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

December 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Baby God”

Directed by Hannah Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,’ starring Diane Hawkins, Amir Hawkins, Freddy Hawkins, Christopher Graham, Al Sharpton, David Dinkins and Joseph Regina

August 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yusuf Hawkins in “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” (Photo courtesy of Hawkins Family/HBO)

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

Directed by Muta’Ali

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” features a predominantly African American group of people (and some white people) discussing the 1989 racist murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins and the controversial aftermath of this hate crime.

Culture Clash: Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a mob of young white men just because Hawkins was an African American, and there were many conflicts over who should be punished and how they should be punished.

Culture Audience: “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” will appeal primarily to people interested in true crime stories that include social justice issues.

Yusuf Hawkins, Amir Hawkins and Freddy Hawkins in “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” (Photo courtesy of Hawkins Family/HBO)

The insightful documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” gives an emotionally painful but necessary examination of the impact of the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American who was shot to death in New York City’s predominantly white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. He was killed simply because of the color of his skin—and it’s a tragedy that has been happening for centuries and keeps happening to many people who are victims of racist hate crimes. This documentary, which is skillfully directed by Muta’Ali, offers a variety of perspectives in piecing together what went wrong and what lessons can be learned to help prevent more of these tragedies from happening.

One of the best aspects of “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is how it has interviews with many of the crucial people who were directly involved in the murder case and the subsequent controversy over how the perpetrators were going to be punished. The people interviewed include members of Yusuf Hawkins’ inner circle, such as Yusuf’s mother, Diane Hawkins; his younger brother Amir and older brother Freddy; Yusif’s cousins Darlene Brown and Felicia Brown; and Yusuf’s friends Christopher Graham and Luther Sylvester, who was with Yusuf during the attack. (Yusuf’s father, Moses Stewart, died in 2003.) They are all from the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.

The documentary also has the perspectives of some Bensonhurst residents or people who allied themselves with the accused perpetrators. They include Joe Fama, who was convicted of being the shooter; Stephen Murphy, who was the attorney of Keith Mondello, who was accused of being the mob’s ringleader; and Russell Gibbons, an African American who was a friend of many of the white men in the mob of attackers. Gibbons was involved in providing the baseball bats used in the attack, but Gibbons ended up testifying for the prosecution.

And in the aftermath of the murder, several people became involved in the investigation, court cases and public outcry seeking justice for Yusuf. The documentary includes interviews with activists Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Lenora Fulani, Rev. Conrad Tillard (formerly known as Conrad Muhammad) and Rev. Herbert Daughtry; Douglas Nadjari, who was New York’s assistant district attorney at the time; former New York City mayor David Dinkins; publicist Ken Sunshine, who was Dinkins’ deputy campaign manager at the time; Joseph Regina, a New York Police Department detective involved in the investigation; and journalist John DeSantis, who covered the Yusuf Hawkins story for United Press International.

There have been many disagreements over who was guilty and who was not guilty over the physical attacks and shooting, but no one disputes these facts: On August 23, 1989, Yusuf and three of his friends—Luther Sylvester, Claude Stanford and Troy Banner (who are all African American)—went to Bensonhurst at night to look at a 1987 Pontiac Firebird that was advertised in the newspaper as being for sale. Banner was the one who was interested in the car.

When they got to Bensonhurst, all four of them were surrounded by a mob of young white men who were in their late teens and early 20s (it’s estimated that 10 to 30 people were in this mob), who attacked them with baseball bats and yelled racial slurs at them. Yusuf was shot to death during this assault. (A handgun was used in the shooting.) The attack was unprovoked, and several people involved in the attack later admitted that it was a hate crime.

Nadjari comments in the documentary: “Yusuf and his friends walked into what I call ‘the perfect storm’ … They [the attackers] didn’t want black guys in the neighborhood.” And even defense attorney Murphy admits: “You’d have to be stupid to not determine that there was a racist element to the whole thing to begin with.”

Furthermore, Yusuf and his friends were not “thugs” with a history of violence. All of the people who knew Yusuf describe him as a thoughtful, caring and good kid. He was the type of person who looked out for his friends to steer them away from trouble. It was consistent with his personality that he would accompany a friend who wanted to look at a car for sale. As journalist DeSantis comments in the documentary about Yusuf: “He was perceived by many to be a martyr.”

It came out during the investigation that a lovers’ quarrel was the spark that ignited the viciousness of the attack. Mondello’s girlfriend at the time was Gina Feliciano. During an argument between Feliciano and Mondello earlier that evening, she said that she was going to have a bunch of black guys come to the neighborhood to beat up Mondello and his friends. Feliciano lied in that threat, but apparently Mondello believed her. According to testimony in the trials, Mondello and the rest of the mob wrongly assumed that Yusuf and his friends were the (fabricated) gang of black thugs that Feliciano had said was coming to assault Mondello.

The documentary points out that even though New York City has an image of being “liberal” and “cosmopolitan,” the city is not immune from racism and racial segregation. East New York and Bensonhurst are just 13 miles apart, but these two very different Brooklyn neighborhoods might as well have been on other planet, because the people in these neighborhoods rarely mixed with each other. East New York has a predominantly working-class black population, while Bensonhurt’s population consists mainly of middle-class white people, many who are Italian American.

According to Amir Hawkins, who was 14 at the time his brother Yusuf was murdered, even though he lived in Brooklyn for years, all Amir knew about Bensonhurst was from “The Honeymooners,” one of his favorite sitcoms. He says of Bensonhurst: “Nobody told us, ‘Hey, that’s off-limits You can’t go there.'”

Amir also gives a chilling description of how his grandmother Rosalie seemed to have some kind of premonition that something would go horribly wrong when Yusuf was in Bensonhurst. According to Amir, when his grandmother found out that Yusuf had gone to Bensonhurst, Amir says he never saw his grandmother more upset in his life. Sadly, her apparent premonition turned out to come true, when the family got the devastating news about Yusuf’s murder later that night.

As an African American and longtime Bensonhurst resident, Gibbons admits in the documentary that he has experienced a profound racial identity crisis and still has deep-seated inner conflicts about race. He says that even though he was bullied by white racists in Bensonhurst, he also wanted to be friends with them. Gibbons was the only “black friend” of the mob accused of attacking Yusuf and his friends.

In the documentary, Gibbons downplays his role in providing the baseball bats used in the attack. Just as he said in trial testimony, Gibbons claims that all he heard on the night of the incident was that some black and Latino men were coming to Bensonhurst to attack some of his friends and he wanted to assist his friends in defending themselves. He says in the documentary, “I wasn’t thinking about race. I was just there because my friends were there.”

As for Fama, he says nothing new in the documentary that he hasn’t already claimed during his trial in 1990. Although he didn’t testify during his trial, Fama admits that he was part of the mob of attackers, but he claims that he’s not guilty of shooting Yusuf. Fama went into hiding after the murder, but he eventually turned himself in to police a little more than a week after the murder. During the documentary interview, Fama is shifty-eyed when discussing the case and seems more concerned about trying to appear innocent than expressing remorse about the circumstances that led to Yusuf’s murder.

Yusuf’s father (Moses Stewart) had been mostly an absentee father who left the family when Yusuf was about 17 months old. Walter Brown, a friend of Stewart’s, says in the documentary, says that Stewart was “stupid” for being a deadbeat dad, but Stewart wanted a chance to redeem himself. In January 1989, Stewart and Yusuf’s mother Diane reconciled, and so he was back in the family’s life. Seven months later, Yusuf was murdered.

After the murder, Stewart reached out to Sharpton who, along with other activists, spearheaded the protests and rallies demanding justice for Yusuf. Yusuf’s mother, father, brothers and other family members participated in many of these protests and rallies, but it’s mentioned in the documentary that Yusuf’s father was more comfortable than Yusuf’s mother with being in the media and public spotlight. There’s archival footage showing that Yusuf’s mother was often very reluctant to make a statement when there was a crowd of media gathered around asking her to say something.

In the documentary, Yusuf’s mother gives heartbreaking descriptions of her nightmarish grief. Its sounds like she had post-traumatic stress disorder, because she experienced panic attacks and became paranoid of going outside at night and was afraid of doing simple things such as taking the subway. She and other family members and friends confirm that losing Yusuf is a trauma that they will never get over.

Yusuf’s murder happened to occur in an election year for New York City’s mayor. The incumbent mayor Ed Koch was widely perceived by his critics as too sympathetic to the accused attackers. (Koch died in 2013.) Dinkins, who defeated Koch in the primary election and would go on to become New York City’s first black mayor, openly supported the Hawkins family before, during and after the trials took place. Dinkins comments in the documentary about how Yusuf’s murder affected the mayoral race that year: “I knew that Yusuf Hawkins would be a factor in my contest, but I’d like to believe that we treated it as we would have had I not been seeking public office.”

The protests also came at a time when filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing” had entered the public consciousness as the first movie to make a bold statement about how racial tensions in contemporary New York City can boil over into racist violence against black people. It’s not a new problem or a problem that’s unique to any one city, but in the context of what happened to Yusuf Hawkins, “Do the Right Thing” held up a mirror to how these tragedies can occur. The documentary mentions that Lee and some other celebrities became outspoken supporters of the Hawkins family.

The documentary also offers contrasting viewpoints on the protests, which included protestors going into Bensonhurst on many occasions, sometimes to protest at other events happening in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of archival footage of the protestors (mostly black people) and angry Bensonhurst residents (mostly white men) clashing with each other, with many of the Bensonhurst residents and counterprotestors hurling racially charged and racist insults at the protestors.

While Sharpton and other activists involved with the protests felt that the protestors were peaceful and law-abiding, critics of the protests thought that the protestors were rude and disruptive. It’s part of a larger issue of how people react to racial injustice. Some people want to stay silent, while others want to speak out and do something about it.

In fact, it’s mentioned in the documentary that Yusuf’s family was initially told by police to not speak out about the murder because the police were afraid that news of the murder would cause civil unrest. But after the media reported that Yusuf’s murder was a racist hate crime, the crime couldn’t be kept under the radar. According to several people in the documentary, the media helped and hurt the case.

The documentary mentions that although the media played a major role in public awareness of this hate crime, the media (especially the tabloids) got some of the facts wrong, which distorted public opinion. One of the falsehoods spread by the media was that Yusuf or one of his friends in the attack was interested in dating white girls they knew in Bensonhurst, and that was one of the reasons for the attack. In fact, Yusuf and the three friends who were with him didn’t know anyone in Bensonhurst and were really there just to look at a car for sale.

And even though Dinkins publicly gave his support to the Hawkins family, the documentary reveals that there was tension behind the scenes between Dinkins and Sharpton. Dinkins wasn’t a fan of the protests because he felt that they were too disruptive, while Sharpton and many of his supporters thought that Dinkins and other local politicians weren’t doing enough to help with the protestors’ cause. The documentary shows that although Dinkins and Sharpton were at odds with one another over the Yusuf Hawkins protests, many people in positions of power (including Dinkins and Sharpton) used the murder case to further their careers.

Sharpton was also controversial because of his involvement in the Tawana Brawley fiasco. In 1987, Sharpton publicly supported Brawley (a teenager from Wappinger Falls, New York), who claimed that four white men had raped her and covered her in feces. But her story turned out to be a lie, and the hoax damaged Sharpton’s credibility, even though he claimed he had nothing to do with the hoax. Many of Sharpton’s critics pointed to the Brawley hoax as a reason why Sharpton couldn’t be trusted.

In the documentary, Fulani makes it clear that she thinks that it’s enabling racism when people are told to keep silent about it: “I think the problem is that the people who aren’t involved in being racist pigs couldn’t get it together enough to make a different kind of statement.” The documentary shows that a huge part of the controversy in cases such as this is that a lot people can’t really agree on what kind of statement or response should be made.

Gibbons, the African American who was a friend to the Bensonhurst mob of attackers, has this criticism of Sharpton and his protests: “Men like that, they do more damage, and maybe they think they’re doing good.” NYPD detective Regina adds, “Yusuf Hawkins did lose his life because the color of his skin, but not because Bensonhurst is a racist, vigilante neighborhood trying to keep colored people out … There was justice. And after that justice, there should have been peace.”

But considering the outcome of the trials, it’s highly debatable if justice was really served. And is there really peace when people are still getting murdered for the same reason why Yusuf Hawkins was murdered? As long as people have sharply divided opinions on how these matters should be handled by the public and by the criminal justice system, there will continue to be controversy and civil unrest.

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” could have been a very one-sided documentary, but it took the responsible approach of including diverse viewpoints. “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is the well-deserved first winning project of the inaugural Feature Documentary Initiative created by the American Black Film Festival and production company Lightbox, as part of their partnership to foster African American filmmakers and diversity in feature documentaries. And the poignant ending of this documentary makes it clear that Yusuf will be remembered for more than his senseless murder. The positive impact he made in his young life goes beyond what can be put in a news report or documentary.

HBO premiered “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” on August 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Showbiz Kids,’ starring Evan Rachel Wood, Cameron Boyce, Wil Wheaton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Milla Jovovich, Todd Bridges, Mara Wilson and Henry Thomas

July 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Evan Rachel Wood in “Showbiz Kids” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Showbiz Kids”

Directed by Alex Winter

Culture Representation: The documentary “Showbiz Kids” interviews several white and African American current and former child actors (and a few of their parents) about what it’s like to be a child in the entertainment business.

Culture Clash: Several of the people interviewed discuss missing out on having a “normal” childhood; the pressures and down sides of fame; and rampant child abuse and exploitation in showbiz.

Culture Audience: “Showbiz Kids” will appeal primarily to people who like behind-the-scenes stories about the entertainment business, although almost all of these cautionary tales have already been told.

Cameron Boyce in “Showbiz Kids” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

There are plenty of news exposés and tell-all books that have revealed the good, bad and ugly sides of being a famous child in the entertainment business. The documentary film “Showbiz Kids” doesn’t uncover anything new or shocking, but it’s a generally good compilation of personal stories from current and former child entertainers.

“Showbiz Kids” director Alex Winter, a former child actor who became famous as an adult—he’s best known for co-starring in the “Bill & Ted” movies with Keanu Reeves—keeps the film’s focus uncluttered by showing mainly the perspectives of actors. There’s the expected archival footage, but the only new interviews are with actors (some who are more famous than others) and a few parents of children who are trying to make it big in showbiz. (There are no agents interviewed in the film.)

The interviewees include famous former child actors Evan Rachel Wood, Cameron Boyce, Wil Wheaton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Milla Jovovich, Todd Bridges, Mara Wilson, Henry Thomas and Diana Serra Cary. Boyce died of a stroke in 2019, at the age of 20. Serra Cary, who was known as Baby Peggy in the 1920s, passed away in 2020, at the age of 101. An epilogue in the documentary announces that “Showbiz Kids” is dedicated to Boyce and Serra Cary.

One of the best things about “Showbiz Kids” is that it has a wide range of ages and experiences for the actors who are interviewed in the film. Some (such as Wood, Wheaton, Serra Cary and Jovovich) were pushed into acting by their parents. Others sort of fell into acting, such as Pinkett Smith and Thomas, who says that he only decided to become a professional actor as a way to get out of piano lessons. And some others (such as Bridges, Wilson and Boyce) say that they wanted to be entertainers from an early age but started so young that they didn’t know any other way of life when they were kids.

Also interviewed are two families who each have a child who’s trying to become famous in showbiz, with varying degrees of success. One family consists of Melanie Slater, Jeff Slater and their son Marc Slater from Orlando, Florida. The other family consists of Demi Singleton and her single mother Tricia Miranda, who are based in New York City. (The children in these families don’t appear to have any siblings.)

Melanie, Jeff and Marc Slater (who looks like he was about 9 to 11 years old when he was filmed for this documentary) represent the experience that’s most common: The child has not been able to find steady work as an actor. The Slaters say that Melanie and Jeff haven’t pushed Marc into showbiz, and they say that Marc doesn’t want to quit, despite the fact that he almost never gets work as an actor.

However, the documentary shows Marc in a one-on-one session with a female acting coach, who notices that Marc is yawning while she’s trying to teach him. Marc admits that he’s feeling tired (because he didn’t much sleep from the night before) and a little bored. When the acting coach asks him how he feels about the lessons, he makes a “so-so” indication.

The acting coach thanks Marc for being honest, but it’s pretty clear that this kid doesn’t have the passion to be an actor. And that lack of driving passion will probably affect his chances of continuing to pursue an acting career. There’s nothing in the documentary that indicates Marc has extraordinary talent. And, as it’s pointed out in the documentary, the entertainment business is notorious for chewing kids up and spitting them out when they get older and aren’t as “cute” anymore.

Meanwhile, the documentary shows Marc and his mother Melanie in the Los Angeles area, where they’ve traveled every year for the past few years, to audition for pilot season. Although it’s not mentioned in the documentary, pilot season is the peak time when people who don’t live in the Los Angeles area are most likely to bring their kids to Hollywood for auditions. There are plenty of reality TV shows that have chronicled this process.

Pilot season is the period of time (January to March) when TV studios and production companies are casting actors for pilot episodes of TV series that might or might not be ordered for a full season. After the pilot episodes are filmed, they’re shopped to various networks or streaming services. Most of the shows end of up not being sold to any outlets. The shows that are sold and picked up for a full season are usually announced in April or May and usually debut later that year or the following year.

The pushy and domineering “stage mother” has become a showbiz cliché, because a lot of it is true. Almost all of the actors interviewed in the documentary say that their mothers had a more active role than their fathers did in guiding their children’s showbiz careers. Their mothers are also usually their managers when they are children. (Managers handle the day-to-day business, while agents are responsible for finding and booking work for their clients.)

When the image of a “stage mother” is brought up, Melanie Slater says with a horrified voice: “I don’t ever want to be one of those!” However, Melanie Slater is shown being very much a stage mother, as she (without her husband) is the one who accompanies Marc to Los Angeles for his pilot-season auditions. She’s the one who usually takes the photos that are posted on her son Marc’s social media.

And she’s the one who’s taught Marc to parrot her loopy way of comparing getting an acting job to the planet Saturn. According to Melanie and Marc, there are three main rings around the planet that they have to get through in order to reach the planet. The first ring is the audition, the second ring is the callback, the third ring is booking the job, and the final destination (the planet) is actually doing the job and getting paid for it. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.

On the other end of the wannabe star spectrum is Singleton, who looks like she was about 11 or 12 years old when this documentary was filmed. Singleton says that she and her mother are originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but they moved to New York City when she was 3 years old. Unlike the Slaters, they’ve been more successful in booking gigs for the child actor in the family. (Maybe that’s because Singleton and her mother don’t spend time sitting around talking about rings of Saturn as a way to break into showbiz.)

Singleton has been in the cast of Broadway musical productions, such as “The Lion King” and “School of Rock.” And she’s had a small supporting role in the Epix drama series “Godfather of Harlem,” starring Forest Whitaker. It’s clear that Singleton wants to be a “triple threat” entertainer (someone who can sing, dance and act), and she takes her craft seriously. She’s shown in ballet classes, which is a discipline that many kids with access to ballet don’t have the patience to commit to on a long-term basis.

Unlike Marc Slater, it’s obvious that Singleton has a passion for being an entertainer. And just as importantly, she’s ambitious. In the documentary, she unapologetically says that she wants to be so famous that she can change a lot of people’s lives for the better. It’s clear that she’s one of those kids that wasn’t forced to be in showbiz, because the documentary shows that when she has a choice between going to summer camp or working that summer, she seems happy that she ended up getting booked for a job for the summer.

The people interviewed in “Showbiz Kids” inevitably bring up the issue of having a “normal childhood” versus pursuing a career in showbiz. How and where you are raised make all the difference, say the interviewees. “Westworld” star Wood says that her parents, who run a theater company in North Carolina, were definite “snobs” about what kind of material she would do as an actor, which affected her choices then and now.

Pinkett Smith, who attended Baltimore School of the Arts, says that growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood prepared her for the cutthroat side of the entertainment business. When she started her Hollywood acting career in her late teens (her breakout role in her early 20s was in the 1991-1993 sitcom “A Different World”), she says that these “street smarts” helped prevent her from being conned and exploited. “I survived the streets of Baltimore, so as far as I was concerned, this [Hollywood] was kind of a Disneyland.”

Meanwhile, Wilson (who’s most famous for her 1990s movie roles in “Matilda” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”) grew up in the showbiz city of Burbank, California, so she says it was normal for her to go to school with kids who regularly auditioned for acting jobs. Thomas had the opposite experience. After he became world-famous as a star of the blockbuster 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” he says he still attended a regular school in his Texas hometown, where he was the only professional actor in his class. Thomas remembers his fame was a double-edged sword in that environment, because he got a lot of perks and adulation, but he also got a lot of bullying and teasing from some of his peers at school.

Getting an education is a tricky subject for showbiz kids, and it depends on how busy the child is as an entertainer. The busier the entertainer, the less likely the child will be attending a “normal” school. Homeschooling and on-set tutoring are how many famous child entertainers got most of their childhood education. But most still attend “regular” school at some point in their childhoods.

Boyce (a former Disney Channel star) had education experiences at a “regular” school and a home school. In the documentary, Boyce says that he preferred the regular school because he was able to do “normal” activities with kids his age. At his home school, he wasn’t around people in the same age group. And Boyce also says that being a busy entertainer meant that he didn’t really think about going to college, since going to college would no doubt put his career momentum on hold.

Boyce says in the documentary that one of the biggest problems of being a famous entertainer as a kid is that people are expecting you to be someone that you’re not. Finding an identity outside of showbiz can be difficult. Adolescent mistakes and the natural process of physically looking different while growing into adulthood are issues that get blown out of proportion when a child is famous, compared to when a child is not famous.

Most of the people interviewed in the documentary express having complicated emotional relationships with their parents, who usually controlled their careers as children. Although they express gratitude over having supportive families who sacrificed a lot so that they could become successful entertainers, there are some lingering resentments.

Wheaton says that his parents, especially his mother, at times seemed to care more about him being famous and successful than his emotional well-being. He says of becoming an actor: “It was never my idea.” Wheaton states that he has a “great family,” but he also expresses anger that his mother didn’t adequately protect him from an abusive situation that he experienced on a job. (He doesn’t go into details about the abuse.)

Thomas describes his parents as not being prepared for the worldwide fame that came his way because of “E.T.,” because they initially thought acting was just going to be a hobby for him. Thomas says that his mother, who accompanied him on every job he had as a child, was highly suspicious and paranoid that people were trying to abuse or exploit him. Therefore, she was labeled as “difficult.” And, in hindsight, he believes that his mother cost him a lot of acting jobs.

Serra Cary says her father didn’t just cost her some acting jobs. She says he ruined her entire acting career. In the documentary interview, she claims that her father hated that he wasn’t going to get a cut of the money that was in her work contract, so he terminated the contract. “My [acting] career was over [when I was] 7,” Serra Cary says.

Wood says that the entire time that she was becoming a successful young actor, no one close to her bothered to ask her how she was feeling. She says that the assumption was that the more successful she became, the happier she was expected to be. And she says that her parents instilled in her the idea that because she had the talent to be an actor, she would be ungrateful and foolish if she didn’t pursue an acting career.

Jovovich, who grew up as the child of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, says that her mother was a “brilliant” actress who had to give up her dreams to be a famous actress in order to help make money for the family. Jovovich’s mother ended up being a servant to rich and famous people, and she pushed Jovovich into a showbiz career, as a way to vicariously live through Jovovich. Although Jovovich is mainly known as an actress and former supermodel, she says that she really wanted to become a singer, but that career didn’t really work out for her because she was pigeonholed as being a model/actress. Jovovich is now best known for starring in the “Resident Evil” action-horror movie franchise, written and directed by her husband Paul W.S. Anderson.

Pinkett Smith, who’s married to superstar Will Smith, offers her perspective as a famous mother of kids who are also in the entertainment business. She says that their son Jaden and daughter Willow were not pushed into showbiz, but she’s well-aware that her kids have the privilege of not having to struggle financially, like other kids who don’t have any family wealth or connections. (Willow and Jaden were not interviewed for this documentary.)

Pinkett Smith also mentions that she’s glad that social media didn’t exist when she started her own showbiz career because she’s not sure how social media would’ve affected her as a child or teenager growing up. Boyce, who is one of the few actors interviewed in the documentary who grew up with social media, comments that social media just amplifies insecurities that kids already have in their real lives. It’s obviously why Wood (who has a son with her actor ex-husband Jamie Bell) says it’s a conscious choice as a parent that her son is not on social media.

Trust issues and isolation are also common with child entertainers, say many of the people interviewed in the documentary. Wheaton expresses bitterness over people treating him differently only because he’s famous, which causes him to question people’s sincerity. He says that he was bullied by cousins when he was growing up, but after he became famous (his breakout role was in the 1986 movie “Stand by Me”), they became extra-nice to him. He comments that this experience was his beginning of not being able to trust anyone. Wheaton also says he hated being marketed as a “teen idol,” and he was pressured into doing “teen idol” things that he really didn’t want to do.

Wilson and Boyce also talk about how much it can mess with a child star’s mind to not know how much fame is the reason for why people are being nice to them and want to become their friends. It gets even more complicated when the star is old enough to date. And Boyce says that social media puts famous people under pressure to document a lot of their personal lives on their social media.

“It’s a very fulfilling but lonely experience,” Wood says of being a successful child entertainer. Wood quips that you know you’re in the presence of a child star when they know how to do a lot of things that children normally don’t do. She says that’s because child entertainers often spend a lot of time alone in trailers and in hotels, and they pick up unusual hobbies out of sheer boredom and loneliness.

Drugs and sexuality, which people discover as they are growing up, are inevitably mentioned in the documentary. “Showbiz Kids” includes examples of former child stars who have histories of personal problems that became very public, including Drew Barrymore, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Shia LaBeouf, Corey Haim (who died of pneumonia complications in 2010) and Corey Feldman. On the flip side, the documentary also includes examples of former child stars who went on to have successful showbiz careers as adults and reputations for being emotionally stable, such as Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Brooke Shields and Scarlett Johansson.

Sexism and sexual exploitation are also discussed. Wood says that she felt most exploited not on film sets but on photo shoots, where she was forced to wear outfits that didn’t really reflect who she is. Wood comments, “I didn’t want to wear dresses. I didn’t want to wear heels. I was a tomboy.” Wood, who is the only openly LGBTQ person interviewed in the documentary (she identifies as bisexual), also mentions that she knew she was bisexual as a pre-teen, but there was pressure for her not to go public about her sexual orientation until much later in her life.

Jovovich says that when she was an underage teen model made to look like an adult, it was both horrifying and embarrassing for her. She thought the hair and makeup that she had for photo shoots looked “hideous” on her. And she says that the constant push to make her look like a sexy adult when she was still a kid wouldn’t be as acceptable today as it was when it happened to her in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Although Jovovich’s parents allowed her to be emancipated at the age of 16, Jovovich admits in hindsight that she was still too young to go through many of the things that she experienced—even though she thought at the time that she was mature enough to handle these situations. She makes a vague reference to getting into “messes” with older men when she was underage. Looking back on these experiences, she now says that these older men were “schmucks” for taking advantage of her.

The  documentary points out the obvious fact that girls in the entertainment business are made to look sexual at a much earlier age than boys are. “Showbiz Kids” includes clips and/or photos from controversial movies, such as 1962’s “Lolita” (about a middle-age man who commits statutory rape when he becomes sexually obsessed with an underage teenage girl), as well as 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 1978’s “Pretty Baby,” which each featured an underage girl prostitute as one of the main characters. The 1994 movie “Léon: The Professional” (which had the title “The Professional” in the U.S.) is also mentioned as a movie that portrayed sexual undertones/sexual tension between the two main characters: a professional hit man and a 12-year-old girl.

The #MeToo movement is mentioned as important progress for people speaking up and getting justice for sexual harassment/abuse, but the people who talk about it say that despite this progress, sexual harassment/abuse is still a major problem. People in the documentary reiterate that even though most of the showbiz #MeToo stories that people hear about are about experiences that happened to adults, that doesn’t mean that there’s a low percentage of children in showbiz with #MeToo stories. Children are just as likely to be harassed/abused as adults but are more likely to keep it a secret.

Wood states that sexual abuse happens to boys much more than what’s being reported. She says that most male actors have been sexually harassed or sexually abused by powerful men in the industry. And she remembers attending a recent Golden Globes ceremony where she had to temporarily go outside because she was nauseated that a man who’s known to sexually abuse boys had won a Golden Globe award at the show. (She doesn’t name names.)

Bridges, who’s best known for co-starring in the 1978-1986 sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” went public years ago about his own childhood abuse. He was sexually abused by his male publicist for years. And when he told his parents, Bridges’ father sided with the publicist. Bridges, who claims that his father was physically and emotionally abusive to him when he was growing up, says that all this trauma led him on a downward spiral of drug addiction and suicidal thoughts.

Fortunately, Bridges recovered, but his “Diff’rent Strokes” co-star Dana Plato (who went public with similar problems) did not. She died of a drug overdose in 1999, at the age of 34. Meanwhile, “Diff’rent Stokes” co-star Gary Coleman (the most famous member of the cast) struggled with health problems and being typecast as a child star for the rest of his life. In 2010, Coleman died of a subdural hematoma at the age 42.

In the documentary, Bridges says that of the three actors who played the kids on “Diff’rent Strokes” (Bridges, Plato and Coleman), Bridges was the one who most people predicted would die first. Bridges marvels that he’s now “the last one standing.” He also expresses sorrow over his “Diff’rent Strokes” co-stars’ untimely deaths and gratitude that he was able to come out of his personal ordeals alive and able to help other abuse survivors.

However, none of this information is new. And “Showbiz Kids” does have some noticeable omissions and blind spots. The film has no Asians and Latinos, the two fastest-growing racial groups in the United States. And although there are some African Americans in the documentary, there’s absolutely no discussion of how racism impacts opportunities that are given to child actors.

Also left out of the documentary is any coverage of children with disabilities and how they’re represented and treated in showbiz. The closest that the documentary comes to addressing this issue is when Bridges talks about how his “Diff’rent Strokes” star Coleman (who had lifelong kidney problems) had to go to work the day after having kidney surgery. According to Bridges, Coleman ended up resenting how the “Diff’rent Strokes” bosses didn’t seem to care about his health.

To its credit, “Showbiz Kids” responsibly brings up the important issues of sexism, sexual exploitation and abuse. However, the discussion is fairly superficial, since there’s no discussion about how these issues have trickle-down negative effects on how children, especially girls, feel about their body image. (It’s very obvious that girls who are famous entertainers are under more pressure than boys to not be overweight.)

You would think that a documentary called “Showbiz Kids” would have some discussion about eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. People who have these disorders are usually female, and they usually become afflicted with these disorders when they’re underage. But there’s no mention of eating disorders in “Showbiz Kids.”

The reasons why anorexics and bulimics get these disorders are usually the same: They want to look “thin and attractive.” And their unhealthy eating habits are their way to have control over their lives because they often don’t feel in control of their lives. Showbiz kids are textbook examples of being very vulnerable to getting eating disorders, because their physical appearance goes under much more scrutiny than kids who aren’t in showbiz.

There’s a large percentage of women who are former child stars who’ve gone public about having eating disorders when they were pre-teens or underage teens. (And it’s impossible to know many more have also had an eating disorder, but have kept it private.) Therefore, it’s disappointing that “Showbiz Kids” failed to even mention this rampant problem.

The movie predictably covers drug abuse/addiction, but sparingly. Bridges is the only one interviewed in “Showbiz Kids” who talks about his drug problems. And if it seems very unrealistic that he’s the only celebrity in the documentary who’s ever done illegal drugs, that’s because it is unrealistic. Pinkett Smith and Wood have been open in other interviews about their past drug use and other self-destructive behavior, but they don’t tell those stories in this documentary. (And if they did, those stories were cut out of the film.)

Wheaton says he was angry about the untimely death of his former “Stand by Me” co-star River Phoenix, who died of a cocaine and heroin overdose in 1993, at the age of 23. Wheaton says that he looked up to Phoenix as an older brother. Although he acknowledges that Phoenix made the choice to take the drugs that killed him, Wheaton also puts a lot of blame on the people who enabled Phoenix’s drug addiction.

Wheaton claims that no one in Phoenix’s life cared enough to help Phoenix quit doing dangerous drugs. But by his own admission, Wheaton hadn’t been in touch with Phoenix for about two years before Phoenix died, so Wheaton doesn’t really know the whole story about who might or might not have tried to help Phoenix get clean and sober.

Cutting one’s own skin, which is a form of self-harm that is not uncommon with showbiz types (especially young people), barely gets mentioned in the documentary. The only reference to cutting is when the documentary shows a brief 2018 clip from “Red Table Talk”—the Facebook talk show hosted by Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Jones (the mother of Pinkett Smith)—when Willow publicly confessed that she used to be a cutter, and her mother appears to be shocked.

Because the documentary primarily has viewpoints of former child actors, there’s little to no discussion of the crucial roles and responsibilities of people who aren’t these children’s parents but who have a lot of power in what happens to a child in showbiz, such as agents, managers, directors, producers, casting directors, talent coaches and other people who work behind the scenes. Labor unions are not mentioned at all. And except for a brief flash of a sexual-abuse hotline number at the end of the film, there’s really no reference to how people can recover or get justice for any abuse or harassment they’ve experienced or witnessed in the entertainment business.

Despite these gaping holes in the documentary, “Showbiz Kids” takes the interviews that it has and weaves them together into a concise narrative that’s very easy to follow. People certainly won’t get bored watching this documentary, but people will certainly wonder about all the information that wasn’t revealed.

HBO premiered “Showbiz Kids” on July 14, 2020.

 

 

Review: ‘Welcome to Chechnya,’ starring Maxim Lapunov, David Isteev and Olga Baranova

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Bogdan” and Maxim Lapunov (also known as “Grisha”) in “Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Welcome To Chechnya”

Directed by David France

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and other parts of Europe, the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” interviews white and Arabic middle-class people about the deadly persecution of LGBTQ people in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and the documentary follows a group of activists who smuggle LGBTQ people in Chechnya to safe locations.

Culture Clash: The documentary reports that several LGBTQ people in Chechnya have been tortured or killed because of their sexual orientation, while Chechnya officials ignore these hate crimes or try to silence witnesses.

Culture Audience: “Welcome to Chechnya” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in compelling documentaries about human rights.

A scene from “Welcome to Chechnya” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

It’s not a secret that there are many countries and communities in the world that openly endorse or enable the persecution and murders of LGBTQ people. These crimes and human-rights violations are usually committed under the guise of religious beliefs. The documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” takes a harrowing, up-close look at Russian LGBTQ people (and some of their family members) who have suffered from hate crimes in the Russian republic of Chechnya and are trying to escape. The film also focuses on leaders of a group of activists who provide shelter and relocation services for LGBTQ people who want to leave Chechnya and start new lives in countries that outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ people.

For people who don’t know anything about Chechnya, the documentary gives a brief overview. Chechnya, which has about 1.4 million residents (many of whom are Muslim), is a republic that was formed in 1993, and is part of Russia, but operates independently from Russia in many ways. Ramzan Kadyrov, the current prime minister of the Chechnya, was appointed to the position in 2006. He is the son of former Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004.

Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has openly expressed contempt for LGBTQ people and believes that the Chechen government shouldn’t interfere if families want to kill LGBTQ family members for religious reasons or to protect the family’s “honor.” The documentary includes footage from a TV interview where Kadyrov (who projects an overly macho, swaggering image) denies that LGBTQ torture prisons exist in Chechnya. In the interview, he also denies that LGBTQ people even exist in Chechnya, but at the same time he says that if LGBTQ people are in Chechnya, then they should be sent away.

“Welcome to Chechnya” director David France (who is American) has experience doing documentaries about how discrimination against LGBTQ people can literally be life-threatening. In his Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” he examined how homophobia caused the AIDS crisis to be mishandled for years by the U.S. federal government. In his 2017 Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” he chronicled what happened to LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson, a New York City transgender woman whose death in 1992 at the age of 46 was officially ruled an accident, but many people suspect that Johnson’s death was really a hate-crime homicide.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is not the type of investigative documentary that most American viewers are used to seeing about human-rights issues. Most American filmmakers who do investigative documentaries about human-rights violations have dramatic “justice must prevail” type of music throughout the story, while there’s at least one “larger than life” personality (usually someone who’s the chief investigator, an activist or an attorney) who’s presented as the “star” of the film.

Instead, “Welcome to Chechnya” shows how Russian culture is very different from American culture, because there are no over-the-top, outraged histrionics in this movie. Emotions are very suppressed in “Welcome to Chechnya,” compared to how many Americans would act if this documentary had been made about Americans. Everyone in the movie is an “ordinary citizen,” and there’s no “larger than life” hero who’s coming to their rescue.

“Welcome to Chechnya” wisely chose to focus on only a handful of people in presenting their stories for this documentary, in order to make the film easy to follow. Two LGBTQ activists are featured in the film: David Isteev, a former journalist, is a crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. Olga Baranova, a former advertising employee, is director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT Initiatives.

Isteev and Baranova are both heavily involved in helping LBGTQ people in Russia get visas to move to countries where there are laws against discriminating against LGBTQ people. Both of these activists experience exhaustion and burnout because of their work. By the end of the film, one of them will quit, while the other one continues.

The hate-crime survivors who are featured in “Welcome to Chechnya” all have aliases to protect their identities, although they fully appear on camera without any disguises. One of the survivors initially goes by the alias “Grisha,” but he later goes public with his real name—Maxim Lapunov—for reasons that are explained in the film.

Lapunov, who was 30 when this documentary was filmed, never lived in Chechnya, but he visited there because of his job as an event planner. He says he was kidnapped and put in a secret prison in Chechnya, where he and other LGBTQ people were tortured just because of their sexual orientation. Lapunov was eventually released, he sought shelter in a house in Moscow for survivors of LGBTQ hate crimes, and he made plans to move out of Russia. He says that before this horrific turn of events, he had always thought that Chechnya was a great place full of friendly people.

“When the gay persecution began, it was a huge shock for me,” Lapunov comments in the film. “Being abducted and tortured changes you. That period of time broke me hard.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that the secret imprisonment and torture of LGBTQ people in Chechnya is believed to have increased sometime in 2017.

During a drug raid in 2017, police found explicitly gay messages on the phone of one of the men arrested. He was tortured and forced to identify other LGBTQ people in Chechnya. This raid is believed to have set off a firestorm of persecution attacks and abductions of LGBTQ people in Chechnya and other parts of Russia.

The documentary includes disturbing undercover video of some of these attacks. “Welcome to Chechnya” also mentions openly gay Russian pop singer Zelim Bakaev, who disappeared in Chechnya in 2017. Bakaev is believed to have been abducted and killed because of his sexual orientation.

During the course of the film, Lapunov is reunited with his boyfriend, who goes by the alias “Bogdan” and who was 29 when this movie was filmed. At the time Lapunov and “Bogdan” reunited, they had been in a romantic relationship for about 10 years. “Bogdan” left his family behind to move with Lapunov to a country that can give them asylum. Because Lapunov’s immediate family members accept his sexual orientation and because he is a key witness to the Chechen prison torture of LGBTQ people, his family members are also in danger of persecution, so they all plan to make the same relocation.

Another hate-crime survivor featured in the documentary is “Anya,” a 21-year-old Muslim whose uncle threatens to tell her family that she’s a lesbian. In exchange for his silence, he demands that she have sex with him. “Anya’s” father is a powerful government official, and “Anya” is certain that her father will have her killed if he finds out that she’s a lesbian. The documentary shows how the LGBTQ activist group helped “Anya” escape to an undisclosed location, but there are unexpected problems that occur with this rescue mission.

“Akhmad” is a 30-year-old hate-crime survivor who relocates to Canada. Out of all the survivors featured in the documentary, he gets the least amount of screen time, because the film shows him toward the end of his shelter stay and how he eventually leaves the shelter to move to Canada. It’s mentioned in the documentary that each shelter resident can stay for a maximum of 14 or 15 days. Although the Russian LGBTQ activists get help from LGBTQ activist groups in many other countries, not having enough money is a constant challenge in being able to continue the work.

Isteev is very clear about what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Russia: “Being gay, lesbian and transgender in Russia can get you killed or maimed. And no one will be held accountable for it.” Although it’s not explicitly stated in the movie, Isteev and Baranova being filmed for this documentary with their real names can put their lives in danger.

Isteev’s personal life is not shown at all in the film, but Baranova is filmed with her son Filip (who looks to be about 5 or 6 years old when this movie was filmed) and some of her LGBTQ friends. Baranova says that she wants Filip to know that there are other LGBTQ families like theirs, so he won’t grow up with the same feelings that other people have that LGBTQ people are “abnormal” and should be hidden away in shame.

Because most of the documentary is in the Russian language (with translated subtitles) and because the people in “Welcome to Chechyna” speak in calm, measured tones, some viewers might think the movie is “boring,” compared to other movies that would cover the topic of LGBTQ persecution. But if you have the patience and interest in looking at the movie for what it really is, there’s a quiet desperation that people have in this documentary that is no less impactful than Americans who loudly shout about their own rights and are ready to file complaints if they feel their rights have been violated.

“Welcome to Chechyna” accurately shows the repressed social behavior in a culture that’s ruled by a government that doesn’t allow street protests, legal recourse or freedom of speech for certain issues in the same way that other countries do. The only real moment of emotional hysteria in the documentary comes when one of the male residents of the LGBTQ shelter attempts suicide by cutting his wrist with a razor blade, and the panicked residents react to this suicide attempt in various ways. The shelter leaders make the agonizing decision not to get professional medical help because it would expose the location of the shelter.

Even though the emotions in “Welcome to Chechnya” are more muted than if this movie had been made about Americans or other Europeans, that doesn’t mean that the Russian people in this documentary are less passionate about fighting for their rights. They face more uphill battles than they would in many other countries.

And the documentary shows how much survivors have to sacrifice if they take the chance of starting new lives in other countries: They almost always have to leave their families and other loved ones behind. And they usually have to cut off contact with their families and other loved ones permanently, since the families left behind in Russia will be under government surveillance to track down the LGBTQ families members who escaped.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is nothing short of sounding the alarm that there is a modern-day holocaust of LGBTQ people. Baranova puts it bluntly when she says: “A group of people is identified without charge or trial. [Ramzan] Kadyrov and his people openly say that they are cleansing the republic.”

HBO premiered “Welcome to Chechnya” on June 30, 2020.

HBO Max announces more distribution partners, plus Zack Snyder cut of ‘Justice League’

May 20, 2020

The following is a combination of press releases from HBO Max:

WarnerMedia, a division of AT&T Inc., announced today a robust slate of new distribution agreements that will make HBO Max, the company’s highly anticipated streaming platform, widely available to customers at launch later this month. Covering a range of categories and platforms, including cable and broadband operators, gaming consoles and connected TVs, the newest companies to sign on to distribute HBO Max at launch include Altice USACox CommunicationsMicrosoftNational Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC)SamsungSony Interactive Entertainment and Verizon. These companies join AT&T, Apple, Charter, Google, Hulu and YouTube TV in offering HBO Max to their customers at launch.

HBO Max will debut May 27, 2020 with 10,000 hours of curated content and a programming lineup that offers something for everyone in the home. Anchored by the entire HBO service, the platform will also include an exciting roster of new original series, fan-favorite series and films from across WarnerMedia’s rich library and key third-party licensed programs and movies. HBO Max will be available from WarnerMedia at $14.99 per month.

“The launch of HBO Max is an important milestone for our company, and we’re excited that these valued partners will be on board for the launch,” said Rich Warren, president of WarnerMedia Distribution. “Through our expansive distribution pipeline, millions of customers will have immediate access to a best-in-class streaming experience come May 27.”

Detailed information about each distributors’ offering for HBO Max is as follows:

Altice USA has signed on to distribute HBO Max, giving all of its existing Optimum and Suddenlink HBO and HBO NOW subscribers immediate access to HBO Max and its expanded programming offering at launch. HBO Max will be available to these customers in addition to their existing HBO linear and on demand services and at no extra cost. Customers will be able to access HBO Max by downloading the app or accessing it on desktop and logging in using their Altice One, Optimum or Suddenlink credentials. Altice’s remaining and new customers will be able to purchase HBO Max directly from the company as part of a cable TV package, as an add-on to a video package, or as a standalone streaming service available to internet-only customers.

Verizon has signed on to distribute HBO Max to customers through its Fios TV and Fios Internet services. All of Verizon’s existing Fios customers who subscribe to HBO or HBO NOW will get immediate access to HBO Max at launch and at no extra cost. HBO Max will be available to these customers in addition to their existing HBO linear or streaming services. Those customers can use their Fios login credentials to access HBO Max either on supported devices through the app or via desktop. Verizon’s remaining and new Fios TV and Fios Internet customers will be able to purchase HBO Max directly from the company, as an add-on to video services or as a standalone streaming service available to internet-only customers.

Cox Communications, the largest private telecom provider in the U.S., will give all of Cox Contour’s existing HBO subscribers immediate access to HBO Max at launch and at no extra cost, in addition to their existing HBO linear and on demand services. Customers will be able to log into the HBO Max app on supported devices or access it on desktop and log in using their Cox account credentials. All remaining and new customers will be able to purchase HBO Max directly from Cox.

HBO Max will be made available at launch to independent cable and broadband operators – such as WOW!, Atlantic Broadband, RCN, Grande Communications & Wave, and MCTV, among others – through a new agreement with NCTC, on behalf of its 750 member companies throughout the U.S. and its territories. Existing HBO customers of the participating NCTC member companies will be given access to HBO Max at launch at no extra cost and new customers will be able to purchase HBO Max directly through their cable or broadband provider. The offering will then roll out more widely in the coming months, with additional member companies having the opportunity to provide the offering to their customers. For a full list of NCTC’s member companies, visit nctconline.org.

HBO Max will be available on PlayStation® 4 systems at launch. PlayStation® users in the U.S. who subscribe to HBO Max will be able to download the HBO Max app via the PlayStation®Store and access its full programming slate directly through their consoles for a seamless viewing experience beginning May 27th.

Users of Microsoft’s popular Xbox One gaming consoles in the U.S. who subscribe to HBO Max will be also able to access the platform at launch. The HBO Max app will be available on current Xbox One consoles and via the Microsoft Store on day one.

Finally, HBO Max will now be available through select Samsung TVs, bolstering the platform’s U.S. distribution to include a television manufacturer at launch. Owners of Samsung smart TVs – models from 2016 through 2020 – will be able to download and purchase HBO Max directly, offering another seamless viewing option for customers looking to access this best-in-class content experience.

In addition to including HBO favorites, Max Originals available at launch include Love LifeOn the RecordLegendaryCraftopiaLooney Tunes and The Not Too Late Show with Elmo. Throughout the summer, new Max Originals will debut, including Karma, an original second season of the critically acclaimed DC fan favorite Doom Patrol, an original second season of Sesame Workshop’s animated series Esme & Roy, the return of the critically beloved mystery comedy Search PartyAdventure Time: Distant Lands- BMO, the three-part documentary series Expecting Amy, the adult animated comedy Close Enough, the 1988-set comedy Frayed, the heart-warming British animal rescue series The Dog House, the generational family docuseries The House of Ho, the animated children’s series Tig N’ Seek, and Seth Rogen’s feature length comedy An American Pickle.

More information about HBO Max is available at www.hbomax.com/.

“PlayStation” is a registered trademark or trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment Inc.


May 27, 2020 UPDATE: 

Comcast to Bring WarnerMedia’s HBO Max to Xfinity Customers

Comcast and WarnerMedia today announced a deal to bring HBO Max to Xfinity X1 and Flex customers. As part of the deal, existing Xfinity HBO customers will have access to HBO Max beginning today at no additional cost via the HBO Max app and website while the companies work to quickly bring the HBO Max app to the award-winning Xfinity X1 platform along with the recently launched Xfinity Flex, a 4K streaming device that is included with Xfinity Internet. Additionally, new customers will be able to purchase HBO Max directly through Xfinity in the coming days.

“X1 and Flex bring our customers an unmatched depth and breadth of live, on demand and streaming entertainment, and we look forward to partnering with WarnerMedia to integrate the HBO Max app on our platforms alongside close to 200 other streaming services – all searchable with the award-winning Xfinity Voice Remote,” said Rebecca Heap, Senior Vice President, Video and Entertainment, Comcast Cable.

”We’re thrilled to cap off the excitement of today’s launch by adding Comcast’s Xfinity to our roster of distributors who are now offering HBO Max to their customers,” said Rich Warren, president of WarnerMedia Distribution. “This deal marks another important step in the distribution of HBO Max and provides millions of Xfinity customers with access to the product.”

Existing Xfinity TV customers who subscribe to HBO either a la carte or as part of a package – along with Xfinity Internet customers who subscribe to HBO through Flex – can access HBO Max by signing in to the HBO Max app or website with their Xfinity credentials. When HBO Max launches on Xfinity platforms, it will join Peacock, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Music, HBO, YouTube, EPIX, STARZ, Pandora, and many more streaming services on X1 and Flex.

Xfinity X1 delivers the most comprehensive library of entertainment on one platform – aggregating live TV, On Demand, and popular streaming apps from a growing collection of networks and streaming services. Xfinity Flex is a 4K streaming device included with Xfinity Internet that extends the best features of X1 to Xfinity Internet customers, giving them one integrated guide to access all of their streaming video and music, as well as a TV interface to manage their Xfinity WiFi, mobile, security and automation services – all of which is controllable with voice.

HBO Max is WarnerMedia’s newest direct-to-consumer streaming platform delivered over the internet with 10,000 hours of curated content and a programming slate that offers something for everyone in the home. Anchored by the entire HBO service, the platform also includes an exciting slate of new original series, fan-favorite series and films from across WarnerMedia’s rich library and key third-party licensed programs and movies.

About Comcast Corporation
Comcast Corporation (Nasdaq: CMCSA) is a global media and technology company with three primary businesses:  Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal, and Sky.  Comcast Cable is one of the United States’ largest video, high-speed internet, and phone providers to residential customers under the Xfinity brand, and also provides these services to businesses.  It also provides wireless and security and automation services to residential customers under the Xfinity brand.  NBCUniversal is global and operates news, entertainment and sports cable networks, the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks, television production operations, television station groups, Universal Pictures, and Universal Parks and Resorts.  Sky is one of Europe’s leading media and entertainment companies, connecting customers to a broad range of video content through its pay television services.  It also provides communications services, including residential high-speed internet, phone, and wireless services.  Sky operates the Sky News broadcast network and sports and entertainment networks, produces original content, and has exclusive content rights.  Visit www.comcastcorporation.com for more information.


HBO Max to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut

After global passionate fan calls to action and the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures announced today that it will exclusively world premiere Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of the Warner Bros. Pictures/DC feature film Justice League in 2021. Snyder surprised fans with the news this morning during a live online commentary of his film Man of Steel with Henry Cavill.

#ReleaseTheSnyderCut first became a passionate rallying social media cry among fans in 2017 and has not let up. From countless press articles and hundreds of thousands of social media mentions, it became a powerful global movement among cinephiles and comic book fans.

“I want to thank HBO Max and Warner Brothers for this brave gesture of supporting artists and allowing their true visions to be realized. Also a special thank you to all of those involved in the SnyderCut movement for making this a reality,” said Snyder.

“Since I got here 14 months ago, the chant to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has been a daily drumbeat in our offices and inboxes. Well, the fans have asked, and we are thrilled to finally deliver. At the end of the day, it really is all about them and we are beyond excited to be able to release Zack’s ultimate vision for this film in 2021. This could never have happened if it weren’t for the hard work and combined efforts of the teams at HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures,” said Robert Greenblatt, Chairman, Warner Media Entertainment and Direct-To-Consumer.

“When Zack and Debbie shared the extraordinary vision of where Zack wanted to take Justice League, my team and our counterparts at Warner Bros. took it as a mission to solve the many issues that stood in the way,” said Kevin Reilly, Chief Content Officer at HBO Max, President, TNT, TBS and truTV. “Thanks to the partnership at Warner Bros. and the relentless pursuit of the entire WarnerMax team we are able to deliver this incredibly exciting moment for Zack, the fans and HBO Max.”

“Thanks to the efforts of a lot people, we’re excited to bring fans this highly anticipated version of Justice League,” said Toby Emmerich, Chairman, Warner Bros. Pictures Group. “This feels like the right time to share Zack’s story, and HBO Max is the perfect platform for it. We’re glad the creative planets aligned, allowing us to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut.”

In Justice League, fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes—Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash—it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.

The Justice League screenplay is by Chris Terrio, story by Chris Terrio & Zack Snyder, based on characters from DC, Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The film’s producers are Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, with executive producers Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Jim Rowe, Ben Affleck, Wesley Coller, Curtis Kanemoto, and Chris Terrio.


About HBO Max 
HBO Max is WarnerMedia’s direct-to-consumer offering debuting May 27, 2020. With 10,000 hours of curated premium content anticipated at launch, HBO Max will offer powerhouse programming for everyone in the home, bringing together HBO, a robust slate of new original series, key third-party licensed  programs and movies, and fan favorites from Warner Media’s rich library including  Warner Bros., New Line, DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes and more. Sign up for updates at HBOMax.com.

About WarnerMedia

WarnerMedia is a leading media and entertainment company that creates and distributes premium and popular content from a diverse array of talented storytellers and journalists to global audiences through its consumer brands including: HBO MAX, HBO, Warner Bros., TNT, TBS, truTV, CNN, DC Entertainment, New Line, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies and others. WarnerMedia is part of AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T).

About Altice USA

Altice USA (NYSE: ATUS) is one of the largest broadband communications and video services providers in the United States, delivering broadband, pay television, mobile, proprietary content and advertising services to more than 4.9 million residential and business customers across 21 states through its Optimum and Suddenlink brands. The company operates a4, an advanced advertising and data business, which provides audience-based, multiscreen advertising solutions to local, regional and national businesses and advertising clients. Altice USA also offers hyper-local, national, international and business news through its News 12, Cheddar and i24NEWS networks.

About Cox Communications

Cox Communications is committed to creating meaningful moments of human connection through broadband applications and services. The largest private telecom company in America, we proudly serve six million homes and businesses across 18 states. We’re dedicated to empowering others to build a better future and celebrate diverse products, people, suppliers, communities and the characteristics that makes each one unique. Cox Communications is the largest division of Cox Enterprises, a family-owned business founded in1898 by Governor James M. Cox.

About National Cable Television Cooperative, Inc.

The National Cable Television Cooperative, Inc. (NCTC) is a Kansas-based, not-for-profit corporation that operates as a programming and hardware purchasing organization for its member companies who own and operate cable systems throughout the U.S. NCTC seeks to maximize current and future opportunities to ensure the profitability, competitive stature and long-term sustainability of its member companies. NCTC represents more than 750 small and mid-sized independent cable and broadband operators across the U.S., in programming and technology acquisition. NCTC is actively engaged in helping network providers and suppliers evolve their business models to deploy new video/data solutions to match the changes in the media landscape.

 

HBO Max announces second wave of programming that begins June 18, 2020

May 13, 2020

The following is a press release from HBO Max:

HBO Max has revealed the second slate of premium Max Originals available to viewers after the streamer’s May 27th launch. The next wave of titles coming to the platform begins Thursday, June 18th with the debut of the entire first season of the unscripted kids adventure competition series Karma, led by YouTube host Michelle Khare.

On Thursday, June 25th, HBO Max will premiere an original second season of the critically acclaimed DC Universe fan-favorite Doom Patrol; an original second season of Sesame Workshop’s animated series Esme & Roy, taking preschool-aged viewers on learning adventures through Monsterdale; a brand new third season of the comedy thriller Search Party (the first two seasons will be available on the platform at launch on May 27th); and Adventure Time: Distant Lands- BMO, the first of four hourlong breakout specials resurrecting the Emmy® and Peabody award-winning franchise Adventure Time.

Thursday, July 9th is the premiere of the three-part documentary series Expecting Amy, an unfiltered and intimate view into comedian Amy Schumer’s life on tour creating a stand-up special during her difficult pregnancy, directed and edited by Alexander Hammer, and the adult animated comedy Close Enough, a hilarious look at the surreal life of a millennial family living with roommates, from J.G. Quintel, creator of the Emmy-winning Regular Show.

On Thursday, July 16th, the multi- generational family docusoap House of Ho, chronicling the daily lives of patriarch Binh Ho, matriarch Hue Ho, their daughter Judy Ho, their son Washington Ho and his wife Lesley Ho, Aunt Tina, and Cousin Sammy, lands on the platform.

On Thursday, July 23rd, HBO Max will debut Cartoon Network Studios’ animated children’s series Tig n’ Seek, following eight-year-old Tiggy and his gadget-building cat Gweeseek.

On Thursday, July 30th, HBO Max presents the U.S. premieres of the scripted comedy Frayed, which follows a wealthy Londoner as she travels back to the Australian home she escaped as a teen, and the unscripted heartwarming British animal rescue series The Dog House.

On Thursday August 6, Seth Rogen’s comedy feature, An American Pickle will world premiere as the first HBO Max original film on the platform under the Warner Max label.

(Full program descriptions below.)

“Shortly after the initial launch our monthly strategy kicks in, as we introduce great new originals every month throughout the year,” said Kevin Reilly, Chief Content Officer, HBO Max, President, TNT, TBS, and truTV.

“We want to provide audiences with a wide-ranging and consistent flow of high-quality programming across all genres,” added Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content, HBO Max. “From scripted series and intimate documentaries, to premium animation for kids and adults, to feature length films from teams at the top of their game, our creators bring it all, each with their own unique take, building a slate of originals that is nothing short of amazing.”

These new titles will join the previously announced day one Max Originals Love Life, a scripted comedy starring Anna Kendrick; Sundance 2020 Official Selection feature documentary On the Record; underground ballroom dance competition series Legendary; Craftopia, hosted by YouTube sensation LaurDIY; the all-new Looney Tunes Cartoons from Warner Bros. Animation; and Sesame Workshop’s The Not Too Late Show with Elmo.

HBO’s summer premieres will be also available on the platform as they debut on HBO, including I May Destroy You, executive produced, written by, and starring Michaela Coel on June 7th; the 1930s Los Angeles drama Perry Mason, starring Emmy® winner Matthew Rhys on June 21st; the six-part documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, based on the best-selling book by Michelle McNamara on June 28th; the fourth season of the anthology series Room 104 airing July 24th; and from Misha Green and executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, the drama series Lovecraft Country, airing on HBO this August.

(Full program descriptions below.)

Newly announced library series available at launch include TNT’s Emmy Award-winning The Alienist, the first four seasons of truTV’s hit show Impractical Jokers, and Adult Swim’s beloved series Robot Chicken. Additionally, HBO Max has confirmed that as part of its previously announced deal with BBC Studios, shows available on day one will also include the U.S. premieres of Trigonometry, a love story about three people who are made for each other; the comedy Ghosts, about a group of former inhabitants who haunt a country mansion; Home, following an average family and the refugee who escapes in the boot of their car; and the comedy Stath Lets Flats where a rubbish lettings agent aims to take over the family business in North London. At launch, HBO Max will also offer BBC Studios titles including the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood; Luther, starring Idris Elba; the nine-part miniseries The Honorable Woman; Ricky Gervais’ original mockumentary The Office; and seasons 17-25 of the hit car show Top Gear. Additionally, HBO Max will become the home of Stage 13’s series Independent, following the lives of four independent hip-hop artists; Lipstick Empire, telling the story of the founders of Melt Cosmetics; the horror-comedy feature film Snatchers, an official selection at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival; and the world premiere of Happily Ever Avatar, a series following three young couples who find love through playing a video game produced in partnership with Magical Elves.

Adding to the previously announced launch slate of feature films acquired for the platform, HBO Max will offer powerhouse titles on day one such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, An American in Paris, Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Blood Diamond, Braveheart, Citizen Kane, Friday the 13th, Godzilla, Gone with the Wind, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, the Lethal Weapon series, Monsters Vs. Aliens, A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, North by Northwest, Rebel without a Cause, Singin’ in the Rain, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and V for Vendetta. HBO Max will also launch with titles via the HBO service including fan favorites such as the original Alien franchise, the American Pie series, Anastasia, Babe, Die Hard, The Flintstones, In Bruges, The Indian in the Cupboard, Jaws, The Land Before Time series, Moulin Rouge!, and Teen Witch.

HBO MAX ORIGINALS AVAILABLE IN THE SECOND WAVE OF PROGRAMMING:

Available June 18th:

KARMA

Karma takes sixteen contestants, ranging in age from 12 to 15, completely off the grid, away from parents and the normal comforts of home, to solve puzzles and overcome physical challenges, with the laws of karma setting the rules. This adventure competition series, led by YouTube host Michelle Khare, will test the mental and physical stamina of its young contestants as they unravel how their social actions impact their success in the game. Focus, giving, humility, growth, connection, change, and patience are the path to becoming the “Karma Champion.” But more importantly, the players learn one of life’s most profound lessons: “What you give out, you get back.”

Karma is executive produced by JD Roth, Adam Greener, and Sara Hansemenn for GoodStory Entertainment with Fred Pichel serving as showrunner and executive producer.

Available June 25th:

ADVENTURE TIME: DISTANT LANDS – BMO

Return to the Land of Ooo and beyond in Adventure Time: Distant Lands. Based on the animated series Adventure Time created by Pendleton Ward and executive produced by Adam Muto, these four breakout specials explore the unseen corners of the world with characters both familiar and brand new. The first of these specials is BMO, which follows the lovable little robot on a new adventure. When there’s a deadly space emergency in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, there’s only one hero to call, and it’s probably not BMO. Except that this time it is!

Adventure Time: Distant Lands – BMO is produced by Cartoon Network Studios.

DOOM PATROL SEASON TWO

DC’s strangest group of heroes — Cliff Steele aka Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Larry Trainor aka Negative Man (Matt Bomer), Rita Farr aka Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), Jane aka Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Joivan Wade) — are back again to save the world. That is, if they can find a way to grow up…both figuratively and literally. Following the defeat of Mr. Nobody, the members of the Doom Patrol now find themselves mini-sized and stranded on Cliff’s toy race car track. Here they begin to deal with their feelings of betrayal by Niles Caulder aka The Chief (Timothy Dalton), while confronting their own personal baggage. And as each member faces the challenge of growing beyond their own past traumatic experiences, they must come together to embrace and protect the newest member of the family: Dorothy Spinner (Abigail Shapiro), Niles’ daughter, whose powers remain a mysterious but real threat to bringing on the end of the world.

Doom Patrol is produced by Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television with Jeremy Carver, Geoff Johns, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Chris Dingess serving as executive producers. With episodes debuting simultaneously on DC UNIVERSE, the series is based on characters created for DC by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani.

ESME & ROY

Esme and Roy are best friends — and the best monstersitters in Monsterdale! The animated series from the makers of Sesame Street will bring little viewers into a colorful world where even the littlest monsters can overcome big challenges together.

The series is produced by Sesame Workshop.

SEARCH PARTY

Search Party is a comedy thriller about a group of privileged, self-absorbed twenty-somethings whose search for a long-lost missing friend leads them down a dark and shocking path of no return. Seasons one and two of the series will be available on HBO Max at launch, May 27th. Season three, premiering June 25th, finds the gang swept up in the trial of the century after Dory (Alia Shawkat) and Drew (John Reynolds) are charged for the semi-accidental murder of a private investigator. As Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) grapple with whether or not to testify as witnesses, the friends are pitted against each other and thrust into the national spotlight. Dory’s sanity begins to fracture, and it becomes increasingly clear that the group may not have brunch together again for quite some time.

Search Party is executive produced by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter, and Jax Media’s Lilly Burns and Tony Hernandez.

Available July 9th:

CLOSE ENOUGH

From JG Quintel, creator of the Emmy Award-winning Regular Show comes Close Enough, a surreal animated comedy about a married couple, their five-year-old daughter, and their two divorced best friends/roommates all living together on the east side of Los Angeles. They’re navigating that transitional time in your 30s when life is about growing up, but not growing old. It’s about juggling work, kids, and pursuing your dreams, while avoiding time-traveling snails, stripper clowns, and murderous mannequins. Their life may not be ideal but for now, it’s close enough.

Close Enough is created by JG Quintel and produced by Cartoon Network Studios.

EXPECTING AMY

Amy Schumer in “Expecting Amy” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max)

Expecting Amy is an unfiltered three-part documentary that shows the struggle, strength and ambition that has made Amy Schumer one of the singular comic voices of all time. It takes viewers behind-the-scenes as Schumer battles through an extraordinarily difficult pregnancy while documenting the formation of a comedy special. Schumer continues touring to prepare for the taping in Chicago that she isn’t sure she will be able to execute. It focuses on pulling the curtain completely back on her marriage to husband Chris Fischer, and the journey to his diagnosis on the autism spectrum. From hospitalizations to going out in front of a crowd of thousands, to quiet moments at home with her family, Schumer shares it all. Beginning the day she found out she was pregnant, through the birth of her child, she showcases her incredible journey on the road, revealing the challenges of pregnancy, marriage and the execution of creating a stand-up special. Expecting Amy offers a hilarious and raw 360-degree look at this new stage of her life. It’s like Jerry Seinfeld’s movie “Comedian,” if he had been pregnant. With her family and friends along for the ride to support her and keep her sane and balanced, she does it all with perseverance, heart and the priceless sense of humor she’s known for.

Produced by Schumer, Expecting Amy is directed and edited by Alexander Hammer, whose previous work includes Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé.

Available July 16th:

HOUSE OF HO

Patriarch Binh Ho and his wife Hue Ho immigrated from Vietnam to the United States with little money, relying on hard work to establish the ultimate American dream. The power couple has built a multimillion-dollar bank, a real estate development company, and a new generation of American Hos. The series pulls back the curtain on their lavish Houston lifestyle and showcases the tight family connections that unite them as well as the multi-generational outrageous drama that ensues. The featured family includes patriarch Binh Ho, matriarch Hue Ho, their daughter Judy Ho, their son Washington Ho and his wife Lesley Ho, Aunt Tina, and Cousin Sammy.

Katy Wallin, Stephanie Bloch Chambers, and Nick Lee executive produce the non-fiction series with co-executive producers Amanda Ly and Rosalina Lydster. House of Ho is produced by Wallin Chambers Entertainment in association with Lionsgate Television.

Available July 23rd:

TIG N’ SEEK

From creator Myke Chilian, Tig n’ Seek follows an upbeat and eccentric 8-year-old boy named Tiggy and his cat, Gweeseek. Tiggy not only works at the Department of Lost and Found, finding lost items all throughout Wee-Gee City, he lives there too! Though he tries to help his friends whenever he can, his over-eagerness and neurotic quirks often lead to chaos in the Department. Tiggy’s partner and best friend is his cat, Gweeseek. She’s a graceful, friendly kitty who appears to be a normal cat, but is also capable of inventing extraordinary gadgets to help her friends in times of need. Join Tig n’ Seek as they navigate the wacky day-to-day dilemmas of working at the Department of Lost and Found.

Tig n’ Seek is produced by Cartoon Network Studios.

Available July 30th:

THE DOG HOUSE

There are nearly nine million dogs in Britain – but finding the right homes for them isn’t always easy. Set inside a rural British Dog Rescue Centre famous for its commitment to matching homeless dogs with new owners, The Dog House bears witness to the joy, comedy and pathos of the human-dog dating experience. Each episode records the arrivals of unwanted pets complete with heart-rending tales of abandonment. At the same time, they tell stories of families, couples, and singletons, all carrying their own baggage of poignant and touching backstory and hoping their lives might be transformed by the introduction of a new four-legged friend. The climax of each story is the theatre of the meet. Multiple fixed cameras mounted inside a special pen observe every beat of the first meetings between the dogs and their prospective new owners. Will the nervous dog come out of its shell? Will there be a connection? Will lives be changed forever?

Produced by Five Mile Films, The Dog House is distributed by Channel 4 in the UK.

FRAYED

Set in 1989, this comedy follows the journey of Sammy Cooper, a fabulously wealthy London housewife who is forced to return to her hometown in Newcastle, Australia. In coming home, Sammy must revisit her past and the events that led her to flee as a teenager years ago.

Frayed stars creator, writer and producer Sarah Kendall. Clelia Mountford, Sharon Horgan, Kevin Whyte, Morwenna Gordon, Rick Kalowski and Que Minh Luu serve as executive producers. Frayed is a Merman production in association with Guesswork Television for ABC (Australia) and Sky (UK) in association with Create NSW. The series is distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution on behalf of Sky Studios.

Available August 6th:

AN AMERICAN PICKLE

Based on Simon Rich’s 2013 New Yorker novella, An American Pickle stars Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, a struggling laborer who immigrates to America in 1920 with dreams of building a better life for his beloved family. One day, while working at his factory job, he falls into a vat of pickles and is brined for 100 years. The brine preserves him perfectly and when he emerges in present day Brooklyn, he finds that he hasn’t aged a day. But when he seeks out his family, he is troubled to learn that his only surviving relative is his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen), a mild-mannered computer coder whom Herschel can’t even begin to understand.

Brandon Trost directs Rich’s adaptation with Rogen, Evan Goldberg and James Weaver producing for Point Grey. Rich, Point Grey’s Alex McAtee and Ted Gidlow serve as executive producers on the feature.

HBO ORIGINALS AVAILABLE SUMMER 2020:

Available June 7th:

I MAY DESTROY YOU

A fearless, frank and provocative series that explores the question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation.

Feted as the ‘voice of her generation,’ Arabella (Michaela Coel) is complex, original and highly talented. But, distracted by the pressures of her first triumph, she is struggling to write her second novel and is in danger of becoming destructive and self-absorbed. After being sexually assaulted in a nightclub, her life changes irreversibly and Arabella is forced to reassess everything: her career, her friends, even her family. As Arabella struggles to come to terms with what has happened, she begins a journey of self-discovery. Often painful, sometimes funny, it leads her to some surprising places – and controversial conclusions.

Stars Michaela Coel (“Chewing Gum”). The cast also includes Weruche Opia (“Inside No9”), Paapa Essiedu (“Kiri”), Aml Ameen (“Yardie”), Adam James (“Belgravia”), Sarah Niles (“Catastrophe”), Ann Akin (“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams”), Harriet Webb (“Plebs”), Ellie James (“Giri/Haji”), Franc Ashman (“Peep Show”), Karan Gill (“Flesh & Blood”), Natalie Walter (“Horrible Histories”), and Samson Ajewole.

Executive producers for Various Artists Ltd, Phil Clarke and Roberto Troni; executive producer for FALKNA Productions/writer/director/star, Michaela Coel; producer, Simon Maloney; producer, Simon Meyers; director, Sam Miller; production companies, Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA Productions. I May Destroy You is a co-production between HBO and BBC Studios and will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, excluding the UK and Ireland where the series will be distributed by BBC Studios.

Available June 21st:

PERRY MASON

1931, Los Angeles. While the rest of the country struggles from the Great Depression, this city is booming! Oil! Olympic Games! Talking Pictures! Evangelical Fervor! And a child kidnapping gone very, very wrong! Based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner, this new series follows the origins of American fiction’s most legendary criminal defense lawyer, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys). When the case of the decade breaks down his door, Mason’s relentless pursuit of the truth reveals a fractured city and just maybe, a pathway to redemption for himself.

Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany and John Lithgow star. The cast also includes Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Nate Corddry, Veronica Falcon, Jefferson Mays, Gayle Rankin, Lili Taylor, Juliet Rylance, Andrew Howard, Robert Patrick, and Stephen Root.

Executive producers for Team Downey, Robert Downey Jr., Susan Downey, Amanda Burrell; writer/showrunner/executive producer, Ron Fitzgerald; executive producer, Joe Horacek; writer/showrunner/executive producer, Rolin Jones; director/executive producer, Tim Van Patten; co-executive producer Aida Rodgers; star/producer, Matthew Rhys.

Available June 28th:

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK

This six-part documentary series based on the book of the same name explores writer Michelle McNamara’s investigation into the dark world of a violent predator she dubbed the Golden State Killer. Terrorizing California in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Golden State Killer was responsible for 50 home-invasion rapes and 12 murders. This series gives voice to the survivors and their families, documenting an era when sex crimes were often dismissed or hidden in shame. A timely inquiry into our macabre preoccupation with true crime and a cautionary tale of the dangerous lure of addiction, the series is a riveting meditation on obsession and loss, chronicling the unrelenting path of a mysterious killer and the fierce determination of one woman to bring the case to light.

The series is directed by Academy Award nominee and Emmy® winning director Liz Garbus (HBO’s “Who Killed Garrett Phillips,” “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper”) and produced by Story Syndicate. Additional directors on the series include Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane and Josh Koury.

Available July 24th:

ROOM 104

Created by Mark and Jay Duplass (HBO’s “Animals.” and “Togetherness”), the late-night, half-hour anthology series Room 104 returns with 12 new episodes, telling unique and unexpected tales of the characters who pass through a single room of a typical American chain motel. While the room stays the same, every episode of the series features a different story, with the tone, plot, characters, and even the time period, changing with each installment. Providing one last glimpse into the lives of the guests in Room 104, the final season of the genre bending, and risk-taking anthology proves to be another showcase of writing, performing and directing.

Season 4 Cast includes: Mark Duplass (first time as actor in series history), Hari Nef, Logan Miller, Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, Dave Bautista, Melissa Fumero, Vivian Bang, Finn Roberts, Adam Shapiro, Breeda Wool, Kevin Nealon, Erinn Hayes, Ron Funches, Sadie Stanley, Shannon Purser, Kendra Carelli, Benjamin Papac, Alison Jaye, Tim Granaderos, Oliva Crocicchia, Harvey Guillen, Gary Cole, Linda Lavin, Jennifer Kim, Kevin McKidd, Desean Terry, Suzanne Nichols, Leonardo Nam, Lily Gladstone, Jordyn Lucas, Natasha Perez, Jake Green, Ntare Mwine, Rebecca Hazlewood, and Susan Park.

Room 104 was created by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass; executive producers, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Sydney Fleischmann, Mel Eslyn and Tyler Romary; co-executive producer, Julian Wass.

Available August 2020:

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff of the same name, the series follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he joins up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback.

Starring Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Courtney B. Vance and Michael Kenneth Williams, Wunmi Mosaku, Aunjanue Ellis and Abbey Lee. The cast also includes Jamie Harris, Jamie Chung, Tony Goldwyn, Jordan Patrick Smith, Jamie Neumann, Erica Tazel, and Mac Brandt.

Lovecraft Country is executive produced by Misha Green, who also serves as showrunner, J.J. Abrams, Jordan Peele, Bill Carraro, Yann Demange (who also directed Episode 1), Daniel Sackheim (who also directed Episodes 2 and 3) and David Knoller (executive producer on Episode 1); based on the novel by Matt Ruff. Produced by afemme, Inc., Bad Robot Productions and Monkeypaw Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television.

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About HBO Max
HBO Max is WarnerMedia’s direct-to-consumer offering debuting May 27, 2020. With 10,000 hours of curated premium content anticipated at launch, HBO Max will offer powerhouse programming for everyone in the home, bringing together HBO, a robust slate of new original series, key third-party licensed programs and movies, and fan favorites from Warner Media’s rich library including Warner Bros., New Line, DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes and more. Sign up for updates at HBOMax.com.

About HBO
HBO® is one of the most respected and innovative entertainment brands in the world, serving iconic, award-winning programming to 140 million subscribers globally. A subsidiary of WarnerMedia, HBO is the world’s most successful pay TV service with an extensive array of programming that includes some of the most notable titles to be on television, including drama series Succession®, Watchmen®, Westworld®, Big Little Lies®, Game of Thrones®, The Sopranos®, Band of Brothers® and The Wire®, as well as comedy series Barry®, Insecure® and Sex and the City®. In the United States, HBO® and sister network Cinemax® are available across multiple platforms including HBO On Demand®, Cinemax On Demand®, HBO GO® and MAX GO®, as well as HBO NOW®. Internationally, HBO branded services, including television networks and the standalone streaming product HBO GO®, are available in more than 70 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. HBO and Cinemax programming is also sold into more than 150 countries worldwide.

About WarnerMedia
WarnerMedia is a leading media and entertainment company that creates and distributes premium and popular content from a diverse array of talented storytellers and journalists to global audiences through its consumer brands including: HBO, HBO Now, HBO Max, Warner Bros., TNT, TBS, truTV, CNN, DC, New Line, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies and others. WarnerMedia is part of AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T).

Review: ‘Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,’ starring Natasha Gregson Wagner, Robert Wagner, Katie Wagner, Courtney Wagner, Robert Redford and Mart Crowley

May 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

A 1975 photo of Natalie Wood and her daughter Natasha in “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”

Directed by Laurent Bouzereau

Culture Representation: This documentary about actress Natalie Wood interviews an all-white group of people who are primarily from the entertainment business, including her family members, friends and former colleagues.

Culture Clash: The documentary addresses Wood’s personal problems, as well as ongoing speculation that Wood’s drowning death in 1981 wasn’t an accident.

Culture Audience: “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” will appeal primarily to people interested in 20th century movie stars and biographical information about Wood that has been widely reported elsewhere.

Natalie Wood (center) with members of her business team in “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” (Photo by Billy Ray/HBO)

“Natalie Wood: What Reminds Behind,” directed by Laurent Bouzereau, is more of a tribute than an investigative documentary. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, since her eldest daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner not only produced the film, but she’s also the narrator. Gregson Wagner is also the person who does a rare sit-down interview with her stepfather Robert “RJ” Wagner, who’s been been the focus of controversy over Wood’s 1981 death by drowning when Wood was 43. Robert Wagner and his family members have all vehemently denied speculation and accusations that Wood’s death was anything other than a tragic accident.

A police investigation was re-opened in 2011 over Wood’s death, which happened the night of November 29, 1981, while she, Wagner, her “Brainstorm” co-star Christopher Walken and boat captain Dennis Davern had been staying on Wagner’s yacht Splendour near California’s Catalina Island. Davern now claims that he lied to investigators in 1981 about what really happened on the yacht.

Davern, who co-wrote a 2014 book called “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” claims that Wagner probably had something to do with Wood’s death and that Wagner threatened him to be part of an alleged cover-up. Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana has also been in the media with the same accusations. And in recent years, there’s been renewed public interest in Natalie Wood’s death, with some news media calling her death an “unsolved murder.”

“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” addresses the speculation about how Wood died toward the end of the film, as a rebuttal to all the negativity that’s been reported. It’s clear that the documentary was made to also give the family an outlet to rectify what they say is the damage to Natalie Wood’s legacy that the scandal has caused. Gregson Wagner, the talking head with the most screen time in the movie, essentially admits this agenda by saying that she wants her mother to be remembered mostly for how she lived, not how she died.

Before the movie addresses the speculation over Natalie Wood’s death, about 80% of it consists of a mostly glowing overview of her life and career. In terms of biographical information, there’s nothing new that’s uncovered that hasn’t already been revealed in the myriad of media reports and books about Natalie Wood.

The only people who might learn something new from watching this documentary are people who don’t know very much about Natalie Wood. And although family members and friends give personal anecdotes, none of the anecdotes is very surprising or revealing—unless you think it’s important to know that Natalie didn’t wear makeup when she was relaxing at home, or you like to see people name-drop the list of celebrities who used to go to the family’s house parties. It also comes as no surprise that she’s described as a devoted and loving mother, to the point where any flaws she might have had as a mother are not mentioned at all.

Natalie Wood (whose birth name was Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko) was the middle child of three daughters born to Russian immigrants. Her mother Maria was domineering and highly superstitious, while her father Nikolai was quiet and passive. Maria was the parent who pushed Natalie into having a showbiz career. Natalie started out as a child star and evolved into a true movie icon. She was at the peak of her fame with films such as 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” 1961’s “West Side Story,” 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass,” 1962’s “Gypsy” and 1963’s “Love With the Proper Stranger.”

By the time she was 25, she had received three Oscar nominations for Best Actress, for “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “Love With the Proper Stranger.” Her other well-known films included 1969’s “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” and the 1979 TV miniseries remake of “From Here to Eternity,” for which she won a Golden Globe.

It’s hinted in the documentary that she had “daddy issues,” since she preferred to be romantically involved with men who were older than she was. And when her sexual involvement with “Rebel Without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray is mentioned in the documentary—she filmed the movie when she was 16 and he was 43—it’s glossed over as consensual, because Natalie supposedly told people that she was “in love” with Ray.

Natalie’s relationships with the two men she married are also covered in a predictable manner for a documentary financed by one of her daughters: Problems in each marriage are mentioned briefly, but the widespread reports and scandalous details of alcohol-fueled rages, physical fights and emotional abuse are not mentioned at all. Robert Wagner (eight years older than her) was her first husband, from 1957 to 1962. Long before their first date, which Robert Wagner said was on her 18th birthday, she had a very public crush on him.

In a documentary interview with stepdaughter Natasha, Robert Wagner blames the failure of this first marriage to Natalie on “the pressure on her and her career.” And he admits that he would have handled their marital problems better if he had been “older and more experienced” at the time. Robert Wagner went on to marry actress Marion Marshall; they were married from 1963 to 1971, and had a daughter together named Katie Wagner, who’s interviewed in the film.

The movie also hints at but never fully explores the well-documented stories that Robert Wagner was a jealous and controlling husband, which led to numerous fights between him and Natalie. In the documentary, Robert  Wagner admits to being very upset by Natalie’s two-year relationship with her “Splendor and the Grass” co-star Warren Beatty, which began after the movie finished filming and while she was separated from Robert Wagner.

“I was ready to go after him,” says Robert Wagner. “I can talk about it easily now, but at the time, it was a little bit difficult, as you can imagine.” Playwright/author Mart Crowley, who became a lifelong close friend of Natalie’s, starting when he was a production assistant on “Splendor in the Grass,” insists that the romance that Natalie had with Beatty was not the cause of her failed marriage to Robert Wagner.

Other men she dated after the divorce included Frank Sinatra, Henry Jaglom, Michael Caine, David Niven Jr., Arthur Loew Jr., and Kadislav Baltnik—the latter two men she was also engaged to but never married. Niven is briefly interviewed in the documentary, and he says he was an anomaly for her paramours because he was younger than Natalie.

In 1969, she married British agent-turned-producer Richard Gregson, and had daughter Natasha with him in 1970. But that marriage fell apart in 1972, after he cheated on her with her secretary. Gregson died in 2019, but he is interviewed here with Parkinson’s disease, and he admits that his infidelity was the main cause of the divorce. Although he mostly praises Natalie, he does say that her temper could be pretty fearsome: “When she let go, she let go,” he comments. It’s yet another vague reference that isn’t followed up with more details.

Natalie’s issues with mental health is also not new information, since she revealed back in the 1970s that she was in psychiatric therapy for years. The documentary mentions that in 1964, she intentionally overdosed on pills while she was staying at Crowley’s place, who remembers that she banged on his door to get help immediately after taking the pills. The incident is explained by daughter Natasha as “not really a suicide attempt” but more of a “cry for help.”

But even her serious problems with mental health get a very positive spin in the documentary. Natalie is also given almost saint-like treatment when Robert Wagner says: “She convinced me to go into analysis … and it saved my life.”

In 1972, Natalie remarried Robert Wagner (who’s called “the love of her life”), and they remained married until her death in 1981. In 1974, Natalie and Robert had a daughter named Courtney together, who’s also interviewed in the documentary. The couple raised Courtney and Natasha, while Katie lived with them part-time. Natasha said she called her biological father Daddy Gregson and her stepfather Daddy Wagner.

Not surprisingly, the children have nothing but good things to say about their parents. Natasha says that Robert raised her as if she were his biological child. And as for her mother: “We weren’t raised by someone who seemed like a movie star at all. She seemed larger-than-life not because she was famous but more because she was her.”

Courtney Wagner, who was 7 when her mother died, gets teary-eyed when commenting: “My memory of her is ever-evolving. I hope I can get to a place where I can access the true feeling that this was my mother, that I came from her, and she was mine for a short time. It’s been very hard to hold on to that.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that Courtney is a recovering addict/alcoholic whose trauma has a lot to do with losing her mother at such a young age.

The documentary includes the expected film clips and archival footage, but the film mostly serves as a series of flattering commentaries about Natalie Wood from people in her inner circle. They include Josh Donen, Robert Wagner’s stepson who lived in a guest house on Wood/Wagner property for years (Donen is the biological son of Robert Wagner’s ex-wife Marion Marshall); Liz Applegate, who was Wood’s personal assistant from 1977 to 1981; and close friend Mia Farrow, who describes Natalie as “smart” and “incredibly well-organized.”

There are also numerous former colleagues of Natalie Wood who sing her praises. Robert Redford gives her credit for giving him his big movie breakthrough, because she insisted that a then-unknown Redford co-star with her in the 1965 film “Inside Daisy Clover.” Redford was also the best man at the wedding of Natalie Wood and Richard Gregson, who was Redford’s agent at the time.

Redford comments, “It’s a tough business, and to survive in that business, you have to have a tough side to you, and I think she [Natalie Wood] had to develop that, but it wasn’t comfortable [for her]. What she really wanted to do was to laugh and have fun and be a regular person. But mainly, she had a big heart, and that showed in her work.”

One of the more interesting things that the documentary points out is how Natalie Wood was one of the first actresses in Hollywood to break out of the sexist oppression of the studio system, by demanding and getting equal pay for herself and her male co-stars who also received top billing. Farrow says of Natalie Wood’s Hollywood clout: “In a town where women weren’t always respected … she was an exception.”

Other former colleagues who pay their respects to Natalie Wood in the documentary include actors George Hamilton, Richard Benjamin, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, George Segal and Tonya Crowe, as well as directors Peter Hyams, John Irvin and Douglas Trumball. The documentary also has commentaries from publicist Alan Nierob, film critic/author Julie Salamon, photographer Martin Childers, Delphine Mann (one of Natalie Wood’s close friends) and Julia Gregson, who was married to Richard Gregson after Natalie Wood divorced him.

Several people in the documentary (including Natalie Wood’s children) share painful memories about the day that they found out that she died. Meanwhile, Julia Gregson remembers the star-studded party held at the Wood/Wagner mansion the day after Wood’s funeral as being “bizarre” and “surreal” because Elizabeth Taylor was there with a crystal ball, and Shirley MacLaine was trying to “heal RJ.”

Natasha, Courtney and Katie also talk about how disturbingly intrusive the media could be after Natalie’s tragic death, by taking photos of them in their backyard and following them around. The daughters and Applegate (Wood’s last personal assistant) give a lot of credit to the family’s African American nanny Willie Mae Worthen (who died in 2017, at the age of 90), for being a source of strength before and after Natalie’s tragic death. Applegate describes Worthen as “very brusque but loving.”

Robert Wagner’s current wife Jill St. John—who married him in 1990, after they were live-in partners for several years—also chimes in, by saying about her relationship with him: “We did fall in love, but not immediately.” She also talks about how it was difficult for Courtney and Natasha to accept her as a stepmother, but Natasha says they were able to get through it with a lot of therapy.

People who believe that Natalie Wood’s death was not an accident say that Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s marriage was volatile at the time that she died. “Brainstorm” co-star Walken was rumored to be in a romance with Natalie, and their relationship was allegedly causing problems in her marriage. But according to what people say in this documentary, rumors of a Wood/Walken affair are completely untrue.

The 1983 film “Brainstorm,” which Trumball directed, was Natalie Wood’s last movie. In this documentary, Trumball insists that Wood and Walken were not having an affair. He says of the sex scene that Wood and Walken had together in the movie: “There was almost no physical charisma between them at all.” Robert Wagner’s stepson Donen also echoes this belief Walken was never Natalie Wood’s lover, and Donen says that Natalie Wood told him that directly.

As for what happened that fateful night on November 29, 1981, Robert Wagner says in the documentary that everyone on the boat had been drinking heavily, and he admits that he was also “high,” but he doesn’t elaborate on which drug(s). And although it’s mentioned elsewhere in the documentary that Natalie Wood had a well-known phobia of being immersed in open waters at night—fueling speculation that she would never have climbed into a dinghy alone that night, which is Robert Wagner’s version of what led to her drowning—he never addresses that phobia in the documentary.

He also repeats what he’s said in other interviews: He and Natalie had been arguing about Walken, the argument got violent—he admits to smashing a bottle during the fight—and he told Walken to stay out of Natalie’s life. Walken is not interviewed in the documentary, and he has rarely spoken publicly about Natalie Wood since her death. In the documentary, Robert Wagner says that Walken was a gentleman and that no one should be blamed for Natalie’s death.

Early in the documentary, Robert Wagner is shown getting emotional when says: “There hasn’t been a day that’s ever gone by where I haven’t thought about Natalie and how much she meant to me in my heart and in my soul. We started so young, and to see her evolve over the years to the woman she was, was very special.”

As for how Robert Wagner feels about being named by police as a “person of interest” in the re-opened case, he says defiantly in the documentary: “I don’t pay much attention to it. They’re not going to redefine me. I know who I am.”

Natasha replies, “It bothers me that anyone would think that you would be involved in what happened to her, because you would’ve given your life to my mom.” Wagner says, “We all would’ve.”

The “villains” portrayed in the documentary are boat captain Davern, the tabloid media outlets that keep fueling stories that Natalie Wood was murdered, and Natalie’s younger sister Lana. The documentary’s view of Davern is that he’s a greedy opportunist who changed his initial story to sell his book; that the media also push the murder theory for money reasons; and that Lana Wood is looking for attention because her career as an actress was never as successful as Natalie’s career. (Davern and Lana Wood are not interviewed in the documentary, and it’s not mentioned if the filmmakers contacted either of them for a comment.)

Courtney Wagner says of her aunt Lana’s push to have Robert Wagner charged with the murder of Natalie: “I don’t think she believes what she’s saying. I think she’s just angry. I can understand that … but it’s so hard to imagine when [my father] experienced a true nightmare.”

Whatever people might believe about how Natalie Wood died, this family feud is a very sad epilogue to the tragedy. If you take the documentary for what it is—a family tribute to Natalie Wood, not a tell-all chronicle to expose the family’s dirty laundry—then “Natalie Wood: What Reminds Behind” will fulfill those expectations. It’s obvious that there’s a lot of love that went to making this film that honors Natalie Wood. Just don’t expect to learn anything that strays from the movie’s themes that she was a great mother, wife and actress, and that her death was a complete accident that was no one’s fault.

HBO premiered “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” on May 5, 2020.

 

HBO Max announces more programs and launch date: May 27, 2020

April 21, 2020

The following is a press release from HBO Max:

WarnerMedia today announced that its highly anticipated streaming platform HBO Max will officially launch May 27th, 2020 and has unveiled its slate of premium Max Originals that will be available to viewers on DAY ONE. The slate includes the scripted comedy Love Life, starring Anna Kendrick; Sundance 2020 Official Selection feature documentary On the Recordunderground ballroom dance competition series LegendaryCraftopiahosted by YouTube sensation LaurDIY; the all-new Looney Tunes Cartoonsfrom Warner Bros. Animation; and Sesame Workshop’s The Not Too Late Show with Elmo (full program details available below.) Starting May 27th, HBO Max will offer an impressive direct-to-consumer experience with 10,000 hours of premium content including the entire HBO service, together with beloved franchises, titles past and present from Warner Bros., the best of the best from around the world, and a monthly offering of new Max Originals which guarantee something for everyone in the house – from preschoolers to teens to grownups – with scripted and unscripted series, docs, animation for kids and adults, and movies.

Today’s announcement comes with an exciting first look at the line-up of Max Originals to debut on the platform on day one.

“Our number one goal is having extraordinary content for everyone in the family, and the HBO Max programming mix we are so excited to unveil on May 27th will bear that out,” said Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of Warner Media Entertainment and Direct-To-Consumer. “Even in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, the all-star teams behind every aspect of HBO Max will deliver a platform and a robust slate of content that is varied, of the highest quality, and second to none. I’m knocked out by the breadth and depth of our new offering, from the Max originals, our Warner Bros library and acquisition titles from around the world, and of course the entirety of HBO.”

Consumers will quickly see that HBO Max is set apart by a foundation of loved brands built over decades but stitched together with a distinctive voice and product experience,” added Kevin Reilly, Chief Content Officer, HBO Max, President, TNT, TBS, and truTV. “Our team has meticulously selected a world class library catalogue and collaborated with top creators across all genres to offer a monthly cadence of original series and movies that we will program and promote for cultural impact.”

“It is thrilling to be approaching the launch of HBO Max so we can finally share the first wave of content our teams have been developing in partnership with a group of unparalleled creators,” said Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content, HBO Max. “The originals slate available at launch represents a diverse range of unique voices emblematic of the quality and scope of our programming still to come.”

After the initial launch, Max Originals will continue to premiere on the streamer at a regular cadence through summer and fall including The Flight Attendant, starring and executive produced by Kaley Cuoco, from Berlanti Productions and based on the novel by New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian; the highly anticipated Friends unscripted cast reunion special; all-new original episodes of the critically acclaimed DC fan favorite Doom Patrol; the return of the critically beloved mystery comedy Search Party with a brand new season; the three-part documentary series Expecting Amyan unfiltered and intimate view into comedian Amy Schumer’s life on tour creating a stand-up special during her difficult pregnancysci-fi series Raised by Wolves from director and executive producer Ridley Scott, the award-winning creator behind The Martian, Gladiator, and Blade Runner; the adult animated comedy Close Enoughfrom J.G. Quintel (creator of Cartoon Network’s Emmy-winning Regular Show), a hilarious look at the surreal life of a millennial family living with roommates; and Adventure Time: Distant Lands- BMO, the first of four breakout specials resurrecting Cartoon Network’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning franchise Adventure Time.

HBO Max will pull from WarnerMedia’s deep library of fan favorites including motion picture and TV series from Warner Bros.’ 100-year content collection, New Line, library titles from DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes, a selection of classic films curated in partnership with TCM, and more. HBO Max will also offer an extensive selection of third-party acquired series and movie titles that stand out in the expanding marketplace.

Inspired by the legacy of HBO’s excellence, unparalleled quality, and innovative, award-winning storytelling, the new offering will be bundled with the HBO service including all of HBO’s premium originals such as WestworldBig Little LiesGame of ThronesSex and the City, VeepThe WireCurb Your Enthusiasm, Insecure, SuccessionWatchmenBarry, Euphoria, The JinxThe Sopranos and more.

Highlights of the extensive WarnerMedia portfolio of programming and acquisitions that will be available on day one include the libraries of Friends; The Big Bang Theory(new) Doctor Who; Rick and MortyThe BoondocksThe BachelorSesame Street; The Fresh Prince of Bel-AirCW shows such as Batwoman, Nancy Drew, and Katy Keenethe first season of DC’s Doom PatrolThe O.C.; Pretty Little Liarsthe CNN catalogue of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknownand much more. Soon after, the platform offering will continue to grow adding the libraries of South ParkGossip Girl, The West Wingand more within the first year of launch.

In addition to series, specials, and docs, HBO Max will feature a library of more than 2,000 feature films within the first year. Audiences will be able to watch 700 blockbuster films via the HBO service, including Crazy Rich Asians, A Star is BornAquamanand Joker, as well as films acquired specifically for HBO Max via Warner Bros., the Criterion Collection, and the acclaimed Studio Ghibli. Streaming for the first time ever in the U.S., 20 films from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli animation house will be available on HBO Max at launch, including Academy Award® winner Spirited Away and Academy Award nominees Howl’s Moving Castle and The Tale of the Princess Kaguyaas well as fan favorites My Neighbor Totoro, Princess MononokePonyo, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Fans of all ages will be able to enjoy these wonder-filled films any time they want.

In addition to the premium acquired content on the platform, the WarnerMedia portfolio gives HBO Max the opportunity to curate from 100 years of the most iconic films ever made, as well as access to a library of new theatrical hits. Available films will include Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, The Goonies, When Harry Met Sally, The Lord of the Rings, Citizen Kane, Gremlins, and the Lego movies, along with every DC film from the last decade, including Wonder WomanJustice League, and every Batman and Superman movie from the last 40 years.

HBO MAX ORIGINALS AVAILABLE ON DAY ONE,  MAY 27th:

CRAFTOPIA

Craftopia is an epic kids crafting competition show hosted and executive produced by YouTube influencer Lauren Riihimaki aka (LaurDIY). Creating and demonstrating crafts to over 8.9 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, LaurDIY has been deemed the “millennial Martha Stewart” by Forbes. On Craftopia, 9 to 15-year old contestants put their imaginations to the test and make their crafting dreams come true in a magical studio. After racing to fill up their carts with inspiring materials from the studio “store,” crafters meet larger-than-life challenges, making truly inventive and amazing creations in order to take home the ‘Craftrophia.’

Craftopia is executive produced by Rhett Bachner and Brien Meagher for B17 Entertainment.

LEGENDARY

Pulling directly from the underground ballroom community, voguing teams (aka “houses”) must compete in unbelievable balls and showcase sickening fashion in order to achieve “legendary” status. The cast includes MC Dashaun Wesley and DJ MikeQ as well as celebrity judges Law Roach, Jameela Jamil, Leiomy Maldonado, and Megan Thee Stallion. From Scout Productions, Emmy Award ® winners David Collins (Queer Eye), Rob Eric (Queer Eye) and Michael Williams (Queer Eye) serve as executive producers. Jane Mun (People’s Choice Awards, MTV Music Awards, America’s Best Dance Crew) and Josh Greenberg (Lip Sync Battle, Sunday Best, America’s Best Dance Crew) serve as executive producers and showrunners.

LOVE LIFE

Love Life, the first full-length scripted series to star Oscar® nominee Anna Kendrick, is about the journey from first love to last love, and how the people we’re with along the way make us into who we are when we finally end up with someone forever. This fresh take on a romantic comedy anthology series is from creator and co-showrunner Sam Boyd (In a Relationship) and is produced by Lionsgate Television and Feigco Entertainment. The series will follow a different protagonist’s quest for love each season, with each half-hour episode telling the story of one of their relationships. Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, A Simple Favor) stars in the first season along with Zoë Chao (Downhill, Strangers), Peter Vack (Someone Great, The Bold Type), Sasha Compere (Miracle Workers, Uncorked), and Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread, Another Year).

Kendrick serves as an executive producer alongside Paul Feig (A Simple Favor, Bridesmaids) and Dan Magnante (Someone Great). Sam Boyd, who wrote the pilot and directs, also executive produces with co-showrunner and executive producer Bridget Bedard (Transparent and Ramy).

LOONEY TUNES CARTOONS

Looney Tunes Cartoons, an all-new series from Warner Bros. Animation starring the cherished Looney Tunes characters. Looney Tunes Cartoons echoes the high production value and process of the original Looney Tunes theatrical shorts with a cartoonist-driven approach to storytelling. Marquee Looney Tunes characters will be featured in their classic pairings in simple, gag-driven and visually vibrant stories. The new series will include 80 eleven-minute episodes, each comprised of animated shorts that vary in length and include adapted storylines for today’s audience. Fans can also look forward to holiday-themed specials. Looney Tunes Cartoons is produced by Warner Bros. Animation and features a talented group of voice cast members including Eric Bauza, Jeff Bergman and Bob Bergen. Pete Browngardt (Uncle Grandpa) and Sam Register (Teen Titans Go!) serve as executive producers.

THE NOT TOO LATE SHOW WITH ELMO

Elmo is the host of his very own talk show and he’s going to bring you some (not-too-late) fun with an all-new, celeb-studded talk show series. This brand-new “primetime” series brings familiar Sesame Street friends like Elmo, Cookie Monster, celebrity guests, and laughs the whole family can enjoy! Elmo will interview guests such as fellow late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and John Oliver, comedian John Mullaney, New York Times best-selling author Kwame Alexander, actress Blake Lively, and award-winning musical acts Lil Nas X and The Jonas Brothers.

The Not Too Late Show with Elmo is produced by Sesame Workshop.

ON THE RECORD

Directed and produced by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War), and first reported by the New York TimesOn The Record presents the powerful  haunting story of music executive Drew Dixon (collaborator on hit records by Method Man and Mary J. Blige, Estelle and Kanye West, and Whitney Houston) as she grapples with her decision to become one of the first women of color, in the wake of  #MeToo, to come forward and publicly accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault.

The documentary, which premiered  at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, chronicles not only Dixon’s story but that of several other accusers  –  Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher–  delving deeply into the ways women of colors’ voices are all too often silenced and ignored when they allege sexual assault; as well as the cultural forces that pressure them to remain silent.

On The Record is produced by Dick and Ziering’s Jane Doe Films with Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous and Jenny Raskin for Impact Partners, Regina K Scully for Artemis Rising, Ian Darling for Shark Island Institute and Abigail Disney for Level Forward serving as executive producers. The creative team includes producers Jamie Rogers and Amy Herdy.


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Review: ‘Bad Education,’ starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney

April 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in “Bad Education” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/HBO)

“Bad Education” (2020)

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on Long Island, New York, and partially in Las Vegas, the drama “Bad Education” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Indian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, the movie tells the story of corrupt administrators and their accomplices, who embezzled an estimated $11 million from the school district of Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York.

Culture Audience: “Bad Education” will appeal primarily to Hugh Jackman fans and people who like dramas based on true crime.

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in “Bad Education” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Bad Education” follows many familiar tonal beats of true-crime movies, but the riveting performances of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney elevate what could have been a somewhat mediocre film. Based on true events that happened in 2002, “Bad Education” portrays the investigation that led to the downfalls of several people involved in an embezzlement/fraud scam that stole an estimated $11 million over several years from the high-school district in the upscale suburban city of Roslyn, New York. It’s said to be the largest prosecuted embezzlement in the history of American public schools.

The two people at the center of the crimes against Roslyn High School are school superintendent Frank Tassone (played by Jackman) and assistant superintendent/business manager Pam Glucklin (played by Janney), who work closely together and also cover up for each other. As it’s eventually revealed in the movie, they cared about more than just increasing the prestige level of Roslyn High School, the high-ranking  jewel in their school-administration crown. They also cared a great deal about increasing their personal wealth using illegally obtained school funds, mostly by billing the district for lavish trips, homes, cars and other personal expenses.

In the beginning of the film, which is effectively bookmarked with a similar scene at the end of the film, Frank is introduced like a rock star at a school assembly, which has gathered to celebrate Roslyn High School’s achievement of ranking at No. 4 in the U.S. for being the highest academically achieving high school. The school has reached this level under Frank’s leadership, and his goal is to elevate Roslyn High School to No. 1.

Frank’s friendly charm and winning smile have made him very popular with his co-workers, parents and students. By contrast, Pam has a prickly and dismissive personality, but her strong alliance with Frank has given her a lot of clout in the school district. Their boss is school board president Bob Spicer (played by Ray Romano), who is Frank’s biggest champion.

One of the school’s goals is a skywalk proposal, which would build a multimillion-dollar skywalk bridge to link the school from end to end. A bright and inquisitive student named Rachel Bhargava (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) is tasked with doing an article about the skywalk for Roslyn High School’s newspaper, The Beacon. At first, when she does a very brief interview with Frank for the article, she thinks it’s going to be a boring puff piece.

Rachel thinks so little of the assignment that she even tells Frank that it will be a puff piece. His response: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece. A real journalist can turn an assignment into a story.” It’s unknown if the real Frank Tassone ever said those words to any of the real student reporters of The Beacon who broke the news of the embezzlement scandal, but those words will come back to haunt Frank in this movie.

While preparing the article, Rachel needs to get some facts and statistics about the skywalk construction proposal bids that the school district received from contractors. She has to get permission from Pam to access those documents, which are in a very cluttered storage area of the school. While Frank was accommodating and gracious in giving his time to Rachel, Pam is impatient and condescending when talking to Rachel for the article. Pam gives Rachel the room key to access the requested documents, but warns her that the area is so messy and disorganized that it will be challenging for her to find the paperwork that she’s seeking.

The storage area turns out to have a treasure trove of documents that Rachel’s assigning editor Nick Fleischman (played by Alex Wolff) happens to notice when he accidentally knocks some of the papers out of her backpack when he impatiently tries to stop her while walking down a school hallway. (It’s one of those moments in the movie that probably didn’t happen in real life, but was fabricated for dramatic purposes.)

Nick thinks she may be on to a big story, so Rachel finds out through further investigation that the documents have a lot of proof that invoices charging a fortune have been billed to the school district, but many of the companies listed on the invoices don’t exist. Rachel gets help from her father David Bhargava (played by Hari Dhillon) in doing the grunt work of making calls to investigate the legitimacy of companies that are listed on the school invoices.

Why does Rachel’s father have that much free time on his hands? In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that he lost his job because of accusations that he was involved with insider trading. In the midst of investigating corruption at her own school, Rachel at one point asks her father if he really was guilty of insider trading. His answer serves to telegraph Rachel’s decision to report what she’s found out.

What happens next has a domino effect that exposes elaborate, longtime schemes orchestrated by Frank and Pam. Because of this high-profile case, many viewers might already know about the outcome. However, screenwriter Mike Makowsky (a Roslyn native who graduated from high school seven years after the scandal) and director Cory Finley infuse the movie with enough suspense and sly comedy to make it a slightly better-than-average telling of a crime story.

“Bad Education” takes a sometimes sardonic look at how manipulative and cunning Frank was in covering up his crimes. He was a man of many faces—literally, since his vanity facelifts and meticulous application of makeup are shown in the movie—and many secrets, which he covered up with a web of lies that eventually unraveled. Even in his personal life (Frank was a closeted gay man), he deceived the people who were closest to him. The movie is also a takedown of the weak-willed enablers who knew about the corruption, but were complicit in covering it up because they didn’t want to lose their jobs and they wanted to keep up the appearance that they had an ideal school district.

Frank also mastered the art of deflection, so that when he was under scrutiny, he was able to turn it around on potential accusers to make them afraid of getting in trouble for not detecting the problem earlier. He also used, to his advantage, the administration’s fixation on increasing the prestige of Roslyn High School, which tied into many administrators’ ulterior motives of raising the property values in Roslyn too.

Janney doesn’t have as much screen time as Jackman does, but she makes the most of characterizing Pam as being more than just a selfish and greedy shrew. The movie shows how she was generous to a fault in sharing her illegally funded wealth with her family. That generosity would turn out to be her downfall, since she allowed certain family members to use school credit cards to fund their lavish personal spending. The family members who were also part of the widespread scam included Pam’s husband Howard Gluckin (played by Ray Abruzzo); Jim Boy McCarden (played by Jimmy Tatro), her son from a previous marriage; and her co-worker niece Jenny Aquila (played by Annaleigh Ashford), who relies on Pam for financial help.

All of these family members are dimwitted in some way—they didn’t do much to hide their identities in the paper trail that exposed their crimes—but Jenny is portrayed as particularly loathsome. At one point in the movie, even after some of the crimes were exposed, Jenny tries to take over her aunt/benefactor Pam’s job at the school. Jenny also makes a pathetic and botched attempt to blackmail Frank, who quickly puts Jenny in her place and reminds her that she’s no match for him and his devious manipulations.

When Pam’s world starts to unravel, Janney uses subtle cues in showing how this character’s carefully constructed façade starts to crumble, as her perfectly posh, enunicated English starts to give way to a very working-class Long Island accent. Pam is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that she makes the mistake of being too loyal to Frank when things start to crash down on them.

“Bad Education” is a very Hollywood version of a seedy true crime story. In real life, none of the people were as glamorous-looking as the actors who portray them in the movie—although, in real life, the embezzlers spent money as if they were Hollywood celebrities. The movie accurately shows that people got away with crimes of this length and magnitude because they were able to fool others by having a “respectable” image. The ending scene effectively illustrates that Frank’s inflated ego and arrogance led him to believe that he was a legend in his own mind—and the results were reckless crimes that destroyed school finances, careers and people’s trust.

HBO premiered “Bad Education” on April 25, 2020.

Review: ‘The Scheme,’ starring Christian Dawkins, Steve Haney, Dan Wetzel and Rebecca Davis O’Brien

March 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Scheme” (2020) 

Directed by Pat Kondelis

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “The Scheme”—about a corruption scandal involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and an aspiring manager of basketball players—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Christian Dawkins, one of the men at the center of the scandal, says that he was the “fall guy” for widespread corruption in the NCAA and that he was unfairly entrapped by the FBI.

Culture Audience: “The Scheme” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in true crime and sports scandals, but this documentary is openly sympathetic to Dawkins, the only person involved in the scandal who’s interviewed for the movie.

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If high-school basketball stars are paid by people who want them recruited to a college basketball team, is that corruption or is that common sense? In the very slanted documentary “The Scheme,” former basketball wheeler dealer Christian Dawkins says it’s common sense. The law takes the opposite stance, and it’s why Dawkins was busted in a 2017 FBI sting that led to two trials and Dawkins becoming a convicted felon.

“The Scheme,” directed by Pat Kondelis (who won a Sports Emmy for Showtime’s 2017 documentary “Disgraced”), doesn’t even try to be about the filmmakers doing any original investigative journalism. Instead, it’s mainly concerned with being the first TV interview that Dawkins has given since he was arrested in 2017 and later served time in prison for fraud and bribery charges.

Although the epilogue of “The Scheme” mentions that key figures in the wide-ranging NCAA scandal declined to be interviewed for the movieincluding others who were arrested; coaches who were implicated but not arrested; and officials from the FBI and NCAAthis documentary instead gives a wide berth to Dawkins’ side of the story. “The Scheme” also relies heavily on interviews with journalists who actually did the investigative work that’s used in the movie, but the filmmakers chose not to do their own further investigations.

Dawkins even says in the documentary, “I don’t even want to tell my side of the story as much as I want to tell the bigger story and my opinion.” And yet, “The Scheme” filmmakers don’t follow up on the widespread corruption claims that Dawkins brings up while being interviewed. This failure to follow up is the equivalent of being handed a ball in a sports game and dropping the ball.

Dawkins was 24 years old when he was arrested in the 2017 scandal, which involved an extensive FBI investigation and federal prosecution by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, since many of the transactions took place in New York City. By his own admission, Dawkins is cocky, because he has long considered himself to be a marketing-savvy entrepreneur who’s destined for greatness. And, as the documentary shows, he has a tendency to stretch the truth or lie if it will make him look good or make him money.

The beginning of the film goes over his upbringing and background to explain how Dawkins ended up serving the longest prison sentence (18 months) out of all of the people arrested in the scandal. “The Scheme” interviews Christian Dawkins’ parents Lou and Latricia Dawkins, seated on a couch together, and they confirm that the family’s life revolved around basketball, because Lou was a basketball coach at top-ranking Saginaw High School in their hometown of Saginaw, Michigan.

All three of the  Dawkins kids—Christian and his younger brother and sister—played basketball in school. Their father Lou Dawkins says in the documentary that basketball was the children’s choice of sport and they took the initiative to play basketball, and not because of pressure from him. The skeptical “rolling eyes” reaction of Lou’s wife Latricia puts some doubt on that perspective, and she says, “I don’t know if that’s all true, but I’ll go with it.”

What the parents do agree on is that Christian showed signs of being interested in business from an early age, when he was about 10 or 11. Instead of sports magazines, he would be more likely to read business magazines. Lou says about Christian’s basketball skills as a child: “He was good, but he was stubborn,” and that Christian often had a hard time listening to advice and rules that his father gave him. But his parents lovingly describe him as “intelligent.” And his mother Latricia says about Christian: “My child has always been different.”

According to Christian, one of the biggest influences in his life was the 2000 non-fiction book “Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth,” by Dan Wetzel and Don Yeager. (Wetzel, who covered the 2017 NCAA scandal for Yahoo Sports, is interviewed in the documentary.) Reading the book led to Christian starting a “basketball insider” website called Best of the Best Prep Basketball Scouting, which he started while he was in high school. The website charged $600 per person to get access to information about the best high-school basketball players in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest. Christian’s mother said she didn’t find out about this business until checks started arriving in the mail for Christian.

And showing his tendency to lie in order to make money, Christian admits in the documentary that he once ranked himself as a No. 1 basketball player on the website, even though he was an average basketball player. Christian’s attorney Steve Haney, who says he’s known Christian since Christian was about 10 or 11 years old, laughs when he remembers that Christian even lied about his height on the website, by claiming he was 6’2″, when he’s actually 5’10”. The documentary has archived pages from the website that actually show the rankings with the false 6’2″ claim.

But then tragedy struck the Dawkins family: Christian’s younger brother Dorian, who was a star basketball player in high school, died of an undetected heart condition when Dorian was 14. Christian says that Dorian is still the best friend he ever had. Dorian’s untimely death led Christian to start a charity basketball tournament with the American Heart Association, and the Saginaw hometown team switched its name from Team Pride to Dorian’s Pride. Christian also says he was responsible for getting Dorian’s Pride a hefty sponsorship deal with Under Armour. He claims that Dorian’s Pride was the only Midwest high-school team at the time to get a sponsorship with Under Armour.

Christian makes several other claims in the documentary, such as that he was the “general manager” of the Dorian’s Pride team when he was 16. He says that he “picked all the coaches and players, the tournaments we played in,” but there’s no sense that the filmmakers did any independent fact-checking for many of his claims, and they just took his word for it. All that Christian’s attorney Haney says about Christian’s role in Dorian’s Pride was that Christian “had an eye for talent and, more importantly, he worked.” Because of Christian’s accomplishments while still in high school, and because he was a better wheeler dealer than he was a basketball player, Christian says he decided not to go to college, so he convinced his parents that he didn’t need a college education.

According to Christian, his first real job out of high school was as “managing director of financial services” at a company he doesn’t name. The company name isn’t as important as what Christian claims that he accomplished while working there: He says he became the youngest person to sign basketball players who ended up being first-round picks for the NBA: Elfrid Payton and Rodney Hood. Again, there’s no independent verification that Christian was the official representative of these two players at the time. He could have recommended that they get signed to his company, but that doesn’t mean he was the company’s authorized person to sign and represent these two players.

Whatever his real or imagined responsibilities were, Christian’s prodigy-like success caught the eye of sports agent Andy Miller, who recruited Christian to work for him. Looking back on their working relationship, Christian says in the documentary: “We were like Whitney [Houston] and Bobby [Brown]: We shouldn’t have been together.”

In yet another example of Christian having a tendency to exaggerate or embellish the truth, he claims in the documentary that while he worked for Miller, he was an “agent or a junior agent.” But Christian’s own attorney contradicts this claim, by saying that Christian was just a “runner,” an industry term for a person who cultivates relationships with athletes but doesn’t have the authority to sign or represent them. (Miller was not interviewed for this movie.)

During his tenure working for Miller, Christian ran into his first major legal scandal, when he was accused of misappropriating funds. In the documentary, Christian calls the scandal “Ubergate” because he was accused of running up a $42,000 Uber bill while working for Miller. In the documentary, Christian admits that his expense accounts were abused, but he puts most of the blame on unnamed people whom he claims had access to the accounts. Christian wasn’t arrested or sued over the scandal, but he was fired and his reputation was severely tarnished.

It was around this time that Christian said that he met a man named Marty Blazer through a mutual acquaintance: a banker named Munish Sood. Christian told them that he wanted to start his own sports management company specializing in representing high-school basketball players who would be recruited by colleges, but Christian needed investment money.

The company was going to be based in Atlanta, but Christian frequently made trips to New York City to meet with potential investors. Christian called his management company Loyd Management Inc., because “loyd” was an acronym for “live out your dreams.” Knowing that Christian was looking for investors, Blazer (a shady character who turned out to be an informant for the FBI) introduced Christian to a man named Jeff D’Angelo, who was described as a wealthy guy who made his fortune in real-estate. Christian was also introduced to D’Angelo’s right-hand person Jill Bailey.

D’Angelo gave Christian hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to bribe college basketball coaches and certain Adidas executives to recruit high-school basketball players, who would also be steered to Christian’s fledgling management company for representation. Christian didn’t like this idea because he says he wanted to pay basketball players directly, instead of adding an extra unpredictable set of people to the mix.

“Paying players is the cost of doing business,” Christian says. He also repeatedly mentions in the documentary that he thinks all sports players (including those in school) should be paid salaries for playing sports. (It’s currently illegal for players in U.S. non-professional basketball leagues to be paid salaries for playing basketball.) Christian says that he was initially very uncomfortable with this business model of paying coaches and other officials, but D’Angelo kept pressuring him to do it, and Christian eventually went along with it since D’Angelo was paying for all of it.

But, by his own admission, Christian said he got greedy and kept most of the payment money for himself and spent a lot of it on “entertainment” (including strip clubs) for himself and the coaches that he was supposed to be bribing. Unbeknownst to Christian until it was too late, D’Angelo and Bailey were FBI agents. (Those names were aliases.) And the reason why “Jeff D’Angelo” kept pushing hard for Christian to pay coaches was because NCAA coaches are considered public officials, and it’s a federal crime for them to accept bribes.

In the documentary, Christian and his attorney admit that although Christian took the money (they couldn’t deny it, since many of these transactions were caught on FBI surveillance video), he was not guilty of directly giving any of the money to the coaches and Adidas officials. It’s why Christian pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case resulted in two trials for him: one involving fraud charges, and the other involving bribery charges. A great deal of the movie is about Christian giving his perspective of being “set up” by the FBI.

Throughout the documentary, Christian’s grandiosity and high opinion of himself are very apparent. He claims to know “everybody in basketball” and brags about being smart when it comes to business. But, for a guy who’s supposedly “smart,” he made a lot of dumb mistakes.

For starters, Christian admits that the sudden appearance of an angel investor (“Jeff D’Angelo”) who spared no expense (deals were done on a yacht and in lavish hotel suites) made him suspicious at first, but he didn’t do a thorough background check on D’Angelo. Christian says he thought about hiring a private investigator, but he decided not to do that because he asked a Drug Enforcement Agency contact (who’s not named in the documentary) to look into D’Angelo’s background, and the DEA contact  told Christian that D’Angelo was legitimate.

Another big mistake that Christian made was trusting Blazer, who had a long history of arrests and lawsuits (which were all public record), but Blazer mysteriously wasn’t in prison for his crimes. Any “street smart” person would immediately figure out that Blazer was probably avoiding prison time by being a confidential informant. And, as revealed by Christian’s two trials and journalists’ investigations, Blazer was indeed an informant for the FBI. But Christian, who repeatedly describes Blazer and “D’Angelo” as “idiots” and “stupid,” missed that big red flag. In the end, Blazer spent zero time in prison for his involvement in the scandal. So, who’s the stupid one?

And there was another red flag that Christian foolishly missed: The person calling himself “Jeff D’Angelo” (his real name still remains a secret) suddenly stopped doing business with Christian, and let his right-hand person “Jill Bailey” take over the transactions. The excuse was that “D’Angelo” had to go to Italy to visit his dying mother. But Christian didn’t try to find out if that story was true, because he said he didn’t really like “D’Angelo” anyway, and “Bailey” was easier to deal with on a business level.

In reality, as it came out during news investigations, “D’Angelo” had been removed from the case because he was allegedly stealing the FBI’s cash too. Haney says in the documentary that he tried to subpoena the mysterious “Jeff D’Angelo,” but the subpoena was denied. The documentary also mentions that it’s not known if “Jeff D’Angelo” is still working for the FBI. Even without the testimony of “Jeff D’Angelo,” the bottom line is that as long as the money kept flowing, Christian didn’t really care who was giving him the money. In the end, greed was Christian’s undoing.

“The Scheme” has a lot of re-enactments with Christian, as well as actual FBI surveillance and wiretaps. And the filmmakers are obviously sympathetic to Christian and his attorney Haney, given all the screen time that they have in the movie.

What’s missing from the documentary is any sense that the filmmakers cared about investigating the bigger picture that everyone interviewed in the documentary says exists—the NCAA’s widespread corruption, which includes the participation of major athletic-shoe companies (such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour) that pay millions to colleges for star athletes to wear their products. Unlike NBA players, the school players aren’t supposed to be paid to play basketball (a policy called “amateurism”), and the NCAA is a non-profit organization that gets massive tax breaks for the money it earns.

Christian was the one who spent the most time in prison for the scandal, while other people implicated in the scandal who are much higher up in the NCAA food chain did not even get arrested. Although the documentary is basically a platform for Christian and his attorney to complain about Christian’s prison sentence, the filmmakers don’t bother to ask why higher authorities were not held accountable in this scandal. And although the documentary includes statistics about how much money certain colleges and universities get from athletic-apparel companies, the filmmakers fail to detail or investigate how that money is moved around in possibly corrupt ways.

Christian even names some of the NCAA colleges and universities that he says are some of the worst offenders when it comes to misappropriating funds and bribing players to join their teams, yet the filmmakers don’t follow up on these claims. Christian also comes right out and says that it’s not uncommon for college coaches to use college basketball funds to hire hookers for high-school basketball players, as part of the recruiting process. Instead of uncovering anything new or looking into Christian’s claims about corruption and cover-ups, the documentary interviews journalists Rebecca Davis O’Brien (who covered the scandal for the Wall Street Journal) and Wetzel to rehash information that these journalists already covered for their media outlets.

“The Scheme” also doesn’t adequately explore the issue of racial inequalities in criminal justice. Christian frequently mentions in the movie that he was able to be “successful” because of his relationships with college-bound or NBA-bound basketball players and their families. (Toronto Raptors player Fred VanVleet is the only basketball player interviewed in the documentary, and he says he owes his career to Christian.) Because college-level and NBA-level basketball is a sport played by predominantly African Americans, Christian says that gave him an advantage to establish a type of racial rapport with players that agents and head coaches (who are predominantly white) do not have.

However, the filmmakers don’t ask Christian how his race could have been a disadvantage when he got caught in the FBI sting. “The Scheme” completely ignores the glaring fact that almost all of the people arrested in the FBI sting were people of color: Christian Dawkins; banker Sood; Emanuel “Book” Richardson (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Arizona); Lamont Evans (former assistant basketball coach at Oklahoma State University and the University of South Carolina); Tony Bland (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Southern California); and Merl Code, a former Adidas executive who was like a mentor to Christian. Jim Gatto (former Adidas executive) was the only white person arrested.

Meanwhile, the head basketball coaches at these universities (all of the head coaches are white) escaped arrest and in most cases got to keep their jobs. In the documentary, Christian claims that University of Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller and Louisiana State University head basketball coach Will Wade blatantly lied to the media and the public about not being involved in illegal basketball deals. (Although Wade was suspended from his job, he was eventually re-instated.)

Christian says that Miller should be an “actor” for his performance at a press conference where Miller denied any involvement in the NCAA scandal. And the documentary includes Wade’s public denial of doing business with Christian by juxtaposing it with FBI wiretaps of Wade talking business with Christian. Christian and his attorney say that these head coaches who escaped arrest must have felt confident that they would be protected when they made their public denials.

Despite all this finger-pointing, the documentary does little to appear objective in trying to gather all of the facts. Instead, “The Scheme” is mostly concerned with letting Christian run the narrative. It’s clear that he did the interview to promote the fact that he’s trying to make a business comeback, but this time in the music industry—something that’s mentioned at the end of the film. (At least he’s smart enough to know that his sports career is over.)

Why the music industry? Because convicted felons aren’t as taboo there, says Christian. His attorney said that, in an example of Christian’s hustler mentality, while Christian was on trial, Christian secretly had meetings with people in the music industry to start his own record label.

And now that he’s out of prison, Christian has teamed up with Atlantic Records to fund and distribute a record label he’s founded called Chosen, even though he has no prior experience in the music industry. In the documentary, Christian doesn’t talk about any artists he’s signed to his record label, but he seems very happy with the undisclosed amount of money he’s gotten from Atlantic Records. Given his track record in handling funds, Atlantic might want to closely watch where that money is going.

In the end, “The Scheme” is kind of a reflection of the person whose perspective dominates the movie: There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of new facts brought to the table.

HBO premiered “The Scheme” on March 31, 2020.