American who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Mila’s mother Jidan is a Chinese American who grew up in Berkely, California. All three family members are interviewed in the movie.

Three siblings with an African American father and a Pakistani mother are interviewed in the documentary: Anisa (11 years old) and her brothers Ibrahim (13 years old) and Khalil (15 years old). All three siblings are being raised as Muslim. Anisa says she’s proud to be the only Muslim in her school class and that she enjoys wearing traditional Muslim clothing (such as a hijab) in public. Anisa says the only thing that bothers her about her family is that her brothers sometimes pick on her because she’s smaller than she is and because she’s a girl.

Another multiracial kid who’s very confident about her racial identity is Mila, who refuses to choose one race over another. Mila’s mother Jidan gets emotional when remembering how she and Bryant got into a big argument when Jidan was younger because Bryant didn’t want Jidan to go to school with mismatched socks, while Jidean didn’t think it was that big of a deal that the socks were mismatched. Bryant had to explain to Jidan that he didn’t want people at the school to think that Jidan was a black girl who wasn’t getting proper care at home.

It’s a prejudice that Bryant said he learned from experience growing up in the Deep South that could lead to bigger problems for African American kids and their parents. Jidan says it pained her to find out that something as simple as wearing mismatched socks to school could have different repercussions for black kids, compared to kids of other races. Now that Mila is older, Bryant says he’s relaxed his views on what types of socks that Mila can wear.

An interesting part of the documentary is when W. Kamau Bell’s mother Janet and Melissa Bell’s mother Chris are interviewed together about what it was like growing up in racially segregated America and what it’s like to be grandmothers of mixed-race children. A segment in the documentary shows granddaughters Sami and Juno sitting in between their grandmothers on couch. Sami explains to Juno for the first time how in their grandmother’s youth, it was legal for white people to be kept separate from all other races and to have more rights than other races. Juno is shown looking shocked that her grandmothers and other people had to live this way in America.

A mixed-race man named Roy, who says he was born in 1941, also recalls this shameful era in America. He says back then, people didn’t know what to call his racial identity except “mulatto” (which is a word he disliked), or he was simply identified as “black” or “Negro,” since he obviously wasn’t completely white.

“1000% Me” also includes mixed-race people who are adopted by white people. In the case of best friends Carter and Nola (both 13-year-old girls), they were each adopted by white lesbian couples. Carter, who is black and Latina, is W. Kamau Bell’s goddaughter. Nola is white and black. Carter says that there are racial issues that her white mothers might not fully understand, so she’s grateful that she can sometimes get support and advice from her adopted 22-year-old African American sister Olivia, who is briefly shown in the movie with Carter and Nola. As Nola says in the documentary about being a mixed-race person: “Being multiple things doesn’t make you any less of those things.”

Mixed-race people have always existed, but it’s taken a surprisingly long time for there to be a comprehensive documentary film about it. Census data suggest that the number of mixed-race people will continue to grow in the United States. “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” is an admirable start to helping open up the conversation even more about mixed-race people.

Erica, who identifies as black and Japanese, is a therapist interviewed in the documentary. She has this to say about race relations in America: “We have a lot of work to do. We live in a deeply racist society. … There’s a lot of danger in not talking about race.” In other words, ignoring the problem will only make it worse. “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” is a worthy step in the right direction to helping being a solution to the problem.

HBO and HBO Max premiered “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” on May 2, 2023.

Review: ‘Judy Blume Forever,’ starring Judy Blume

April 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever”

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the documentary film “Judy Blume Forever” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are fans, loved ones and business associates of author Judy Blume, who also participated in this documentary.

Culture Clash: Blume talks about the controversies surrounding some of her books, her two failed marriages, and various insecurities and tragedies that she’s had in her life. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of Judy Blume fans, “Judy Blume” will appeal to people interested in documentaries about famous and influential book authors.

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever” is a fan tribute documentary in the best sense of the term. It doesn’t need a lot of exposé journalism, because Judy Blume candidly shares her flaws and failings in the movie. Anyone who is a fan of Blume should consider this documentary as essential as her best books. “Judy Blume Forever” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, “Judy Blume Forever” beings with a scene of Blume reading an excerpt from her 1973 young-adult novel “Deenie.” In this excerpt, gym teacher Mrs. Eileen Rappaport talks to her students about masturbation. It’s the type of writing that got some of Blume’s books denounced or outright banned for being “inappropriate” reading for children. This type of banning is still going on in some places for books by Blume and many other authors.

Most of the protagonists in Blume’s books are tweens and teenagers, usually girls. And for millions of people, Blume’s books were the first books that they read as children where topics such as masturbation, menstruation, bullying, eating disorders, physical disabilities and teenage sex were openly discussed as facts of life that not everyone dealt with in the same way. The books validated many underage readers’ own feelings and insecurities about these issues that these kids couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to discuss with any adults.

Former 1980s teen idol Molly Ringwald, who knows what it’s like to be thought of as a relatable “role model” for girls, is one of several Blume fans interviewed in the documentary. Ringwald says, “Everything I learned about sex, or thinking about sex or crushes, I learned from Judy.” Filmmaker/TV producer/actress Lena Dunham adds, “Judy’s books speak about the unspeakable. It’s the reason why her books were so complicated for people.”

And author Tarayi Jones comments on what it was like to read a Blume book as a child: “It was like a look into a secret world. I felt someone was being honest. That’s a gift. That’s magic.” Tony-nominated actress Caitlin Kinnunen “(The Prom”) adds, “Judy wrote these scenes that were awkward.” It was that awkwardness that made her work so realistic, say many of her fans.

Blume says in the documentary, “When I started to write, I only identified with kids, not adults.” Although Blume would later write some books about and for adults, she is most famous for her books about adolescents and teenagers. She adds, “I was an anxious child. I felt like adults kept secrets from the kids. I hated the secrets. I had to make up what those secrets were. That fueled my imagination.”

Born in 1938 as Judith Sussman, she was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume describes herself as a child who loved to go to the library with her homemaker mother Esther Sussman. Her father Rudolph Sussman was a dentist. Blume describes him as a “nurturer.” She adds, “I adored my father. He tried to raise me to want an adventurous life … and to take chances.” Blume also grew up with a brother named David, who was four or five years older than her.

As an anxious child, Blume says what worried her the most was her father dying in middle-age, because all seven of her father’s siblings died before they reached the age of 60. Blume (whose family is Jewish) also remembers childhood worries about the Holocaust and World War II. Blume admits that she’s struggled with lifelong insecurities about not being “good enough.”

Joanne Stern, Blume’s best friend since childhood, describes Blume as a child: “She was a good girl. She was very cute, very pretty, had beautiful clothes. She was very thin.” Blume adds, “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside.” Mary Weaver, another Blume friend since childhood, is also shown in the documentary. Weaver and Blume fondly reminisce about a boy who was a schoolmate crush.

Blume came of age in the 1950s, a decade that she describes as “the era of pretend: Pretend that we’re happy when we’re not. Pretend that everything is great when it isn’t.” You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know maybe that’s why Blume chose to be so frankly realistic in her books that are fiction but discuss issues that happen to real people.

Blume met her first husband, attorney John Blume, when she was a second-year undergraduate student at New York University. Sadly, her worst fear about her father came true, when he died of a heart attack at age 54, just five weeks before her wedding in 1959. Judy and John became the parents of two kids: daughter Randy and son Lawrence, also known as Larry. Blume said she knew she wanted a career outside of the home. And so, this avid reader decided to become a professional writer.

Like many famous authors, Judy’s early career was filled with a lot of rejections from publishers. She describes her earliest unpublished work as “imitation Dr. Seuss.” Judy says her mother was always her biggest supporter, who typed all of Judy’s manuscripts and never gave any criticism of her work. But Judy also admits her feelings toward her mother were complicated: “My mother had some low self-esteem issues herself. She wanted me to be perfect.”

Judy’s first children’s book to be published was 1969’s “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo,” which went largely unnoticed by the general public at the time of its publication. And then, Judy heard that book publisher Bradbury Press was looking for realistic fiction for middle-school kids. After getting a series of rejections, Blume finally got her big break: Bradbury published Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It was a bestseller and is widely considered one of the most influential young-adult novels of all time. It has now been made into a movie, starring Abby Ryder Fortson as the title character.

In the book, 11-year-old Margaret Simon has parents who are in an interfaith marriage (her father is Jewish, her mother is Christian) but they chose not to raise Margaret in any religion. Margaret frequently talks to God about her hopes, dreams and fears about her life and about growing up. She is afraid of being the last in her peer group to grow breasts and get her menstrual period. And she worries about being accepted by her peers in school and in her New Jersey community.

These are all insecurities that Judy says she went through in her own adolescence. She was embarrassed that she hadn’t started menstruating yet, like most of her female friends, so she lied to her friends about getting her menstrual period. Judy says, just like Margaret, she was also self-conscious about being flat-chested. Judy can laugh about it now, but at the time, these issues weighed heavily on her adolescent life.

“I wanted the truth, the reality of being that age,” Judy says about how she wrote “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Judy adds, “Writing ‘Margaret’ gave me my sense of who I was and what I might be able to do.” Pat Scales, a librarian, comments on the phenomenal success of the book: “I knew when I read ‘Margaret’ that kids would flock to this book. The ‘realism’ that was available prior to Judy [Blume books] was not realistic at all.”

Simon & Schuster publishing executive Justin Chanda comments on the book: “It was explaining things that were foreign to me, quite frankly. But it was also speaking to me about stuff that I was thinking about, in terms of religion and where you fit in the world.” Young-adult author/historian Gabrielle Moss quips about the book: “Come for the masturbation. Stay for the empowerment.”

Judy says that although she supported the feminism movement that flourished in the 1970s at the same time as her career flourished, she was not an outspoken, public supporter. She says she wanted to march in protests and burn bras, like many feminists did at the time, “but I didn’t. I could be fearless in my writing in a way [that] in my own life I could not.

Among her other bestsellers are the aforementioned “Deenie,” whose title character has scoliosis and wears a brace; 1974’s “Blubber,” which covered issues of bullying and body shaming; and 1975’s “Forever…,” perhaps her most controversial young-adult book, because it had descriptions of unmarried 18-year-olds having sex with each other. It’s common for today’s young-adult books to have frank descriptions of teen sexuality, but back in 1975, it was unprecedented.

Judy says that even with all of her success, she’s always had many critics and opponents. “Some people weren’t necessarily wishing me well,” she wryly comments. Judy says one of the questions she would often get from literary snobs was: “When are you going to write a real book?”

After “Deenie” was published, she says a male school principal told her that male masturbation was normal, but female masturbation was not normal. During the worst of the criticism that she got from people who wanted to ban her books, Judy says that she was getting death threats, “which I took very seriously.”

At the height of Judy’s fame in 1975, she decided to end her first marriage. All she will say about why she and her first husband John were incompatible is this comment: “I married a man who, like my mother, never talked about his feelings.” Judy remembers feeling stifled in her marriage at the time: “Enough of this. I have to get out of here. I have to live.”

By her own admission, she jumped too quickly into another marriage after her first divorce. Her second husband was a London-based scientist named Thomas Kitchens. That marriage ended in divorce in 1978. Blume says her biggest regret in life is deciding to uproot her kids to live in England during this doomed marriage.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Judy comments on her second marriage. “I was rebelling in the stupidest way. It was very rough, not just for me but my kids. I still have guilt about that. The honest thing was to admit I had made a terrible mistake … Through all the worst times in my life, I’d been able to write, and my writing has gotten me through.”

Judy has been happily married to her third husband, George Cooper, since 1987. She describes him as “easygoing” and “non-judgmental.” Together, they own the retail store Books & Books in Key West, Florida. They are frequently in the store and make themselves accessible to customers and other visitors. The documentary includes footage of the couple greeting many of these people and interacting with employees, such as Michael Nelson and Emily Berg. Judy’s biological children are not in the movie, but Judy’s stepdaughter Amanda Cooper is briefly interviewed in the documentary.

Speaking of fans and admirers, one of the best parts of the documentary is how it shows that Judy considers her fan mail to be among her most treasured possessions and some of her fans to be among her closest friends. She reads some of her fan mail out loud and is obviously still emotionally touched by people telling her how her books have changed their lives and made them feel less alone in the world. Judy has kept so much of her fan mail, in 2017, Yale University acquired 50 years’ worth of her writing and fan mail to keep in the Yale archives.

Lorrie Kim, who has been writing to Judy since Kim was 9 years old, is one such superfan who became a friend. The documentary shows Judy attending Kim’s graduation from Bryn Mawr College. Karen Chilstrom, who’s been writing to Judy since Chilstrom was 12, shares her traumatic family history of having a brother who sexually abused her and who then committed suicide. Chilstrom says of how her friendship with Judy developed: “She saw a person who was hurting, and she didn’t give up on me.”

The documentary has mention of Judy’s foray into adult-oriented novels—most notably 1978’s “Wifey,” which covered the topic of marital infidelity. Judy also talks about how she’s said no to numerous lucrative offers to turn her books into movies because she’s so protective of her work. Her 1981 young-adult novel “Tiger Eyes” (which was inspired by her own real-life experiences of her father’s death) is one of the few of her books that has been made into a movie. The 2013 “Tiger Eyes” movie, starring Willa Holland and directed by Judy’s son Lawrence, was a low-budget independent film that flopped.

Many fans of Judy’s books talk about how her books helped them learn about many of life’s issues that are larger than a girl worrying about if she’ll be popular in her school. Jones comments on the impact that “Blubber” had on her: “It made me understand that just being a bystander to cruelty made you cruel.”

Other fans and associates interviewed in the documentary include comedian/media personality/author Samantha Bee, author Jacqueline Woodson, screenwriter/producer Anna Konkle (“PEN15”), author Cecily von Ziegesar (“Gossip Girl”), author Mary H.K. Choi, book publisher/editor Beverly Horowitz, author Alex Gino, sex educator Rachel Lotus and author Jason Reynolds. There are also numerous children of various races who are shown reading from her books out loud.

“Judy Blume Forever” is more of a “fan appreciation” documentary than a “fan worship” documentary. The movie doesn’t shy away from including criticism of Judy’s work, although that criticism is mostly shown in archival clips. One of the more memorable clips is from 1984, when Judy appeared on the CNN talk show “Crossfire” for a heated discussion with conservative media pundit Pat Buchanan, who was one her most outspoken critics. In the documentary, Judy comments on this “Crossfire” appearance: “It was a very strange experience.”

The documentary also mentions the uproar that some people had because of a line in Judy’s 1993 young-adult book “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” The line was “Here’s to my fucking family.” This was in 1993, when most kids had access to movies and TV shows with vulgar language on cable TV and home video releases, but book publishers were still skittish about putting profanity in books geared to tweens and teens. Judy says that her editor told her that she would have full support from the editor on her decision to keep that line in the book. Judy describes her former book editor Richard “Dick” Jackson (who died at the age of 84 in 2019) as “the best editor in the world.”

The documentary probably would been more interesting if it had current interviews with Judy’s critics, especially since book banning (particularly in schools and in libraries) has been having a resurgence in recent years. Not surprisingly, Judy is vehemently in support of writers’ rights. Even with the absence of recent criticism of Judy’s work, “Judy Blume Forever” doesn’t feel like it’s an incomplete movie. The documentary undoubtedly shows that Judy Blume, who is a master of soul-baring storytelling, is indeed the best person to tell her own life story.

Amazon Studios released “Judy Blume Forever” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023, the same day that the movie premiered on Prime Video.

Review: ‘In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis,’ starring Pope Francis

April 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pope Francis (center) in “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” (Photo courtesy of Archivo Vatican Media/Magnolia Pictures)

“In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis”

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi

Some language in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2013 to 2022, in various countries around the world, the documentary film “In Viaggo: The Travels of Pope Francis” features a racially diverse group of people (white, Latino, Asian and black) who gather to see or meet Pope Francis.

Culture Clash: During his travels, Pope Francis gives speeches where he speaks out against crimes, wars and social injustice. 

Culture Audience: “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching “play it safe” documentaries about religious leaders.

Pope Francis in “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” (Photo courtesy of Archivo Vatican Media/Magnolia Pictures)

The documentary “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” consists almost entirely of archival news footage. Therefore, nothing new is revealed. It’s an up-close but not very personal compilation of Pope Francis’ international tour visits and some of his inspirational speeches.

Overall, the movie is good, but it’s not great. Non-religious people will probably get bored quickly by this documentary, but might want to keep watching the movie out of curiosity toe see the spectacle of how large crowds react to the Pope. “In Viaggo: The Travels of Pope Francis” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. (“In viaggo” means “traveling” in Italian.)

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi, “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” has footage of the Pope’s travels to various countries from 2013 to 2022. Not surprisingly, he attracts the types of huge and diverse crowds that only the upper echelon of superstars can attract. Many people treat him like a god who can somehow make their lives better, if he can just look or nod in their direction. Ironically, this over-adulation of a human being is exactly what Pope Francis preaches against, since he has a reputation for being one of the humblest Popes of the past 100 years.

In between the footage of the screaming and adoring crowds, the documentary takes the time to show other footage, to put things in a larger context. In footage from his 2013 trip to Brazil, the massive and loud audience gathered to see the Pope is contrasted with footage of armed security soldiers up on the hills, watching the crowd but far from the sight of the crowd. It’s a reminder that Pope, as one of the most famous people in the world, needs this type of protection when he’s out in public.

During a visit to the Philippines in 2015, when the country was ravaged by Typhoon Koppu, also known as Typhoon Lando, the documentary shows footage from the typhoon. Footage of refugees dying at sea precedes footage of the Pope speaking in Lampedusa in 2015. He talks about immigrants dying at sea as something that “unfortunately occurs all too frequently … So I was moved to come here and pray.”

In a trip to the United States in 2015, the Pope speaks to members of the U.S. Congress and namechecks Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton when talking about peace and ending war. He also makes this comment on why there is such a problem with gun violence: “It’s money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”

On the same trip, he speaks sternly to a group of Catholic bishops about child sex abuse caused by Catholic clergy: “I continue to be ashamed, because people charged with the tender care of those little ones abused them and caused them great harm. I commit myself to ensuring that the Church makes every effort to protect minors, and I promise that those responsible will be held to account.” Most of the bishops have no reactions or no expression on their faces, while others shift a little uncomfortably in their seats.

After a while, the documentary has a repetitious pattern of showing Pope Francis being treated like a religious rock star and then giving speeches tailor-made for soundbites. During a 2018 trip to Chile, Pope Francis says, “Losing freedom does not mean losing our dreams and hopes.” At a speech in Mexico in 2016, Pope Francis talks about the evils of human trafficking.

While in Canada in 2022, Pope Francis speaks out against the marginalization and colonization of indigenous people. During a 2015 trip to the Central African Republic, he talks about unity among religions and is seen visiting the United Nations office in Nairobi. In the United Arab Emirates in 2019, Pope Francis gives a speech talking about having hope amid suffering.

You get the idea. And there’s footage of him paying respects to countries’ historical wounds. During visits in 2014 to Israel and Palestine, he’s shown visiting the West Bank barrier. He’s also seen on a bus speaking with members of the Pan-Orthodox Council. “I pray to the Lord for your Pan-Orthodox synod,” he comments.

While in Armenia in 2016, and in Turkey in 2014, Pope Francis preaches against the horrors of genocide. During his 2019 visit to Japan, he pays tribute to those whose lives were devastated by atomic bombs in 1945. There’s also footage of him during his 2021 trip to Iraq, his 2022 visit to Malta, and his 2022 tour of Canada. He’s also shown talking by satellite to members of the International Space Station, which he calls a “mini-United Nations.”

Because “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” is not a truly intimate documentary of Pope Francis, everything looks very formal and emotionally sterile in moments that show the Pope away from the crowds. Pope Francis is friendly to everyone, but there are no moments that reveal the Pope to have any human flaws. Then again, based on the way that most people act when they’re around the Pope, that type of reality is something that they probably don’t want to see.

Magnolia Pictures released “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘Bad Axe,’ starring Jaclyn Siev, Chun Siev, Rachel Siev, David Siev, Raquel Siev, Michelle Siev and Michael Meinhold

April 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jaclyn Siev (pictured at left) in “Bad Axe” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Bad Axe”

Directed by David Siev

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, in Bad Axe, Michigan, the documentary film “Bad Axe” features a group of Asian and white people (with a few African Americans) discussing the Siev family, a Cambodian-Mexican American clan that owns the Bad Axe casual restaurant Rachel’s.

Culture Clash: The family experiences several challenges during the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, including COVID-19 restrictions, financial problems, political conflicts and bigotry toward non-white immigrants.

Culture Audience: “Bad Axe” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about immigrant families and restaurant survival during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chun Siev in “Bad Axe” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Bad Axe” is more than just a documentary about a family-owned restaurant trying to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also an emotionally stirring and heartfelt story about immigration, dealing with bigotry, and the significance of family legacies. “Bad Axe” director David Siev says in the film that this documentary is also a “love letter” to his hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan, where this documentary was filmed. However, the story of his family resonates more in this film than a story about a city, because there aren’t many people outside of the family who are interviewed for this documentary.

“Bad Axe” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, where the movie won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as special jury recognition for Intimacy in Storytelling. “Bad Axe” also won the 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Award for Best First Documentary Feature. “Bad Axe” is an admirable feature-film directorial debut from Siev, who manages to weave together two different storylines (the COVID-19 storyline and the immigrant storyline) in a meaningful way. The merging of these two storylines isn’t always seamless (some of the film editing needed improving), but it’s never awkward or confusing. The “Bad Axe” documentary was filmed in the first several months of the pandemic, beginning when lockdowns in the U.S. started in March 2020. A few epilogue scenes were filmed in 2021.

The documentary begins David’s sister Jaclyn Siev reading an angry, anonymous letter from a customer of Rachel’s, the Bad Axe casual restaurant owned by David’s parents Chun Siev and Rachel Siev. Rachel’s is a restaurant that serves American and Asian food and can seat about 50 to 75 people indoors. Chun is a Cambodia immigrant who has been living in Michigan since the mid-1970s, when he, his siblings and their single mother relocated to the United States. Rachel is a Mexican American who met Chun through a Taekwondo class that she took where Chun was the instructor.

According to the 2020 U.S. census, Bad Axe is a city with a population of a little more than 3,000 people, and 95% are white. Most residents of Bad Axe have household incomes that would classify them as working-class or poor. Located in Michigan’s Huron County, Bad Axe is a city whose population has been steadily declining since 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bad Axe was also a conflicted city in 2020, when it came to how the government should have handled certain COVID-19 policies, such as whether or not people should be required to wear masks, and which businesses needed to shut down during the quarantining lockdown period of the pandemic. Michigan was one of the U.S. states where COVID-19 policies sparked the most widespread protests and debates, often divided along political lines.

Supporters of then-U.S. president Donald Trump tended to be the most resistant to government safety policies for the pandemic. People who were against these policies argued that it violated their personal freedom of choice. All of these sociopolitical factors affected countless people, especially during the first two years of the pandemic. “Bad Axe” takes a very up-close and personal look at how it all affected this family’s small restaurant business.

The angry customer letter that Jaclyn reads on camera says, in part: “You are right that many of your customers are Trump supporters, but Bad Axe isn’t changing from traditional American values. My family and others will be changing our restaurant routine, and Rachel’s is no longer a choice. … You can return to Cambodia for opportunity.” The documentary circles back to this letter-reading scene after it shows the reason why this letter was sent in the first place.

As most people already know, the restaurant industry was among the hardest-hit during the lockdown period of the pandemic. Even though restaurants were considered essential businesses that could stay open during the lockdowns, most U.S. states and cities banned indoor sit-down meals at restaurants for several months. (The lifting of this ban depended on the local or state government that issued these regulations.) Most restaurants that stayed open durng these restrictions had to rely on take-out and delivery orders, as well as provide outdoor seating areas, if the restaurants were fortunate enough to have space for outdoor seating.

In “Bad Axe,” David (who lives in New York City) is shown coming back to Bad Axe during the pandemic lockdowns to spend time with his family. Jaclyn (the eldest child in the family) also took time off from her regular life to help out as much as she can in the restaurant. It’s mentioned that Jaclyn and her husband Michael “Mike” Meinhold live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and their corporate day jobs allowed them to work from home during the pandemic lockdowns. They used this more flexible work schedule to go to Bad Axe and assist in operating the restaurant.

Meinhold says, “Bad Axe is a place where, if you grew up here, you really can’t wait to get out. It doesn’t have a whole lot of things to offer.” He adds, as if attempting not to appear too negative about Bad Axe: “It’s a nice place to raise a family.”

Also featured in the documentary are David and Rachel’s younger sisters Raquel Siev and Michelle Siev, who help out in the restaurant too. At the time the pandemic lockdowns happened, Raquel was about to graduate from the University of Michigan and wasn’t very enthusiastic about the idea of continuing to work at the restaurant after graduation. Michelle seems a little more committed to her restaurant duties, but she also can’t say for sure that she will take over the restaurant when her parents retire.

Family friend/restaurant manager Skyler Janssen is also seen being among the crucial staff who helped keep the restaurant open for business. She is a friendly and loyal employee who is treated almost like a member of the family. Janssen admits later in the documentary that if it weren’t for being employed at the restaurant, she probably wouldn’t have taken the time to get to know the Siev family, whose race and family history are different from hers.

These cultural differences in Bad Axe cause friction in the community when outspoken Jaclyn and mild-mannered Raquel get involved in the Black Lives Matter protests in Bad Axe and nearby cities, after the horrific murder of Goerge Floyd. Raquel’s boyfriend Austin Turmell also gets involved in the protests, and he has a personal reason for advocating for better race relations: He’s an African American whose adoptive parents Denise Turmell and Wayne Turmell are white. All of these family members are featured in the documentary.

During one of these protests, members of extreme white supremacy groups line up with guns as a way to intimidate the peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters. Things get heated as some of the protesters and the white supremacists yell insults at each other. Jaclyn is one of the people who gets caught up in these verbal conflicts.

People are filming this public gathering, which also makes the local news. And even though Jaclyn is wearing a face mask covering the lower part of her face, people in the community recognize her when videos of her at the protest are seen in mass media. The restaurant gets a backlash for these civil rights activities, and the backlash grows when people find out that David has started a crowdfunding campaign for the documentary.

But the conflicts that the Siev family faces aren’t just from external sources. The family had internal conflicts too. It would be easy to assume that a family would be united to help save the family’s restaurant under these circumstances. However, that was not the case with the Siev family.

“Bad Axe” shows that Jaclyn, who has a take-charge personality, often argued with her parents to be quarantined at home, out of concerns that they might get infected by COVID-19, due the parents being in the high-risk group of people over the age of 60. Chun and Rachel eventually agree to the quarantine. And there comes a point where Chun gets so discouraged by the sharp decline in business, he contemplates closing the restaurant permanently. It’s a decision that Jaclyn vehemently opposes.

There are some tearful arguments among family members, with Jaclyn openly saying that she feels the most pressure (as the eldest child) to keep the family business going. Part of her determination to keep the restaurant in business comes from the heartbreak that she and other family members experienced when Chun had a donut shop that failed years ago when his children were underage. Jaclyn tells anyone who’ll listen that she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Rachel’s. In the documentary, she considers quitting her day job and taking over the restaurant full-time.

Chun says in the documentary that Jaclyn reminds him a lot of his mother. Jaclyn comments on Chun’s mother: “She’s the one who taught me what it means to sacrifice for your family. I just always grew up thinking, ‘If she could survive a genocide and come to this country, the least I can do is help my family run a business.”

Quarantining at home during the pandemic obviously caused Chun to reflect on his life. And that’s where the documentary’s second storyline comes in: Chun talks about his past in Cambodia (he experienced some horrific things) and what it was like to be a refugee immigrant in the United States. The American Dream is a constant theme in “Bad Axe.” And during the pandemic, that dream and so many others were destroyed for many people, often in unexpected ways.

Many directors who make documentaries about their families tend to make themselves (the directors) the stars of these documentaries. David doesn’t follow that usual stereotype. He is seen in some of the footage, and he’s also heard asking some of the interview questions. But he isn’t at the center of the documentary’s story.

Without question, Jaclyn and Chun are the stars of the “Bad Axe” documentary. Their disagreements have a lot to do with something that is obvious to viewers, but it takes a while for Jaclyn and Chun to figure out: This father and daughter, both stubborn and opinionated, have their biggest clashes with each other because their personalities are so much alike.

“Bad Axe” is a story of survival, not just financial but also emotional, during a deadly pandemic. It’s a story about a multiracial family learning more about how they can live in a mostly white community during a time of high racial tension. And most important of all: It’s a story about a family finding new ways to appreciate each other when times are tough and uncertain.

IFC Films released “Bad Axe” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Refuge’ (2023), starring Chris Buckley and Heval Kelli

March 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chris Buckley and Heval Kelli in “Refuge” (Photo by Tomesha Faxio/Shout! Studios)

“Refuge” (2023)

Directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship

Some language in Arabic and Kurdish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in Clarkston, Georgia, the documentary film “Refuge” features a racially diverse group of people (Asian, white and African American) who are working-class and middle-class residents of Clarkston and nearby cities.

Culture Clash: A former Ku Klux Klansman and Muslim doctor of Syrian Kurd heritage become friends in Clarkston, a city that has a large population of immigrants from Asia and Africa.

Culture Audience: “Refuge” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in documentaries with frank discussions about racism and how former racists can be redeemed.

Amina Osman in “Refuge” (Photo by Tomesha Faxio/Shout! Studios)

“Refuge” is an inspiring story of how a community can heal from hate and how it’s never too late for people who’ve been terrible bigots to genuinely seek redemption. This documentary is centered in Clarkston, Georgia, but its life lessons are universal. The movie doesn’t shy away from difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racism. “Refuge” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2021.

Directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship, “Refuge” mostly follows the story of the friendship between a former Ku Klux Klansman and U.S. Army veteran named Chris Buckley and a Muslim doctor of Syrian Kurd heritage named Heval Kelli. At the time that this documentary was filmed Buckley lived in Lafayette, Georgia, but he visits Clarkston often, since Kelli lives in racially diverse Clarkston, and Buckley has befriended many people in the Clarkston community.

In the documentary, Kelli describes Clarkston as having so many refugees from other countries, “It looks like a United Nations refugee camp.” It’s exactly the type of place that Buckley would’ve hated when he was a hardcore racist. Buckley was in the U.S. Army for 13 years, where he fought in the war in Afghanistan, which he says added fuel to his already existing hatred of Muslims and people who aren’t white. He was motivated to enlist in the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Buckley says of his war experiences: “Every injury I sustained was by a Muslim.” he watched one of his best friend die in front of him. Buckley says that all he could think at the time was, “I hate the people who did this. All I know is that they’re Muslims.”

After getting out of the Army, Buckley became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan (one of the oldest white supremacist hate groups in the U.S.), which ordered him to get KKK tattoos. Buckley explains, “When I took over for the [KKK] head of security for the state of Georgia, they [KKK officials] said, ‘Look, you need to brand yourself.'”

Like many people who join hate groups, Buckley says he came from an abusive background. His alcoholic father used to beat him, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother. Buckley has also struggled with drug abuse, which is also a common trait of people who join hate groups.

Later in the documentary, Buckley reveals that what set him on a path to drug addiction was after her broke his back in a car accident. He was discharged from the military and got addicted to painkillers. “Opiates led to crystal meth,” he says. “In retrospect, I was alienating everyone who cared about me and was just ruining my life.”

What turned Buckley’s life around? He says that after we was arrested on drug charges, he went to court-ordered rehab. And he became a more devoted family man. His wife Melissa Buckley and their two children—son C.J. Buckley and daughter Miera Buckley—are also featured in the documentary. However, Melissa said the last straw for her was when Chris joined the KKK.

Through research on the Internet, Melissa found Arno Michaelis of the Forgiveness Project, a foundation devoted to helping people get out of hate groups and fostering healing relationships in communities that have been harmed by hate. Michaelis, who says he has been an ex-white supremacist since 1994, also describes himself as an extremist interventionist. He helped stage an intervention on Chris and continues to be in contact with the Buckley family.

Chris says about his current life as a former racist who has gotten clean and sober: “I’m the byproduct of someone’s act of kindness. I was undeserving of that. It set off a series of changes in my entire life.” Heval adds, “Chris is a reflection of the forgotten America.”

Chris’ military background has spilled over into how he raises his children. Chris says he taught his kids how to have tactical survival skills in the woods. But something he regrets doing now is taking his son C.J. to KKK meetings. Chris and his wife Melissa are teaching their children that Chris’ involvement in the KKK was a terrible mistake.

As for Kelli, he immigrated to the U.S. from Syria when he was 12 years old in September 2001, which was one of the worst months to be a Muslim in the United States. But even with anti-Muslim hate in America reaching new heights after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Kelli says that there were many other Americans who proved that not all Americans are racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic.

Kelli remembers when he was 18 years old, “Southern Christians came knocking on our door. They came to welcome us to America. I knew then there was something special about this country.” Kelli had his own troubled history with his father. Heval Kelli’s mother Saaida Kelli describes Heval’s father as a lawyer who lived with depression.”

“Refuge” has footage of Chris and Heval doing speaking appearances together to talk about their friendship, as proof that it’s possible for bigots to stop the hate inside of themselves and get to know the types of people they used to hate. The documentary also takes a broader look at how Clarkston is an example of the changing demographics of the United States, a country that has had growing population of people of color.

The white supremacists who hate these changing demographics often like to ignore historical facts, such as the genocide of Native Americans, who lived on the land centuries before white colonialists invaded and took over the land. And most people in the U.S. who aren’t Native Americans can trace their ancestries back to people who immigrated to the United States. The city of Clarkston is a reminder that the United States is a country of immigrants from all over the world, so it’s fallacy to believe that only one race or one ethnicity should be superior to everyone else.

Ted Terry, who was mayor of Clarkston from 2014 to 2020, says in the documentary that he’s proud of Clarkston being so welcoming of immigrants, particularly refugees: “Less than one percent of refugees get invited to settle in one of the 17 countries in the developed world. It’s like winning the lottery.”

New American Pathways resettlement manager Safia Jama says, “An immigrant chooses to come here, but you never choose to be a refugee.” One of the more memorable Clarkston residents in the documentary is Amina Osman, a Somalian immigrant who was in her 90s at the time she was filmed for “Refuge.” She has the nicknames Ambassador of Clarkston, Queen of Clarkston and Mama Amina. “I like to be the mama of everyone,” she quips.

Also interviewed in the documentary are Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Bet Haverim in Atlanta and Pastor Crispin Ilombe Wilondja of Good Samaritan Lutheran Ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. They talk about the horrific mosque shootings that happened in New Zealand in 2019. The “Refuge” filmmakers made a misstep by not having a Muslim clergyperson as part of this discussion, since so much of the documentary is about battling against anti-Muslim bigotry.

With a total running time of 80 minutes, “Refuge” tells its story clearly and concisely without feeling too rushed. Viewers will get a vibrant look at the multiculturalism that makes Clarkston a reflection of what so many other communities in America are or will become. And the message of “Refuge” is obvious: Bigots who want to go back to the shameful era when racial segregation in America was legal, or think that people should be persecuted for their religious beliefs, will continue to be in miserable denial. “Refuge” shows that those who have lives of racial tolerance (through actions, not just words) are more likely to have a healthier and happier outlook on life and are more likely to make positive impacts in their communities.

Shout! Studios released “Refuge” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 24, 2023.

Review: ‘One Man and His Shoes,’ starring Sonny Vaccaro, David Falk, Peter Moore, Julia Strasser Dixon, Jemele Hill, Antonio Williams and David J. Stern

March 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

A photo of Michael Jordan in “One Man and His Shoes” (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images/OMAHS Ltd.)

“One Man and His Shoes”

Directed by Yemi Bamiro

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “One Man and His Shoes,” a racially diverse group of people (African American, white and a few Latinos and Asians), who are all connected in some way to professional basketball, discuss the story behind the massive business of Air Jordan athletic shoes, inspired by Michael Jordan and made by Nike.

Culture Clash: As Nike’s Air Jordan shoes became more popular as a status symbol, criticism increased over the higher retail prices for the shoes and the violence caused by Air Jordan shoe thefts. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Michael Jordan and Air Jordan shoes, “One Man and His Shoes” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about shoe culture and how popular brands are marketed to consumers and the down sides of brand popularity.

Air Jordan XII shoes (launched in 1996), in a scene from “One Man and His Shoes” (Photo courtesy of Vice)

“One Man and His Shoes” offers a fairly comprehensive look at the highs, lows and everything in between for the popularity of Air Jordan athletic shoes, made by Nike. This documentary’s biggest void is not having the participation of Michael Jordan or anyone in his family. “One Man and His Shoes” has an epilogue stating: “Nike and Brand Jordan did not to requests to be interviewed in this film.”

However, “One Man and His Shoes” admirably doesn’t sugarcoat or ignore that behind the glamorous image of the lucrative Air Jordan business is a very ugly truth: There have been deadly repercussions of how the Air Jordan brand has been marketed as a status symbol. Certain people have literally been killed for Air Jordan shoes. Most of these murder victims are African Americans. “One Man and His Shoes” brings up issues of corporate and celebrity responsibility when a people are killing each other to get a celebrity brand product that’s marketed to low-income people who might not be able to afford that product.

Directed by Yemi Bamiro, “One Man and His Shoes” has interviews with mostly sports journalists; cultural experts/historians; and former Nike executives who have been involved with making and selling Air Jordan shoes. The movie begins with this striking statement: “September 15, 1984: Nike created Air Jordan. On October 18, 1984, the NBA [National Basketball Association] threw them out of the game.” For people who don’t know why, it’s because in 1984, Michael Jordan, the future superstar Chicago Bulls player, was wearing the first version of Air Jordans, which violated the NBA’s rules of not having enough white on the shoes.

The Air Jordan 1 shoes were boldly designed in mostly black and red, with some white, but not enough white to meet NBA standards. Of course, Jordan still got to play in the NBA and went on to become the most famous basketball player in the world. In the early days of Air Jordan, he was fined for wearing the shoes during NBA games. However, Nike (which is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon) happily paid the fines, which were a tiny fraction of what would become the multibillion-dollar Air Jordan business. In 2022, Nike had an estimated $5 billion in sales from Jordan Brand (Nike’s division for Air Jordans), and those annual revenues are expected to increase.

Jordan getting fined for wearing Air Jordans was a clever marketing strategy for Nike, since the fines immediately created a “rebellious but cool” image for Air Jordans. In addition, he wore the Air Jordan shoes for five or six months before they went on sale at retail. The NBA “ban” on the shoes helped fuel sales.

Peter Moore, the original designer of Air Jordans, comments in “One Man and His Shoes” about how Air Jordans saved Nike from declining sales and cultural irrelevancy. Before the invention of Air Jordans, “Nike started out as a running [shoes] company. By 1984, they weren’t doing well.” (Moore died in 2022, at the age of 74.)

Before the invention of Air Jordans, the company that had the largest market share for basketball shoes in 1984 was Converse (which had NBA stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as celebrity spokesmen), followed by Adidas. Nike was in a distant third or fourth place. It’s a well-known story that in 1984, 21-year-old NBA rookie Jordan was leaning toward signing with Adidas, which was the leading athletic shoe brand at the time for hip-hop culture.

However, Nike won over Jordan and his parents because Nike promised an entire shoe franchise named after Jordan, as well as Jordan getting a share of the revenue. It was a deal that was unheard of at the time for any NBA player, let alone a rookie. The documentary mentions that Jordan currently makes about $130 million a year from Air Jordan sales. David Falk, who was Jordan’s agent at the time, reiterates this story in the documentary. Falk is also widely credited with coming up with the name Air Jordan for the shoe brand.

Sonny Vaccaro, a former Nike executive, is credited with being the one to come up with the idea to have Nike make this huge investment in Jordan. He is also credited with changing the business of college sports sponsorship by paying National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) colleges for their teams to wear Nike shoes. In the documentary, Vaccaro shows a pair of Nike shoes that Jordan wore when he injured his toe in the 1991 NBA playoffs between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Rob Strasser (who died in 1993, at the age of 46) was the Nike marketing executive who decided to market Air Jordans to inner city kids. Julia Strasser Dixon, Rob Strasser’s widow, is a former Nike marketing manager. She says in the documentary: “Everybody in the business knew that the main consumer[s] for athletic shoes [are] 16-year-old boys. The biggest sport to get to the masses is basketball.”

Professor Antonio Williams, a sports marketing lecturer at the University of Indianapolis, comment in the documentary: “Marketing the Jordan brand to the African American community has been the core of success of the Jordan brand.” Sports journalist Jemele Hill adds, “Black people have always been the arbiter of cool.”

Rick Telender, author and Chicago Sun-Times basketball columnist, has this observation: “You could say it was about race and ethnicity. But as always, it’s about poverty, it’s about economic disparity, about hope, and about a chance to move ahead to become a part of the Great American Ladder, where you can start anywhere and make it to the top.”

The success of the Air Jordan brand had a lot to do with Jordan’s star power and how Nike marketed it. Spike Lee’s association with Nike (he has directed and starred in Air Jordan commercials) are mentioned as being part of the effective marketing campaign for Air Jordans. DJ/music producer Clark Kent describes Lee as “the father of sneaker culture.”

David J. Stern, who was commissioner of the NBA from 1984 to 2014, mentions that the Puma Clyde shoe (inspired by former NBA star Walt Frazier) was the first “cool” player/shoe alliance. Jordan and Nike took that concept to a whole other level. Other people who offer comments about the marketing of Air Jordans are sneaker analyst Matt Powell, Michael Jordan biographer Roland Lazenby and Jim Riswold, a former creative for advertising firm Wieden & Kennedy, which has created the most well-known Air Jordan ads, including “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes” for the Air Jordan 5.

But there were also other cultural forces that made the Air Jordan brand a huge business success. Jordan came along at a time when young people, particularly African American youth, were looking for a new basketball hero. Jordan’s celebrity name also helped increase tourism in Chicago, according to basketball/sneaker writer Russ Bengston, who says: “Until [Michael] Jordan came, Chicago really wasn’t a destination for anybody.”

From the beginning, Air Jordans have been marketed to inner-city youth. However, the prices for these shoes are often out of reach for this target audience, thereby causing a phenomenon called “Air Jordan envy.” And envy for material things often can result in theft and violence. Meanwhile, filmmaker/author Robbito Garcia notes that even though Nike wanted to get a lot of money from certain communities, Nike didn’t show enough concern about how Nike products (specifically Air Jordans) were negatively affecting anyone in those communities: “There was a gap in the support for the youth,” says Garcia.

In all fairness, “One Man and His Shoes” mentions the charitable causes that Jordan and Nike have contributed to, in order to help underprivileged youth. But the documentary also mentions that Jordan and Nike have been slow to respond to murders that were directly related to Air Jordan thefts. People have also continued to question the prices for Air Jordans. Critics of Air Jordans have described these shoes as overpriced and overrated.

One of the people interviewed in “One Man and His Shoes” is Dazie Williams, a Houston mother whose 22-year-old son Joshua D. Woods was murdered for his Air Jordans in 2012. Williams says that even though her son’s murderers are solely responsible for this heinous crime, she believes that her son would not have been murdered for any other shoes. She also says that Jordan gave her a tone-deaf sympathy gift of a pair of Air Jordans after her son was killed. Williams compares this sympathy gift to giving candy to a crying kid.

Sports journalist Scoop Jackson and other people in the documentary say that even though Jordan could have done more to address the violence connected to Air Jordans, it’s really Nike that bears most of the burden to have a responsible reaction to this violence. It’s because Nike is the entity that markets Air Jordans and make the most profits from Air Jordans. Williams doesn’t mince words when he says, “Nike has a little blood on their hands too.”

“One Man and His Shoes” isn’t all gloom and doom. The documentary also shows the fun side of Air Jordan fandom. Some people who are Air Jordan collectors are interviewed in the movie, including entrepreneur Hawaii Mike Salman and Paris-based print designer Air Ruddy. A Detroit-based collector, who did not want to be identified on camera, says he’s been collecting Air Jordans since 1985.

At the time this documentary was made, this unidentified collector had more than 1,175 Air Jordan shoes, and his Air Jordan collection was insured for more than $1 million. A female Air Jordan collector in Tokyo is also interviewed, but she did not want to be identified on camera. This secrecy gives more credibility to the belief that people who go public about owning many valuable Air Jordans could be putting their own lives at risk.

The origin story of Air Jordan shoes has been made into the 2023 dramatic film “Air,” directed by Ben Affleck, who co-stars in the movie as Nike founder Phil Knight. It’s a very glossy version of the story that makes the Nike executives the main heroes. “One Man and His Shoes” is worth watching for more of the real story that’s not included in “Air,” including the harsh reality that people have died because of greed for Air Jordan shoes.

Vice premiered “One Man and His Shoes” on May 25, 2020. The movie is available on digital and VOD, as well as free streaming on Crackle, The Roku Channel and Tubi.

Review: ‘My Father Muhammad Ali,’ starring Muhammad Ali Jr.

March 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Muhammad Ali Jr. in “My Father Muhammad Ali” (Photo courtesy of VMI Worldwide)

“My Father Muhammad Ali”

Directed by Chad A. Verdi and Tom DeNucci

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, the documentary film “My Father Muhammad Ali” features a group of African American and white people discussing Muhammad Ali Jr. and the legacy of his father, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Culture Clash: Muhammad Ali Jr. struggles with living in the shadow of his father’s fame, while also trying to cash in on that fame and dealing with his own personal problems, such as homelessness and drug addiction.

Culture Audience: “My Father Muhammad Ali” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Muhammad Ali, but this misleading documentary is really just a self-indulgent pity party for his namesake son.

Muhammad Ali Jr. and Richard Blum in “My Father Muhammad Ali” (Photo courtesy of VMI Worldwide)

“My Father Muhammad Ali” is one of the most pathetic “cash grab using a celebrity name” documentaries you could ever see. It’s poorly edited rambling from Muhammad Ali Jr. feeling sorry for himself, because of this troubled son’s personal problems. Don’t expect this “bait and switch” documentary to have any real insight into who boxing legend Muhammad Ali was as a person. (Muhammad Ali Sr. died of Parkinson’s disease in 2016, at the age of 74.) Most of what you’ll see in “My Father Muhammad Ali” is Muhammad Ali Jr. complaining about his life and making pleas and pitches to donate to his sketchy-looking “non-profit foundation” Muhammad Ali Legacy Continues. It’s like watching a really long and shoddily made infomercial.

Directed by Chad A. Verdi and Tom DeNucci (who should be ashamed of themselves for making this sorry excuse for a documentary), “My Father Muhammad Ali” begins with the only real anecdote that Muhammad Ali Jr. (who was born on May 14, 1972) shares about his father in this movie. Muhammad Jr. tells a story that he says took place in August 1984, when he was on a road trip with his father, who was driving the car. Muhammad Jr. says that during this road trip, they were headed to a Travelodge motel. They stopped at a gas station, and his father accidentally left him behind at the gas station.

Muhammad Jr. says that he called Muhammad Sr.’s girlfriend at the time, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams (who would become Muhammad Sr.’s fourth and last wife, when they married in 1986), to pick him up at the gas station, but she was too busy and couldn’t go. Eventually, someone got in touch with Muhammad Sr., and he came back to the gas station to pick up his son. Muhammad Sr.’s explanation for leaving his son at the gas station was that he forgot that someone else was in the car with him on this road trip. Muhammad Jr. then says in the documentary: “I didn’t realize Parkinson’s disease was setting in at the time.”

“My Father Muhammad Ali” gives a very truncated version of Muhammad Jr.’s dysfunctional life. He describes being named after father as being both a blessing and a curse. He says his parents traveled a lot and were too busy to raise him, so he was mainly raised by his mother’s parents. His mother Khalilah Ali (formerly known as Belinda Boyd) was Muhammad Sr.’s second wife. They were married from 1967 to 1977. Muhammad Jr. says he gets about $1,000 a month from his father’s estate. The movie also acknowledges that Muhammad Jr. has sold his story to tabloids, by showing clips of some of these tabloid articles.

Muhammad Jr. openly admits in this documentary that he’s homeless and struggling with drug addiction, specifically crack cocaine. His family life is also a mess. He had a nasty breakup with his now-ex-wife (who refused to participate in the documentary), and was a deadbeat dad for years to his daughter Saliah Ali, who grew up in foster care and in homeless shelters. In the beginning of the documentary, Muhammad Jr. is hopeful that he will reunite with his wife, whom he married in 2005, but he is soundly rejected when he tries to make this marital reunion happen. He’s also served with divorce papers on camera.

However, Saliah is open to mending her family relationship with him. Saliah is interviewed in the documentary and talks about the emotional pain of having a drug-addicted, absentee father. Muhammad Jr. is remorseful and is shown trying to reconnect with Saliah and attempting to make up for all the lost time that they were estranged from each other.

At one point in the movie, Muhammad Jr. goes back to the property that houses the mansion where the Ali family used to live in California. The current owners of the mansion wouldn’t let the documentary filmmakers inside, so the filming took place outside a front gate on the property. Muhammad then tells some innocuous stories about remembering how his father liked to exercise outdoors on this property.

Anyone who thinks that information is fascinating might be suckered into donating to Muhammad Jr.’s “non-profit foundation,” which he says is for spreading anti-bullying messages and to help teach self-defense boxing to bullied young people. However, the documentary doesn’t actually show any donations to the foundation being used for that purpose. After a while, viewers will wonder if this documentary’s filmmakers ever questioned how legitimate this “non-profit foundation” really is, or if the filmmakers just didn’t care, because they’re using the Muhammad Ali name to try to make money too.

The documentary shows Muhammad Jr. going to Fighter’s Heaven in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, where Muhammad Sr. famously trained in his youth. Muhammad Jr. constantly drops his father’s name when he meets some fans of his father at Fighter’s Heaven. A Fighter’s Heaven volunteer named Joseph Bassio gushes about the Fighter’s Heaven connection to Muhammad Sr.: “This is kind of like the ground Christ walked on.”

One of the most cringeworthy aspects of the documentary is the domineering presence of Richard Blum, who is often by Muhammad Jr.’s side. Muhammad Jr. describes Blum as his best friend, roommate and business partner. Blum says he’s a retired New York City police officer. At the time this documentary was made, Blum and Muhammad Jr. were living together in the same motel room.

This “partnership” definitely doesn’t look equal, because it’s obvious that Blum has taken the “boss” position for all aspects of a “non-profit foundation” named after Muhammad Ali. Throughout the documentary, Blum coaches/orders Muhammad Jr. on what to say to the media, when it comes to this “non-profit foundation.” Viewers will get the impression that Blum has decided that he will handle all the financial details. Blum doesn’t show any proof that he’s qualified for having this leadership role.

This documentary is so poorly made, the filmmakers never question Blum on why he’s living in a motel with another homeless person and presenting himself as the leader of a questionable “non-profit foundation” as a source of income. Isn’t a retired cop supposed to get a pension, if the cop left the police force in good standing? In the documentary, Blum is vague or evasive about how much money this “non-profit foundation” has actually raised.

And it seems like a lot of people aren’t buying what Blum and Muhammad Jr. are selling. The documentary shows Blum and Muhammad Jr. holding a press conference at Fighter’s Heaven to talk about their “non-profit foundation.” Only one reporter and one photographer show up for this press conference. As usual, Blum tells Muhammad Jr. what to say, or he answers questions for Muhammad Jr.

Other awkward-looking parts of the documentary are the movie’s interviews with Dr. Monica O’Neal, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist. She’s tasked with giving a psychologist perspective of Muhammad Jr., even though he’s not her patient/client. And later, O’Neal gives a therapy session to Muhammad Jr., who is emotionally guarded and never looks comfortable in this session.

O’Neal has this assessment of the super-close relationship that Muhammad Jr. and Blum have: “It seems like Richard has come into his life and is always trying to support him. He doesn’t really question him. He doesn’t really judge him.” Still, O’Neal has this observation about the relationship: “Something about it feels unclear.”

Family members interviewed in the documentary offer no real insight into Muhammad Sr., and instead give generic answers when talking about Muhammad Jr. and his problems. Rahman Ali, who is Muhammad Sr.’s younger brother, comments that Muhammad Jr. is “Sweet, just like his father.” And when asked to comment on the rough patch in Muhammad Jr.’s life, Rahman curtly says, “It’s none of my business.”

Muhammad Jr.’s mother Khalilah is also evasive in giving details about him and her role in his childhood. She says that her mother, who helped raise Muhammad Jr., didn’t tell her about Muhammad Jr.’s problems that he had as a child. Khalilah will only say this about Muhammad Jr. being raised by her parents: “I probably could’ve helped them with it better.”

One of the few high points of the documentary are heartfelt comments from Dr. Larry Baran (who was a teacher of Muhammad Jr. at Rosewood-Flossmoor Community High School in Flossmor, Illinois) and his daughter Heidi Baran Splinter, who was Muhammad Jr.’s schoolmate friend. They share fond memories about Muhammad Jr. becoming like a part of their family. Muhammad Jr. is also shown reuniting with Baran Splinter for a friendly conversation. Dr. Baran was battling cancer when he was interviewed in this documentary, and he passed away in 2020.

“My Father Muhammad Ali” serves no other purpose but to be a public-relations showcase for Muhammad Jr. to rehabilitate his image and beg for money for his “non-profit foundation.” However, the intended purpose sadly backfires, because so much of the movie shows a broken man who is desperately trying to use his father’s name as a way to get money for himself. The documentary filmmakers are part of this exploitation too.

Muhammad Ali Sr. was by no means a perfect person, but he showed the world how to rise to greatness through hard work and self-respect. Unfortunately, this very misguided documentary shows that Muhammad Jr. has not yet learned that lesson. Money handouts aren’t going to make him happy. Hopefully, he’ll get some real help for his problems.

VMI Worldwide released “My Father Muhammad Ali” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 13, 2023.

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