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.

Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.

In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.

But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.

Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”

David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”

One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”

Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”

As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.

Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”

Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.

“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time Staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.

However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.

The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.

Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.

Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”

Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.

According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.

Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.

Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.

All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.

And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”

Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”

Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”

LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.

Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”

In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”

And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.

The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.

Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.

Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.

The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”

Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.

There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.

“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”

Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.

Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Cookie Monster muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.

The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”

The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.

ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,’ starring Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Lloyd Morrisett

May 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.

Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.

Caroll Spinney in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.

The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.

But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.

And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.

The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.

“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.

Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.

Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”

At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.

And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.

Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”

One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.

Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”

Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.

In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.

The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.

Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.

Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”

The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.

After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”

Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”

Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”

During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”

Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.

Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.

Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”

Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.

Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”

The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”

Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”

Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”

Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.

Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.

In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”

Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.

Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)

And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.

“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.

Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on a date in 2021 to be announced.

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

December 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Baby God”

Directed by Hannah Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

Directed by Muta’Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Showbiz Kids”

Directed by Alex Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Welcome To Chechnya”

Directed by David France

Russian with subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 27, 2020 UPDATE: 

Comcast to Bring WarnerMedia’s HBO Max to Xfinity Customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HBO Max to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

About WarnerMedia

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

About Altice USA

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

About Cox Communications

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

About National Cable Television Cooperative, Inc.

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

 

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

May 13, 2020

The following is a press release from HBO Max:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Full program descriptions below.)

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

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

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

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

(Full program descriptions below.)

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

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

HBO MAX ORIGINALS AVAILABLE IN THE SECOND WAVE OF PROGRAMMING:

Available June 18th:

KARMA

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

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

Available June 25th:

ADVENTURE TIME: DISTANT LANDS – BMO

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

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

DOOM PATROL SEASON TWO

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

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

ESME & ROY

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

The series is produced by Sesame Workshop.

SEARCH PARTY

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

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

Available July 9th:

CLOSE ENOUGH

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

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

EXPECTING AMY

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

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

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

Available July 16th:

HOUSE OF HO

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

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

Available July 23rd:

TIG N’ SEEK

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

Tig n’ Seek is produced by Cartoon Network Studios.

Available July 30th:

THE DOG HOUSE

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

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

FRAYED

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

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

Available August 6th:

AN AMERICAN PICKLE

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

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

HBO ORIGINALS AVAILABLE SUMMER 2020:

Available June 7th:

I MAY DESTROY YOU

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

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

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

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

Available June 21st:

PERRY MASON

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

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

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

Available June 28th:

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK

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

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

Available July 24th:

ROOM 104

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

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

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

Available August 2020:

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

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

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

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

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

May 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”

Directed by Laurent Bouzereau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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