Review: ‘MoviePass, MovieCrash,’ starring Stacy Spikes, Hamet Watt, Mitch Lowe, Chris Kelly, Nathan McAlone, Jason Guerrasio and Daniel Kaufman

June 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt in “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (Photo courtesy of Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/HBO)

“MoviePass, Movie Crash”

Directed by Muta’Ali

Culture Representation: The documentary film “MoviePass, MovieCrash” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the rise, the fall and the attempted comeback of MoviePass, a subscription service for movie tickets.

Culture Clash: MoviePass struggled for years to become a popular company, until a controversial management team took over and made radical business decisions that rapidly increased subscribers, but the company crashed and burned due to overspending and extreme financial losses.

Culture Audience: “MoviePass, MovieCrash” will appeal primarily to people who are moviegoers, entrepreneurs or business investors and are interested in watching documentaries about how greed and arrogance can ruin businesses.

Stacy Spikes and Ted Farnsworth in “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (Photo courtesy of MoviePass/HBO)

The documentary “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (directed by Muta’Ali, also known as Muta’Ali Muhammad) offers some interesting behind-the-scenes perspectives of the rise, fall and attempted comeback of MoviePass, the first popular subscription service for movie tickets in the United States. The film editing brings some comedic touches to a harsh business story. Because so much of what happened to MoviePass has been widely reported elsewhere, not much is surprising in this documentary, and there are glaring omissions.

For example, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” does not mention AMC Theatres’ subscription service AMC Stubs A-List, which launched in June 2018 as an extension of the already existing AMC Stubs rewards program. AMC Stubs A-List was one of the biggest factors in the downfall of MoviePass in 2018. And although “MoviePass, MovieCrash” gives some commentary on the apparent racism behind white executives sidelining and eventually ousting MoviePass co-founders Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt (who are both African American), there’s no mention of the obvious sexism at MoviePass. At the peak of MoviePass’ popularity, all of the company’s top executives and board of directors consisted of men. “MoviePass, MovieCrash” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

“MoviePass, MovieCrash” tells the company’s story in mostly chronological order, featuring interviews with Spikes and many of the company’s former employees, investors and subscribers. Headquartered in New York City, MoviePass was founded in 2011 and didn’t become a profitable company until 2023. Before co-founding MoviePass, Spikes (who was born and raised in Houston) had experiences in the 1990s as a marketing executive at Miramax and as a product manager at Motown Records. In 1997, Spikes founded the Urbanworld Film Festival as a showcase for filmmakers of color. Watt’s previous experience was as an entrepreneur of various small businesses.

According to what Spikes says in the documentary, MoviePass was originally conceived as a subscription service version of the Urbanworld Film Festival. The idea for MoviePass morphed from not just being limited to one film festival but to being a nationwide service for movie ticketing at corporate-owned and independently owned movie theaters. These movie theaters would get a cut of the revenue from tickets purchased through MoviePass.

The MoviePass business model was that subscribers would pay a monthly fee to watch a certain number of movies per month at a wide selection of movie theaters. One of the original MoviePass subscription plans was $39.95 for 30 movies a month, with a limit of one movie per day. Tickets could be booked on a MoviePass app, and a MoviePass card that operated like a debit card would redeem the tickets at participating movie theaters.

However, it was difficult for this business model to be profitable, as long as numerous subscribers were frequent moviegoers and paying only a fraction of what they would pay for tickets without this MoviePass subscription. In other words, MoviePass was losing money from all the ticket discounts that MoviePass subscribers were getting from these subscriptions. MoviePass did not have any other source of sales revenue to offset these financial losses, and the company had to rely on investors to keep MoviePass in business.

From 2011 to 2016, Spikes was the CEO of MoviePass, while Watt was the board chairman who mostly dealt with finding investors. The company’s biggest problem during this time period was that the subscriber base stalled somewhere around 20,000 subscribers. Another big setback was that MoviePass temporarily lost a business deal with Movietickets.com (partially owned by AMC Theatres) in 2015, when Adam Aron replaced Gerry Lopez as CEO of AMC Theatres. Lopez is interviewed in the documentary, while Aron is not. Lopez says that MoviePass was beneficial to AMC Theatres in the early-to-mid-2010s.

One of the original major investors in MoviePass was Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive who briefly dabbled in politics. (In 2010, Kelly lost the California district attorney’s Democratic primary to Kamala Harris.) As a major investor in MoviePass, Kelly also became a member of MoviePass’ board of directors. Because he invested so much money in MoviePass, Kelly was eventually given two seats on the board. Kelly, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that there came a point in time when he had no more money that he could invest in MoviePass, so he urged Spikes and Watt to find other big-money investors.

Mitch Lowe, a former executive for Redbox and Netflix, joined MoviePass in 2016 as CEO and as a board member. Spikes was made chief operating officer (COO) under this new management structure, while Watt began to be sidelined. In the documentary, Lowe openly admits that he didn’t think Watt was as valuable as Spikes to MoviePass at the time.

On the recommendation of Lowe, a big-talking executive named Ted Farnsworth (who was CEO of analytics firm Helios and Matheson at the time) was brought to MoviePass as a chief investor. Farnsworth had a background in finance, public relations and marketing with several start-up companies. Farnsworth told the MoviePass executives that MoviePass couldn’t be profitable until MoviePass had at least 1 million subscribers. Spikes says in the documentary that he constantly raised concerns to Lowe, Farnsworth and other MoviePass board members about the sustainability of this goal.

Spikes says Farnsworth and Lowe repeatedly dismissed Spikes’ warnings that MoviePass’ financial losses would become too large to handle with more than 1 million subscribers, unless MoviePass figured out a way for the company to become profitable. There was also the issue of MoviePass being understaffed and unable to keep up with any rapid increase in subscribers. Lowe’s reaction was to act like Spikes was being negative and difficult: “He was not being a constructive member of the team,” Lowe says in the documentary about Spikes.

In the documentary, Spikes uses an airplane analogy to explain MoviePass’ rapid growth plans: “We’re kind of learning to build the plane mid-flight. And changing it from a crop duster to a 747 that can handle large volumes of people. We were not prepared to keep running at that pace.” Spikes says his recommendation to “put the brakes” on MoviePass’ plan for rapid growth was often ignored.

Lowe wanted MoviePass to quickly reach the goal of 1 million subscribers and get a lot of media attention for it. Lowe takes full credit in the documentary for coming up with the idea of reducing the MoviePass subscription price to $9.95 per month, which would still give subscribers a “pass” to see one movie every day at participating theaters. And sure enough, MoviePass had a meteoric increase in subscribers and got a lot of media attention from late 2017 through all of 2018. By then, Spikes and Watt had been pushed out of the company.

In August 2017, Helios and Matheson bought a majority stake in MoviePass. Spikes and Watt were removed from MoviePass’ board of directors and forced out of the company. Spikes and Watt got to keep their stock shares in MoviePass after they were fired from the company. However, under the terms of their exit deal, Spikes and Watt could not buy or sell these shares for a 12-month period after being dismissed from MoviePass. According to Spikes, his shares in MoviePass were worth about $80 million when he was ousted from MoviePass in 2017. A year later, those shares would essentially be worthless.

MoviePass’ rapid rise and fall have been well-documented in the media and elsewhere. By December 2017, MoviePass had 1 million subscribers. By February 2018, MoviePass had 2 million subscribers. By June 2018, MoviePass had 3 million subscribers. Lowe and Farnsworth became the new faces of MoviePass, with many media outlets incorrectly identifying Lowe and Farnsworth as the founders of MoviePass. Lowe and Farnsworth soaked up all the publicity they were getting for being “visionary” leaders of a “hot” company that was a popular choice for stock investors.

Still, the question remained: How was MoviePass going to actually become profitable? In media interviews, Farnsworth and Lowe kept saying that MoviePass was planning to sell its customer data to movie studios. However, they avoided answering questions on how much this data was actually worth to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that MoviePass was losing.

Meanwhile, MoviePass went on a spending spree. The company spent millions on promoting MoviePass at major film festivals and other events. According to the documentary, MoviePass reportedly spent $1 million at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and hired mismatched spokespeople—such as former basketball star Dennis Rodman and social media influencer OK Bunny—to promote MoviePass at the festival. OK Bunny is interviewed in the documentary, and she still seems a little confused by what MoviePass was doing at Coachella and why she was paired with Rodman.

There were other ill-conceived business decisions, such as MoviePass Ventures and production company MoviePass Films, which invested heavily in the 2018 flop biopic “Gotti,” starring John Travolta as notorious Mafia boss John Gotti. Lowe says that MoviePass thought that its subscriber base would be the most likely to buy tickets to any movies that MoviePass produced. The failure of “Gotti” proved that business theory wrong. MoviePass also purchased the outdated Moviefone, a financially declining company for movie tickets and showtimes.

There were helicopters and private jets bearing the MoviePass logo. And several people in the documentary say that Lowe and especially Farnsworth were caught up in acting like “rock star” executives who wanted to party with celebrities. Lowe doesn’t deny any of it and makes this excuse for why he and other high-ranking MoviePass executives got the biggest perks from the spending sprees, while the lower-level employees were overworked and understaffed: “Not all roles get to party.”

Farnsworth is not interviewed in “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” which depicts Farnsworth as the story’s biggest villain and a prime example of callous corporate greed. There is no mention in the documentary if the “MoviePass, Movie Crash” filmmakers attempted to interview him, or if Farnsworth declined any requests for comment. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Farnsworth abused his power at MoviePass to make nepotism hires of family members and friends who were inexperienced or unqualified.

One of these nepotism hires was Robert “Bob” Ellis (Diana Ross’ first ex-husband), who is mentioned but not interviewed in the documentary. Ellis, who was put on MoviePass’ payroll as a marketing consultant, is described as a Hollywood hanger-on, photographer and close friend of Farnsworth. He was part of the MoviePass executive clique that went on luxury trips that were paid for by the company.

Also mentioned but not interviewed in the documentary is Khalid Itum, an inexperienced MoviePass employee who quickly rose through the company ranks and eventually became MoviePass’ vice president of business development. Itum is named as one of the biggest offenders in the wild spending sprees at MoviePass. The documentary includes some audio clips of recordings of MoviePass staff meetings. In these recordings, Itum and Lowe seem to be willfully in denial about how their overspending was very damaging to MoviePass.

in July 2018, during the weekend that “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was released in theaters, MoviePass crashed and burned when the MoviePass app stopped working or had limitations for most of its customers. MoviePass frequently switched its terms of service without giving customers proper notice. Subscribers complained of not getting responses from MoviePass customer service representatives. These problems continued for the next several months. The widespread customer complaints and several lawsuits against MoviePass led to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigating MoviePass for fraud.

Daniel Kaufman, the former FTC director who was involved in these MoviePass investigations, describes Farnsworth as a con man who didn’t really know how to operate a business but only knew how to promote a business. Journalists/reporters Nathan McAlone and Jason Guerrasio, who both covered the MoviePass saga for the website Business Insider, also describe Farnsworth as the worse person in the toxic duo of Farnsworth and Lowe. Business Insider is listed in the documentary’s end credits as a production collaborator for “MoviePass, MovieCrash.”

As for Lowe, he doesn’t take much personal responsibility for MoviePass’ downfall. Lowe shifts almost all of the blame on bad advice that he got from Farnsworth. In the documentary, Lowe says that when things came crashing down for MoviePass, Farnsworth told Lowe: “Just keep going and the money will come.” MoviePass’ bankruptcy and closure in 2019, as well as MoviePass’ revival by Spikes (who bought back the rights to MoviePass in 2021 and returned to the company as CEO), are briefly mentioned toward the end of the documentary. The MoviePass legal problems of Lowe, Farnsworth and Itum are in the documentary’s epilogue.

“MoviePass, MovieCrash” has interviews with former MoviePass customer service employees Sydney Weinshel, Emmanuel Freeman and Ezekiel Sansing; former MoviePass engineer Oscar Miscar; former MoviePass social media manager Drew Taylor; former Helios and Matheson public relations executive Mark Havener; former Urbanworld Film Festival director Gabrielle Glore; and former MoviePass subscribers Mat Levy, Jose Rolden and James Simermeyer. Also interviewed are several investors (some of whom were MoviePass investors, while some were not), such as Mark Gomes, John Fitchthorn, Ken Gardner, Ben Rabizadeh, Daymond John and Guy Primus.

The former MoviePass employees describe feeling optimistic and excited when they first joined the company, but that excitement soon turned to dread and discontent when they saw how things were being grossly mismanaged. Lower-lever staffers were overwhelmed with customer complaints, while MoviePass’ upper-level executives were living lavish lifestyles and denying that big problems existed at MoviePass. Miscar is the former MoviePass employee who is the most candid in the documentary interviews and is the only former MoviePass employee to call out the problematic racial issues in how Spikes and Watt were pushed out of MoviePass by an all-white team of executives.

Spikes and Watt are diplomatic when talking about their humiliating exits from MoviePass. Watt emphatically states that MoviePass is in his past, and he’s happy to have moved on to other things. (He’s an investor consultant.) By contrast, Spikes is still very clearly haunted by the demise of MoviePass from 2018 to 2019, and he is determined to make the company even bigger and better than it ever was. Spikes mentions he was partially inspired to revive MoviePass by how Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell were ousted from the companies they founded and made big comebacks when they returned to those companies.

“MoviePass, Movie Crash” uses a lot of clips from movies and TV shows as ways to put an emphasis on the emotions and reactions being described in the documentary. This editing brings some amusing entertainment to an otherwise infuriating story about corporate corruption. Spikes mentions that if he and Watt had been running MoviePass in the same the way that Lowe and Farnsworth ran the company into the ground, then Spikes and Watt would’ve gotten quicker and harsher legal consequences.

There is some mention in the documentary about these racial inequalities for entrepreneurs, with the obvious fact that white men get the vast majority of investment money. Watt says in the documentary that a start-up company such as MoviePass needed this factor to take the company to the next level: “If you have a white man with more gray hair that could inspire other white males with white hair to be more comfortable investing. It’s a factor we considered through the entire entrepreneurial journey.”

Lowe and Farnsworth certainly took MoviePass to the “next level,” but at what cost? The MoviePass brand name and reputation became permanently tarnished. Millions of dollars were lost. Untold numbers of people felt ripped off and cheated by MoviePass. And certain people got into big legal trouble over how MoviePass was mishandled.

The racial implications of MoviePass’ history are certainly acknowledged in the documentary. However, there’s no good reason for the noticeably low number of women interviewed for this documentary. Studies from the Motion Picture Association and other sources have shown for years that women are about 51% of the movie ticket buyers in the United States, and females are about 51% of moviegoers. And yet, there are no female MoviePass subscribers interviewed in this documentary. (A social media clip of a random female former MoviePass subscriber talking about MoviePass is not the same thing as an interview.)

The very real problem of sexism is completely ignored in “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” which comes across as very much like a “boys’ club” documentary without including the realities of how women have a big impact on movie ticket buying. The “MoviePass, MovieCrash” filmmakers also never question why women were excluded from being MoviePass’ highest-ranking leaders. The documentary’s biggest flaw is failing to mention these issues regarding gender and sexism. However, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” does a sufficient job of answering this question for anyone who is curious: “Whatever happened to MoviePass?”

HBO premiered “MoviePass, MovieCrash” on May 29, 2024.

Review: ‘You Were My First Boyfriend,’ starring Cecilia Aldarondo

December 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Xander Black and Cecilia Aldarondo in “You Were My First Boyfriend” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“You Were My First Boyfriend”

Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and in New York, the autobiographical documentary film “You Were My First Boyfriend” features a Latino and white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected in some way to filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo.

Culture Clash: Aldarondo reminisces about her teenage years and confronts some of her personal demons by re-enacting some of her best and worst teenage experiences and memories.

Culture Audience: “You Were My First Boyfriend” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in movies that explore how adults can still be affected by angst that they had when they were teenagers.

An archival photo of Caroline Baker and Cecilia Aldarondo as teenagers in “You Were My First Boyfriend” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If you had a chance to re-enact some of your most memorable teenage experiences (the good, the bad and the in between) in a documentary, would you do it? Most people wouldn’t, but the unconventional “You Were My First Boyfriend” shows what it was like for a filmmaker to revisit her past on camera. The film is a mixture of re-enactments, interviews with people who knew her when she was a teenager, and hindsight-fueled personal introspection.

Even though “You Were My First Boyfriend” is steeped in 1990s nostalgia, the themes in this documentary can be relatable to people of many generations. Filmmaker/narrator Cecilia Aldarondo gives an emotionally honest look at her self-esteem struggles. “You Were My First Boyfriend” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey directed and wrote “You Were My First Boyfriend,” but this is Aldarondo’s life story—specifically, about how Aldarondo is still dealing with insecurities that have affected her since childhood. Aldarondo (whose family is of Puerto Rican heritage) spent most her childhood in Winter Park, Florida, where she and her family were among the minority of Latino people in their predominantly white neighborhood.

The high school that Aldarondo and her two older sisters attended also had a predominantly white population. Aldarondo says of Winter Park: “People say it’s a nice place to grow up, but it always felt like a foreign place to me.” (Aldarondo is currently based in New York.)

In the beginning of “You Were My First Boyfriend,” Aldarondo says in a voiceover: “Imagine you had a nightmare where you had to relive your adolescence. My memories shine almost like a diamond. But not because I love them but because I hate them.”

Aldarondo doesn’t hold back in letting viewers know what her insecurities are that she says have plagued her since she was a child. In high school, she was socially awkward, had very few friends, and didn’t date anyone. Aldarondo says that she always felt inadequate and less attractive, compared to her two older sisters, whom Aldarondo feels got more attention and admiration from people inside and outside the family. It didn’t help that Aldarondo vividly remembers a few of her older female relatives making insulting remarks about Aldarondo’s weight.

Aldarondo’s sister Laura Gallegos is in several scenes in the documentary. And although Gallegos is a loving and supportive sister who gives Aldarondo pep talks and constant encouragement, there’s still a little bit noticeable tension between the sisters. Aldarondo comes across as somewhat jealous that Gallegos has a “perfect” life of domestic stability, while Gallegos seems a little envious that Aldarondo has a career that’s about creative freedom.

It’s also interesting to see how the two sisters sometimes have very different memories of the same childhood experiences. Not surprisingly, Gallegos doesn’t remember or says she wasn’t fully aware of all the emotional pain that Aldarondo says she was going through at the time in their childhoods when Aldarondo often felt invisible or sidelined in their own family. The documentary has some very raw emotions that show the complicated dynamics between the two sisters as they sort through their past and present.

Early on in the movie, there are scenes of Aldarondo (who graduated from high school in 1994) at her 25th high school reunion. As she drives to the reunion location, she says out loud, “I feel like I’m returning to the scene of an invisible crime, but the masochist in me tells me, ‘You must go [to this reunion].'”

At the reunion, Aldarondo engages in friendly conversations, but she still looks slightly uncomfortable. She says in a voiceover she feels like the people and the atmosphere have lot of the same elitist “country club” attitude that she experienced in high school. When an unidentified male former classmate comments on Aldarondo’s curly hair, there are some racial undertones when he asks her, “What did you channel for your hair?” She replies sarcastically, “Puerto Rico.” Perhaps realizing that his comment could be taken as an insult, he adds, “Your hair is amazing.”

Aldarondo tells documentary viewers up front that a big reason why she wanted to go to the reunion was to see a classmate named Joel, whom she says she had an intense crush on, from when they were in 6th grade to 12th grade. Aldarondo says she was too shy to ever flirt with Joel, or make it known that she wanted to date him, because she felt that he was out of her league. Before going to the reunion, Aldarondo reads some of her lovelorn journal entries about Joel, who never dated her and didn’t know that she had such a huge crush on him.

However, according to Aldarondo, Joel’s high school girlfriend knew about this crush and set up Aldarondo to have a potentially humiliating moment at a high school dance. Aldarondo says that this girlfriend told Aldarondo that Joel wanted to dance with Aldarondo, so Aldarondo approached Joel at the dance. He seemed confused when Aldarondo told him what his girlfriend said, but he politely asked Aldarondo to dance.

Joel didn’t know it at the time, but that dance (as awkward as it was for both of them) made a big impact on Aldarondo. On the one hand, it was like a dream come true for her. On the other hand, Aldarondo knew that she was only dancing with Joel because his girlfriend at the time intended it to be a prank. This experience is one of many from her teenage years that Aldarondo says still “haunt” her.

It should come as no surprise that Aldarondo meets up with Joel in the documentary to confess that she had a secret crush on him. She even goes as far as reading some of the things she wrote in her journal about him. What makes “You Were My First Boyfriend” different from most other documentaries that would have this type of reunion scene is that Aldarondo takes it a step further and recreates this fateful high school dance, by hiring real teenage actors (Xander Black has the role of Joel) and Aldarondo portraying the teenage version of herself.

If all of this sounds like some kind of therapy, Aldarondo freely admits that it is. (Hired actor Black even points out that these re-enactments must be like therapy for Aldarondo.) Aldarondo’s live-in partner Gabriel “Gabe” Kristal is shown in the documentary as being very supportive of what she’s doing in the documentary.

Kristal also gamely participates when Aldarondo asks him to recreate a scene from the high school drama series “My So-Called Life,” one of her favorite shows from her teenage years. In these “My So-Called Life” recreations, Aldarondo is protagonist Angela Chase (originally played by Claire Danes), and Kristal portrays Angela’s hard-to-get crush Jordan Catalano (originally played by Jared Leto). These “My So-Called Life” recreated scenes are intended to be amusing.

The title of “You Were My First Boyfriend” is somewhat misleading because the documentary isn’t completely focused on Aldarondo’s teenage obsession with Joel (who was never her boyfriend) and her reunion with him. A much more meaningful part of the documentary is about Aldarondo coming to terms with how her insecurities cost her a close friendship. With hindsight comes a lot of regret.

Before and during high school, Aldarondo had a best friend named Caroline Baker. The two girls had many interests in common (such as watching movies and TV shows), but Baker was much more open and secure about being a nerd than Aldarondo was. Aldarondo says in the documentary that there was a time in her high school years when some of the school’s popular girls began to pay attention to Aldarondo and invited her to join them in some of their social activities. As a result, Aldarondo ended her friendship with Baker, because she thought that the popular girls wouldn’t think she was very cool if she continued to hang out with Baker.

The documentary also shows Aldarondo confronting an ugly truth about her teenage past. As much as she felt shunned by many of her classmates because of snobbery, Aldarondo did some shunning of her own in how she treated Baker for the same snobbish reasons. The documentary shows whether or not Baker reunites with Aldarondo. In the teenage re-enactment scenes, Trinity Soos has the role of teenage Baker. The documentary includes footage of Aldarondo’s difficult audition process to find the right actress for the role.

Aldarondo also acknowledges her failings and flaws in being a passive part of the bullying among her fellow students. She describes an incident that took place at a girls’ summer camp when she saw two girls bully another girl, and Aldarondo did nothing to stop it. The guilt of being a bully enabler weighed on Aldarondo, and what she decided to do about it is shown in the documentary. It’s one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the movie.

Not everything in “You Were My First Boyfriend” is about Aldarondo reliving painful memories. One of the more light-hearted (but bittersweet) sections of the movie is when Aldarondo and her sister Gallegos do a re-enactment of Tori Amos’ 1992 “Crucify” music video. It might sound self-indulgent and a little dorky, but in the movie, it comes across as sweet and endearing for Aldarondo to recreate this music video that is special to her. The teenage friendship scenes with Aldarondo and Soos (as Baker) are also delightful to watch.

Documentary filmmakers who make themselves the stars of their movies often do so because they’re seeking recognition for monumental achievements that they want to put in the documentary. Aldarondo did not make “You Were My First Boyfriend” with the intention of winning a Pulitzer Prize. However, by exposing herself in such a candid and truthful way, she has made a very personal documentary that might help give insecure people more confidence to show who they really are and go on a path toward healthy self-acceptance.

HBO premiered “You Were My First Boyfriend” on November 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,’ starring Nikki Giovanni

November 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nikki Giovanni in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project”

Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson

Culture Representation: This biographical documentary film of activist/poet Nikki Giovanni features her first-person perspective, as well as commentary from African Americans and white people who are connected to her in some way.

Culture Clash: Giovanni, an outspoken critic of white supremacist racism, discusses overcoming an abusive background, family conflicts and resistance to her activism.

Culture Audience: “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about unusual political activists.

Nikki Giovanni in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” is a journey into a unique life and perspective that might not be for everyone, but it stands firm in its authenticity. This documentary about poet/activist Nikki Giovanni is bold and somewhat unconventional, just like Giovanni. The movie evokes outer space travel as an apt metaphor for how ideas and influences can transcend boundaries.

Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. The movie is told almost entirely from the perspective of Giovanni, with narration of some of her poems by actress Taraji P. Henson. The movie has the expected mix of archival footage and interviews conducted exclusively for the documnetary. However, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” has added elements of atmospheric scenes of outer space, since Giovanni talks a lot about space travel and Mars.

The movie opens with a quote from Giovanni, “The trip to Mars can only be understood through black Americans.” If that sentence intrigues you, then this documentary might be your type of movie. Giovanni says in the documentary’s opening remark: “I don’t remember a lot of things, but a lot of things I don’t remember, I don’t choose to remember. I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling is all about.”

In voiceover narration, Henson can be heard saying a line from Giovanni’s writing: “I think I’ll run away with the ants and live on Mars.” In another voiceover, Giovanni says: “I’m a big fan of black women, because in our blood is space travel, because we come from a known through an unknown. And that’s all that space travel is. If anybody can find what’s out there in the darkness, it’s black women.”

During a public Q&A with journalist/writer Touré, to promote her 2017 non-fiction book “A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter,” Giovanni comments on the enslaved black female slaves who were kidnapped in Africa and forced to live an enslaved life in the United States, where they were often raped by their white enslavers: “Being forced to have sex with aliens, whatever they put in us, we held it, and then we birthed it, and then we named it, and then we loved it. Why wouldn’t we do that on Mars?”

Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, but spent much of her childhood living in Ohio. Sometime in her childhood, she was given the nickname Nikki. Her parents Yolande Cornelia Sr. and Jones “Gus” Giovanni (who were sweethearts at Knoxville College) worked in public schools. Nikki graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1967. She has been a professor of writing and literature at Virginia Tech since 1987.

Nikki first came to national prominence as part of the Black Power movement that rose in the late 1960s. The documentary includes many archival clips of her appearances on TV shows, including “Soul!,” where she was a frequent guest. “Going to Mars” has has footage of several of Nikki’s speaking appearances, including at the 2016 Afropunk festival.

She also gets candid about her parents’ volatile marriage and says that her father often beat up her mother. Nikki says in a voiceover: “It was a stormy relationship at various points, but we know that deprivation gives us stormy relationships.” Later, she is shown saying during a WHYY radio interview about how she felt about her abusive father at the time she lived with him: “It was clear I was going to have to kill him, or else I’d have to move.”

Nikki’s complicated emotions about race and gender includes admitting to her prejudices. In a “Soul!” interview she did in 1971 with writer/poet James Baldwin, when she was at the height of her Black Power fame, she confessed that her biases were affecting her personal life: “I don’t like white people, and I’m afraid of black men. What do you do? That’s a cycle. And that’s unfortunate, because I need love.”

Nikki found love with her wife Virginia Fowler, who recruited Nikki to work at Virginia Tech. The two women are both cancer survivors: Nikki battled lung cancer in the 1990s. Fowler is recovering from lung cancer and breast cancer. Fowler talks a little bit about her cancer journey, but Nikki doesn’t really discuss her own cancer experiences in the documentary.

Nikki’s selective memory is also shown when someone named Tom calls her to ask Nikki to discuss her time at an unnamed magazine, but she declines to be interviewed. Nikki says it’s because she had a seizure and “doesn’t remember much.” She also chooses not to go into details about the relationship that resulted in the birth of her only child Thomas Govanni, who was born in 1969, and she raised him as a single mother.

Nikki doesn’t talk about the turbulent relationship that she’s had with Thomas, but Fowler comments that Nikki and Thomas were estranged for a number of years and have since reconciled. Thomas and his daughter Kai Giovanni appear briefly in the documentary, which shows Kai going to Nikki’s house for the first time.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of this documentary is that the most candid comments from Nikki are not things she said in exclusive interviews for the documentary but things she talked about in archival clips. Much credit should be given to the documentary’s research and editing teams for including a lot of this rarely seen footage. The documentary’s editing artfully weaves outer-space footage with the rest of the footage so that viewers feel like they are taken on a cosmic journey through Nikki’s life.

Most of the documentary’s original footage of Nikki consists of her at her home (such as a scene of her doing some gardening), hanging out with friends such as performer Novella Nelson, or making public speaking appearances. The most vulnerable that Nikki gets in the documentary is toward the end, when she copes with the grief over the death of her beloved aunt Agnes, who passed away at age 94. The documentary shows Nikki getting the news of the death and later speaking at Agnes’ funeral. Nikki comments during a moment that she is now the oldest living person in her family.

Nikki’s outlook on life can be summed up in two of her speaking appearances that are featured in the documentary. In a Q&A at the Apollo Theater with educator/actress Johnetta Cole, Nikki says: “I honestly think the most important word for me is ‘duty.’ … Our people have a great history, and it’s our duty to tell that story.” At another speaking appearance at a library in front of children, Nikki (who has written several children’s books) says: “I’m very fortunate that I just don’t care what people think about me.”

HBO released “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. HBO and Max will premiere the movie on January 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Donyale Luna: Supermodel,’ starring Dream Cazzaniga, Luigi Cazzaniga, Beverly Johnson, Omar K. Boone, Lillian Washington, David Bailey, Juan Fernandez and David Croland

September 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Donyale Luna in “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” (Photo by Luigi Cazzaniga/HBO)

“Donyale Luna: Supermodel”

Directed by Nailah Jefferson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” features a group of white and black people (with one Latino) discussing the life and career of model Donyale Luna, who broke barriers for black female models in the fashion industry.

Culture Clash: After being bullied through her teenage years in her hometown of Detroit, because of her unusual physical appearance, Luna reinvented herself and quickly became an international supermodel, but she experienced career-damaging racism and had ongoing personal problems, such drug abuse, mental health issues, and a career that burned out almost as quickly as it lit up.

Culture Audience: “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographies of unusual and underrated celebrities; the fashion industry in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s; and people who broke racial barriers in their industries.

Donyale Luna in “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” (Photo by Luigi Cazzaniga/HBO)

When people think of the first black woman to be on the cover of Vogue, they might think that supermodel Beverly Johnson holds that distinction. Johnson was actually the first black woman to be on the cover of American Vogue, in 1974. The first black woman to be on the cover of any Vogue was Donyale Luna, who achieved this milestone by gracing the cover of British Vogue, in 1966. Luna (whose first name was pronounced “dawn-yell”) was also the first black woman to be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, in 1965, but as an illustration, not in a photograph.

If you’ve never heard of Luna, you’re not alone. The documentary “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” shines a deserving spotlight on this often-overlooked model, who died of a heroin overdose in 1979, at the age of 33. Johnson, whose modeling career benefited from Luna’s racial breakthroughs, is interviewed in the documentary. Johnson admits that early on in Johnson’s career, she had never heard of Luna.

Directed by Nailah Jefferson, “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 American Black Film Festival) follows a traditional celebrity documentary format of having a mixture of archival footage and interviews that are exclusive to the documentary. However, Luna is such an unusual subject, and there’s such a great variety of people who are interviewed, the movie doesn’t ever feel too formulaic. It’s a riveting and well-rounded biography about a trailblazing model who never became a household name but whose impact and influence resonate for generations after her untimely passing. This documentary also explores generational trauma and pop culture.

“Donyale Luna” is artfully told in five chapters named after the cities that each defined a certain era in Luna’s life. Chapter One begins in Detroit, followed by Chapter Two in New York City, Chapter Three in London, Chapter Four in Paris, and Chapter Five in Rome. Detroit is where Peggy Ann Freeman (Luna’s real name) was born in August 31, 1945, as the middle of three sisters. She lived in Detroit through her teenage years. Her favorite movie was “West Side Sory.” Much of her childhood was scarred by bullying that she got from her some of peers because she was very tall (reportedly growing to 6’2″), slender and had big eyes. She was often called “ugly” by people who thought she didn’t fit their standard of beauty.

Adding to her unhappiness, her strict parents had a volatile on-again/off-again marriage that ended in a tragedy that won’t be described in this review, so as not reveal too much information that’s in the documentary. There’s a lot about Luna in the documentary that viewers will be finding out for the first time. There are some people interviewed in the documentary who break down in tears when talking about her, so viewers should not be surprised if they get emotional too when they watch this documentary.

Several of Luna’s family members are interviewed, including Luna’s younger sister, Lillian Washington, who says that her parents had a “history of domestic violence.” Her father Nathaniel Freeman (a longtime Ford Motor Company employee) physically abused their mother Peggy Freeman (a longtime YWCA employee), according Luna’s Detroit childhood friend Omar K. Boone, who’s interviewed in the documentary. Boone also says that when he knew Luna in her teen years, she was “unsophisticated” but a “quick learner.”

Washington and many others in “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” describe Luna as having an other-worldly beauty that would make people stop what they were doing and stare at her if she was in their presence. People who knew her best also describe her inner beauty of radiating kindness and love. However, Luna also had lifelong insecurities about the way she looked and about being accepted by other people. Several people in the documentary say that Luna habitually made up stories about herself and sought to escape in fantasy worlds that she fabricated.

The combination of these insecurities and the bullying she got as a child led her to invent the Donyale Luna persona for herself when she was a teenager. She started speaking in a European accent and pretended to be multiracial, even though she and her parents were African American. The documentary’s archival footage of her from the late 1960s shows that Luna wore piercing blue contact lenses that didn’t look like human eyes. It’s mentioned that Luna’s father disapproved of this invented persona because he felt that she was denying her African American heritage.

Washington says of Luna’s childhood and teenage years: “All the black guys thought she was crazy. They called her ‘skinny’ and ‘bony.’ They called her Olive Oyl. They hurt her to her core. I think that encouraged her to create her own persona.” Josephine Armstrong, Luna’s older sister, confirms about Luna: “She would pretend and tell stories.”

Luna’s life would change when she was discovered in Detroit by photographer David McCabe, who urged her to go to New York City (where he was based) to become a fashion model. McCabe, who is one of the people interviewed in the documentary, believes that Luna lied about her racial identity (at various times, she claimed that she was part-white, part-Latino, part Asian and/or part-Native American) because she probably felt that if people knew she was fully African American, she would experience more racism. It’s also mentioned in the documentary that Luna often talked about wishing that she had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Armed with her invented persona, Luna took McCabe’s advice and moved to New York City, in 1964. Within a few months of living in New York City, Luna was featured in the pages of major fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. She also began hobnobbing with artsy and avant-garde types. For example, McCabe says that he introduced Luna to Andy Warhol. Luna is described as someone who kept in touch with family members but also publicly denied or lied about many things about her family. The documentary mentions that she showed no interest in going back to the United States to visit her biological family after she moved to Europe.

Luna soon branched out into acting in some films, mostly supporting roles in middling movies, such as 1966’s “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” and 1969’s “Fellini Satyricon.” Her filmography as an actress was not extensive. According to the Internet Movie Database, Luna had credited roles as an actress in only five feature films from 1965 to 1972, with 1972’s “Salome” being the only movie where she had a starring role. She appeared as herself in several other movies.

Although she was in the public eye, Luna kept many things about herself very private and was able to fool a lot of people with her lies about her background. “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” does not mention that while she was living in New York in the mid-1960s, she was married for less than a year to an unknown actor. Very little is known about this 10-month marriage except that it ended in divorce, and Luna refused to publicly talk about this ex-husband. It says a lot about the times that she lived in, long before the Internet existed, that she was able to keep up her charade of pretending to be an exotic, multiracial European and hide many facts about her personal life.

One of her closest friends during this time was David Croland, an artist who freely admits that heavy drug use was part of their friendship and lifestyles. In the documentary, Croland says that he and Luna would regularly use marijuana, hashish and LSD. Other people in the documentary also talk about Luna’s drug abuse, which they believe was part of her need to mentally escape from her problems and try to avoid her insecurities. Family members and friends say that Luna often used drugs but was never addicted. However, it’s hard to know if that’s true, or if it’s denial from loved ones who don’t want to publicly admit that Luna could have been a drug addict.

Even with her very quick success in the fashion industry, Luna still experienced many racial barriers as a black model in the mid-1960s. It was one thing to be in some fashion spreads. It was another thing to get on the cover of major magazines or get lucrative endorsement deals, which at the time were still privileges given only to white models. The documentary mentions that Luna eventually became disillusioned with the racism she experienced in the United States. The U.S. civil rights movement was going on at the same time, but she didn’t get involved in this movement or any political activism.

Luna’s career skyrocketed after she moved to London in December 1965. She would later live in Paris and then Rome. She was living in an isolated part of Italy and was in semi-retirement at the time of her death. During her years in London, she continued to hang out with the rich and famous and dated some celebrities, including Rolling Stones lead guitarist Brian Jones and actor Klaus Kinski. Luna can be seen as an assistant to a fire eater in the music variety film “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” which was filmed in 1968, but wasn’t released until 1996.

Two very famous photographers are mentioned in the documentary as having the most influence on Luna’s supermodel career: Richard Avedon (an American who died in 2004, at the age of 81) and David Bailey, a Brit who is interviewed in the documentary. Bailey says that he was vaguely aware of racism in the fashion industry, but he claims that he wasn’t one of the racists. Bailey comments about Luna: “I didn’t think about her being black. She was just someone who was beautiful.”

The general consensus is that Luna found greater acceptance in Europe than she did in the United States. However, that doesn’t mean that she never stopped experiencing racism. The documentary includes a heartbreaking account of racist decisions made by Diana Vreeland (American Vogue’s editor-in-chief from 1963 to 1971) that blocked Luna from getting major career opportunities. In the documentary, former supermodel Johnson begins to cry when she hears the details. “It’s an accumulation of all the pain,” Johnson says of her crying over the racism that she, Luna and many other black people have experienced.

Other emotionally touching segments in the documentary have to do with Luna’s only child: a daughter named Dream Cazzaniga, who was only 18 months old when Luna died. Cazzaniga, who was raised by her father’s parents in Italy, reads many of Luna’s journal entries in the documentary. Luna was a talented illustrator, and the documenatry includes some of her art. Cazzaniga also candidly shares her thoughts on her memories of her mother and how she felt growing up without her mother, whose death is a “taboo” subject for the Cazzaniga family.

Because “luna” means “moon” in Spanish and in Italian, Luna often told people she had a special connection to the moon. Near the beginning of the documentary, Cazzaniga can be heard in a voiceover saying, “Growing up in Italy, I remember seeing the moon. My nanny was telling me, ‘Oh, look, that’s your mom looking from the sky.’ I never doubted that whenever I was looking at the moon, I thought that was my blessing from her.”

Later in the documentary, Dream’s Italian father Luigi Cazzaniga, who was a photographer when he married Luna in 1976, is shown being interviewed and going with Dream to visit a few of the places where he and Luna made their lives in Italy. He describes Luna as someone who loved being a mother but she was feeling increasingly unhappy with living in a remote area where she had little or no contact with her friends she used to know as a model. Luigi’s family members, whom Dream describes as conservative and religious Catholics, rejected Luna and wouldn’t allow her inside their homes. Luigi had to frequently travel because of his photographer job, so Luna was often left home alone with Dream.

Former supermodel Pat Cleveland, whose career blossomed in the 1970s around the same time as Johnson’s career, tells a harrowing story in the documentary about how Luna seemed to be mentally unraveling over all the lies and the fake persona that Luna created for herself. Cleveland describes Luna as someone who was desperately lonely and literally begging for help in the last year of Luna’s life, when Luna confessed to Cleveland that she was really an American from Detroit. Cleveland says she felt powerles to help someone whom she didn’t know every well and who was already on a downward spiral. It’s not said out loud, but it’s implied that Luna was not getting any therapy or other professional help for her mental health issues when she was living in Italy.

Several people interviewed in the documentary give cultural and historical context to why Luna’s accomplishments in the fashion industry also came with racial burdens that might have been heavier in her lifetime but still exist for many people today. Constance White, an author and former editor-in-chief of Essence, comments on white Euro-centric standards of beauty that dominate in Western culture: “It’s something that Black women have a singular experience with.” White adds that these beauty standards often have this direct or indirect message for Black women: “Everything about you is wrong.”

Other interviewees in the documentary include fashion designer/activist Aurora James, Vogue editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, Duke University art history professor Dr. Richard J. Powell, talent agent Kyle Hagler, Richard Avedon’s former assistant Gideon Lewin and fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Three of Luna’s close friends interviewed in the documentary are Sanders Bryant, a pal who knew her from high school; actor Juan Fernandez; who describes his relationship with Luna as being like a sibling relationship; and artist Livia Liverani, who says that Luna was frequently misunderstood.

“Donyale Luna: Supermodel” is certainly not the first documentary to be about someone who had troubles coping with fame and who eventually faded into near-obscurity. However, this documentary makes a clear case for people to learn more about Luna’s legacy—not just as a model in the fashion industry but also as a loved one who changed the lives of the people who were closest to her. Fame and money can be fleeting. The areas where Luna made the most impact cannot be measured by magazine covers or monetary amounts.

HBO premiered “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” on September 13, 2023.

Review: ‘BS High,’ starring Roy Johnson, John Barnham Sr., Ben Ferree, Justin Daniel, Bomani Jones, Trilian Harris and Quincy Talmadge

July 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Roy Johnson in “BS High” (Photo by David Markun/HBO)

“BS High”

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

Culture Representation: The documentary “BS High”—about a corruption scandal involving a football team for the illegitimate school Bishop Sycamore High School in Columbus, Ohio—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Roy Johnson took money and young athletes’ dreams to start a U.S. football team affiliated with fabricated high schools.

Culture Audience: “BS High” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in U.S. football and sports scandals.

Justin Daniel in “BS High” (Photo by David Markun/HBO)

“BS High” is a heartbreaking and cautionary tale about con artists taking advantage of young athletes’ hopes and dreams. This documentary is also a helpful guide to see how pathological liars operate and how not to get fooled. “BS High” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, “BS High” is an unflinching portrait of a self-admitted con man and several of the victims whose lives were damaged by his lies and scams. The chief villain of the story is Roy Johnson, but he was enabled and helped by other people—most of whom are not interviewed in the documentary, for reasons that aren’t really explained in the documentary. Johnson was considered the mastermind of the schemes he was involved with, and he is interviewed in “BS High.” The interviews with Johnson took place in Los Angeles in 2022.

The documentary confirms that Johnson (who was born in 1980), by his own admission, has a problem with consistently telling the truth, he’s very insecure, and he has serious anger issues. “Anger is a blanket emotion,” Johnson says early on in “BS High,” where he is seen asking some of the documentary’s crew members what kind of body language he should have during his on-camera interviews. “Do I look like a con man?” he asks with a smirk.

“BS High” begins with archival footage of the event that marked the beginning of the scrutiny that led to the downfall of Johnson’s biggest scam. On August 29, 2021, ESPN did a live telecast of a high school football game between the well-known IMG Academy and and the obscure Bishop Sycamore High School at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. It was one of the most embarrassing football game defeats ever shown on TV. The final score was 58-0, with IMG winning against a team that fumbled and stumbled its way to a resounding loss.

This TV exposure of Bishop Sycamore High School (based in Columbus, Ohio) and the incompetence of its football team led many people to look into what this high school was all about and how they got these football players, many of whom looked a lot older than high-school age. And what was discovered was one of the biggest U.S. football scandals of all time: Bishop Sycamore High School did not exist as an accredited school and did not have academic courses. It was actually the name of a sketchy recruitment program led by Johnson.

“BS High” obviously has a double meaning that is pointed out in the documentary. BS can stand for Bishop Sycamore, and it can stand for “bullshit.” The latter is what Johnson has been accused of serving up for many years by many people. He is still embroiled in lawsuits for fraud and unpaid bills. In “BS High,” Johnson dismisses the dishonest way that his football team ended up on ESPN. He says all that matters was that the team made it that far to be in a game that was televised on ESPN.

This “all publicity is good publicity” attitude seems to fuel a lot of Johnson’s motivation to participate in this documentary, as he brags about how far he took his schemes, with little or no regard for the people he hurt along the way. Johnson acts as if it’s an accomplishment that he’s now the subject of a documentary because of all his troubling actions. But instead of Johnson coming across as a movie star, he comes across as someone desperately trying to spin his story and create more smoke and mirrors for his already ruined reputation.

Journalist/author Andrew King says in “BS High” that he isn’t surprised that Johnson agreed to be interviewed for the documentary: “He could be the next in a long line of people who falls on his own sword because he talks to much in a documentary.” Not only does Johnson talk a lot, he also heinously laughs when he thinks about his scams and how many people he fooled. And, at times, he gets angry and blames his victims for being “stupid.”

“BS High” gives some background info, most of it told by Johnson, to give context for how he turned out the way that he did. Johnson says that as a child, he was obsessed with the action TV series “The A-Team” and identified the most with Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of the team, played by actor George Peppard. “I literally thought I was Hannibal,” Johnson comments. The Hannibal character in “The A-Team” was a military commander, a strategist, a master of disguises and an amateur actor. Hannibal’s signature line was “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Like many con artists, Johnson failed in a career where he targeted people as victims. By his own admission, Johnson says that he was a failed athlete. Johnson says that he got an internship with the New England Patriots, which influenced him to want to become a general manager in professional football. Around the same time, Johnson says he was “mentoring” his younger brother, who accomplished something that Johnson could not accomplish: He got a football scholarship.

Johnson says in the documentary that his “mentoring” of his younger brother led to his interest in helping other young football players. “For me,” Johnson says of this brotherly “mentorship” experience, “it was an opportunity to take it from helping my brother and a few people to an entire school.” It’s doubtful that anyone in Johnson’s family is looking up to him now. None of his family members is interviewed in this documentary.

Eventually, Johnson teamed up with John Barnham Sr. to co-found Christians of Faith Academy, a non-profit group aimed at helping underprivileged youth, most of whom are African American. Even though the word “academy” was in its title, Christians of Faith Academy was never an accredited school and didn’t have any academic courses. Instead, it was essentially a recruitment program for teenage football players, with Johnson as the head “coach.”

Many of these children and their parents willingly went along because they thought this program was legitimate and because Johnson filled their heads with big promises that he could turn their sons into college students with football scholarships who could then become National Football League (NFL) recruits. The Christians of Faith Academy, for a while, was funded by money that was flowing in from donations and sponsors that Johnson takes most of the credit for getting, even though he had no previous experience in managing an athletics program for high schoolers. Johnson has never had the required permit to coach high school football.

“BS High” co-directors Free and Roe are heard off-camera occasionally asking Johnson some interview questions or responding to some of the things he says. At one point, Barnham’s name is mentioned to Johnson, who acts like he doesn’t remember who Barnham is. Eventually, Johnson admits that Barnham was his partner in Christians of Faith Academy, but Johnson insists that Barnham wasn’t as involved as Johnson was in managing the academy. Barnham does not say much in the documentary, but Barnham says that he’s not surprised that Johnson pretended not to remember Barnham.

Johnson freely admits to having a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude. He says of his philosophy to get money out of people: “Do what the people who have money do, even if you don’t have the money.” Johnson also admits that he is “insecure” and “very resourceful.” He adds, “And that’s a very bad combination.”

And what that “bad combination” led to was Johnson overspending and not paying hefty bills. Johnson shrugs off his debts (the documentary estimates that he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to untold numbers of people, some of whom are suing him) as if it’s just his way of doing business. Johnson and other people in the documentary say that his attitude has always been that he needs to spend money in order to make money.

As a religious non-profit group, the Christians of Faith Academy was allowed to get certain tax breaks. What the Christians of Faith Academy was not allowed to do was misrepresent itself as a school for academics when soliciting donations and other funds. The downfall of the Christians of Faith Academy began when the African Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew its support after reports began surfacing that the Christians of Faith Academy was not a legitimate school and funds were being mishandled.

In “BS High,” Johnson makes an “X-Men” reference when he talks about how he tried to prevent the Christians of Faith Academy from being shut down: “I’m Magneto. These are my mutants, and I’m fighting for them.” In Marvel’s “X-Men” comic books and movies, the main characters are mutants. Magneto is a mutant villain. After Christians of Faith Academy went out of business, Johnson founded Bishop Sycamore High School.

Ben Ferree, a civil rights investigator who used to work for the Ohio Athletic Association Foundation, was one of the first people to do an in-depth investigation into Johnson’s shady business dealings. Ferree says that the Christians of Faith Academy and Bishop Sycamore High School were the same scams under different names. Bishop Sycamore High School was also registered as a religious non-profit group.

Many of Johnson’s athlete victims dropped out of real high schools in order to get “training” at Bishop Sycamore High School. And in some cases, the documentary alleges that certain Bishop Sycamore High School “students” were actually over the age of 19, which is the cutoff age to play in league-sanctioned high school football. IMG Academy (which is based in Bradenton, Florida) is a famous training institution for high schoolers to be recruited into National Collegiate Athletics Association football. Bishop Sycamore High School was marketed as being like an IMG Academy for Ohio.

More powerful than any of Johnson’s statements in the documentary are the interviews and testimonies from the football players who got pulled into Johnson’s schemes. Trilian Harris, Adrian Brown Jr., Justin Daniel, ZyShawn Johnson (no relation to Roy Johnson), Isaiah Miller, Mecose Todd, Kymetrius Gates and Quincy Talmadge all talk about what it was like to be fooled by Roy Johnson, who dangled promises of making them star football players who could be recruited for football scholarships by top-tier football universities, which would then pave the way to fame and fortune in the NFL.

All of these victims describe Roy Johnson as being very charismatic but also having a cruel side that took pleasure in verbally and physically abusing them. Roy Johnson admits to having a history of violence, including beating up homeless men. The documentary also mentions Roy Johnson being arrested in 2020, for physically assaulting his girlfriend at the time. The outcome of that domestic violence case is mentioned in the documentary.

At first, Roy Johnson’s football victims were dazzled by what seemed to be Johnson’s successful image. But over time, they saw many things that were wrong and inappropriate about the “training” and road trips they would take. It’s alleged in the documentary that money became so scarce, Johnson ordered his young athletes to steal food for them to eat. They also witnessed Johnson commit violence against them and other people.

More than any money that could have been defrauded is the incalculable emotional cost and the sense of betrayal that the victims feel. Some of his victims, such as Harris, describe having some form of post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they experienced during their time “training” with Roy Johnson. Daniel breaks down and sobs when he describes how being involved in Bishop Sycamore High School ruined his chances of getting into a good college. Harris was admitted into Grambling State University, but he had his admission revoked when the school found out that he was affiliated with Bishop Sycamore High School.

And where were the parents during all this scamming? Only two parents are interviewed in the documentary: Harris’ mother Kristi Ferguson and Talmadge’s mother Erica Cain. They both echo what their sons say about being fooled by Roy Johnson’s smooth-talking ways. Both mothers also say that because of their financial struggles raising their sons as single mothers, they were grateful at the time that someone was taking an interest in training their sons to get football scholarships.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include journalist Bomani Jones; videographers Mike Moline and Anthony Marino, who were briefly hired by Roy Johnson during his Christians of Faith Academy days; and Dave Pando, the owner of a paintball business that says Roy Johnson still owes $800 on an unpaid bill. When Roy Johnson is asked about this unpaid paintball bill, he laughs and says he doesn’t remember anything about this debt, but if it exists, he says it’s chump change to him.

Roy Johnson has a nonchalant, cold or angry victim-blaming reaction when he’s asked how he feels about what he did to his victims, especially those whose young lives he altered in very damaging ways. During one comment, Roy Johnson shrugs and says, “Life happens.” During another comment, he says of his long history of deception: “I’m a con man-ish.” In another comment, Johnson says with no irony whatsoever, “I’m the most honest liar I know.”

But a moment comes when Roy Johnson’s cocky façade comes off, and he looks shaken to the core. During an interview, Harris calls Roy Johnson “evil” for what Roy Johnson did to his victims. Roy Johnson and Barnham, sitting next to each other, are shown this comment on a laptop computer. Barnham says nothing, but guilt and remorse are shown all over his face. Roy Johnson angrily gets up and storms out of the interview and says that it’s all a set-up to make him look bad. Later, Roy Johnson comes back to resume the interview, and he tries to look like he’s the victim.

Some people might have criticisms about “BS High” giving Roy Johnson the publicity he obviously craves. However, anyone who watches the entire documentary will see that “BS High” does not make Roy Johnson look glamorous or make him look like an anti-hero. It does the opposite: It exposes his duplicitous personality and shows how cowardly he can be when he’s confronted with the damage that his misdeeds have done.

Many viewers watching “BS High” will be infuriated by how certain people featured in this documentary got away with certain injustices for as long as they did. “BS High” could have done more to explain why certain enablers aren’t in the documentary or what comment, if any, they had if they were contacted by the “BS High” filmmakers. However, “BS High” is an urgent wake-up call to look at the bigger picture of a system that allowed this abuse and fraud to thrive in the first place and what should be done to prevent this abuse and fraud in the future.

HBO will premiere “BS High” on August 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music,’ starring Taylor Mac

June 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 in New York City, the documentary film “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) who are connected in some way to drag performer Taylor Mac and his one-time-only, 24-hour performance of pop hits.

Culture Clash: During his performance, Mac discusses some of the racism and homophobia behind some of history’s most popular songs.

Culture Audience: “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of drag performers and music documentaries that focus on unconventional artists and unusual performances.

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Vivacious and engaging, this concert documentary starring drag performer Taylor Mac offers a bittersweet presentation of iconic pop songs, without glossing over some of these songs’ problematic histories. It’s an extremely unique 24-hour performance. The 2016 show took place as a one-time-only event, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. During this 24-hour continuous performance, Mac performed popular songs from 24 decades (each decade got its own hour), from 1776 to 2016. Attendees had the option to sleep at the venue in a separate room.

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. The majority of the documentary’s footage is of highlights from this epic concert. The rest of the documentary consists of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with principal members of the events team.

Mac explains in the beginning of the film that he conceived this event as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the AIDS crisis. The show starts with 24 musicians on stage, but after each hour, one less musician goes on stage, until the last hour, when Mac is be the sole performer on stage. The decreasing numbers of band musicians on stage are supposed to be symbolic of how communities and families lost people to the AIDS crisis.

Mac also says in the documentary, “The show is about our history of Americans. That history is in our souls.” He also says that “a queer body can become a metaphor for America.” He later adds, “I learned my politics from radical lesbians.”

Mac gives a brief personal background about himself, by saying that he grew up in Stockton, California, which he describes as a very homophobic city that’s overrun with a lot of “ugly tract houses.” After he graduated from acting school, Mac says that he had difficulty getting auditions. However, he found work at New York City drag nightclubs. And the rest is history.

Some of the key people on the event team also give their perspectives of the show. Niegel Smith, the show’s co-director, calls it a “radical realness ritual” that “asks us to move closer to our queerness.” During one of the audience interaction parts of the show, Mac tells audience members to slow dance with people who are of the same gender. The song selection for this same-sex slow dance is “Snakeskin Cowboys,” a song made famous by Ted Nugent, who is a political conservative. It’s obviously Mac’s way of reclaiming the song and putting it in a progressive queer context.

Matt Ray, the show’s musical director, comes from a jazz background. He says the biggest problem in America is “lack of community.” This 24-hour performance, says Ray, is Mac’s way of trying to bring back community to live events. Machine Dazzle, the show’s costume designer, is seen in costume fittings with Mac, who says that he gave no creative restrictions on how Dazzle could make the costumes. Also seen in the documentary is makeup artist Anastasia Durasova.

It’s no coincidence that the performance starts with the year 1776, since it’s the year of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Freedom, liberation and fighting against oppression are constant themes throughout the show. During his performances of popular songs from each decade, Mac gives historical context of what was going on in the United States at the time when the song was popular and why some of the songs have a much more disturbing meaning than they seem to have.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” performed in the hour covering the years 1776 to 1786, sounds like an upbeat and patriotic song. But Mac also reminds people that during this time, the United States was also built on the enslavement of black people and the destruction of Native Americans. The 1820s song “”Coal Black Rose” has racist origins, since it was originally performed by white people wearing blackface makeup, and the song’s lyrics are about raping an enslaved black woman. For the 1830s song “Rove Riley Rove,” Mac says he’s performing the song to evoke a mother or nanny during the Trail of Tears era, when the Native Americans were forced to go on dangerous and deadly routes when they were forced off their ancestral lands.

Not all of the songs performed have depressing and bigoted histories. When Mac gets to the 1970s decades, he performs songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” For “Heroes,” which is performed in the context of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, two giant inflatable penises—one with a U.S. flag decoration, one with a Russian flag decoration—float around on stage. Mac straddles at least one of these inflatable sex organs.

Other songs performed in the show include Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” (which Mac interprets in the performance as a sexual liberation song); the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter”; and “Soliloquy” from the 1945 musical “Carousel,” which Mac was his father’s favorite song. Mac also says that his father died when Mac was 4 years old.

Audience members are encouraged to sing along and participate. And sometimes, Mac invites audiences members on stage during the performance, such as when he selects the oldest person in the room (a man in his 80s) and youngest person in the room (a 20-year-old woman) to dance on stage together. In another part of the show, audience members throw ping pong balls at each other.

Mac doesn’t do all of the lead vocals during the show. There are also guest singers, including Heather Christian, Steffanie Christian, Thornetta Davis, and Anaïs Mitchell. However, there’s no doubt that Mac is the star. He has a charismatic command of the stage, even though he’s not a great singer. He has a wry sense of comedy and keeps the energy level fairly high, even though performing this 24-hour show would be exhausting by any standard.

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has a simple concept with an extravagant and very flamboyant presentation. If drag performances and some bawdiness meant for adults have no appeal to you, then watching this documentary might be overwhelming or a little hard to take. The performance in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will never be duplicated by Mac, but this memorable documentary is the next best thing to being there.

HBO and Max will premiere “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on June 27, 2023.

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

May 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

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

“1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed”

Directed by W. Kamau Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘The Janes,’ starring Heather Booth, Judith Arcana, Marie Leaner, Dorie Barron, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens and Laura Kaplan

June 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1972 photo of Jane members in “The Janes” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Janes”

Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes

Culture Representation: The documentary “The Janes” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the Jane network, a Chicago-based group of mostly women who provided abortion services and counseling before the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on a federal level in 1973.

Culture Clash: The Jane network had to be an underground, outlaw group when abortion was illegal, and some members got arrested for homicide in 1972. 

Culture Audience: “The Janes” will appeal primarily to people interested in a fascinating documentary about reproductive rights and people who believe in a woman’s right to choose if or when to have a child.

A 1972 photo of Jane members in “The Janes” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Regardless of how people feel about abortion, “The Janes” documentary is not only a history lesson about what life in America was like before Roe v. Wade but it’s also a compelling reminder of what’s at stake in reproductive rights and family planning. One of the best things about the movie is that it doesn’t give the narrative over to politicians. Instead, the story is told mostly from the perspectives of people who were involved with the Jane network, the Chicago-based underground group that provided abortion services and counseling at a time when abortion was illegal in Illinois and most other states in America.

The Jane network, whose origins began in 1965, disbanded in 1973, when the U.S. Supereme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on a federal level. The Jane network got its name because people who needed the services were told to ask for someone with the code name Jane when contacting the network, which advertised through flyers and through word of mouth. The outreach began on college campuses but then extended to many other communities in the Chicago area, including low-income and underprivileged communities.

Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, “The Janes” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary begins with a harrowing personal story told by Dorie Barron, who got two abortions when abortion was illegal. She got the first abortion at a place that turned out to be disreputable: “I just wanted it over with,” Barron says of the abortion. “I had no other options. I was that desperate.”

Barron also remembers that because of the outlaw nature of this procedure: “It was [like] the mob. You had to talk in code.” “Chevy” meant the abortion cost $500. “Cadillac” meant that the abortion cost $750. “Rolls Royce” mean that the abortion cost $1,000.

Barron vividly recalls that as she was waiting to get her abortion that there were “three men and one woman, who brought another patient. They spoke all of three sentences the entire time: ‘Where’s the money? Lie back and do as I tell you. Get in the bathroom.'”

This cold and uncaring attitude wasn’t the worst of her experience though. After the abortion, she and the other abortion patient were sent to a hotel room. Barron says she was bleeding profusely and decided to get professional medical help for herself, knowing she’d be at risk of being arrested if the medical professional who treated her wanted to report her for having an abortion. “If I had stayed in that hotel room, I’d be dead,” Barron says emphatically.

Barron says she had her second abortion with the Jane network, which she describes as giving her a “total opposite” experience compared to her first abortion. With the Jane network, Barron says: “All I heard were kind words, consideration, concern. When I tell you they changed my life, they changed my life.”

Barron’s story is an example of how the Jane network distinguished itself from the incompetent patient care that other underground abortionists provided. According to “The Janes,” the Jane network is estimated to have performed about 11,000 abortions, with none of the patients dying as a direct result of these abortion procedures. It’s an astounding feat, considering all the horror stories before Roe v. Wade of women and girls who died after getting illegal abortions.

The documentary includes disturbing details of septic wards in Chicago hospitals where women and girls with botched abortions often received improper treatment and sometimes died as a result. Those who didn’t die were at risk of being arrested. Several people in the documentary say that the Jane network was different from other abortion groups because the Jane network was led by women, and the services included empathetic counseling in a safe and non-judgmental atmosphere.

The Jane network’s origins began in 1965, when activist Heather Booth was a student at the University of Chicago. A friend, who was also a University of Chicago student, was raped, and the rape victim was unfairly shamed for being “promiscuous.” In 1965, Booth also became involved in the Freedom Summer Project, an activist event. “And during that summer, I learned you have to stand up to legitimate authority,” Booth says in the documentary. “Sometimes, there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”

Booth states that the turning point for her to become a reproductive rights activist was when a friend told her that his pregnant sister was suicidal because the pregnancy was unwanted. It motivated Booth to start an underground abortion service that ended up growing into the Jane network, whose official name was Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Booth says in the documentary that when she launched this service, she was referred to Dr. T.M. Howard, a medical professional who could perform abortions. When she started getting more people to refer to Dr. Howard, she knew there was a demand to have an underground network.

“The Janes” documentary has interviews with several other women who worked in the Jane network, including Judith Arcana (also known as Judy Pildes), Marie Leaner, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens, Eleanor Oliver and Laura Kaplan. The documentary also features interviews with women who used the Jane network’s abortion services (or took a friend to the Jane network) but who only wanted to be identified by a first name in this movie. They include women identified by the names Abby, Eileen, Crystal O., Jeanne, Peaches and Sheila.

After Dr. Howard was arrested for performing illegal abortions, Booth was referred to someone who is interviewed in the documentary and uses the alias Mike. When Mike worked with the Janes, he used the code name Dr. Kaplan, even though he was never a medical doctor, but he received abortion training from a real medical doctor. The Jane network found out that Mike wasn’t a real doctor, but continued to use his services out of necessity until they parted ways with him because of money issues.

Mike says he got involved in doing Jane network abortions because it paid about “four or five times” the amount of money that he could make from doing construction work. He says he didn’t get personally involved with any of the patients’ feelings or problems when doing abortions. “It was a job,” he says nonchalantly in the documentary. By his own admission, Mike eventually had a falling out with the Jane network when he wanted to get paid more money than the network could give him.

Leaner comments on Mike: “I thought he was a blowhard, sort of a con man and a showman and a wise guy. But I also thought that he had a heart.” Mike wasn’t the only person doing abortions for the Jane network. Many women of the Jane network eventually performed abortions, even though they were not medical doctors either. It’s mentioned in the documentary that they did so because licensed medical doctors did not want to get involved or would charge too much money.

Because of the secretive nature of the Jane network, it was standard practice to talk in code. “The Front” was the term used for the waiting room. “The Place” would be the place where the abortions procedures happened. Women and girls who needed the abortion services could use aliases, although they often had to provide the real phone numbers where they could be contacted. In an era before the Internet or burner cell phones, it was a lot harder for people to get temporary contact information that couldn’t be traced back to them.

However, the Jane network had a confidentiality policy not just for their clients’ protection but also for their own protection. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the Chicago Mafia got involved (no doubt through payoffs for protection), which is typical of any illegal operation that attracts the Mafia. At a time when the overwhelming majority of attorneys, doctors and clergy were men, the Jane network also had male allies in these professions who would secretly offer their services to Jane clients.

Speaking of attorneys, Arcana’s lawyer husband (who has a surname that is not Arcana) is also interviewed in “The Janes.” At his request, he is only identified in the documentary by his first name: Michael. He says that he and many of his mostly male attorney peers did not want to get involved in abortion issues at the time, not only because abortion was illegal then but also because civil rights attorneys such as himself were more focused on race relations and had little to no interest in women’s rights.

Still, Arcana says that being a white woman married to an attorney helped a great deal when she and six other Jane network members were arrested in Chicago for homicide on May 3, 1972, because of the abortion services that they provided. The arrestees were Arcana, Scott, Stevens, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Pariser, Sheila Smith and Madeleine Schwenk. (Ironically, nearly 50 years to the day later—on May 2, 2022—the news website Politico revealed a U.S. Supreme Court leaked draft suggesting that members of the court are preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade.)*

Arcana, who had recently given birth at the time of her 1972 arrest, says in the documentary that she had certain privileges that she knew would work to her advantage when it came to getting out on bail. Arcana comments, “Not only was I a nursing mother, I was a college graduate, a white woman, and married to a lawyer. And all of those things were going to get me out on bail. And boy, did I not disbelieve that.”

Because most of the Janes were privileged white women (many were homemakers, college students and full-time activists), they often came from very different backgrounds from many of the low-income people who needed the Jane network’s services. When New York state made abortion legal in 1970, and certain women in the Chicago area could afford to travel to New York for abortions, the Jane clients’ demographics changed to have more low-income people than ever before. “The Janes” documentary mentions that there were tensions and disagreements in the group about how to interact with underprivileged people. The Jane network eventually agreed to offer discounts or free services to those who couldn’t afford to pay the full price.

Issues of race and social class also came up because women of color were rarely allowed to be Jane network leaders. Leaner (who is African American) comments, “There were more women of color—not necessarily on the team of people, but the people who consumed the service.” Kaplan agrees: “The women who came through the Jane network [for abortion services] were very, very different from the women who were in Jane. We would say to women [of color], ‘You can join us,’ but there weren’t a lot of takers.”

“It was a concern for us,” Kaplan says of the differences in racial and social classes between the most of the Jane network workers and most of the Jane network clients, particularly in the network’s later years. “We were primarily white, middle-class women.” The documentary mentions that efforts were made to be mindful of different races and social classes, but the Jane network wasn’t perfect, and it how to deal with race/class differences was an area that always needed improving.

“The Janes” documentary says that Leaner was instrumental in getting civil rights attorney Jo-Anne Wolfson to represent the Jane network defendants in the homicide case. Wolfson, who was initially reluctant to take the case, had a strategy to delay the trial as much as possible. It turned out to be the correct strategy because the U.S. Supreme court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 made the homicide charges no longer legally viable, so the charges were dropped. The Jane network disbanded not long after the Roe v. Wade decision, since their underground services were no longer needed.

The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that abortion before Roe v. Wade was risky not just for physical reasons and legal reasons, but also for psychological and emotional reasons. The stress of being involved in illegal abortions took a toll on many of the clients and workers of the Jane network. The documentary mentions that one Jane leader identified only as Jody eventually had to check into a psychiatric facility because she had a breakdown. Jody eventually quit the Jane network.

And how did the Jane network stay underground for as long as it did with no arrests until 1972? Arcana’s husband Michael puts it bluntly by saying that a lot of the Jane network’s abortion clients were the wives, girlfriends and daughters of influential people in law enforcement and politics. Many of these men paid for the abortions.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include former Chicago homicide detective Ted O’Connor, Rev. Patricia Novick-Raby and Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper. In the documentary, Dr. Allan Weiland and former registered nurse Kathleen Kennedy talk about what they witnessed in pre-Roe. v. Wade septic wards at Chicago hospitals. A man who is only identified by the name Wayne says in the documentary that he was married to a woman who worked in the Jane network with his full support. “Our daughters understood not to talk about it, but they understood that it was just part of my life,” Wayne comments.

As a documentary, “The Janes” might not change people’s minds about the abortion issue. But the movie certainly succeeds in showing that abortion is a health issue that can affect anyone. This isn’t an issue that should be considered only in the realm of a select number of elite politicians and other lawmakers. “The Janes” shows in no uncertain terms that people who are directly affected can be family members, friends and other loved ones of people from all walks of life. These human stories and experiences are at the heart of reproductive rights and family planning.

*UPDATE: On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, thereby eliminating the federal law making abortion legal in the U.S., and giving jurisdiction to each U.S. state to decide what the state’s abortion laws will be. This ruling means that abortions in the U.S. can now be illegal or legal, depending on the state.

HBO and HBO Max will premiere “The Janes” on June 8, 2022.

Review: ‘The Princess’ (2022), starring Diana, Princess of Wales

January 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Diana, Princess of Wales in “The Princess” (Photo by Kent Gavin/HBO)

“The Princess” (2022)

Directed by Ed Perkins

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1981 to 1997, the documentary “The Princess” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty discussing the life of Diana, the Princess of Wales, who died in a car accident in 1997, at the age of 36.

Culture Clash: Diana was plagued by a troubled marriage to Prince Charles; issues with depression and bulimia; and ongoing battles with the media over her privacy.

Culture Audience: “The Princess” will appeal primarily to people who can’t get enough of watching Princess Diana documentaries, but this all-archival documentary reveals nothing new and has nothing interesting to say.

Diana, Princess of Wales (center) in “The Princess” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

In the never-ending cottage industry of Princess Diana biographies and Princess Diana exploitation, the sloppily made documentary “The Princess” is completely unnecessary and leaves out a lot of information. The Wikipedia page for Princess Diana has more information than this cynical cash grab of a movie. The ending of “The Princess” is extremely off-putting by concluding abruptly with an image of Diana’s burial casket being driven off during the funeral. The movie irresponsibly doesn’t even mention that in Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, the driver of the car was drunk.

Directed by Ed Perkins, “The Princess” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary consists entirely of archival footage from 1981 to 1997—the years that the woman born as Diana Spencer lived in the public eye. Most of the footage is from British television. There is absolutely nothing new in this documentary that hasn’t already been seen elsewhere, except for some random home videos of people reacting to Diana’s untimely death. (She died in Paris on August 31, 1997.)

Watching this movie is exactly like watching a video version of a Wikipedia page, but less so because the movie gives no information about the investigation into Diana’s death. The filmmakers also seem to have an agenda by leaving out the drunk-driver information and instead showing repetitive footage of people blaming the paparazzi for Diana’s death. The documentary ignores the reality that the investigation into the car accident, the news coverage about it and the facts uncovered were extremely important to Diana’s tragic story.

“The Princess” is just a chronological telling of basic facts of her life that people already know, with some tabloid headlines thrown in the mix. People already know about the courtship and doomed marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. (The former spouses separated in 1992, and officially divorced in 1996.) People already know about the conflicts in the British Royal Family. People already know about the tabloid scandals, Diana’s charity work, and how much she adored her sons William and Harry.

There are amateur YouTube videos about Princess Diana that are more interesting than this lazy documentary. The film has voiceover soundbites, but the people talking in these voiceovers are never identified, and neither are the media sources for these soundbites, or the year that these comments were made. The only people who might think “The Princess” is interesting are people who don’t know much about Princess Diana, or obsessive fans who can’t get enough of anything to do with her, no matter tacky it is.

UPDATE: HBO and HBO Max will premiere “The Princess” on August 13, 2022.

2021 Primetime Emmy Awards; ‘The Crown,’ ‘The Mandalorian’ are the top nominees

July 13, 2021

Pennie Downey, Marion Bailey, Josh O’Connor, Charles Dance, Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Erin Doherty, Michael Thomas and Pennie Downie in “The Crown” (Photo by Des Willie/Netflix)

Pedro Pascal in “The Mandalorian” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

The following is a press release from the Television Academy:

Nominations for the 73rd Emmy® Awards were announced today recognizing a wealth of innovative storytelling, exceptional new programs, and a robust and diverse group of talent nominees.

The live virtual ceremony was hosted by father-daughter duo Ron Cephas Jones (“This Is Us”) from Los Angeles and Jasmine Cephas Jones (“Blindspotting”) from New York along with Television Academy Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma. “The Crown” and “The Mandalorian” have tied for the top spot for program nominations with 24 followed by “WandaVision” (23), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (21), “Saturday Night Live” (21), “Ted Lasso” (20), “Lovecraft Country” (18), “The Queen’s Gambit” (18) and “Mare of Easttown” (16).

HBO/HBO Max leads the nominations in totals by platform with 130. Netflix has the second-most nominations with 129, and rounding out the top four are Disney+ with 71 and NBC with 46.

“Television has provided a lifeline for so many around the globe this year, delivering a constant source of entertainment, information and inspiration during some of our most difficult days,” said Scherma. “We are thrilled to honor the diversity of storytelling in television today by recognizing talented artists, programs, producers, directors and craftspeople throughout our industry and celebrating their commitment to this extraordinary medium.”

“Bridgerton,” “Lovecraft Country” and “The Boys” are newcomers to the Outstanding Drama Series category, joining returning nominees “Pose,” “The Crown,””The Mandalorian,” “This Is Us” and previous category winner “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Seventy-five percent of this year’s nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series are new to the category including “Cobra Kai,” “Emily in Paris,” “Hacks,” “Pen15,” “Ted Lasso” and “The Flight Attendant.” Returning favorites include “black-ish” and “The Kominsky Method.”

In total, there were 44 first-time performer nominations across the Lead, Supporting, Guest and Short Form categories this season.

Jonathan Majors, Josh O’Connor and Regé-Jean Page received their first-ever Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series joining previous Emmy winners in this category Sterling K. Brown, Billy Porter and Matthew Rhys. Emma Corrin, Jurnee Smollett and Mj Rodriguez received their first nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, while previous Emmy winner Uzo Aduba was nominated for the first time in this category. They are joined by returning nominee Olivia Colman and previous Emmy winner in this category Elisabeth Moss.

Kaley Cuoco received her first-ever Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, while previous Emmy winner Jean Smart and previous Emmy nominee Aidy Bryant were nominated for the first time in this category. They join previous Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross and Emmy winner Allison Janney.

Jason Sudeikis received his first-ever Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, while previous Emmy winner Kenan Thompson was nominated for the first time in this category. They join six-time nominee in the category Anthony Anderson, along with previous Emmy winners Michael Douglas and William H. Macy. Individuals with multiple nominations this year include David Attenborough, Sterling K. Brown, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, Steven Canals, Dave Chapelle, Michaela Coel, Jon Favreau, Derek Hough, Brendan Hunt, Maya Rudolph, Jean Smart, Jason Sudeikis and Kenan Thompson.

The nominations rosters may be revised in cases where names or titles are incorrect or appeals for changes—including the addition or removal of names—are approved by the Television Academy’s Emmy Awards Committee. Producer eligibility is based primarily on title; the producer nominees in certain program categories will be announced by mid-August. Final-round online voting begins Aug. 19, 2021.

The complete list of Emmy nominations, as compiled by the independent accounting firm of Ernst & Young LLP, and other Academy news are available at Emmys.com. As recently announced, the 73rd Emmy Awards will be hosted by Cedric the Entertainer. Executive Producers Reginald Hudlin and Ian Stewart and Director Hamish Hamilton have been selected to helm the show for production companies Done+Dusted and Hudlin Entertainment. The Emmys will be broadcast on Sunday, Sept. 19 (8:00-11:00 PM, live ET/5:00-8:00 PM, live PT) on the CBS Television Network and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+. The 2021 Creative Arts Awards will be broadcast on Saturday, Sept. 18 (8:00 PM ET/PT) on FXX.

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