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

March 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

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

“Refuge” (2023)

Directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship

Some language in Arabic and Kurdish with subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘892,’ starring John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Michael Kenneth Williams, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan, Selenis Leyva and Olivia Washington

January 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

John Boyega in “892” (Photo by Chris Witt)

[Editor’s Note: After this movie premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Bleecker Street acquired the movie and changed the movie’s title from “892” to “Breaking.”]


Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Marietta, Georgia, the dramatic film “892” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former U.S. Marine, who’s an Iraq War veteran, takes hostage of a bank in order to get the $892.42 that he says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs owes him.

Culture Audience: “892” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in suspenseful but formulaic movies with themes about how U.S. veterans are treated by the government, as well as racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Michael Kenneth Williams (pictured at far right) in “Breaking” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

The suspenseful drama “892” leaves some major questions unanswered, but the message of this movie is loud and clear: “The U.S. government needs to improve how military veterans are treated by the system.” John Boyega gives a riveting performance in a movie that’s sometimes hampered by hostage movie clichés, underdeveloped characters and not enough empathy for the hostage victims. “892” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Based on true events, “892” is the second feature film directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, who co-wrote the “892” screenplay with Kwame Kwei-Armah. The screenplay is based on Aaron Gell’s 2018 Task & Purpose article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him.” It’s a movie that takes some shortcuts in telling a story that puts more emphasis on showing the stress and intensity of a hostage situation instead of giving a well-rounded view of the people who were directly involved in this crisis.

The movie is told mostly from the perspective of a former U.S. Marines lance corporal who takes hostage of a Wells Fargo bank in Marietta, Georgia. This Iraq War veteran is angry and frustrated that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, also known as the VA, has withheld payment of $892.42 that he says he has a right to have. In real life, this hostage incident took place on July 17, 2017. And this distraught former military man was Brian Brown-Easley, a 33-year-old divorced father of an elementary-school-aged daughter.

Boyega portrays Brian Brown-Easley with a mixture of compassion, sorrow and ferocity in how this doomed military veteran expresses himself and interacts with the people around him. Most of the movie is told in “real time” during this bank standoff, but there are a few flashbacks that give some (but not enough) information on what led Brian to commit such a desperate act. The movie shifts perspectives mainly when it shows what’s happening outside of the bank during this standoff, as one person involved has somewhat of a breakthrough in emotionally connecting with Brian.

The beginning of the movie shows that Brian appears to be a devoted father to his daughter Kiah (played by London Covington), who’s about 6 or 7 years old. As they spend time together talking on the phone, they have a father-daughter joke about the “Lord of the Rings” villain creature Gollum and the character’s grotesque physical appearance. Brian is putting up a happy front for Kiah, but his life is really falling apart.

Brian is living in a motel, which is about to evict him for non-payment. It’s one of the reasons why Brian is so angry that he can’t get the $892.42 benefits payment that he says that the VA is wrongfully withholding from him. A flashback shown later in the movie reveals that this payment was denied to Brian because the VA was paying for Brian’s college tuition, but VA records show that he stopped attending the college, so the VA withheld payment to compensate for the college tuition. Brian insists it’s a case of mistaken identity.

About 10 minutes into the movie, Brian is shown holding the bank hostage, so viewers don’t get to know much about Brian in the beginning of the film. Brian walks into the bank while he’s carrying a backpack, and he calmly interacts with a bank teller to withdraw $25 from his bank account. He has a friendly bank teller named Rosa Diaz (played by Selenis Leyva), who is chatty and helpful. But after Brian gets his $25, he shows her a note that says, “I have a bomb.” And that’s when things take an ominous turn.

A quick-thinking bank manager named Estel Valerie (played by Nicole Beharie) notices that Rosa seems very anxious with Brian. Estel immediately figures out that some kind of robbery or threat is in progress, so she’s able to discreetly get most of the employees and all of the customers out of the bank. The bank isn’t that crowded, but it’s a bit of an “only in a movie” stretch that one person was able to do all of this so quickly without the hostage taker noticing that the bank is being evacuated.

The bank is evacuated to the point where Estel and Rosa are the only hostages during this standoff. There are repetitive scenes where Brian shouts to anyone who’ll listen some variation of this threat: “I’m going to kill myself and everybody in here if my demands are not met!”

He also insists on having Estel and Rosa call as many media outlets as possible because he wants his “mission” to get as much publicity as possible. “Fraud was committed! My disability check was stolen from me, and I want it back!” Brian shouts. Rosa and Estel both try to appease Brian by telling him that they can give him as much money as he wants from the cash in the bank. However, he adamantly refuses to accept any money that isn’t directly from the VA.

Meanwhile, just like Brian wanted, there ends up being live media coverage of the standoff, especially after Brian gets on the phone for a live conversation with WSB-TV producer Lisa Larson (played by Connie Britton), who tries to give Brian the impression that she’s on his side and wants him to safely get him what he’s demanding. Brian goes back and forth in deciding whether he can trust Lisa or not. Even though his hostage plan/bomb threat might be foolish, he’s smart enough to know that Lisa’s main agenda is to get as much out of this story as she can as a TV producer.

While all of this chaos is happening, there’s a section of the movie where the authorities and Brian have trouble reaching his ex-wife Cassandra Brown-Easley (played by Olivia Washington), who is fast-asleep (she works the night shift and is exhausted) and not answering her phone. When she does find out what’s happening, she seems curiously and inexplicably emotionally detached, which could be interpreted as shock. Viewers will get the impression that when Cassandra first hears that Brian is responsible for this hostage crisis, her attitude is, “Well, he’s my ex-husband, so he’s not my problem.”

However, Cassandra seems to already think the worst possible outcome will happen. Whenever law enforcement contacts her about Brian during this crisis, her first question is usually: “Is he dead?” This movie presents Cassandra as an ex-wife who doesn’t have much information to divulge about Brian and why he would commit these crimes.

Cassandra does have a very heavy emotional moment later when the reality of the situation sinks in, but for some parts of the movie, she doesn’t act like a mother who’s too concerned about how this crisis will affect her daughter. For example, she lets Kiah watch the TV news to see what’s happening with the standoff. You don’t have to be a parent to know that it would be very traumatic for a child to watch this type of news coverage that could end with the child seeing a parent killed or arrested on TV.

Brian seems to know that even if he does get the money that he says is owed to him, getting arrested or killed are the only two realistic outcomes for him. He doesn’t seem all that concerned about having an escape plan, because he knows it would be pointless. And what about the two women who are being held hostage? Brian assures them: “If I die today, I die alone.”

The issue of race comes up occasionally during this hostage crisis—not as as an excuse or explanation, but to show that Brian is all too-aware that because he’s African American, he’s less likely to survive law enforcement’s reaction to what he’s doing. Shortly after Estel (who is African American) and Rosa (who is Afro-Latina) are taken hostage, Brian asks Estel if the bank has been robbed before. She says yes, and the robber was arrested. Brian says, “They didn’t kill him? He got to be white.”

Unlike most hostage takers, Brian insists on having a hostage negotiator. A small army of law enforcement is stationed outside and near the bank, including members of the Marietta Police Department, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. Some of them argue about who’s going to take the lead in the negotiations.

In the end, Eli Bernard (played by Michael Kenneth Williams), a sergeant with the Marietta PD, becomes the chief negotiator. Eli also happens to be an African American and a former Marine, just like Brian, so they bond over this shared identity. Eli often calls Brian “brother” and is the only one during the standoff who come closest to gaining Brian’s trust. (“892” is one of the last on-screen roles for Williams, who died of a drug overdose in 2021.)

The movie spends a lot of time trying to garner sympathy for Brian. And there’s no doubt that Boyega’s impactful performance is the main reason to watch “892.” However, all of this emphasis on Brian comes at the expense of sidelining the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. Beharie shows some grit in her performance of Estel, who is more composed during this crisis than panic-stricken Rosa. However, Estel and Rosa are not shown as fully developed people. They’re just hostage victims who react to what Brian does and what he wants.

All the people outside of the bank are essentially the types of characters that have been in plenty of other hostage movies. Lisa is the ambitious and shrewd media person. Eli is the sympathetic “good cop.” And there’s the predictable “trigger happy” law enforcement officer Major Riddick (played by Jeffrey Donovan), who would rather have the hostage taker dead at the end of the ordeal instead of alive. The role of Major Riddick is quite generic and only in the movie so that Eli inevitably has someone to clash with over authority issues and negotiation tactics.

Even though the movie succeeds in keeping a suspenseful tone throughout, there are some inconsistencies in the storytelling. At one point in the movie, Brian is described as someone who’d never been in trouble with the law before, based on background checks that are done when he’s identified as the hostage taker. But then, there’s a flashback scene of Brian being handcuffed by police officers while he’s having a meltdown in a VA office because he can’t get his money.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest shortcoming is in how “892” avoids discussing mental health. Viewers won’t find out if Brian had a mental illness that was diagnosed or undiagnosed. And if he did have any mental illness, how long did he have it? Was he getting treatment for it? Those questions remain unanswered in the movie.

People can certainly speculate that as a war veteran, Brian might have had post-traumatic stress disorder. However, someone just doesn’t go into a bank and commit this type of horrifying act just because they want $892 from the government. Brian says he wants the media coverage to bring attention to the VA’s mistreatment of veterans, but it’s obviously illogical and wrong to try to get attention for this issue by holding innocent people hostage and threatening to blow up a building.

Details about Brian’s personal life are also not fully explained. Brian hints that he’s mainly responsible (or at least he blames himself) for his divorce from Cassandra, but the details over why they got divorced are never mentioned in the movie. Brian also says that he has an estranged brother, but his parents or other relatives aren’t even mentioned. Brian is obviously a loner, so he has no friends who can offer any insight. During this crisis, Cassandra is the only person in Brian’s family who is contacted.

All of this gives some skimpy background information that might explain why Brian felt he had no one that he could turn to for help. However, it doesn’t explain why Brian wasn’t thinking of his daughter when he committed an act that would result in Brian being taken away from her. It can be left up to interpretation that Brian subconsciously wanted a “suicide by cop” situation, but the movie doesn’t seem too interested in addressing mental health as a reason for why someone would do what Brian did. By leaving out these mental health issues, “892” could have come very close to portraying Brian as a negative and hollow stereotype of an “angry black man,” if not for Boyega’s nuanced performance.

“892” doesn’t frame Brian’s actions as a heroic “one man versus the system” story, but rather as a tragedy whose outcome probably would have been different if Brian had been white. There are moments in the movie where Brian seems to understand that his irreversible actions will cause a lot of emotional damage to his daughter Kiah. However, those moments are few and far in between, because the movie is mainly concerned about making Brian the person who should get the most sympathy in this tragedy. It’s debatable whether or not all of that sympathy is deserved.

Another shortcoming in “892” is how the movie has a trivial way of showing the traumas that Estel and Rosa have to deal with after the standoff is over. As a hostage thriller, “892” certainly delivers when it comes to creating tension-filled scenes. Some of the scenarios seem too contrived for a movie though, just for the sake of dragging out the story so that Brian can get more agitated and start yelling again. It’s the type of hostage film where the movie’s message is made very clear, but viewers still won’t know much about the hostage taker when the movie is over.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Breaking” (formerly titled “892”) in U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Alice’ (2022), starring Keke Palmer, Common, Gaius Charles, Alicia Witt, Jonny Lee Miller and Natasha Yvette Williams

January 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Keke Palmer in “Alice” (Photo by Eliza Morse/Vertical Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

“Alice” (2022)

Directed by Krystin Ver Linden

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia, the dramatic film “Alice” features a cast of African American and white characters (with some Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A young woman who has lived life as a slave in the 1800s antebellum South escapes from her plantation into a world where it’s 1973.

Culture Audience: “Alice” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about slavery and civil rights in the U.S., but the movie is a poorly made story that terribly bungles its social justice intentions.

Keke Palmer and Common in “Alice” (Photo by Eliza Morse/Vertical Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

“Alice” might have been intended to be a passionate social justice movie, but it’s racial exploitation junk that’s tone-deaf, cringe-inducing and downright insulting to African Americans. Because of a certain twist in the movie’s awful plot, “Alice” is going to get inevitable comparisons to the 2020 horror misfire “Antebellum.” Both movies are about a young African American woman who wants to escape from a slave plantation, and she finds out that her life isn’t what she thought it was. And both movies are bottom-of-the-barrel garbage.

Written and directed by Krystin Ver Linden, “Alice” is a slow-moving train wreck of a film that spends the first third showing repetitive scenes of slaves enduring abuse. “Alice” claims to be based on true events, but slavery abuse is the only realistic thing about this trashy sham of a film. “Alice” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s proof that even a prestigious festival such as Sundance can sometimes choose crappy movies to showcase. At least “Alice” showed some restraint in the violent scenes, compared to “Antebellum,” which seemed to revel in showing scenes of slaves getting beaten, raped, strangled, and viciously murdered.

The title character in “Alice” is a house slave in Georgia who is shown getting secretly married to another slave named Joseph (played by Gaius Charles) in an early scene in the movie. Alice (played by Keke Palmer), who’s as feisty as she can be under these enslaved conditions, wants to lead an escape plan for the plantation’s slaves who want to run away. It’s exactly like what the female protagonist in “Antebellum” planned too. The opening scene of “Alice” actually shows Alice running away in the woods, where she stops and then lets out a scream. The movie then circles back by showing this scene again after viewers see what led up to this escape.

Alice wants to escape, but some of the other slaves on the plantation are more hesitant, including Joseph’s mother Ruth (played by Natasha Yvette Williams), who warns Alice that there are white men stationed everywhere who are ready to catch and possibly murder runaway slaves. Everything about the plantation is run like it’s sometime in the early 1800s, when slavery was legal in the U.S., and electricity hadn’t been invented yet. The plantation owner is a predictably cruel and sadistic racist named Paul Bennet (played by Jonny Lee Miller), who rapes Alice and forces her to read to him. Paul tells Alice that her reading duties are the only reason why he’s allowed her to know how to read.

Paul’s ailing mother Mrs. Bennet (played by Madelon Curtis) lives in the same house, where she’s often bedridden. She doesn’t have a first name in the movie, and she’s a useless character. The only memorable thing that happens with Mrs. Bennet is when Alice goes in Mrs. Bennet’s room and asks her in a fearful voice, “What’s out there?” Mrs. Bennet replies, “The whole world. Don’t you see?” Paul also has a son named Daniel (played by Jaxon Goldenberg), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and an ex-wife named Rachel (played by Alicia Witt), who is not seen until much later in the movie.

Alice and Joseph are both brutally punished on separate occasions for various things. Paul has a right-hand man named Aaron (played by Craig Stark), who carries out a lot of the torture. At one point, Alice is tied up and her head is placed in a muzzle. You can bet that this punishment will be enacted again on someone else later in the movie. It’s all so predictable.

The plantation is all that Alice and the other slaves have experienced of the world. However, there’s a major clue that there’s something different about this plantation. The clue is revealed when Alice goes by herself to dig in the woods, as if she’s looking for something buried there.

She finds a jacket and a cigarette lighter buried in these woods. This cigarette lighter is one of the movie’s biggest clues indicating there’s going to be a “time-traveling” part of the story. A more subtle clue is a scene in the house, where Alice picks up the Leo Tolstoy novel “Anna Karenina” and looks at the cover. “Anna Karenina” was first published in 1878, which was 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that made slavery illegal in the United States.

After Alice escapes from the plantation, she finds herself running out of the woods into the middle of an expressway, where she almost gets hit by a delivery truck. The driver’s name is Frank (played by Common), who works with his brother at a farm that they co-founded named Florence Farms, in Springfield, Georgia. Frank stops and helps a terrified Alice into his truck. He says he’ll take her to a nearby hospital when he finds out that Alice seems very confused by her surroundings.

Frank tells Alice that she’s in Georgia, and that the year is 1973. And so, there’s a long stretch of the movie where Alice is frightened or curious about why she ended up in a future century. Alice has no last name and no birth certificate. But she hasn’t forgotten about the past and the people she left behind.

In the hospital waiting room, Alice sees Jet magazine with Pam Grier on the cover and Rolling Stone magazine with Diana Ross on the cover. Grier and Ross both have Afro hairstyles in these photos. Guess who’s going to change her hair into an Afro later in the movie? It’s a scene that looks as phony as the Afro wig that Palmer wears when Alice decides she wants to be the next Angela Davis.

Because, yes, this movie is about a slave who becomes a 1973 Black Power warrior. And it’s depicted in the most heavy-handed and ludicrous ways possible. When Frank finds out that the hospital is going to send Alice to a psychiatric facility, he takes her instead to the house that used to be owned by his late mother. And what a coincidence: His mother spent time in a psychiatric facility too, so Frank tells Alice that it’s definitely not the “happy place” that the hospital described it as.

And what do you know: Frank and his mother were civil rights activists. And so, the house is filled with books, magazines and newspapers where Alice can get caught up on what’s been happening to African Americans in the 100+ years that she skipped on the way to almost being hit by Frank’s truck and not knowing that slavery was abolished. Palmer does some melodramatic acting when Alice cries after finding out about the Emancipation Proclamation.

And somehow, when Alice turns on the TV, she just happens to see a montage of clips of Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and Davis giving passionate speeches about black people’s empowerment. Alice also learns to use a phone, which leads to one of the dumbest parts of the movie: Alice goes through the phone book to try to find someone from her past who would be long dead if Alice really thought that she came from the 1800s.

This “Alice” movie has a semi-obsession with showing Grier as the prototype of what Alice is supposed to look like, because there are images of Grier throughout the film that almost fetishize her. The first time that Alice and Frank go to a movie together, it’s to see Grier’s 1973 blaxploitation action film “Coffy.” Clips from the movie are shown of gun-toting Grier going on a rampage in revealing clothing and snarling about how she’s going to go after white people.

Not surprisingly, at one point in the movie, Afroed Alice is shown ripping up her slave dress and then strutting in the type of midriff-baring top and tight leather pants that Grier would wear in one of the many blaxploitation action flicks starring Grier in the 1970s. This movie is so badly written, if it had any subtlety, Alice would stomp all over it in her 1973 platform heels.

While all of this is happening in Alice’s “transformation,” music that’s supposed to sound like funky 1970s black music keeps playing as part of the movie’s soundtrack. An exception is a scene where Alice changes her hair into an Afro. In this scene, the music soundtrack blares Diana Ross & the Supremes’ 1966 hit “Reflections,” as a “too on the nose” emphasis pointing out that Alice is a woman without a home and seemingly without an identity, but she’s a Strong Black Woman who’s going to find her identity and a way back home. (A line in the song’s chorus is “Reflections of the way life used to be.”)

As soon as Alice tells Frank she wants to go back to the plantation to rescue her husband and the other slaves, you know where this horrendous dreck is going. And just like in “Antebellum,” there’s a scene involving fire as part of a revenge plot. “Alice” is such an idiotic movie, there’s a scene with a raging fire that’s rapidly spreading, but people just stand around and don’t try to escape.

Palmer and Common look like they’re making sincere efforts to be convincing in the “thriller” aspects of the movie, but there’s no thrill to be found when everything is telegraphed in such a clumsy and racially condescending way. The other cast members in the movie either play caricatures or have characters with no real personalities. Alice is not even written as a fully developed person. She’s just a stereotypical avatar for what racially condescending filmmakers think African American women are supposed to be like when confronting oppression and racism.

The atrocious dialogue in this movie would be almost laughable if it wasn’t in a movie that’s supposed to be about a very serious subject. For example, Alice declares to Frank at one point: “Just so you know: Doing the right thing is never wrong.” In another scene, Alice confronts slave master Paul’s racist ex-wife Rachel, who screams at Alice: “You’ll never understand freedom!” Alice shouts back, “I am freedom!”

Usually when a movie badly mishandles the issues of slavery or racism against black people, it’s because the production team consists mostly of people who aren’t black. The filmmakers’ hiring practices also show that they don’t care about working with enough black people on a project that is about racism against black people. That’s definitely the case with “Alice.”

“Alice” writer/director Ver Linden is biracial (her father is white; her mother is black), and nearly all of the behind-the-scenes crew she hired for “Alice” are white. Most of the black people hired for the movie were actors playing slaves. “Alice” star Palmer has the title of executive producer, which is a title given to someone who might have some creative input but not any say in how the movie was financed or who got to direct the project. That’s the job of someone with the title of producer. And for “Alice,” the only person with the producer title is a white man named Peter Lawson.

Normally, it would not be necessary to point out the race of the filmmakers in a movie review. But in this case, when slavery and racism against black people are being used in a story to sell this horrible film, it’s important for audiences to know who’s responsible for this racially exploitative mess. Everyone involved in making “Alice” should be ashamed of themselves.

Some people might automatically think that any movie that condemns racism has to be a good movie. Some people might think they’ll get Black Lives Matter credibility if they recommend seeing a movie like “Alice.” The problem is that “Alice” is neither a good movie, nor is it a movie that genuinely cares about treating issues about racial equality and civil rights with any real respect. “Alice” is just a tacky cash grab that uses the trauma of slavery and racism as a way for filmmakers to make money from black people’s real-life pain.

Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “Alice” in select U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022.

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

August 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

Finding Kendrick Johnson”

Directed by Jason Pollock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gravitas Ventures released “Finding Kendrick Johnson” on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021. The movie will be released in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Stars and Strikes to open locations in Augusta and Huntsville

January 17, 2017

Stars and Strikes
(Photo courtesy of Stars and Strikes)

Stars and Strikes will open two new locations: one in Huntsville, Alabama in September 2017 and Augusta, Georgia,  in November 2017.

The Stars and Strikes in Huntsville is a 54,000-square-foot facility located at 930 Old Monrovia Road NW. The Stars and Strikes in Augusta is a 55,000-square-foot facility located at 4238 Wrightsboro Road.

Each location will house 24 bowling lanes, eight of which are VIP lanes in the signature Main St Lounge. The Main St Lounge features VIP bowling lanes in an upscale setting that is ideal for corporate and group events of all sizes.  In addition to bowling, Stars and Strikes will feature other attractions, including a 7,000-square-foot arcade and prize store, a multi-story laser tag arena, bumper cars, the 7/10 Grille restaurant and a large full-service bar surrounded by big screen TVs for sports viewing.  The 7/10 Grille is an American restaurant that offers fresh, seasonally inspired cuisine, including a variety of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, specialty pizzas and other house-made items. Each location will also have multiple private party rooms for events, highlighted by an upscale corporate event room that will seat 200 with a full private bar.

Stars and Strike’s new attraction Escape-ology will be prominently featured in each new facility.  Escape-ology is an entertaining, interactive amusement concept where you use your powers of deduction to solve a mystery.  While it looks and feels like an ordinary room, it’s actually a real-life mystery adventure game designed for small groups of friends, families and co-workers. Your team is on the clock and must solve the puzzles and figure out the clues to earn your freedom and “Escape from the Room.”

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