Review: ‘Ellis,’ starring Ellis Marsalis Jr.

December 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ellis Marsalis Jr. in “Ellis”


Directed by Sascha Just

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

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

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

Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis in “Ellis”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?”

Directed by Elvis Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the best things about “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which has great editing by Michael Engelken and Doyle Esch) is that this documentary doesn’t just spotlight mainstream hits but it also gives screen time to underrated movie gems that prominently feature African Americans. Greaves’ 1968 “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” is mentioned as an important experimental film from an African American filmmaker. The 1972 drama “Black Girl” (directed by Davis) is described as an often-overlooked African American movie that’s worth watching.

The 1976 musical drama “Sparkle” (directed by Sam O’Steen) is cited as an influential precursor to the “Dreamgirls” stage musical and movie. The 1975 urban drama “Cornbread, Earl and Me” (directed by Joseph Manduke) was influential to 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” says “Boyz N the Hood” co-star Fishburne. And before black superheroes got their own movies with 1997’s “Spawn,” 1998’s “Blade” or 2018’s “Black Panther,” there was 1977’s “Abar, the First Black Superman,” directed by Frank Packard.

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

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

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

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

December 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“Santa Camp”

Directed by Nick Sweeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“’Twas the Fight Before Christmas”

Directed by Becky Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“Wildcat” (2022)

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Lovely Jackson,’ starring Rickey Jackson, Edward Vernon, Anthony Singleton, Mark Godsey, Brian Howe, Mary McGrath and Clarissa Jackson

December 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rickey Jackson in “Lovely Jackson” (Photo courtesy of Zodiac Features)

“Lovely Jackson”

Directed by Matt Waldeck

Culture Representation: The true crime documentary “Lovely Jackson” features a group working-class and middle-class African American and white people discussing the case of Rickey Jackson, who spent 39 years in prison for a 1975 murder in Cleveland that he did not commit.

Culture Clash: Jackson and several people connected to the case talk about his struggles to prove his innocence and how racism played a role in his conviction.

Culture Audience: “Lovely Jackson” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about wrongful imprisonments and racial injustice.

Rickey Jackson in “Lovely Jackson” (Photo courtesy of Zodiac Features)

“Lovely Jackson” is an example of a true crime movie that not only shines a light on a tragic failure in the U.S. criminal justice system but also offers a beacon of hope for people who are seeking justice. Rickey Jackson tells his story of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for murder in this artfully directed and riveting documentary. In May 1975, money order collector Harold J. Franks was shot to death during a robbery of a convenience store in Cleveland. The truth about who committed thes crimes has been at the center of various different trials and a lot of controversy.

In August 1975, Jackson (who was 18 years old at the time) was found guilty of these crimes in a jury trial. The prosecution’s main evidence was testimony from Edward “Ed” Vernon, an acquaintance of Jackson’s, who named Jackson as the shooter, even though Jackson had an alibi when the robbery/murder took place. A .38 caliber gun was used in the shooting, but this type of gun was never linked to Jackson. In December 1975, Jackson was sentenced to death.

Jackson was also convicted of attempted murder because Anna Robinson, the wife of the store’s owner, was shot during the robbery, but she survived. Wiley Bridgeman and his brother Ronnie Bridgeman (who now goes by the name Kwame Ajamu) were convicted of being Jackson’s accomplices in these crimes. The Bridgeman brothers also proclaimed their innocence in these crimes. At the time of these convictions in 1975, Wiley was 21, while Ronnie was 24.

Jackson always maintained his innocence, but he stayed in prison for 39 years. He has a remarkable story that won’t be fully revealed in this review, in case people don’t know what happened during his arduous fight to prove his innocence. Even though the outcome of the case is extraordinary, “Lovely Jackson” never lets viewers forget that what isn’t so remarkable or extraordinary are the untold numbers of wrongly convicted people who are in prison and can’t get the help or justice that they need.

Directed by Matt Waldeck, “Lovely Jackson” is a documentary that has some re-enactments that appear almost like dream sequences. Jackson serves as the main narrator of the story, while the documentary also includes interviews with people who know Jackson and are connected to his case in some way. The movie is in black-and-white during the bleakest parts of the story and switches to color for certain interviews and archival footage when the story takes some twists and turns.

Jackson tells harrowing tales of what life was like in prison, including the vicious beatdowns he witnessed, the tricky tightrope of navigating social alliances among criminals, and shutting down emotionally as a means of survival. He says he adopted this attitude in prison: “I don’t give a fuck. I’ll do whatever it takes. Don’t bother me. That’s the attitude that I had to have to survive in there.”

How did Jackson end up in this awful nightmare? According to interviews in the documentary and court testimony, Vernon (who was 12 years old in 1975) saw Jackson and some friends among the curious bystanders who showed up at the crime scene after the robbers/murderers got away. Vernon came forward as a witness. And in the police interrogation room, Vernon named Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers as the culprits, even though there was no physical evidence linking these three men to the crimes.

Jackson lost more than his freedom during his time in prison. He says that his family members stopped visiting him and communicating with him after a while, until he had no visitors or communication from any family or friends for nearly 25 years while he was in prison. He says that this estrangement wasn’t because his loved ones believed he was guilty.

Jackson thinks it was because it was too painful for them to see him in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, and avoiding him was the best way that they knew how to get on with their lives. He comments, “I never wanted anyone to put their life on hold for me because I was in prison. I just wanted them to not forget about me.”

Jackson breaks down and cries at the memory of when the police came to his family’s home to arrest him. His family was dragged outside, rounded up like criminals, and forced to do whatever the police told them to do. Jackson says tearfully, “Just seeing that there did something bad to me … That feeling of helplessness.” He also describes in detail the police brutality he went through in the investigation, where he was punched so hard that he lost consciousness. He remembers the police using a buffer when assaulting him so that their punches wouldn’t leave visible injuries.

Even with all this abuse and degradation, Jackson refused to make a false confession. In 1978, Jackson was among 53 inmates in Ohio whose death sentences were vacated and changed to life in prison. During all of his parole board hearings, Jackson refused to say he was guilty. During his long and torturous appeal process to get a new trial, Jackson also refused any plea bargain where he would have to plead guilty, even if it meant that he would be released from prison earlier than expected.

Jackson also talks about how he used his time in prison to educate himself and find ways to get his appeals heard by the right people. It was never easy, of course, because he dealt with many years of rejections and false hope. At times, it felt like he was in a very lonely battle for his freedom, since many of his early supporters faded away and seemed to forget about him. It’s a heartbreaking reality for many innocent people who are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

The re-enactments and dreamlike sequences in “Lovely Jackson” are all in black and white. Some of the sequences show Jackson screaming in slow-motion while describing some of his moments of deepest despair. He talks about his bouts with depression. Jackson also appears in some flashback scenes as an observer to what his life was like in the past. The actors who appear in these re-enactments and dreamlike sequences include Mario Beverly as a young Jackson, Devito Parker Jr. as a young Vernon, and Dijon Kirkland as Jackson’s beloved mother.

What’s even more compelling than the re-enactments is the story of what happened in real life. Even though there aren’t a lot of people interviewed in the documentary (a wise choice since this movie didn’t need too many talking heads), “Lovely Jackson” has a fairly well-rounded group of people who are interviewed. What’s also impressive is how candid the interviewees are in the documentary.

Karen Smith, the only eyewitness to the murder, blasts the prosecution for not calling her as a witness in Jackson’s first trial. Mary McGrath, assistant county prosecutor of Ohio’s Marion County, had a vested interest in not letting Vernon’s conviction be overturned, even though she wasn’t part of Jackson’s first trial. In “Lovely Jackson,” McGrath admits that Smith’s testimony was more important than any recantation that Vernon (the prosecution’s star witness) might have made.

A remorseful Vernon does a sit-down interview where he discusses feeling guilty about being the main reason why three innocent people were sent to prison. He says that the police put pressure on him to name people as the culprits, and that the police weren’t concerned finding any evidence against the people he named. Vernon opens up about having suicidal thoughts when he was younger because he felt so ashamed of his role in these wrongful convictions.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Jackson being African American had a lot do with the raw deal that he got in a criminal justice system that tends to gives worse punishments to people of color for the same crimes that white people commit. Jackson’s working-class background also affected his ability to get good legal representation in a case that should never have resulted in him being indicted, due to the lack of evidence.

One of the best things about “Lovely Jackson” is how it shows the heroes who helped Jackson in his quest for justice. Anthony Singleton, a pastor in Cleveland, was instrumental in getting Vernon to recant his original testimony about Jackson, after years of Vernon refusing to publicly comment on the case. The documentary includes an emotionally impactful scene with Singleton and Vernon demonstrating how Vernon had a change of heart.

Ohio Innocence Project co-founder Mark Godsey and defense attorney Brian Howe (who was Jackson’s co-counsel during Jackson’s second trial) are also interviewed and give vivid details about the appeals process and the massive amount of work (and numerous setbacks) during this process. Another of Jackson’s champions who came along later in Jackson’s life is his wife Clarissa Jackson, who is one of the documentary’s interviewees. The documentary is named after their daughter Lovely Jackson.

“Lovely Jackson” had its world premiere at the 2022 American Black Film Festival. In 2022, the documentary was also screened at the Montreal International Black Film Festival, the Red Rock Film Festival and San Diego International Film Festival. It’s the type of memorable movie that should have a chance to be seen by more people. Rickey Jackson’s story has a lot of tragedy, but it’s also a remarkable and inspirational testament to the power of never giving up during seemingly impossible odds.

Review: ‘Casa Susanna,’ starring Katherine Cummings, Diana Merry-Shapiro, Betsy Wollheim and Gregory Bagarozy

November 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Susanna Valenti (sitting in the front, on the floor) in an archival photo featured in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“Casa Susanna”

Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Casa Susanna” features an all-white group of people discussing Jewett, New York-based Casa Susanna, a popular gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

Culture Clash: The transgender women and cross-dressing men who frequented Casa Susanna had to hide their true selves during a time in America when trans women, drag queens and male transvestites could get arrested for dressing as women.

Culture Audience: “Casa Susanna” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to know more about a specific transgender community gathering place that most people are not widely aware of in LGBTQ history.

Diana Merry-Shapiro in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, a bungalow camp/rural resort named Casa Susanna in the Catskills city of Jewett, New York, was a safe haven for members of the LGTBQ community who wanted to dress and live as women, regardless of the gender identities of the people who were at Casa Susanna. The documentary “Casa Susanna” tells the history of this resort from the perspectives of two transgender women, who frequented Casa Susanna, and two cisgender people, who had family members with strong connections to Casa Susanna. It brings a noteworthy spotlight to a meaningful community-gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men. There’s respect given in the documentary, but viewers will sense that more of Casa Susanna’s individual stories could have been told.

French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, who has directed numerous LGBTQ-focused documentaries and narrative feature films, directed “Casa Susanna” with the tone of trying to make the movie as personal as possible, rather than being a comprehensive historical film. Lifshitz’s previous movies about transgender people include the narrative feature film “Wild Side” and the documentaries “Bambi, A French Woman,” “Little Girl” and “Bambi.” His previous movies have taken place in France or Algeria. “Casa Susanna” is his first movie that’s set entirely in the United States.

“Casa Susanna” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and has since made the rounds at other film festivals in 2022, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Casa Susanna” won DOC NYC’s U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize in 2022. In awarding the prize, DOC NYC’s 2022 U.S. Competition jury issued a statement that says, in part: “‘Casa Susanna’ is a beautifully crafted film featuring hauntingly exquisite archival footage. Both cinematic and intimate, it offers a unique way into the trans experience by contrasting nostalgic and past stories through contemporary characters. This approach allowed us to understand how laws and perspectives have changed over the years.”

It’s a great way to describe the movie, but “Casa Susanna” isn’t without some flaws, such as how the documentary doesn’t offer any perspectives on what transgender people of color experienced as guests at Casa Susanna. The documentary also doesn’t address why only two former Casa Susanna patrons were interviewed for the movie. Viewers can only speculate why. Many of Casa Susanna’s customers and patrons have no doubt passed away, but many were still alive at the time this documentary was filmed. It’s why having only two former Casa Susanna patrons interviewed in the documentary makes it look like the filmmakers didn’t do enough to include interviews with more former Casa Susanna patrons.

However, the good news is that the people who are interviewed in the documentary are thoroughly engaging and tell compelling stories that will give viewers an idea of what Casa Susanna was like from transgender and cisgender perspectives, even if the interviewees can’t tell the entire story of this special place. “Casa Susanna” also has some great scenes where the interviewees go back to the former site of Casa Susanna and have heart-to-heart conversations with each other that are exclusive to this documentary.

These are the four people who are interviewed in “Casa Susanna”:

Katherine Cummings, a transgender woman born in 1935, was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Cummings was born in Scotland, was raised in Australia, and lived in Canada (mostly in Toronto) when she would go to Casa Susanna. During her previous life living as a man named John, Cummings was married to a woman and had three daughters during this marriage. (Cummings passed away in 2022. The documentary includes an end credit stating, “In memory of Katherine Cummings.”)

Diana Merry-Shapiro, a transgender woman born in 1939, grew up in a conservative farming community in Iowa but has spent much of her life as a resident of California or New York. She was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna in the early-to-mid 1960s. Just like Cummings, Merry-Shapiro previously lived her life as a cross-dressing man (she used the name David), was married to a woman, and had gender affirmation surgery after the marriage ended in divorce. After her gender-affirmation surgery, Merry-Shapiro married a man and became a homemaker, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Merry-Shapiro then became a computer programmer who had a long career at Xerox when she was living in California. She and her third spouse, a woman named Carol, live in New York City, and have been married since the early 1990s.

Betsy Wollheim, born in 1952, is president, co-publisher and co-editor-in-chief of Daw Books, a New York City publishing company whose specialty is science fiction. She is the cisgender daughter and only child of sci-fi author Donald Wollheim (also know as Doris Wollheim), who presented himself as a cross-dressing, cisgender man. Betsy says that her mother not only knew before the marriage that Donald wanting to dress as a woman but her mother also usually went with Donald to Casa Susanna. However, it was a family secret until Betsy’s widowed mother was on her deathbed and told her.

Gregory Bagarozy, born in 1951, is the cisgender grandson of Marie Tonell, the cisgender woman who co-owned Casa Susanna with her spouse. Bagarozy tells the story about how Tonell used to own a wig shop in New York City, where one of the shop’s customers was an immigrant from Chile named Tito Arriagada. Tonell quickly figured out that Arriagada was a cross-dresser, she completely accepted it with no hesitation, they fell in love, and they got married in 1958. For years, Arriagada (who was a radio announcer) lived separate lives as a man and as a woman named Susanna Valenti (Casa Susanna’s namesake), but eventually lived life openly full-time as a transgender woman. (Valenti and Tonell are now deceased. They sadly died a week apart from each other in November 1996.)

All of this background information unfolds throughout the documentary in memories and anecdotes shared by the interviewees. Not surprisingly, Cummings and Merry-Shapiro have the most interesting stories to tell, since they were actually part of the Casa Susanna community. Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim were children when Casa Susanna existed, so they only have second-hand knowledge of what it was like to be in this adult environment. However, Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim both say that they found out later in life that many of the Casa Susanna regulars were people they already knew as friends of their respective families.

Cummings says that she remembers Casa Susanna as a place of “total freedom” to be who she was at the time, which was someone figuring out which gender to live as permanently. In the documentary, Cummings says from as early as she could remember, she never felt quite right living as a male. Cummings remembers being 5 years old and loving the feeling when her older sister would let Cummings wear her clothes. Cummings says that going to Casa Susanna was a “necessity” because “I needed to know what it was like to live as a woman for an extended period.”

Merry-Shapiro talks about childhood memories of being in the third or fourth grade and praying that she would wake up as a girl. “It was a secret that I had,” Merry-Shapiro says of this feeling. “I kept thinking that I would grow out of it. It never did go away.” She also talks about being fascinated with news about actress Christine Jorgensen, who became America’s first famous transgender woman when she had gender affirmation surgery in 1952. However, Merry-Shapiro remembers being afraid to talk to anyone about it, because she knew people in her community would shun or bully her for being interested in transgender issues.

When Merry-Shapiro was an adult and eventually came out as a transgender woman, her mother (whom Merry-Shapiro describes as “a serious Lutheran”) was much less accepting than her father. One of the most poignant scenes in the documentary is when Merry-Shapiro tearfully describes what happened when she visited her parents for the first time after having her gender-affirmation surgery. Still, her father’s acceptance only went so far. Merry-Shapiro says of her parents’ overall attitude: “I was an embarrassment to them. It was just as well that I disappeared.”

“Casa Susanna” gives detailed descriptions of the secrecy involved in Casa Susanna’s history. Because of homophobic laws and beliefs in society, Casa Susanna (which was originally located on a 288-acre property and later relocated to a 188-acre property) started off being marketed as an entertainment destination where heterosexual couples could go to watch shows featuring “female impersonators.” In those days, being a transgender woman or a drag queen was acceptable as entertainment, but not as a way of life.

According to the documentary, these “female impersonators” were really transgender women, drag queens and transvestites who already considered Casa Susanna a community gathering place but went along with the idea that they could also be part of the Casa Susanna’s entertainment for paying customers. The bungalows were where visitors and semi-residents stayed at Casa Susanna. Although Casa Susanna publicly presented these entertainers and other cross-dressing guests as heterosexual men, Bagarozy says that it’s highly unlikely that most of the people at Casa Susanna were heterosexual men.

Bagarozy comments on the transgender women and cross-dressing men at Casa Susanna: “These people were major film directors, attorneys, airplane pilots—all sorts of professions where people reached the pinnacle of their careers. They risked a lot for doing what they wanted to do.” Bagarozy adds, “It’s not like they wanted to be [pinup model] Bettie Page, or someone like that. They wanted to be an acceptable person of the female persuasion in society.”

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, identifying as any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual was dangerous and (in many places) illegal in the United States. And that’s why Casa Susanna could not advertise in mainstream media that it was a place for transgender women and cross-dressers. Therefore, the community that grew from Casa Susanna mainly heard about it through word of mouth.

However, a lot of credit for creating awareness about Casa Susanna is given to Tranvestia magazine, which was founded in 1960, by a scientist named Virginia Prince, who was a transgender activist. Prince also created the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE) for transgender people. Cummings says in the documentary that Prince got the idea to launch FPE at Casa Susanna, where Prince was a regular visitor. After Casa Susanna relocated to a smaller 188-property, it stopped offering “female impersonator” shows and became only a business of resort lodging.

Bagarozy paints a rosy picture of Casa Susanna’s transgender and cross-dressing people, whom he remembers as being cheerful and friendly to him when he was a child. He also acknowledges how rare it was to have a grandmother who was immediately accepting of having a transgender spouse. By contrast, Bagarozy says his mother Yolanda, who was Tonell’s daughter, never approved of Tonell’s marriage and Casa Susanna.

Although Casa Susanna was a happy place where people could be themselves, the reality was much bleaker for people who had to hide their true selves in their everyday lives. Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that they struggled for years with shame, confusion and indecision over whether or not to have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says she came to the decision to have the surgery because too many of her transgender friends were committing suicide, she didn’t want to die that way, and she wanted to be happy as her authentic self.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro both admit that the women they were married to during their Casa Susanna years were okay with cross-dressing (and often accompanied them to Casa Susanna), as long as Cummings and Merry-Shapiro identified as cisgender men who just happened to dress as women in secret. Merry-Shapiro’s first wife Julie knew about Merry-Shapiro’s fashion preferences before they got married, when they were college sweethearts. Cummings’ then-wife didn’t find out until about a year after they were married, and the wife eventually didn’t want to go to Casa Susanna anymore.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that their respective marriages eventually fell apart when Cummings and Merry-Shapiro decided they wanted to live openly as women and eventually have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says that while one of her daughters completely accepts her as a woman, her other two daughters chose to remain estranged from her. The documentary doesn’t mention if the two estranged daughters made peace with Cummings before she died. Merry-Shapiro does not have children.

Merry-Shapiro and Cummings both say in the documentary that they have no regrets about having gender affirmation surgery. “I felt marvelous,” Cummings says of how she felt after getting the operation. “I felt for the first time in my life, I was the real person, that I had discarded bits of me that weren’t necessary, and I had gained bits of me that were [necessary].”

Merry-Shapiro says that she got her surgery with the help of a friend/benefactor named Gloria, who offered to pay for this medical procedure and went on a road trip with her to Mexico, where the procedure was done, because it wasn’t legal in the U.S. at the time. Merry-Shapiro admits, “That is a very isolating experience for any human being, I think, when who you are is against the law. There’s still a little bit of anger in me, even now, that I had to leave the country to have the surgery done.”

Donald Wollheim and his wife stayed together until he died, but daughter Betsy isn’t so sure if it was a marriage that ever had romantic passion. She says in the documentary that she was very surprised to read in her father’s memoir that he was in love with his wife. Betsy comments, “I knew he loved my mother deeply, but I didn’t see the ‘in love’ part.” She says that her parents would send her away to summer camp as a child when the parents would take their secret trips to Casa Susanna.

Betsy also remembers that her father had a favorite women’s nightgown when she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was about 12 years old when she really began to understand that her father was a cross-dresser. She describes how on Halloween Eve in 1964, her father wanted to dress as his sister for a Halloween party. He spent about five hours in the bathroom getting ready. She recalls thinking that he looked “very ghoulish” with all the makeup on, but she was suddenly struck by being fully aware for the first time that her father was “really into this [cross-dressing]—I just didn’t know to what extent.”

As for Donald Wollheim’s sexuality, Betsy says that all she knows is that her father was a “very isolated introvert” who “had no relationship with women until he met my mother.” She adds, “His childhood was very complicated and gothic,” because Donald Wollheim’s urologist father, whose specialty was treating sexually transmitted diseases, taught his children to have a fear of the human body and spreading germs.

Betsy also shares painful memories of her father being verbally abusive to her, which she says got worse when she reached puberty. He would tell her she was ugly and wrongfully accuse her of being a liar and a fraud. She says it took her years to understand that her father was projecting a lot of his self-hatred onto her, considering how much he wanted to look like a woman. Betsy also says that even though her father could be cruel to a lot of people, she’s convinced that he was never cruel to his friends at Casa Susanna, which she believes is the only place where he was truly happy.

“Casa Susanna” has several photos of people at Casa Susanna in its heyday, but it’s also mentioned in the documentary that people at Casa Susanna were very cautious about who was taking photos and where these photos might end up. Cummings says, “We were all a little bit paranoid of: ‘Who’s going to find out? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to lose my family?’ Which is what happened back then.” The documentary doesn’t mention Robert Swope and Michel Hurst’s 2005 photo book “Casa Susanna,” which inspired playwright Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 Broadway play “Casa Valentina.”

Even though “Casa Susanna” offers a very limited number of perspectives, it’s a documentary that still gives a vivid portrait of a community of people who found each other and thrived in a society that wanted this community to hide in shame or be punished. It’s an inspiring story about human connections and camaraderie that made a lasting and positive impact on people’s lives. But it’s also a sobering reminder that homophobia causes human rights violations that are still going on today and aren’t just history from a past century.

The PBS series “American Experience” will premiere “Casa Susanna” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ starring Nan Goldin

November 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1970s photo of Nan Goldin (pictured at left) in Boston, with her then-roommate Bea, in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

Directed by Laura Poitras

Culture Representation: The documentary film “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian) discussing the life and career of New York City-based artist/photographer Nan Goldin, who became an activist speaking out against the wealthy pharmaceutical Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Culture Clash: Goldin (who is a recovering opioid addict) led protests and boycotts to remove the Sackler family name from prominent buildings, to have Sackler family donations rejected, and for the Sackler family to be held accountable for flooding the marketplace with prescription opioids, while also using her art and celebrity to express her greatest passions. 

Culture Audience: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in learning more about Nan Goldin and how artists become activists.

Nan Goldin in a 1978 self-portrait in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo by Nan Goldin/Neon)

The documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a fusion of a revealing biography of photographer Nan Goldin and an impressive chronicle of her activism against pharmaceutical moguls, especially Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family, whom she blames for the opioid crisis. Goldin is very candid about being a recovering opioid addict and about other struggles in her life, including her mental health issues, her turbulent love life (such as being a domestic violence survivor of an ex-boyfriend), and her still-unresolved turmoil about the suicide of her older sister Barbara. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which was filmed mostly from 2017 to 2021, shows what happens when an artist does more than just talk about making a difference in social justice issues but actually becomes an agent for change in these issues.

Directed by Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it became a rare documentary to win the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” has since made the rounds at several other festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival and DOC NYC. It’s a documentary that covers a lot of issues, sometimes in a way that’s jumbled and messy, but no one would ever describe Goldin’s life as neat and tidy.

Goldin, who was born in 1953, is the narrator of the documentary, which jumps around in the timeline of her life story. Goldin has a gravelly voice that comes from years of smoking cigarettes, fast living and surviving traumatic experiences that would kill many other people. She comes across as jaded but hopeful, world-weary yet determined to fight for the causes that mean the most to her. The scenes of Goldin being an activist are interwoven with her telling stories about her personal life.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” opens with a visually striking scene of a Goldin-led protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on March 10, 2018. In this scene, dozens of protestors have gathered in a museum atrium to throw empty prescription bottles in a water fountain while chanting, “Temple of money, temple of greed!” and “Sacklers lie, people die!” The atrium is in a section of the museum named after the Sackler family, the wealthy American clan that owns Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma. Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer of OxyContin. The protesters have gathered to demand that the museum remove the Sackler family name from anywhere in the museum.

The protesters lie down on the floor to represent the people who died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription drugs. As far as the protestors are concerned, any the Sackler family’s donations and philanthropic actions are tainted by “blood money” generated from the millions of lives destroyed by addictions to OxyContin and other opioids manufactured and marketed by the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical businesses. The protesters are eventually escorted out by the museum’s security personnel, but the documentary shows what eventually resulted from these kinds of protests.

In 2017, Goldin and some of her colleagues founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), a group dedicated to preventing and reducing harm from prescription drug addiction, as well as shaming the greedy people who over-sell and over-prescribe these highly addictive drugs to vulnerable people. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” documents how P.A.I.N. staged protests at museums in various international locations, including the Louvre in Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London; and the Guggenheim in New York City.

P.A.I.N. put pressure on these museums and other institutions to refuse donations from the Sackler family and to remove or prevent the Sackler name from anything associated with these institutions. This activism created worldwide awareness about the Sackler family putting the Sackler name on philanthropic causes, in the family’s attempts to deny or avoid responsibility for the opioid crisis. Goldin comments in the documentary about the Sackler family: “We will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”

The U.S. government’s legal prosecutions of certain members of the Sackler family have been well-documented, but “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” puts a spotlight on Goldin and P.A.I.N.’s grassroots work in getting this prosecution to even take place. This behind-the-scenes look has the added benefit of Goldin’s participation, because her narration gives a very personal and touch that would be missing if she had not been actively involved in making the documentary. Goldin and Poitras are among the producers of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”

Early on in the documentary, Goldin comments: “It’s easy to make your life into a story. It’s harder to sustain real memories. The difference between the story and the real memory: The real experience has the smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings. The real memories are what affects me now. Things can appear that you don’t want to see. You’re not safe.”

In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Goldin dredges up a lot of unsafe memories, beginning with her childhood, which she describes as living in a “claustrophobic suburb.” Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., but spent most of her childhood living in the Boston suburbs of Swampscott and Lexington in Massachusetts. Her father was Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting and was the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. Her mother was a traditional homemaker.

Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was seven years older than Nan, was a lesbian and was shamed by their parents about her sexuality. It was during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, so Barbara was forced into a psychiatric institution for a certain period of time. Goldin believes this institutionalization caused further damage to an already mentally fragile Barbara, whom Goldin says had depression and anxiety. Goldin remembers that their mother used to say about Barbara’s sexuality: “Don’t let the neighbors know.”

Goldin shares fond memories of Barbara, whom she considered to be more of a mother figure to her than their own biological mother. “Barbara had a wildness to her,” Goldin says. “You couldn’t hold her back … She trusted me with all of her secrets.”

Goldin also remembers Barbara’s talent for playing classical music on the piano. “You could always tell how she felt by how she played,” Goldin says. “I felt very close to her, but she was in and out of institutions for most of her childhood.”

Tragically, Barbara committed suicide in 1964, at the age of 18. Goldin says with some bitterness, “I heard my mother say, ‘Tell the children it was an accident.’ She didn’t want us to know the truth. That’s when it clicked.” Goldin says in the documentary that Barbara probably wouldn’t have committed suicide if Barbara had a support group for LGBTQ teenagers and other young people. Those support groups didn’t exist in most places in 1964.

By the age of 13 or 14, Goldin left home. At 16 years old, she was enrolled at Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when a school employee introduced Goldin to photography. Thus began Goldin’s lifelong passion for telling visual stories through photos. She began documenting her life in photos, long before it became a common way of life for people in the era of the Internet and social media.

By the time Goldin was in her late teens, she was living in Boston as part of an avant-garde artist scene that she chronicled in her photography. Long before drag queens became part of mainstream media, Goldin had a particular affinity of taking photos of drag queens and transgender women, many of whom were friends of hers. In the documentary, Goldin talks about being in awe of a transgender woman named Bea, who became Goldin’s friend and roommate. Goldin’s first solo exhibit in Boston was in 1973, when she was 20 years old.

Goldin eventually relocated to New York City, the center of the art world in the United States. Life wasn’t glamorous at all in those early years when she was a a struggling artist. Goldin talks about living in New York City’s seedy Bowery district and having a drug-fueled lifestyle that included abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine. To pay her bills, Goldin says she became a nightclub go-go dancer then later became a brothel prostitute.

Goldin says, “Sex work is one of the hardest jobs you could ever have.” She also mentions that she wanted to talk about her past as a sex worker in this documentary, in order to get ride of the stigma and shame that is often associated with sex work. Eventually, Goldin became a bartender at the women-controlled nightclub Tin Pan Alley, whose owner hired people who wanted to transition out of sex work. Author/playwright Darryl Pickney says that Tin Pan Alley was very racially integrated and cut across social class boundaries.

One of the people in the New York City art scene who had a bg influence on Goldin was Cookie Mueller, whom Goldin describes in the documentary as “the center of downtown life. “The mid-1980s was when I was closest to Cookie.” Their friendship changed somewhat after Mueller married Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati in 1987. Tragically, Mueller and Scarpati died of AIDS-related illneses, just two months apart in 1989.

The documentary includes footage of Goldin’s activism in AIDS causes, including working with fellow activist/artist David Wojnarowicz. They were both heavily involved in the AIDS activist group ACT Up. In the documentary, Goldin describes Wojnarowicz as “my spiritual guide, my political guide.” (The 2021 documentary “Wojnarowicz,” directed by Chris McKim, has more information.)

Goldin and Wojnarowicz worked on an AIDS-themed artist installation that was scheduled to be at the Artist Space Gallery in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood from November 1989 to January 1991. However, the National Endowment of the Arts controversially cancelled its grant funding for the project after getting pressure from conservative religious groups. Goldin says of the AIDS installation: “It was about the loss of community and trying to keep people’s legacy alive.”

She describes her history of drug abuse in matter-of-facts terms. Goldin says that she went to rehab for the first time in 1988. For a period of time that she does not fully disclose, she says she was addicted to OxyContin, a drug that went on the market in 1996. Goldin says that she is now clean and sober, but she firmly believes that she and an untold number of OxyContin addicts were deliberately not properly informed by medical professionals about how addictive OxyContin is, because too many people were and still are getting rich from OxyContin sales.

Goldin, who identifies as queer, also opens up about her love life. She talks about being in an abusive relationship with a man called Brian, whom she says she dated from 1981 to 1984. “I fell in love with him,” Goldin comments. “We had very good sex, and that can keep people together for a long time. And then, we started fighting.” Their troubled relationship included domestic violence.

Goldin describes a trip that she and David took to Provincetown, Massachusetts (a popular vacation spot for LGBTQ people), and jealousy issues arose because Goldin says she fell in love with a woman during this trip and photographed this woman constantly. Goldin, who does not name the woman, describes her as an “oddball” who would wear pearls at the beach. Goldin says about the early-to-mid-1980s: “It was a time of freedom and possibility. That’s when I did my first slide shows.”

Although Goldin’s career was on the rise in the early-to-mid-1980s, her relationship with David wasn’t getting any better. Goldin says that David broke up with her because he found out “I’d been with this girl.” (Goldin does not name this other lover.) She goes on to say about David, “He punched me in the face repeatedly.” To add insult to injury, David burned a lot of Goldin’s photos.

Most victims of domestic violence would hide this abuse, but Goldin made the very bold and unusual decision to do a photo exhibit showing her bruised and battered face from the injuries that David inflicted on her during this vicious attack. These photos were included in her ongoing photography collection “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which started out as a slide show exhibition and film in 1985, and then became a published book in 1986.

More than 700 photos are in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which Goldin describes in the documentary as “the struggle between autonomy and dependency.” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” includes many samples of Goldin’s work over the years, including photos from “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side,” a photo collection of drag queens from 1992- 2021; and “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,” a photo collection from 2004 to 2021. The photos showcase Goldin’s penchant for documenting herself and other eccentrics in ways that can be gritty, glamorous or both.

In the documentary, Goldin gives a reminder that back in the 1970s and 1980s, she got a lot of resistance to her art because of sexism. She says many people told her, “Nobody photographs their own life.” And it was even rarer for women to want to make a living from this type of photography. Goldin says for some people who were born after the 1970s and 1980s, “It’s hard to understand that could’ve ever been radical.” Long before Instagram was even invented, Goldin was ahead of her time.

Because “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves in and out of telling Goldin’s stories about her personal life and her activism, the film editing sometimes gives the movie a rambling tone, but it never derails too far off course. One of the documentary’s highlights is a videoconference call in which Goldin and other people affected by OxyContin addiction confront David Sackler and his aunt Theresa Sackler (two of the Sackler family defendants named in many lawsuits) to give a victim/survivor statement. Even though the Sacklers were not allowed to respond to these statements during this conference call, it’s a powerful moment that contrasts the Sacklers’ emotional aloofness with these survivors’ emotional pain.

Goldin, who has never been married and doesn’t have children, has this to say about her personal life: “The relationships that have mattered the most to me for probably my whole life have been my friends.” The documentary gives the impression that most of Goldin’s closest friends are also her P.A.I.N. colleagues.

Some of the P.A.I.N. members interviewed in the documentary include P.A.I.N. deputy Megan Kapler, artist Maria Berrio, P.A.I.N. deputy Harrison “Harry” Cullen and psychiatrist Annatina Miescher. The documentary includes a segment about how some of the P.A.I.N. activists believe that they were stalked and spied on by people hired by the Sackler family. Kapler shares footage of an unidentified middle-aged man who followed her and photographed her without her consent. He also staked her out in his car outside of her home.

Other interviewees in the documentary include Ad Hoc Committee of Accountability attorney Mike Quinn, who does a lot of pro bono work for P.A.I.N.; Robert Suarez of the Urban Survivors Union, a non-profit support group for drug addicts; Artforum International magazine editor-in-chief David Velsaco; TruthPharm executive director Alexis Pleus; set designer/interior decorator Noemi Bonazzi; actress Sharon Niesp; writer Patrick Radden Keefe; and actress Maggie Smith.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” also shows the next big initiative for P.A.I.N. is removing the stigma of doctors treating opioid addicts who are in clean needle programs. And one of the final scenes in the film shows P.A.I.N. raising $35,000 for Urban Survivors Union to purchase a machine that gives drug users an analysis of the content in their drugs. This machine does not encourage drug use but is aimed at preventing deaths when people unknowingly ingest drugs with lethal content.

People who know about Goldin before seeing “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” might not be as surprised by her unique personality, her artistic talent and her unwavering commitment to the causes that she cares about the most. However, what will resonate with viewers the most is how someone who has experienced as many highs and lows as Goldin has can take those experiences and turn them into something positive that can help other people. No matter what type of backgrounds that people have, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is an inspirational story that shows the true meaning of persistence and hope.

Neon released “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in New York City on November 23, 2022. The movie’s U.S. release expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco on December 2, 2022, with more cities added on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘The Invaders’ (2022), starring Coby Smith, John B. Smith, Calvin Taylor, Juanita Thornton, Jim Netters, Lance Watson and Clarence Christian

November 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Coby Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“The Invaders” (2022)

Directed by Prichard Smith

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Invaders” features an all-African American group of people discussing the rise and fall of the Memphis, Tennessee-based militant Black Power group the Invaders, which formed in 1967 and disbanded a few years later.

Culture Clash: Former members of the Invaders say that were wrongfully blamed for a riot that broke out in Memphis in March 1968, during a protest in support of a labor strike by the city’s African American sanitation workers. 

Culture Audience: “The Invaders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about the U.S. civil rights movement in the late 1960s.

John B. Smith in “The Invaders” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

When most people think of the Black Power movement that gained momentum in the U.S. in the late 1960s, they think of the Black Panthers. Many people don’t know about the smaller, grassroots Black Power groups that had similar ideals and made an impact. “The Invaders” documentary tells the story of one such group formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1967. This traditionally made documentary gives insight into the Invaders and their contributions to the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s an important reminder that the Black Panthers weren’t the only Black Power group making history.

Directed by Prichard Smith, “The Invaders” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2015. The movie’s release was in limbo for several years because of funding and licensing issues, according to a 2022 interview that Prichard Smith did with the Memphis Flyer, a local newspaper. Seven years after its world premiere at DOC NYC, “The Invaders” has now been released. The documentary is a conventionally structured mixture of archival footage and more recent interviews with former members and associates of the Invaders. What’s been added since “The Invaders” made the rounds on the film festival circuit is voiceover narration from Nasir Jones (better known as rapper Nas), who signed on as an executive producer for the documentary.

“The Invaders” opens with archival footage of Invaders co-founder Coby Smith (no relation to Prichard Smith) being interviewed by an unnamed media outlet in the late 1960s. He says, “We don’t organize burnings, essentially. We organize people. If people burn, they burn. We are black, and we’re proud of it.”

Much of “The Invaders” explores the theme of how there were two types of philosophies for the U.S. civil rights movement, when it came to race relations: One was the philosophy of non-violence, espoused by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther Ling Jr. The other was the philosophy of violence in self-defense, espoused by civil rights leader Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers. What a lot of people don’t know is that King sought out the Invaders to be a bridge between these two philosophies.

Among the people who tell the story in “The Invaders” documentary are Invaders co-founders Coby Smith and John B. Smith, who are not related to each other and not related to director Prichard Smith. Coby Smith and John B. Smith share vivid memories of meeting and forming the Invaders in 1967 with co-founder Charles Cabbage, who died in 2010, at the age of 66.

At the time the Invaders launched, Coby Smith and Cabbage were students and intellectuals who yearned to make a difference in African American communities in Memphis and beyond. John B. Smith was a disabled Vietnam War veteran who became disillusioned with the U.S. government after he came back from the war.

In the documentary, John B. Smith has this to say about what Memphis was like before the civil rights movement: “Segregation wasn’t just laws on the books. It was a state of mind. Black people understood what their place was, and they accepted that.” Calvin Taylor, former minister of information for the Invaders, adds: “When we were growing up, if you were black, that meant you were in the [racism] problem. It didn’t mean you had any opportunities not to be part of the problem.”

John B. Smith tells a story about the turning point when he decided to become a civil rights activist. He had returned from the Vietnam War and considered himself to be very patriotic about America. One day, he was at a gas station, minding his own business, when he saw a white man steal the gas cap from John B. Smith’s car. The alleged thief then tried to sell the gas cap back to John B. Smith.

John B. Smith responded by calling the police, who immediately took the white man’s side and believed the white man’s denials of stealing the gas cap, according to John B. Smith. The white man then accused John B. Smith of harassing him. A crowd gathered and defended John B. Smith, but the police theatened the crowd with arrest if they didn’t leave. John B. Smith says he refused to leave until the matter of the theft was resolved. And as a result, John B. Smith was arrested.

Influenced by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, the Invaders aimed to empower African Americans, beginning in Memphis, with fundraisers to help underprivileged people in the community. The Invaders were involved in the Black Organizing Project, which offered assistance in education and food for the African American community. Black Organizing Project also launched the Community Unification Program.

As the civil rights movement became more dangerous for activists and protestors, the Invaders also believed that black people were better off learning to arm and defend themselves against racist attackers. Juanita Thornton, one of the former Invaders interviewed in the documentary, says of this philosophy: “If you hit me, I should be able to hit you back without a whole lot of bullshit. I loved it.”

It was this militant stance that caused some civil rights leaders to mistrust the Invaders, while other civil right leaders wanted to align themselves with the Invaders. Reverend James Lawson, a civil rights activist who believed in non-violence, came from Nashville to Memphis and interacted for a time with the Invaders. Civil rights leader King became another ally of the Invaders, but he was assassinated (shot to death) on April 4, 1968, before his plans to create a formal alliance with the Invaders ever became a reality.

The Memphis sanitation strike, which lasted from February to April 1968, was the Invaders’ highest-profile protest campaign, for better or for worse. About 1,300 African American male sanitation workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike to demand higher wages and safer work environments that were the same given to the white sanitation workers who did the same jobs. Reverend Malcolm Blackburn, a white pastor of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, was an ally of the striking workers, and so were the Invaders.

Contrary to a mythical stereotype, Black Power activists such as the Invaders were not against working with white people in the civil rights movement. Coby Smith comments in the documentary: “We never would’ve gotten through the civil rights movement without an awful amount of whites who came and said [about racist laws/policies], ‘Wait a minute, that does not make sense.'”

On March 28, 1968, King and Lawson led a protest march in downtown Memphis, in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike. The march started out as peaceful but descended into chaos, as the mood turned angry. Some people in the crowd started looting and causing vandalism at nearby businesses. (King and Lawson left the protest soon after it became violent.) Police responded with aggression, including using mace and guns. In the resulting pandemonium, an unarmed 16-year-old African American named Larry Payne was shot to death in the stomach by a white cop.

The Invaders were blamed for inciting the riot, but it’s an allegation that the people in the documentary vehemently deny. Still, the riot tainted the Invaders’ reputation, and they say that key members of the Invaders became the targets of FBI surveillance, just like King was targeted by the FBI. Rather than distance himself from the Invaders, King sought them out for protection when he was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, on that fateful day of his death. (James Earl Ray, who had a long criminal history of being a thief, pleaded guilty to the murder, and he was sentenced in 1969 to 99 years in prison. Ray died in 1998, at the age of 70.)

Still reeling from the damage and increased racial tensions caused by the riot and Payne’s death, about 15 members of the Invaders met with King for a few hours, at his request, at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. About half an hour after the Invaders left the motel, King was murdered. John B. Smith and Cabbage were among those who met with King, who told them that he wanted the Invaders to be the security personnel for the next planned protest in support of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike.

John B. Smith says that King confided in them about being under surveillance by the FBI because then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a personal grudge against King. In the documentary, John B. Smith remembers that King told him about the famous private meeting that King and Hoover had in December 1964, after Hoover had publicly made this statement in November 1964: “Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.” (The December 1964 meeting was the only time that King and Hoover ever met face-to-face.)

According to John B. Smith, King went into the meeting with Hoover thinking one way and came out of the meeting thinking another way: “He [King] thought that they could actually come to a meeting of the mind. But once he met with him [Hoover], he realized that Hoover was out to destroy him.” King also said that the racists that King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference group encountered were worse in the Northern states than in the racially segregated Southern states.

Thornton says in the documentary that King wanted to take “the cream of the crop” of African American militants, such as the Invaders, and “put them into a training program that was non-violent.” Later in the documentary, Thornton says, “I believe economic power for poor people was one of the main reasons why Dr. King got assassinated. He was talking about poor people power.”

“The Invaders” is very no-frills when it comes to its editing and cinematography, but the interviewees are compelling and offer some valuable first-hand insights about their perspectives of the U.S. civil rights movement. Other people interviewed in the documentary are Reverend Jim Netters, who was on the Memphis City Council in 1968; Clarence Christian, who was a student activist at LeMoyne-Owen College in 1968; Mad Lads lead singer John Gary Williams, a former member of the Invaders; David Acey, who was a student protester in 1968; and Lance Watson, also known as Sweet Willie Wine, who led the Invaders’ security personnel. Watson later changed his name to Suhkara A. Yahweh. (Williams died in 2019, at the age of 73.)

As interesting as these stories are in “The Invaders,” this documentary doesn’t really reveal anything new. Some of the interviewees have talked about the same things in other media interviews before this documentary was made. John B. Smith also wrote a memoir titled “The 400th: From Slavery to Hip-Hop” (published in 2021), which covers many of the same things that are covered in the documentary.

“The Invaders” doesn’t go deep enough in taking a critical look at why a civil rights group such as the Invaders had very sexist attitudes in not letting women have leadership roles. Thornton (who was never a leader in the group) is the only woman interviewed in the documentary. The small percentage of female representation in this documentary is indicative of problems that the group had with sexism against women that the documentary completely ignores.

“The Invaders” also could have had perspectives from at least a few people who were involved in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, but were not necessarily fans of the Invaders. The documentary seems to be a little too much of a praise fest for the Invaders and doesn’t offer any constructive criticism of the group, which eventually drifted apart and disbanded a few years after King’s assassination. Even with these flaws, “The Invaders” documentary is worth watching for history enthusiasts or anyone interested in a getting an inside story of an African American activist group that has often been relegated to being a footnote in U.S. civil rights history.

1091 Pictures released “The Invaders” on digital and VOD on November 1, 2022.

2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards: ‘Good Night Oppy’ is the top winner

November 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

A digital recreation of the robotic rover Opportunity in “Good Night Oppy” (Image courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Content Services)

With five prizes, the Mars exploration movie “Good Night Oppy” was the top winner at the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards, which were presented at the Edison Ballroom in New York City, on November 13, 2022. “Good Night Oppy” (from Amazon Studios) earned the awards for Best Documentary Feature, Best Director (for Ryan White), Best Musical Score (for Blake Neely), Best Narration and Best Science/Nature Documentary. “Good Night Oppy” (which tells the story of how NASA sent two robots to explore Mars, beginning in 2003) ended up winning five of the six awards for which it was nominated.

In one of his many acceptance speeches, “Good Night Oppy” director White thanked his colleagues and NASA. He also commented when comparing Earth to Mars, “I hope that this film can be a reminder of what can happen to our planet if we don’t treat it with the care it deserves.”

Ryan White at the Seventh Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards in New York City on November 13, 2022. (Photo by Carla Hay)

The only other documentary to win more than one prize at the ceremony was the Disney+ three-episode series “The Beatles: Get Back,” which won two awards: Best Limited Documentary Series and Best Music Documentary. “The Beatles: Get Back” (directed by Peter Jackson) is a restored and extended version of the 1970 Beatles documentary “Let It Be,” which was originally directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

“Fire of Love” (from National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon), a movie directed by Sara Dosa about married French volcanologists Maurice Kraftt and Katia Kraftt, went into the ceremony as the top contender, with seven nominations. In the end, “Fire of Love” got one award: Best Archival Documentary.

The 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards is presented and voted on by the Critics Choice Association. Grammy-nominated performer/writer Wyatt Cenac hosted the show, which was livestreamed for the first time on Facebook Live and Instagram Live.

The Critics Choice Documentary Awards had some other first milestones in 2022. It was the first time that the show was held in the New York City borough of Manhattan, after previously being held in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. In addition, two categories—Best Ongoing Documentary Series and Best Limited Documentary Series—that have traditionally been included in the Critics Choice Real TV Awards are, as of 2022, now being presented at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.

Another big change to the show in 2022 was the announcement of the two films that came in second place and third place in votes for the category of Best Documentary Feature. Second place went to “Fire of Love,” while third place went to Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Navalny,” a movie about Russian political activist Alexei Navalny and his investigation into who poisoned him in 2020. The second-place and third-place documentaries were announced before the winner of Best Documentary Feature.

The ceremony also included two non-competitive prizes, whose recipients were announced weeks before the show took place. Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA” and “American Dream”) was bestowed with the Pennebaker Award (formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award), which was presented to her by D.A. Pennebaker’s widow/filmmaking partner, Chris Hegedus.

In her speech, Kopple thanked her longtime friends Pennebaker and Hegedus for being her mentors, and she expressed gratitude for people in the documentary filmmaking community. Kopple, who began making films in the 1970s, said in her speech that critics play a crucial role in whether or not documentaries can get distribution and find an audience. “I remember when critics wouldn’t even look at documentaries,” Kopple said. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart. All we want is to be able to tell a good story.”

Meanwhile, Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”) received the Critics Choice Impact Award, given to documentarians whose work is about promoting changes for the better in society. Disney’s Onyx Collective head of documentary programming Jacqueline Glover presented Porter with this award. In her speech, Porter remembered the leap of faith that she took to leave a secure full-time job to make her first documentary, 2013’s “Gideon’s Army.” She thanked her documentary subjects and people she has collaborated with over the years.

Presenters at the show also included style entrepreneur/film producer Kathy Ireland, actor Richard Kind, musician/actor Paul Shaffer, actress Soshana Bean, actor Jeremy Sisto, “Good Night Oppy” director White, actress Tamara Tunie, filmmaker Tonya Lewis Lee, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, musician Willie Colón, actor Erich Bergen and actress/singer Idina Menzel.

Here is the complete list of winners and nominees for the 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Awards:



  • Aftershock (Hulu)
  • The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Descendant (Netflix)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (Briarcliff Entertainment)
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Sidney (Apple TV+)


  • Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio – George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • Margaret Brown – Descendant (Netflix)
  • Sara Dosa – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Reginald Hudlin – Sidney (Apple TV+)
  • Brett Morgen – Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Laura Poitras – All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (HBO/Neon)
  • Daniel Roher – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Ryan White – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*


  • Andrea Arnold – Cow (IFC Films)
  • Lisa Hurwitz – The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Jono McLeod – My Old School (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Amy Poehler – Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • Alex Pritz – The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • David Siev – Bad Axe (IFC Films)*
  • Bianca Stigter – Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)


  • Benjamin Bernhard, Riju Das – All That Breathes (HBO)
  • Magda Kowalczyk – Cow (IFC Films)
  • Lucas Tucknott – McEnroe (Showtime)
  • Gabriela Osio Vanden, Jack Weisman, Sam Holling – Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • The Cinematography Team – Our Great National Parks (Netflix)*
  • Alex Pritz, Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau – The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)


  • Jabez Olssen – The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Joe Beshenkovsky – George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • Helen Kearns, Rejh Cabrera – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
  • Brett Morgen – Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)*
  • Langdon Page, Maya Daisy Hawke – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Katharina Wartena – Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)


  • Hummie Mann – The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Nicolas Godin – Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Blake Neely – Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*
  • Max Avery Lichtenstein – The Janes (HBO)
  • David Schwartz – Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • Marius de Vries, Matt Robertson – Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)


  • Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story (Fin and Fur Films) – Written by Ben Masters; Performed by Matthew McConaughey
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon) – Written by Shane Boris, Erin Casper, Jocelyne Chaput, Sara Dosa. Performed by Miranda July
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios) –Written by Helen Kearns, Ryan White; Performed by Angela Bassett*
  • Our Great National Parks (Netflix) – Performed by Barack Obama
  • Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures) – Written by Tobi Haslett; Performed by Charlene Modeste
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon) – Written by Bianca Stigter; Performed by Helena Bonham Carter


  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)*
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Nothing Compares (Showtime)
  • Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)


  • The Automat (A Slice of Pie Productions)
  • Descendant (Netflix)*
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power (Peacock)
  • Still Working 9 to 5 (Mighty Fine Entertainment)
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Neon)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)


  • George Carlin’s American Dream (HBO)
  • The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
  • Lucy and Desi (Amazon Studios)
  • The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Peacock)
  • Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Sidney (Apple TV+)*
  • Sr. (Netflix)


  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)*
  • Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • If These Walls Could Sing (Disney Original Documentary)
  • Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (Apple TV+)
  • Moonage Daydream (HBO/Neon)
  • Nothing Compares (Showtime)
  • The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile (Sony Pictures Classics)


  • Aftershock (Hulu)
  • All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (HBO/Neon)
  • Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (Briarcliff Entertainment)
  • The Janes (HBO)
  • Navalny (HBO/CNN/Warner Bros. Pictures)*
  • Retrograde (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Netflix)


  • All That Breathes (HBO)
  • Cow (IFC Films)
  • Fire of Love (National Geographic Documentary Films/Neon)
  • Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)*
  • Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)
  • Return to Space (Netflix)
  • The Territory (National Geographic Documentary Films)


  • Citizen Ashe (Magnolia/HBO)* (tie)
  • Hockeyland (Greenwich Entertainment)
  • Kaepernick & America (Dark Star Pictures)
  • McEnroe (Showtime)
  • The Redeem Team (Netflix)
  • Welcome to Wrexham (FX/Hulu)* (tie)


  • 38 at the Garden (HBO)
  • Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices From a Plantation Prison (MTV Documentary Films)
  • The Flagmakers (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Four Seasons Total Documentary (MSNBC)
  • My Disability Roadmap (The New York Times Op Docs)
  • Nuisance Bear (The New Yorker)*
  • Stranger at the Gate (The New Yorker)


  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)*
  • Hostages (HBO)
  • The Last Movie Stars (HBO Max)
  • The Lincoln Project (Showtime)
  • Our Great National Parks (Netflix)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)
  • We Need to Talk About Cosby (Showtime)


  • 30 for 30 (ESPN)*
  • American Masters (PBS)
  • Cheer (Netflix)
  • The Circus (Showtime)
  • Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)
  • Welcome to Wrexham (FX/Hulu)