Review: ‘Lost Girls,’ starring Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Lola Kirke and Gabriel Byrne

January 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oona Laurence, Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie and Miriam Shor in “Lost Girls” (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix)

“Lost Girls”

Directed by Liz Garbus

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York state and partially in New Jersey, the dramatic film “Lost Girls” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class in depicting the real-life people involved in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) murder mystery.

Culture Clash: Mari Gilbert, whose murdered daughter Shannan is believed to be a LISK victim, fights for justice with her daughters and family members of other LISK murder victims, who believe that law enforcement isn’t properly investigating these crimes.

Culture Audience: “Lost Girls” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramatic portrayals of true crime stories and don’t mind if some scenes in the movie are unrealistic.

Thomasin McKenzie, Amy Ryan and Oona Laurence in “Lost Girls” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The ongoing investigations into the unsolved murders of at least 16 people who are believed to have been victims of the Long Island Serial Killer (also known as LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer or the Craigslist Ripper) are too complex to condense into a scripted movie. Almost all of the murder victims were women who worked as prostitutes, they advertised themselves on Craigslist, and their bodies were found on New York state’s Long Island from the 1990s to the 2010s. Instead of telling all of these murder victims’ stories, the Netflix dramatic feature film “Lost Girls” focuses on the perspective of one real-life mother whose eldest daughter is believed to be one of the LISK murder victims. As of this writing, no suspects have been arrested in the murders.

Directed by Liz Garbus, “Lost Girls” is a well-acted but ultimately a by-the-numbers and often-melodramatic depiction of Mari Gilbert’s struggle to get justice for her murdered 23-year-old daughter Shannan Gilbert, who disappeared on May 1, 2010, in Oak Beach, New York, shortly after Shannan visited a prostitution client. Shannan’s body was found on December 13, 2011, about half of a mile from where she was last seen in public. Investigators have concluded that she died of strangulation sometime in the after-midnight hours when she disappeared. 

Michael Werwie wrote the “Lost Girls” screenplay as an adaptation of Robert Kolker’s 2013 non-fiction book of the same title. It’s fairly obvious that much of the movie was fabricated for dramatic purposes, particularly in depicting the police investigation and by showing Mari suddenly turning into a supersleuth. People who like the type of “crusading mother” clichés that are often seen in Lifetime movies won’t have as much of a problem with the unrealistic aspects of the “Lost Girls” movie as much as people who might be looking for a grittier and more authentic depiction of what really happens in murder investigations. (And there’s a Lifetime movie about Mari Gilbert called “The Long Island Serial Killer: A Mother’s Hunt for Justice,” starring Kim Delaney as Mari Gilbert. The movie is set to premiere on Lifetime on February 20, 2021.)

Garbus gives “Lost Girls” solid direction, and the talented cast led by Amy Ryan (who portrays Mari Gilbert) elevates the movie slightly above the type of forgettable crime thrillers that are usually made for basic cable networks. Because “Lost Girls” is based on a true crime story that got a lot of publicity, many people watching this movie already know how it’s going to end. By making Mari the central character of the movie, “Lost Girls” sticks to the same “angry mother looking for justice” formula that’s been seen in many other movies just like it.

However, the real Mari Gilbert was much more controversial in real life than this movie makes her out to be. Airing all of her dirty laundry in this movie wouldn’t make her look as sympathetic as the filmmakers want her to look. For example, there were long-standing allegations that she brought up her daughters in an abusive home, where Mari’s boyfriend at the time was accused of sexually abusing her two middle daughters Sherre and Sarra.

The “Lost Girls” movie leaves out a lot of information about the real-life Mari Gilbert and her family. Mari was a single mother with four daughters, but only three of her daughters are mentioned in the movie: eldest daughter Shannan, second-eldest daughter Sherre and third-eldest daughter Sarra. Mari’s youngest daughter Stevie Smith is not seen nor mentioned in the movie. In real life, Sarra was a teen mother to a son named Hayden at the time of Shannan’s disappearance, but the movie makes it look like Sarra was never a mother. 

Mari’s daughters Sherre and Sarra were teenagers at the time that Shannan disappeared, so they weren’t as involved as Mari was in hounding the police to properly investigate Shannan’s disappearance. Sherre (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is portrayed as stoic and introverted during this family ordeal. Sarra (played by Oona Laurence) is portrayed as a troubled and rebellious child who’s been suspended from school for lighting paper towels on fire in the school’s bathroom. Sarra is also on various medications for her mental health.

At the time of Shannan’s disappearance, the movie shows that Mari was living in Ellenville, New York, and holding down two jobs—a forklift operator and a waitress—making her too busy to have a love life. The father(s) of her children are not seen in the movie, and it’s implied that these biological fathers have no contact with Mari and her children. “Lost Girls” shows that Mari being a working-class single mother and Shannan being a prostitute had a lot to do with how the police investigated the case. Mari thinks she’s being treated like a second-class citizen and she’s very angry about it.

The movie’s depiction of Shannan only comes in snippets. There’s a home video shown a few times portraying Shannan at 8 or 9 years old (played by Austyn Johnson), singing “Beautiful Dreamer” in a talent contest. There are also brief flashbacks of an adult Shannan (played by Sarah Wisser), with her face obscured, depicting the last-known moments before she disappeared.

According to several eyewitness accounts, the last time Shannan was seen alive in public, she was frantically running alone on a neighborhood street after midnight and incoherently begging for help. There was a 23-minute phone call to 911 from Shannan’s phone, but what was heard on the caller’s end was hard to decipher. Concerned citizens called 911 too, but by the time police arrived more than an hour later, Shannan had disappeared. Because the movie doesn’t have any flashback scenes of what the adult Shannan was like except for this moment of trauma, she’s like a mysterious ghost in the story.

The “Lost Girls” filmmakers don’t reveal anything significant about Shannan’s personality. Viewers will just have to speculate or just go by the tiny hints that are shown in the movie. It’s implied from the way that Mari talks about what Shannan used to be like as a child that Shannan was thought of as a “golden child” and the “star” of the family. Shannan had a lot of potential, but she didn’t live up to those expectations. How and why Shannan became a prostitute is never explained, although the movie does mention that Shannan had a much more troubled home life than Mari was willing to talk about publicly.

For years, Mari had a rocky relationship with Shannan. The movie mentions that Shannan hadn’t lived with her mother since Shannan was 12 years old, because Shannan was put in foster care by Mari, who considered Shannan to be an unruly child. Mari giving up custody of Shannan to put Shannan in the foster care system led to Shannan having abandonment issues and a lot of resentment toward her mother.

The movie doesn’t gloss over this information, but puts more emphasis on this narrative: Shannan (who lived in New Jersey) and Mari were still fairly estranged at the time of her disappearance, but mother and daughter were taking steps to mend their relationship. The movie depicts that Shannan was supposed to have dinner with Mari, Sherre and Sarra in Mari’s home on the day that Shannan disappeared. And when Shannan didn’t show up, they didn’t think much of it at first because it wasn’t that unusual for Shannan to skip appointments and not show up when she was expected.

But something odd happened that turned out to be a crucial part of the investigation. On the day that Shannan disappeared, Mari gets a phone call from a stranger who identifies himself as a doctor who runs a home for wayward women. Mari doesn’t know at the time that Shannan was missing and was last seen running frantically and begging for help. In his phone call to Mari, the doctor says that he is looking for Shannan, because Shannan is one of the women he’s been helping, but Mari tells this stranger over the phone that she doesn’t know where Shannan is either. Mari is so distracted that she can’t fully remember the doctor’s name when she’s asked about it later.

As the hours pass and the Gilberts get more concerned about where Shannan is, they find out that Shannan’s live-in boyfriend Alex Diaz (played by Brian Adam DeJesus) hadn’t heard from her either. (Alex had an alibi at the time Shannan disappeared and was never a suspect.) The family began to suspect that Shannan had run into foul play, but they couldn’t file a missing person report until Shannan had been missing for 48 hours. The movie makes it look like Mari and her daughters didn’t find out that Shannan was working as a prostitute until she disappeared and Alex (who was also Shannan’s pimp) told them that Shannan was a prostitute. 

However, Alex expresses skepticism that Mari didn’t at least suspect that Shannan was involved in illegal activities because Mari allegedly demanded that Shannan give her money to help pay Mari’s bills, even though Shannan was supposedly unemployed. When the Gilberts go to where Alex and Shannan lived to question Alex about her disappearance, it’s clear that they blame him for Shannan’s problems. Sherre also makes an angry comment to Alex that indicates that he was physically abusive to Shannan and the family knew it.

Shannan’s prostitution driver Michael Pak (played by James Hiroyuki Liao), who witnessed Shannan frantically running away when she disappeared, also hints that Mari already knew that Shannan was a prostitute before Shannan disappeared and that Mari didn’t care about Shannan being a sex worker, as long as Shannan was giving money to Mari. He comes right out and says that Shannan despised her mother, whom Michael describes in the movie as money-hungry and demanding. Michael (who was also cleared as a suspect) claims that Shannan refused to get in the car and she ran away when he tried to help her during her fateful after-midnight ordeal. He says that he drove around looking for her but eventually gave up and drove away.

“Lost Girls” doesn’t try to make Mari Gilbert look like Mother of the Year, but there’s a definite sense in watching the movie that more could’ve been told about Mari, but this information about her was deliberately left out because the filmmakers didn’t want the audience to feel alienated from the story’s main character. There are predictable scenes of tough-talking Mari storming into police stations and yelling at detectives because she thinks they’re incompetent or not acting fast enough. 

Joe Brewer (played by Matthew F. O’Connor), the prostitution client whom Shannan met with before she disappeared, was quickly cleared as a suspect after he passed a polygraph test. Shannan was last seen far from his house. The eyewitnesses who saw Shannan running down the street and desperately going to people’s houses to beg for their help say that she was too incoherent to describe what was wrong. She gave the impression that someone was after her, although the eyewitnesses say they saw no one chasing after Shannan.

Just like in real life, the movie depicts that the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance led to the discovery of more murder victims who were dumped in the same marshy areas near Long Island’s Ocean Parkway. However, Mari was convinced that Shannan was still alive until Shannan’s remains were found more than a year after she disappeared. Many of the people who saw last Shannan, when she was in a hysterical state of mind, assumed that Shannan was on drugs at the time, but an autopsy later revealed that she had no drugs in her system. 

Much of “Lost Girls” shows either one of two things: (1) Mari feuding with the investigating police (including holding press conferences that are meant to shame them) and (2) Mari doing her own investigations. It’s the movie’s latter depictions that come across as less authentic. Mari goes snooping around people’s front yards, she looks in windows of places where she’s trespassing, and she interviews neighbors and local business owners, as if she’s a middle-aged Nancy Drew.

“Lost Girls” also has a “good cop/bad cop” cliché that’s frequently used in crime dramas. In this case, the “good cop” is Richard Dormer (played by Gabriel Byrne), who’s leading the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance and murder. The “bad cop” is Dean Bostick (played by Dean Winters), one of Richard’s underlings who’s tasked with doing a lot of the legwork. Richard is portrayed as flawed but willing to help Mari, even when she berates and insults him. Dean is portrayed as a mean-spirited and crude sexist who’s not afraid to show it when he’s rudely dismissive of Mari. At one point, Dean says to a co-worker: “Honestly, who spends this much time looking for a hooker?”

During the investigation, Sherre goes on social media to connect with family members of other suspected LISK murder victims. Eventually, some of these family members travel to New York state to pressure the police to do more in the investigation. The family members also hold vigils and participate in press conferences so that the cases can continue to get media attention. Sherre thinks it’s a good idea for the Gilbert family to meet these other family members who are victims’ advocates, but Mari initially refuses because she thinks that Shannan is still missing and isn’t murdered like the other victims.

Mari doesn’t want to be lumped in with the other victims’ families, and she feels somewhat superior to them. “Lost Girls” author Kolker, who interviewed Mari for the book and followed the case closely, says that Mari was like this in real life too. And just like in real life, the movie shows that Mari aligned herself with the other victims’ families only after she decided that it would be an advantage to show strength in numbers, rather than Mari trying to get media attention all by herself. At one point in the story, Mari exclaims: “It’s our job … to make sure these girls are not forgotten!”

“Lost Girls” portrays Mari as being standoffish yet domineering when she first meets some of the murder victims’ family members (who are all women), who have gathered in a diner. They are:

  • Missy (played by Molly Brown), a woman from Connecticut whose sister Maureen was a murder victim.
  • Lorraine (played by Miriam Shor), whose daughter Megan was a murder victim.
  • Lynn (played by Anna Reeder), a woman from Buffalo, New York, whose daughter Melissa was a murder victim.
  • Amanda (played by Grace Capeless), who is Lynn’s daughter and Melissa’s sister.
  • Kim (played by Lola Kirke), an on-again/off-again prostitute from North Carolina whose sister Amber was a murder victim.

It doesn’t take long for Mari to make herself the leader of the group. Gradually, she becomes less aloof and more open to making friends with them. Mari bonds the most with easygoing Lorraine and clashes the most with feisty Kim. Sherre often acts as a peacemaker when Mari gets irritated with other members of the group. At times, Mari acts like she wants to distance herself from the group, but Sherre is usually the one to smooth things over and convince Mari that these other women can be allies. 

The movie depicts Mari as being the chief organizer of the group’s press conferences and the mastermind of staging events, such as having this group of women march through neighborhoods where the murder victims were last seen. It’s a bit of credibility stretch to believe that Mari singlehandedly did all the things in real life that she’s depicted as doing singlehandedly in the movie. However, one of the most authentic aspects of “Lost Girls” is Mari’s emotional ambivalence over who to trust in her quest for justice. It’s not an easy issue for anyone to deal with, especially if it’s compounded by the trauma of looking for a missing child and feeling let down by authorities who are supposed to help.

“Lost Girls” also has a character named Joe Scalise (played by Kevin Corrigan), an Oak Beach neighbor of cleared suspect Joe Brewer. Joe Scalise is portrayed as being the first to tip off Mari that a physician named Dr. Peter Hackett (played by Reed Birney), another Oak Beach resident, should be looked at as a prime suspect. Dr. Hackett is a prominent member of this gated community, but Joe Scalise says that the doctor has a weird fascination with helping prostitutes, whom Dr. Hackett treats as his patients in the doctor’s home office.

Dr. Hackett’s backyard also leads to the marsh where many of the bodies were found. Mari puts two and two together and figures that this is the same mystery doctor who called her on the day that Shannan disappeared. Dr. Hackett denied it, but phone records later proved it.

Through her investigation, Mari also finds out that the doctor’s home office has a surveillance camera outside that would have recorded Shannan on the street the night she disappeared. But when Mari shows up at the office unannounced to interrogate Dr. Hackett, his wife/office manager tells Mari that any video recording from that camera on that night was automatically recorded over. Mari personally confronts Dr. Hackett, who is creepy, smug and evasive. Mari is also infuriated when she finds out the police never even asked for the video surveillance footage.

“Lost Girls” repeatedly portrays Mari as someone who uncovers evidence or tips that the police then express skepticism about or completely ignore. The movie implies in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that one of the main reasons why Shannan’s case remains unsolved is because the police have been unwilling to thoroughly investigate the privileged and influential people of Oak Beach. It’s an age-old issue of criminal justice being different for people who can afford great lawyers and those who can’t.

Mari continues to get tips from Joe Scalise (who seems to be a composite of real-life people), and the more she finds out, the more she’s convinced that Dr. Hackett knows more than he’s telling. When Mari pleads with the police to further investigate Dr. Hackett, she’s told that Joe Scalise is a questionable source since Scalise has been feuding for years with Dr. Hackett and appears to have a personal vendetta against the doctor.

Joe Scalise warns Mari: “The good people of Oak Beach live by one thing: Be wary of those who could ruin a good thing. You are the wayfarer they’ve been dreading.” The movie certainly gives the impression that Mari and the victims’ families are fighting an uphill battle against people who are actively protecting the murderer or murderers.

Because it’s a well-known fact that these murders remained unsolved and no suspects were arrested at the time that “Lost Girls” was made, there’s a feeling of doom while watching the movie that Mari and all of the victims’ loved ones won’t get the justice that they’re seeking by the end of the film. People who watch this movie who never heard of these murders before might be surprised that there’s really no cathartic ending for “Lost Girls.” The Gilbert family also suffered another tragedy that’s not shown in the movie but is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, which includes details on what people can do if they have information that they think can help solve this real-life mystery of the Long Island murders.

Ryan is a very talented actress who excels in every role that she does, so her performance carries this movie to transcend some of its flaws. McKenzie and Kirke also have some standout moments, with McKenzie’s adept portrayal of Sherre’s quiet heartbreak and Kirke’s memorable portrayal of Kim’s fiery cynicism. Byrne and Winters give adequate portrayals of the two cops who have the most contact with Mari. These types of cops have been seen before in many crime dramas, although Byrne’s Richard Dormer character is written to have more compassion than his police colleagues in this investigation.

“Lost Girls” can get faulty when the movie presents an unrealistic depiction of Mari’s sleuthing and how much access she had in the police investigation. A fairly ludicrous scene in the movie is when police allow her to enter a crime scene while they’re investigating, as if she’s law enforcement too. In real life, that access wouldn’t be given to someone like Mari, and it never happened in real life with Mari, who was very antagonistic to the police.

The movie also doesn’t give any room to consider other possible suspects, since the filmmakers make it look like Peter Hackett was the one whom Mari thought was the most likely to be guilty of the crimes. The real Peter Hackett, who has denied any connection to the murders and was never named by police as a suspect, moved out of Oak Beach in 2016, and he reportedly lives in Florida. There’s a scene in the movie where Mari confronts him again when she finds out he’s moving out of Oak Beach—and it’s a scene that looks “only in a  movie” fake.

“Lost Girls” tends to oversimply many aspects of these complicated Long Island murder cases, but the movie admirably doesn’t lose sight of its intent of trying to get justice for these murders. It’s not a typical murder mystery where the killer or killers get caught and punished in the end. And in that sense, it’s the most harrowing type of true crime story that can be told.

Netflix premiered “Lost Girls” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

Review: ‘All In: The Fight for Democracy,’ starring Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Andrew Young, Debo Adegbile, Sean J. Young and Ari Berman

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stacey Abrams in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino, Asian and Native American) discussing past and present issues in U.S. citizens’ right to vote.

Culture Clash: The consensus of people interviewed in the documentary is that voting inequalities, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, stem from party politics and bigotry issues against people of color, young people and people who are economically disadvantaged.

Culture Audience: “All In: The Fight for Democracy” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal-leaning beliefs, since conservative lawmakers are portrayed as the chief villains who want to suppress people’s votes. 

A scene from “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés) examines the history of voting rights in the United States and how those rights have been violated. It’s a subject that’s theoretically supposed to be a non-partisan issue, but the documentary doesn’t try and hide that it’s biased heavily toward liberal politics and the Democratic Party, which is portrayed as the political party that’s taking the most action to include more U.S. citizens in the voting process. When it comes to modern-day voter suppression and the push to exclude people from the voting process, the documentary puts the blame primarily on Republican politicians and other lawmakers who have conservative-leaning political beliefs.

Democratic politician Stacey Abrams is one of the producers of “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” so it’s no surprise that she’s the main star of the movie, which uses her highly contested 2018 political campaign for governor of Georgia as an example of voter suppression. Her opponent in that campaign was Republican politician Brian Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state in charge of overseeing the voting process in Georgia while he was campaigning for governor. Overseeing the voting process in his own election was an obvious conflict of interest, but Kemp refused to step down from his secretary of state position during his gubernatorial campaign because it was legal in Georgia for him to keep that position while he was campaigning for another office.

In the end, after 10 days of the election results being contested, Kemp was declared the winner with 50% of the votes, while it was announced that Abrams received 49% of the votes. The controversial election resulted in Abrams and her political group Fair Fight filing lawsuits and investigating reports of widespread voter suppression and other tactics to prevent thousands of people in Georgia from voting. The accusations are that this voter suppression has disproportionately affected districts with voters who are registered Democrats and/or people of color. The racial elements of this election could not be ignored, since Abrams would have been the first African American woman to be a state governor in the U.S. if she had won the election.

Critics of Abrams have called her a “sore loser,” but there is a valid argument in wondering what the outcome of that election would have been if thousands of voter registrations hadn’t been mysteriously purged from computer systems. There were also confirmed reports of thousands of voter registrations not being processed in time for the election, mostly in areas of Georgia where there is a high percentage of people of color and/or registered Democrats. It also looked suspicious that most of the voting sites that were permanently shut down in Georgia were in districts with a high percentage of people of color and Democrats.

Even though Abrams gets the most screen time in this documentary, the entire film isn’t “The Stacey Abrams Show,” because most of the film is about the history of U.S. citizens’ right to vote and some of the recurring problems in the U.S. voting process. Abrams’ family background is mentioned (she’s the second-oldest of six kids, raised primarily in Mississippi and Georgia), and her parents Robert and Carolyn Abrams (who are both ministers) are interviewed in the film. The documentary also includes the 1993 footage of Abrams (when she was a 19-year-old student at Spelman College) speaking at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. Coming from a family that placed a high value on education, religion, voting and public service, it’s no wonder that she wanted to go into politics.

The first half of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” takes a look at the long history of voter exclusion and suppression in the United States, before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and how certain groups of people have constantly had to fight for their right to vote. The second half of the documentary focuses primarily on U.S. voting rights during and after the 1960s civil-rights movement. As historian/author Carol Anderson comments in the documentary: “Past is prologue. Those forces that are systemically determined to keep American citizens from voting, they have been laying the seeds over time.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789, only 6% of U.S. citizens had the right to vote. These citizens were white male property owners. The documentary does an excellent job of retracing how laws gradually changed for voting to open up to more U.S. citizens, so that property ownership wasn’t a requirement to vote and U.S. citizens who weren’t white men got the right to vote. The 15th Amendment (which, in 1870, gave U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of their race, color or previous condition of servitude), the 19th Amendment (which gave U.S. women the right to vote in 1920) and the Voting Rights Act (originally signed into law in 1965) are three of the most important legislations to make these voting rights possible.

The documentary reiterates that the biggest injustices in voting often stem from racism. After the slaves were freed, the U.S. experienced the Reconstruction period when, for the first time in U.S. history, African American men began to own property and held elected offices on the federal and state levels. But, as “Give Us the Ballot” author Ari Berman says in the documentary: “The greatest moments of progress are followed by the most intense periods of retrenchment.”

In other words, when people of color are perceived as advancing too far in American society, there’s political backlash. The Reconstruction period led to the shameful Jim Crow period, particularly in Southern states, which passed racial segregation laws making it more difficult for people of color to access the same levels of education and resources as white people. Poll taxes and literacy tests became requirements to vote and were used as a way to weed out poor and uneducated people, who were disproportionately people of color. Black men in particular were singled out for arrests for minor crimes (such as loitering), and these arrest records were used as reasons to prevent them from voting in certain states.

The Florida felony disenfranchisement law of 1868 created a trend of felons being barred from voting. The U.S. is currently the only democracy that doesn’t allow convicted felons to vote. Critics of this voter exclusion law say that it’s inherently racist because people of color are more likely to be convicted of the same felonies that white people are accused of committing. Efforts to repeal the “felons can’t vote” laws are mentioned in the documentary, which includes an interview with Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The documentary also mentions that before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it could be dangerous and sometimes deadly for African Americans and other people of color who voted. African Americans and other people of color could get fired for voting if they had a racist employer. Depending on the area, African Americans and other people of color would be the targets of violence if they voted. And even registering to vote could be an ordeal, since it was common in certain areas for intimidation tactics to be used on people of color during voter registration.

The documentary names Maceo Snipes (an African American military veteran) as an example: In 1946, Snipes was murdered because he defied segregation laws and was the only African American to vote in Georgia’s Democratic primary election. Abrams shares a story that her grandmother Wilter “Bill” Abrams told her about being terrified the first time that she voted, because Wilter was afraid that she would be attacked by white racists at the voting site. Wilter was eventually persuaded to vote by her husband, who reminded her of the people who sacrificed their lives to give people of color the right to vote in America.

“All In” also details how other racial groups have been the targets of voter exclusion in U.S. history. In its early years, California resisted laws to allow Chinese people and other Asians to vote. States near the Mexican border, particularly Arizona and Texas, have a long history of trying to exclude Latinos and Native Americans from voting. In many situations, people were kept from voting if English was not their first language. The United States does not have an official language, and there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says U.S. residents and U.S. voters are required to speak English.

According to several people in the documentary, the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections of Democratic politician Barack Obama (the first African American president of the United States) sparked a backlash that led to an increased push by conservative lawmakers to erode the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Shelby County v. Holder case that voting laws could revert back to the individual U.S. states. This Supreme Court ruling opened up a floodgate of states (usually in the South and Midwest) that revised their voting laws that critics say make it easier for these states to allow voter suppression.

Historian/author Anderson doesn’t mince words about these revised voting laws that began in the 2010s: “It’s Jim Crow 2.0.” Gerrymandering and voter suppression are described in the documentary as two sides of the same coin. The documentary reiterates the warning that voter manipulation usually targets people of color, poor people and young people. And because most people of color who are U.S. citizens tend to be Democrats, the documentary implies that corrupt Republicans are behind a lot of the voter suppression when it comes to people of color.

Voter suppression comes in three main forms: strict voter ID laws, voting roll purges and permanent closing of voting sites. Critics say that voter ID laws are designed to exclude poor and uneducated U.S. citizens who might not have government-issued IDs. Voting roll purges (eliminating voter registrations) are often done without voters’ knowledge and permission, and are usually because the eliminated voters haven’t voted for a number of years or for other random reasons. And permanent closures of voting sites have been found to occur mostly in economically disadvantaged areas where there’s a large percentage of people of color.

In many cases, even if a voter has a government-issued ID, the voter can be turned away at the voting site if the voter’s signature is not an exact match to the signature that the voter has on file with the board of elections office. In the documentary, Sean J. Young of ACLU Georgia says signatures that don’t match are big issues with Asian immigrants, who often have an Asian first name and an American first name. Barb Semans and OJ Semans of Four Directions (a voting-rights group for Native Americans) mention that North Dakota’s voting law requiring a residential address for registration excludes numerous Native Americans who have to use post-office boxes because they live on reservations without residential addresses.

Alejandra Gomez and Alexis Delgado Garcia of Lucha (a voting-rights groups for Latinos) are featured in the documentary. Garcia is seen approaching different people in Latino communities with voter registration information and encouragement to vote. The results are mixed. Some of the people aren’t U.S. citizens and therefore aren’t eligible to vote, while the U.S. citizens are either interested in registering and plan to vote, or are reluctant to register because they don’t like or trust politicians. Gomez comments, “The most important part of voter registration is that human connection and being able to understand why that person does not trust.”

Abrams says in the documentary: “When entire communities become convinced that the process is not for them, we lose their participation in our nation’s future. And that’s dangerous to everyone.” Eric Holder, who was U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration, comments: “Too many Americans take for granted the right to vote and don’t understand that unless we fight for the right to vote, unless we try to include as many people as possible, our democracy is put at risk.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice; historian/author Eric Foner; civil-rights leader Andrew Young; civil-rights attorney Debo Adegbile; Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party; Lauren Goh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Voters Right Act into law; Ohio U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge; and student activists Michael Parsons (from Dartmouth College) and Jayla Allen (of Prairie View A&M University).

This documentary is obviously stacked with people who are open with their politically liberal beliefs and who are known Democrats. There’s some attempt to present conservative points of view, but not much. One of the conservative-leaning people interviewed in the documentary is attorney Bert Rein, who represented Shelby County, Alabama, in the Shelby County v. Holder case. He doesn’t say much except that he thought that the case was legally compelling enough for him to want to represent Shelby County.

Hans Von Spakovsky of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which is a major advocate of voter ID laws, is also interviewed in the documentary. He says that the “vast majority” of people in the United States believe in voter ID laws, although he doesn’t list any sources or details as the basis for this statement. Considering that the documentary describes voter suppression and gerrymandering as being perpetrated mostly by corrupt Republicans, it’s not too surprising that a documentary with a Democratic politician (Abrams) as one of the producers is not going to give much of a voice to the opposition.

Even with this blatant bias, “All In” could have done a better job at looking at other cases of suspected voter suppression besides Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial election campaign. Because the documentary presents Abrams’ case as the only major example of suspected voter suppression, it undermines the documentary’s message that voter suppression is a widespread problem. A skeptic could easily say that the Abrams/Kemp campaign controversy was a rare fluke. It also would have been interesting to see more of what Fair Fight is doing behind the scenes to prevent voter suppression.

And there could have been more of an exploration of how votes are manipulated in ways other than voter suppression. For example, there’s no mention in the documentary about how computer hacking affects voting machines that process data via computers. (The excellent HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War Over America’s Elections” examines this cyberhacking topic in depth.) And there is growing concern over how governments from outside the U.S. could be corrupting the U.S. electoral system to influence the votes of U.S. citizens.

The documentary also should have had more interviews with people who work on the “front lines” of voting, such as polling workers and officials who work for boards of elections. There’s a definite “liberal elitism” tone to this documentary, because of the numerous Democratic politicians and liberal attorneys who are interviewed. And during the end credits of the film, several celebrities who are outspoken liberals (such as Gloria Steinem, Constance Wu, Jonathan Van Ness, Gabourey Sidibe, the Jonas Brothers and Yara Shahidi) give soundbites telling people their voting rights.

“All In” makes its liberal bias abundantly clear, but people of any political persuasion can appreciate that the documentary has a superb overview of the history of voting in the U.S. and explains how people can be more informed voters. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that there are massive inequalities in people’s voting experiences in the U.S., and many of the problems are rooted in racism and other prejudices. It’s this history lesson and encouragement of more awareness for voter rights—rather than the partisan posturing and finger-pointing—where “All In” shines the most.

Amazon Studios released “All In: The Fight for Democracy” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on September 18, 2020.

2020 Athena Film Festival: movie reviews and recaps

March 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Athena Film Festival

Pictured  from left to right at the 2020 Athena Film Festival Awards, held February 26 at Barnard College in New York City: filmmaker Effie T. Brown, Athena Film Festival co-founder/artistic director Melissa Silverstein, filmmaker Unjoo Moon, actress Beanie Feldstein, Athena Film Festival co-founder Kathryn Kolbert and Barnard College president Sian Beilock. (Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for the Athena Film Awards)

The 10th annual Athena Film Festival—which took place at New York City’s Barnard College from February 27 to March 1, 2020—once again had an impressive presentation of female-oriented movies, panels and networking events.

The festival was preceded on February 26 by the annual Athena Film Festival Awards, which honored actress Beanie Feldstein, filmmaker Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and producer Effie T. Brown with Athena Awards, while filmmaker Unjoo Moon received the event’s first Breakthrough Award. Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman” was the opening-night film at the festival, where the movie had its New York premiere. Gloria Steinem, filmmaker Greta Gerwig (a 2006 Barnard graduate), director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), actress Lorraine Toussaint and Oscar-winning filmmaker Dan Cogan (“Icarus”) were among the presenters at the award show, while singer Arianna Afsar performed at the event. Also in attendance were actress Andrea Riseborough, filmmaker Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and author/public speaker Verna Myers.

One of the changes to Athena Film Festival this year was that it became more environmentally conscious by not having pamphlets, which were provided at previous Athena Film Festivals. (People who still needed to see a schedule on paper could go to the information area, which had a paper schedule on display.) Saving paper by not having pamphlets and encouraging people to go online for information are steps in the right direction for helping the environment. Kudos to the Athena Film Festival producers for being forward-thinking about this important issue.

Almost all of the movies had their world premieres at other festivals, but there were several that had their New York premieres at the Athena Film Festival. (Full reviews will be posted later and can be found at Culture Mix’s Movie & TV Reviews section.)

The New York premieres at the Athena Film Festival included these movies:

The narrative centerpiece film was “Lost Girls,” a mystery thriller directed by Liz Garbus and starring Amy Ryan as a mother searching for her missing 24-year-old daughter. The movie is based on the true story of Mari Gilbert’s quest to find justice for her daughter Shannan Gilbert, who was among the victims of the Gilbo Beach Murders on New York’s Long Island. The story includes how Mari and other family members of the murder victims joined forces to try find out who murdered their loved ones. Netflix will begin streaming “Lost Girls” on March 13, 2020.

If you liked Netflix’s 2019 “Unbelievable” limited series (which was based on a true crime story about the hunt for a serial rapist), you’ll also like “Lost Girls.” The movie’s screenplay, written by Michael Werwie, is based on Robert Kolker’s book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.”

“Lost Girls” team members at the Athena Film Festival premiere of the movie at Barnard College in New York City on February 29, 2020. Pictured from left to right: producer Anne Carey, actress Molly Brown, actress Amy Ryan, actress Miriam Shor, actress Lola Kirke, actress Oona Laurence and director Liz Garbus. (Photo by Carla Hay)

At the Q&A after the “Lost Girls” screening, which was attended by many of the real-life people who are portrayed in the film, Garbus said that she wanted to direct this movie: “I fell in love with the story. I felt if I could be part of telling and elevate the story again and appreciating the incredible work by these women in keeping their loved ones’ stories alive, then it would be a great honor.”

Ryan, who plays Mari Gilbert in “Lost Girls,” was visibly moved when she spoke to Mari’s daughter Sherre Gilbert, who was in the front row of the audience.  “I am so grateful to use my voice to help to keep this story going …This story matters. it was really an honor to play your mom.” Ryan added that the actresses who portrayed the grieving allies shared a real-life friendship on the movie set. “Our connection to each other was an amazing reflection of that … I just think when you get a group of women together in a room, it can be very powerful.”

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was another standout film at the Athena Film Festival. This drama, written and directed by Eliza Hittman, follows the emotionally harrowing journey of a 17-year-old named Autumn Gallagher (played by Sidney Flanigan), who has to travel from her hometown in rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion for an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. The movie realistically shows the obstacles she faces, as well as the toll that her abortion decision takes on her physically and psychologically. Hittman had been scheduled to do a post-premiere Q&A at the Athena Film Festival, but she had to bow out to attend the Berlin International Film Festival, where “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won the Silver Bear Award (second-place prize). Focus Features will release “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

The dramatic film “The Perfect Candidate,” directed and co-written by Haifaa al-Mansour, is about a woman named Maryam (played by Mila Al Zahrani), who’s facing a different type of obstacle. She’s a Saudi Arabian female doctor who running for her local city council, in a culture where women rarely try to be political leaders because it’s considered unladylike and almost taboo. Not surprisingly, she faces a lot of sexism and degrading reactions to her campaign. It’s a well-acted film that provides further insight into how far some countries need to go before they won’t place a stigma on gender-equality opportunities that women in other countries take for granted. Music Box Films will release “The Perfect Candidate” in U.S. cinemas, on a date to be announced. The movie was already released in Saudi Arabia, which selected “The Perfect Candidate” as the country’s official 2019 Academy Awards submission for Best International Feature Film.

Perhaps the best underrated gem of the festival was the Canadian drama “Kuessipan,” directed and co-written by Myriam Verreault and Naomi Fontaine, based on Fontaine’s novel of the same time. The mostly French-language movie tells the story of two teenage girls in Québec who’ve been best friends since childhood, but their lives are going in different directions. Mikuan (played by Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) comes from a stable family and is headed to college, while Shaniss (played by Yamie Grégoire) comes from a troubled broken home and is an unwed teenage mother who’s dropped out of school. What makes this story different from others with a similar concept is that the girls happen to be from the Innu tribe. Their racial identity and issues related to their culture are rarely seen in movies, so it’s refreshing that this film does it in a very authentic way. The movie is engaging and very well-made, from beginning to end. “Kuessipan” is highly recommended for anyone who likes coming-of-age stories that ring true.

The only feature film to have its world premiere at the festival was the documentary “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman, about female rabbi/activist Rachel Cowan and how she lived with terminal brain cancer before her death in 2018. The movie played to a sold-out audience. It’s an intimate and starkly made film that treats Cowan with dignity and respect. At the Q&A that was held after the screening, Weiman-Kelman said that she started filming the documentary before Cowan was diagnosed with brain cancer, but Cowan graciously wanted her to keep filming after the diagnosis.

The inspiring documentary “Woman in Motion” (directed by Todd Thompson) tells the story of “Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nicholas’ 1970s campaign to recruit more women and people of color to join NASA and become astronauts. This movie would make a great companion piece to the 2016 Oscar-nominated hit drama “Hidden Figures,” which told the story of three African American women who were underappreciated pioneers at NASA in the 1960s. “Woman in Motion” also takes a look at how “Star Trek” also played a role in opening up people’s minds to the idea that a diverse group of people could be in outer space.

The Irish horror flick “Sea Fever” (written and directed by Neasa Hardiman) is definitely influenced by the 1979 classic film “Alien,” since it’s about a group of people trapped on board with a parasitic creature that can multiply easily, infect humans, and then kill them. And the smartest one in the group is a scientific-minded woman, who’s the best chance that they have of survival. But instead of being a gun-toting warrior like Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” character Ripley, the heroine of “Sea Fever” is a marine-biology student Siobhán (played by Hermione Corfield), who’s the youngest person on an isolated ship that’s under attack by a mysterious sea creature. Even though the movie has some predictable tropes, what makes “Sea Fever” different from other horror films of this type is that Siobhán has to deal with ageism, as well as the expected sexism. For most of the story, the other people on board don’t take her seriously. And there are dire consequences when her warnings go unheeded. Gunpowder & Sky will release “Sea Fever” in U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced.

“Rocks,” a drama directed by Sarah Gavron, was the festival’s closing-night film. “The movie (written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson) is about a London teenager nicknamed Rocks (played by Bukky Bakray), who comes home to find her single mother missing, and she has to take care of her younger brother Emmanuel (played by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) by herself. With the help of her female friends, Rocks tries to hide her situation from child protective services, which would separate the siblings in foster care. Overall, the movie is good, although some people might have an issue with one aspect of the movie’s conclusion that ends up being vague and open to interpretation. (It has to do with a decision that Rocks makes about Emmanuel.) However, the movie’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the problems that Rocks encounters as an unexpected underage guardian of her brother.  Film4 will release “Rocks” in the U.K. and Ireland on April 24 , 2020. The movie’s U.S. release date is undetermined, as of this writing.

Other movies that had their New York City premieres at the festival included the Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive”; the lesbian cop drama “The Long Shadow”; the Papua New Guinea women’s rugby documentary “Power Meri”; the British drama “Military Wives”; the Israeli political documentary “Objector”; the French coming-of-age drama “Stars by the Pound”; the Spanish lesbian drama “Carmen & Lola”; and the Italian female boxing documentary “Butterfly.”

The festival had some movies that were originally released in 2019 and have won prizes and Oscar nominations. They included the Syrian war documentary “For Sama” (co-directed by and starring Waad al-Kateab); Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated version of “Little Women,” based on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel; the Disney animated sequel “Frozen 2” (co-directed by Jennifer Lee); and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons.

There were also networking events (most were invitation-only), discussion panels and creative workshops.

The Athena Film Festival’s “The Silence Breakers” panel at Barnard College in New York City on February 29, 2020. Pictured from left to right: Sarah Anne Masse, Jasmine Lobe, Drew Dixon and Sheri Sher. (Photo Carla Hay)

The most-talked about panel, which also packed the room with about 250 people, was “The Silence Breakers,” featuring #MeToo accusers of disgraced entertainment moguls Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons. The panel, which took place on February 29, was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter executive film editor Tatiana Siegel, who has covered several #MeToo stories in the entertainment industry. The panelists shared their thoughts on the February 24 verdict that convicted Weinstein of a first-degree criminal sexual act and a third-degree count of rape. A New York City jury of seven men and five women delivered the verdict, which acquitted Weinstein of the most serious charges: two counts of predatory sexual assault and one count of first-degree rape.

The panelists shared their thoughts on the verdict. “I was really relieved. It felt like a weight I’d been carrying on my shoulders for 12 years had been lifted,” commented actress Sarah Ann Masse, who claims that Weinstein sexually harassed her during a job interview in 2008. “I was expecting him to get away with it, like he had for decades.”

Jasmine Lobe, an writer/actress who says that Weinstein sexually assaulted her in 2006, had this to say about Weinstein being convicted of sex crimes: “There was a tremendous sense of victory. We were all preparing for the worst.” Weinstein continues to deny all sexual-misconduct allegations against him. He will receive his prison sentence on March 11, 2020.

Drew Dixon (a former A&R executive at Def Jam Records and Arista Records) and Sheri Sher (a founding member of the all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies) each claim that they were raped by Simmons, who founded the companies Def Jam and Rush Communications. He stepped down from his businesses in 2017, after several women went public with similar allegations. Dixon says her assault happened in 1995, while Sher claims that Simmons sexually violated her in 1983. Simmons has denied all the accusations against him. As of this writing, he has not been arrested for any alleged sex crimes that still fall under the statute of limitations, but he’s being sued in California by an unnamed woman who claims he raped her in 1988.

“It is a game-changer, a watershed moment,” Dixon said of the Weinstein rape conviction. “Also, the fact that a majority-male jury understood the nuance of remaining in touch with your perpetrator.” Simmons accuser Sher added that since the resurgence of the #Me Too movement and now that Weinstein has been convicted of rape, there’s a “sense that it’s a new era. It’s time to change. It’s real.”

Dixon and Sher are among the Simmons accusers featured in the documentary “On the Record,” directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. The movie was publicly protested by Simmons and some of his supporters. Executive producer Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ then dropped out of the project. HBO Max then picked up the documentary, which will begin streaming on a date to be announced. Dixon mentioned that when black women accuse black men of abuse, the situation is more complicated because of the racial injustices that black men face in the legal system.

Meanwhile, the panelists said that although organizations such as Time’s Up have been helpful for many #MeToo survivors, a lot more progress needs to be made in order to change the culture where sexual harassers and predators can still thrive. The panelists advocate for laws that extend or suspend statutes of limitations for sex crimes. They also think there should be more policies that won’t allow non-disclosure agreements for settlements involving sexual misconduct.

Masse and Dixon also noted that more industry people in power who say they care about this issue need to practice what they preach and hire #MeToo silence breakers who’ve been victims of career retaliation. Because the #MeToo issue is not limited to the entertainment industry, Dixon commented that it’s everyone’s responsibility to do their part to stop the cycle of abuse: “If you see something, say something. You call it out. You don’t laugh it off.”