Review: ‘Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,’ starring Gretchen Sorin, Allyson Hobbs, Craig Steven Wilder, Christopher West, Fath Ruffins and Eric Avila

December 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ben Chaney (center) and his family in the car on the way to the funeral of his brother James in Meridian, Mississippi, on August 7, 1964, in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” (Photo by Bill Eppridge/Courtesy of PBS)

“Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America”

Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people and one Latino) of academics, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by African Americans who’ve taken various modes of transportation, especially cars, in the United States.

Culture Clash: African Americans are often the targets of bigotry, violence or other acts of hate for driving or traveling.

Culture Audience: “Driving While Black” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-researched historical accounts of racial bigotry in America, but the movie lacks perspectives from young people and in-depth coverage of recent “driving while black” controversies.

A crowd attacking cars driven by African Americans in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)

There are tragically too many stories, both known and unknown, of people of color being refused service, getting harassed, assaulted or killed because of their race. The documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” gives a mostly somber historical chronology of how race plays a role in the mistreatment of black people who travel by motor vehicle in America. Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns, the documentary has a very scholarly tone, since most of the people interviewed for the film are academics.

The movie, which has the usual blend of talking heads and archival footage, can come across as too dry and stodgy for some viewers. No one under the age of 50 is interviewed in the movie. And shutting out that youthful perspective is a strange choice for this documentary, because young people are often the most vulnerable and frequent targets of racism for “driving while black.”

Because a great deal of “Driving While Black” is about what happened before the 21st century, “Driving While Black” might also disappoint people who are expecting more current events to be the primarily focus of the film. The movie is told in chronological order, so it isn’t until the last half-hour of this nearly two-hour film that people will see modern examples of racist incidents caught on video, involving African Americans who were harassed in or near their cars and were sometimes killed. News clips and viral videos are shown of these incidents, but the documentary doesn’t try to investigate or reveal anything new.

In other words, don’t expect to see any groundbreaking insight into some of the most notorious “driving while black” incidents that are widely described as racist because of controversial police actions against Rodney King, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Richard Hubbard III or Jacob Blake. All of these incidents stemmed from these unarmed African Americans being stopped by police while in or near a car. The documentary has brief snippets of video clips from these incidents but doesn’t interview anyone involved.

Even though the title of the movie is called “Driving While Black,” the documentary actually covers all major forms of transportation (except airplanes) and how transportation pertains to racial bigotry. The movie begins with an overview of how Africans were captured and brought to America in ships as slaves in the 1600s. “Think of the trauma and the terror and the violence of that forced mobility,” comments Stanford University historian Allyson Hobbs.

The movie covers how white racists who want to control where and when African Americans could go is a shameful part of American culture, harkening back to the slave days when slave owners would viciously beat or kill slaves for not following orders on where the slaves could or could not go. Controlling and limiting a slave’s movements were obvious ways to keep them in captivity. Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Craig Steven Wilder comments on this slavery era: “Right away, you have some elements of racial profiling, from the very beginning of the black experience in America.”

And after the Emancipation Proclamation freed U.S. slaves in 1883, many former slaves were left homeless and their mobility was limited by the types of housing that was denied to them by white racists. The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War gave way to a backlash against racial progress, and the Jim Crow era made racial segregation legal in the U.S. until the Civil Rights Act in 1964 outlawed it. Part of the American Dream includes ownership of land, which is a dream that is all too often denied to people because of their race.

Carolyn Finney, author of “Black Faces, White Spaces,” comments: “Land isn’t just about land. It’s about political and economic power, the power to choose. It’s about the freedom to move freely in space.”

The documentary covers the Great Migration during the Jim Crow era, when many African Americans from the South migrated North and West for better opportunities in housing and employment. Kathleen Franz, a historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, comments that lynchings of African Americans in the South fueled a lot of this migration. But even though many U.S. states outside of the South during the Jim Crow era technically didn’t make racial segregation legal, that didn’t mean that racism didn’t exist outside the South. Many African Americans and other people of color still came up against racial barriers all across America during the Great Migration.

It’s stated many times throughout the documentary that for most white people, taking a road trip means a fun-filled vacation. For many African Americans, taking a road trip can be fraught with danger. That’s because it’s part of African American culture to know, usually through first-hand experience, that being black means you will experience what it’s like to be questioned, stopped, harassed or attacked in places where you’re minding your own business and not breaking the law—just because someone might decide that you don’t belong there because of the color of your skin. The movie doesn’t say that it can’t happen to other races in America, but rather that this type of racism is more likely to happen to black people in America.

“Driving While Black” co-director Sorin is one of the commentators in the movie. She says in the beginning of the film: “Mobility is essential to freedom. I think the automobile is emblematic of the importance and the value of mobility in free society. But it also goes beyond mobility and allows us to understand the way that African Americans have moved forward in this country and the way that African Americans have been pushed back.”

Cars are usually a status symbol, so African Americans who drive luxury cars are often held under more scrutiny on the road than white people who drive the same cars. And even fame and money can’t make a black person immune to this racism. Many highly paid black celebrities have gone public about being pulled over by the police for “driving while black” and doing nothing wrong.

African American contributions to the auto industry are included in the film. Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson notes that black people have often been tasked with doing the most dangerous jobs in auto factories, such as working foundries where steel was forged or lifting engines. And unfortunately, black neighborhoods are often targeted for destruction, as highways and freeways were and still are frequently planned to be built though these neighborhoods, forcing many of the residents to move. Writer/filmmaker Lois Elie comments on how a neighborhood’s racial population and property values are always factors in construction of highways and freeways.

As black people in the Jim Crow era started to have more access to cars, it became important to know which businesses and areas were safe for people of color on road trips. There were several guide books, such as “Smith’s Guide,” “Grayson’s Guide” and the most well-know one of all: “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was first published in 1936 by its creator Victor Hugo Green, an enterprising African American entrepreneur who had no previous publishing experience.

The documentary includes an interview with real-estate salesperson Howard Glener, whose father took a chance on Green to print the first editions of the book, which many other white publishers refused to print. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” (which inspired the Oscar-winning 2018 movie “Green Book”) was widely distributed, with Esso gas stations being one of the publication’s main distributors.

As historian Hobbs mentions in the film, road trips for black people during the Jim Crow era had their pros and cons. On the one hand, the road trips gave black people more freedom and mobility. (These road trips were often to look for work or to visit family members.) On the other hand, Hobbs says that road trips gave black people more “exposure to more violence, indignity and humiliation.” Travel guides such as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” certainly helped many road travelers, but it could never cure the cancer of racism.

Not all of “Driving While Black” is about the doom and gloom of racism. One of the great things to come out of these travel guides was the sense of community that developed between businesses that welcomed black customers during the Jim Crow era when other business refused to serve black people. The Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans is mentioned as one of the more well-known establishments that was a haven for black people during the Jim Crow era. And several African Americans began to build their own upscale communities, such as Lincoln Hills, Colorado. Nancelia Jackson, a Lincoln Hills resident, calls it a “country club for black people.”

Dooky Chase’s, an African American-owned restaurant in New Orleans was one of the businesses that was in the travel guides listing safe places where black people could go during road trips. The documentary includes interviews with Dooky Chase’s owner Leah Chase and her daughter Stella Chase Reese (the manager of Dooky Chase’s) who offer their perspective and fond memories of the community of customers that the restaurant has had over the years. However, Chase laments that a lot of that community started to fade away after racial integration, because she says that wealthier black people began to gravitate to businesses owned by white people.

Cars played an important role for black people during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, when people were boycotting public transportation (such as buses and trains) that were racially segregated. Many civil rights activists organized carpools in their communities. Wilder comments, “It’s a wonderful way of thinking of how black people deployed the automobile to challenge Jim Crow.”

During the documentary’s last half-hour, there’s some discussion about how smartphones and social media have helped expose the types of racial profiling and racist police brutality that have been committed against black people who are driving or on the road. Fath Ruffins, a curator/historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, compares this media exposure to when the civil rights movement was broadcast on TV in the 1960s: “Something similar is going on today, where people who are not African American have begun to see, ‘Wow, there is really a tremendous difference in what driving around America and being black is than the average white American.'”

But being exposed to these racial differences and wanting to do something about racial injustice are two separate things. Jackson says that there is “widespread indifference or complicity by whites” in police violence against black people who are pulled over in traffic stops. Pasadena City College historian Christopher West gets emotional and tears up when he talks about the fear and sadness that he has for his children and other black children who have to get “the talk” about how to act when they’re being racially profiled. “Driving while black means driving while afraid,” West says with heartache in his voice.

Other academics interviewed in the documentary include Herb Boyd, historian and author of “Black Detroit”; film director /George Manson University Professor Spencer Crew, who is interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University. And other interviewees include Alvin Hall, creator/host of Driving the Green Book podcast; Walter Edwards, chairman of Harlem Business Alliance; Candacy Taylor, cultural documentarian/author of “Overground Railroad”; Jennifer Reut, historian/founder of Mapping the Green Book Project; Gary Jackson, a Denver County court judge whose great-grandfather co-founded Lincoln Heights; Five Points business owner Mae Stiger; journalist Tamara Banks; and Alison Rose Jefferson, historian/author of “Living the California Dream.”

People who already know a lot of African American history probably won’t discover many new facts that they didn’t already know if they watch “Driving While Black.” However, the documentary offers a lot of intelligent and thoughtful commentary, as well as important archival material (photos, videos and audio recordings) to give a deeper understanding of this history. Some of the archival material includes recordings and interviews with people who lived through the Jim Crow era.

Overall, “Driving While Black” is recommended for anyone who wants a broad historical context for why so much racial injustice is still happening in the United States. “Driving While Black” co-director Sorin wrote the 2020 nonfiction book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” and this documentary can be considered a visual companion to the book. Just like the book, the documentary is a sobering declaration that the history of racism continues to repeat itself.

PBS premiered “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” on October 13, 2020.

Review: ‘The Windermere Children,’ starring Thomas Kretschmann, Romola Garai, Tim McInnerny, Iain Glen, Tomasz Studzinski and Kacper Swietek

April 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Windermere Children,” pictured from left to right: Anna Maciejewska, Tomasz Studzinski, Lukasz Zieba, Kuba Sprenger, Marek Wrobelewski, Jakub Jankiewicz, Pascal Fischer and Kacper Swietek (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Windermere Children”

Directed by Michael Samuels 

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1945, shortly near the end of World War II, the drama “The Windermere Children” is based on a true story of how a group of Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust are brought to a group home in England to start new lives.

Culture Clash: The orphans experience difficult recoveries from their trauma, as well as anti-Semitism from some of the local residents.

Culture Audience: “The Windermere Children” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in stories about orphans or Holocaust survivors.

Thomas Kretschmann (standing) in “The Windermere Children” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Most stories about Holocaust survivors tend to be about what their lives are like years after World War II ended. But the dramatic film “The Windermere Children” (which is inspired by true events) tells the story of what happened in August 1945, shortly near the official end of World War II, when a group of about 300 Jewish orphans were brought from continental Europe (many were from Poland) to an estate in England as refugees. Because almost all of the children did not have relatives to claim them, the orphans had to start new lives in England.

Almost all of the children survived concentration camps and are going through severe trauma. They arrive by bus to Calgarth Estate, which is located by Lake Windermere. The estate has been turned into a group home for the children, whose transition and rehabilitation will be aided by a group of counselors and volunteers. Leading this group is German psychologist Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), whose specialty is child psychology.

Other people who are part of the team are athletic coach Jock Lawrence (played by Ian Glen); art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai); philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny); and married couple Georg Lauer (played by Philipp Christopher) and Edith Lauer (Anna Schumacher). Friedmann used to run an institution for troubled boys in Germany, but nothing quite prepares him for what he will experience with these orphans.

“The Windemere Children” (Michael Samuels and written by Simon Block) shows the somewhat chaotic and anxiety-filled arrival of the children by bus (one boy vomits on Mr. Montefiore as soon as he’s greeted by Montefiore), but then the teenagers who will be the main orphan characters in the story start to come into focus. (The ones who get the most screen time and backstories are the boys.)

Arek Hershlikovicz (played by Tomasz Studzinski) is a lanky, pimple-faced rebel. He shows an early romantic interest in Sala (played by Anna Maciejewska), who becomes his girlfriend. Icek “Ike” Alterman (played by Kuba Sprenger) is a bit of a charming flirt, and he finds out soon upon arriving that he’s attracted to an English girl. Schmuel “Sam” Laskier (played by Marek Wrobelewski) is a sorrowful loner. Ben Helfgott (played by Pascal Fischer) is a superb athlete, who quickly becomes a favorite of Coach Lawrence.

Chaim Olmer (played by Kacper Swietek) had assumed the identity of a boy named Ephraim Minsburg in order to survive, and the alias has stuck, but Chaim now wants to be known by his real name so that his sister can find him. Salek Falinower (played by Jakub Jankiewicz) is another loner, and he’s more likely than Sam to separate himself from the rest of the group. (He has to be gently coaxed by Friedmann to get out of the bus.) Salek is convinced that he will be reunited with his missing brother Chiel someday, even though everyone keeps telling him that there’s almost no chance that Chiel has survived.

Because most of the children have been through the trauma of concentration camps, their healing and rehabilitation are emotionally tough on them. The younger children who lived out on the streets are inseparable. During a walk in the woods, they are terrified by the presence of a small dog being walked by a local woman. The children run off and hide and have to be searched for by a counselor.

Another scene in the movie shows how something as simple as putting bread on the tables in the dining hall can spark a feeding frenzy, as the children grab the bread and run to their rooms to either eat the bread quickly or hide it from others. Eventually, the children learn that food at the orphanage is plentiful and they don’t have to act like paranoid scavengers and hoarders in order to get a meal.

Medical exams are also filled with anxiety and sometimes bad news. Many of the children are malnourished and recovering from physical abuse, such as beatings, whippings and burns. It’s not uncommon for them to have missing or decaying teeth. And the children also have to be de-loused. The clothes they arrived in are also burned, which is symbolic of them leaving their previous lives behind.

It’s while the children are being de-loused outdoors that they have an unpleasant encounter with some of the local residents. A group of boys who are in the same age group watch from afar and try to taunt them. Arek sees that the local boys’ reactions are out of fear and ignorance, so he approaches them, covered in de-lousing powder and extends his hand as if to give a handshake. One of the taunting boys tentatively takes Arek’s hand, but instead of shaking the hand, Arek pulls the terrified boy into the de-lousing shed. The other local boys run off and leave their bicycles behind, which some of the orphans gleefully steal.

Stealing becomes a habit for some of the orphans, and they are lectured not to do it by their elders at the orphanage. Meanwhile, the orphans are taught English and are encouraged by Ms. Paneth to paint their inner thoughts, without instruction rules or judgment on technique. It’s welcome therapy for many of the children, but one disturbing portrait by a child brings the art teacher to tears. And, as the movie shows, the children have constant nightmares and can be heard screaming and sobbing throughout the night.

During a trip to a local ice-cream parlor, the kids experience more anti-Semitism when the same group of boys who previously tried to taunt them show up at near the shop and give a Nazi salute, Friedmann than shames the boys by telling them that these children’s families were slaughtered. The boys sheepishly walk away, but the Jewish orphans see that anti-Semitism is everywhere, even in a country that fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Meanwhile, Coach Lawrence, a Scotsman who oversees the boys’ soccer playing, tries to toughen them up by telling them that people in the “real world” won’t care about them being Jewish refugees and they can’t use it as an excuse to get special treatment. Privately, Lawrence tells Friedmann that it might be time to start placing the kids into foster homes, in order to improve the strained relations between the locals and the refugees. Some of the locals are very open about their resentment that the estate land and taxpayer money are helping fund the refugees at the group home.

The most devastating part of the movie is when the Red Cross arrives to bring news about the orphans’ families. Most of the children had been holding out glimmers of hope that someone in their family would still be alive. But the news is as bad as expected. Arek is so emotionally wounded to find out that his entire family has been murdered the he verbally lashes out at Donna, and it puts an enormous strain on their relationship. There is a bright spot toward the end of the movie, which won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that this happy moment is a testament to the power of hope.

The epilogue of the film takes a similar approach to what “Schindler’s List” did at the end: It shows some of the real-life  survivors returning to the place depicted in the movie, along with flashbacks to the actors who portrayed them in the movie. The real-life Windermere children who give comments at the end of the film are Arek Hersh (who changed his last name from Hershlikovicz), Chaim “Harry” Olmer, Ben Helfgott and Schmuel “Sam” Laskier and Icek “Ike” Alterman.

“The Windermere Children” is an emotionally powerful film (although by no means as harrowing and masterfully made as “Schindler’s List”) that tells an important part of the Holocaust refugee story. The film’s cast members give solid performances, but the movie is heavily slanted toward the male perspective of these children’s experiences, while the female perspective isn’t given as much importance. There’s a one-hour documentary called “The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words,” which is worth watching for a more balanced gender representation and for more testimonials from the survivors. The documentary is a great complement to this dramatic film’s version of their story.

PBS had the U.S. TV premiere of “The Windermere Children” on April 5, 2020. BBC Two had movie’s U.K. TV premiere on January 27, 2020.

Review: ‘The Rescue List,’ starring Stephen Kwame Addo, Peter Samuel, Edem Akpalu and Teye Adi

March 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stephen Kwame Addo in “The Rescue List” (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)

“The Rescue List”

Directed by Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink

Twi, Fante, Ewe, Ga, Ada and Efutu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the area around Ghana’s Lake Volta and featuring an all-African cast, the documentary “The Rescue List” follows a grass-roots group of child-welfare advocates and the children they’ve rescued from modern-day slavery.

Culture Clash: The group faces opposition from the slave masters and has an overwhelming task of rescuing thousands of child slaves in the area, as well as rehabilitating them.

Culture Audience: This compelling movie will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in issues about human rights and social justice, but the disturbing subject matter might make it difficult for some people to watch.

Peter Samuel (front row center) and Edem Akpalu (front row, far right) in “The Rescue List” (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)

Slavery and human trafficking are tragically still happening in the everyday lives of an untold number of people around the world. The emotionally raw but ultimately inspiring documentary “The Rescue List” takes an unwavering, up-close look at a grassroots group in Ghana called Challenging Heights that runs a children’s shelter, rescues children from slavery, rehabilitates them, educates them, and then places the kids into homes that pledge to keep the children safe.

Challenging Heights, which is not funded by the government, includes rescue-group leader Stephen Kwame Addo, who used to be a child slave until he escaped, found a safe place to live, and got an education. Challenging Heights also includes social workers Bernice Jaama Akromah and Peter Kwesi Smyth, who help the kids recover from their trauma with therapy. The children who leave the shelter for permanent homes get follow-up monitoring for two years by the group’s social workers.

According to some sobering history and statistics presented in the film: “In 1965, foreign mining companies built a hydroelectric dam on Ghana’s Volta River, creating the largest man-made lake on Earth. Traffickers began to pay families facing extreme poverty to send their children to the lake for short-term work. But the children often disappear. There are now an estimated 20,000 children enslaved to fishermen in remote regions of Lake Volta.”

In addition to suffering abuse, children who’ve become fishermen’s slaves often get trapped with fishing nets and die. And, of course, many of these children are prevented from going to school because they spend most of their waking hours doing slave work.

“The Rescue List” focuses on three of the boys who’ve been rescued: Peter Samuel, who was 17 at the time the documentary was filmed; Edem Akpalu, who was 12 during filming of the movie; and Teye Adi, Peter’s best friend who was 14. At the beginning of the movie, Peter and Edem have already been in the shelter (their rescues are not part of the movie), while Teye’s rescue is shown in the documentary.

In addition to being a rescuer, Addo (who goes by his middle name Kwame) is a de facto private investigator. He and his team spend an untold number of hours finding the necessary information to put on their “rescue list,” which includes the names and locations of suspected slave masters and the children who are enslaved. Addo describes his mission to rescue child slaves as “a calling.”

The movie shows Addo scouring Lake Volta for children to rescue, and it’s clear why he is often successful at his mission: He approaches children who appear to be fisherman slaves with a calm and friendly demeanor that allows them to trust him in a short period of time. Because many of the children are brainwashed into thinking that rescuers will harm them, he immediately assures them that he’s taking them to a safe place where they won’t have to spend long hours fishing anymore. Most are happy to be rescued, but one boy in the film is terrified, and tries to swim away when Addo approaches him and offers him an escape from his life of misery. (The boy eventually goes with Addo and his team.)

Peter and Edem have a story that is common with these children who are sold into slavery. Their mothers were the ones who let them be trafficked, and their slave masters often abuse and starve the kids to do what they want. Peter is a friendly kid but his rescuers notice that he’s distressed because being rescued meant that he had to leave his best friend Teye behind. Peter feels guilty about it and asks the group to rescue Teye.

Meanwhile, Edem, who is shy and insecure, is dealing with the trauma of losing his best friend Steven in a drowning accident. In therapy sessions, Edem describes Steven as someone who supervised him and was a protector who never abused him. During an especially poignant scene, two of the social workers take Edem to the beach and tell him to say a prayer and talk to Steven. Edem’s soul-baring prayer might bring tears to some people’s eyes.

The rescue of Teye is tense, but not violent. It resembles the negotiation of a hostage release. As Teye leaves with Addo, a woman shouts from a nearby house, “My investment is lost!” Teye’s reunion with Peter is one of the most heart-warming moments of the film.

But even after they’ve been rescued, the children still experience a lot of anxiety, because many face an uncertain future, especially if no family members claim them. Peter and Edem do have family members (including their mothers) who come to visit them in the shelters and want to take them home. The movie doesn’t judge Peter’s and Edem’s mothers for essentially selling their children into slavery.

But “The Rescue List” does show the very real emotional damage that these decisions caused, as now the mothers and children are virtual strangers. It’s clear from the guilty and tearful reactions of the mothers that coming home for these boys will not be an easy emotional journey. Although it’s never openly discussed in the documentary, they will all have to come to terms with what whatever they feel about forgiveness and emotional healing. Peter is old enough to decide if he wants to live with his mother or with a village elder who has offered to raise Peter. The documentary shows his decision.

Not all of this documentary is depressing. The shelter’s children (who are almost all boys) are shown to be well-adjusted to their surroundings. And they have a camaraderie that’s evident when they play soccer or when they gather in recreation room to watch TV or a movie. (One of the movies they watch with fascination is “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” the 1980 South African comedy about how the discovery of Coca-Cola bottle set off a chain of events for an African tribe.)

“The Rescue List” directors Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink take an observational yet empathetic approach to their subjects by allowing them to tell their stories without the annoying interference of voiceovers or talking heads. Although it’s certainly a relief that these children have been rescued, the movie doesn’t least viewers forget that not everyone is that fortunate and there will always be a need for groups like Challenging Heights.

PBS premiered “The Rescue List” on its “POV” series and on POV.org on March 23, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’

April 30, 2019

by Carla Hay

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (Photo by Elliot Landy/The Image Works)

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation”

Directed by Barak Goodman

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, PBS commissioned a documentary about the event, which is often credited as being the most influential concert festival in history. Emmy-winning director Ken Burns was announced as the documentary’s director, but he left the project. The documentary ended up in the very capable hands of director Barak Goodman, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” and the gerrymandering documentary “Slay the Dragon,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Of course, this PBS “Woodstock” documentary and any other movie about Woodstock will be overshadowed by director Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 “Woodstock” documentary epic, which is still considered the definitive chronicle of the event. However, Goodman’s “Woodstock” (which has plenty of concert footage from the festival) stands as a solid companion piece. Whereas the original “Woodstock” movie was essentially a concert film, this PBS “Woodstock” documentary attempts to fill in a lot of the behind-the-scenes blanks, much like bonus commentary does on a home-video release.

There has been so much that’s already been written, said and reported about the original Woodstock Music Festival that there is not much new information to uncover. The festival—which took place August 15 to August 18, 1969, in Bethel, New York—was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.” (The concert ended up extending into the morning hours of a fourth day.) The lineup was a who’s who of many of the biggest names in music in the late 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival (who were not in the original “Woodstock” documentary), Sly & the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The concert was originally expected to attract about 50,000 people. Instead, approximately 400,000 people showed up and made it an unprecedented cultural event, despite the overcrowding, food shortages, drug-induced freakouts, downpours of rain, safety issues and the underlying threat that the government might shut down the concert.

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes a chronological look at the challenges and problems that the festival encountered, told mostly from the perspective of the festival’s organizers and attendees. There are only a handful of artists (including David Crosby and Richie Havens) interviewed for this documentary. All of the new interviews for the movie are voiceovers, which was a wise artistic choice, since video cutaways to talking-head commentators would just distract from the movie’s intentions of transporting viewers back to the Woodstock Festival.

The four people who are given the most credit for being the founders of the Woodstock Festival are John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang. Roberts (an heir to the Poligrip/Polident fortune) and Rosenman were the producers who put up the money for the event. It was through Roberts and Rosenman’s New York-based Media Sound company that they met Kornfeld and Lang, who both came from music backgrounds. Lang was the only one at the time who had experience as a concert promoter. All of them are interviewed for the documentary, as are other key members of the original Woodstock team, such as director of operations Mel Lawrence and Stan Goldstein, a campground coordinator who researched portable toilet needs for the event.

The opening-day party for Media Sound morphed into the idea of putting on an all-star outdoor festival named Woodstock, much like the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. The city of Woodstock in upstate New York wasn’t actually available, but the idea was to have the festival in a sprawling area in the region, since the urban density of New York City wasn’t an option. Lang was adamant about having the festival in a grassy area, not at a raceway.

The Woodstock promoters originally chose Wallkill, New York, for the concert site. But when Wallkill’s city officials realized that their city would be overrun with hundreds of thousands of hippies and other counter-culture people, they voted in an ordinance to prevent gatherings of more than 5,000 people, thereby canceling Woodstock’s permit. Fortunately, an unexpected hero stepped in to save the festival: a conservative Republican named Max Yasgur, who donated his farm in Bethel for the concert site. Within two days, the city of Bethel approved the permit, and Woodstock was revived, but the festival had to scramble to create the stages and other infrastructure in time for the event. They didn’t have enough time to do a thorough job, and many aspects of the festival’s production were incomplete by the time the festival began. It’s repeated many times in the documentary that Woodstock was under-staffed and under-stocked. Needless to say, because most of the overcrowded festival’s attendees got in for free, Woodstock’s investors lost a lot of money because of this event.

Ironically, Lang’s Woodstock Ventures faced similar financial and legal issues for its Woodstock 50 concert, which had been announced to take place in Watkins Glen, New York, from August 16 to August 18, 2019. At the time of this writing, Woodstock 50’s main investor pulled out (citing concerns about overcrowding and safety), a permit for the festival hasn’t been issued, and tickets haven’t even gone on sale. The concert industry is very different today than it was in 1969, so there probably isn’t enough time to clear all the legal hurdles that Woodstock 50 is facing in order for this 50th anniversary concert to happen.

One of the best things about this PBS “Woodstock” documentary is that it really shines a spotlight on many of the unsung heroes who worked behind the scenes at the original Woodstock Festival—the people who slogged through it from beginning to end. The artists on stage got most of the glory, and most of the celebrities didn’t mingle with the (sometimes literally unwashed) masses in the crowds. The big stars who attended Woodstock also had the luxury of leaving behind the messiness of Woodstock by helicopter, since the festival had traffic jams and roadblocks during the entire event.

Food for Love was a three-person operation that made a huge but underrated difference at Woodstock. The group was hired on relatively short notice, because the original food contractor for Woodstock backed out of the event after Wallkill canceled the festival’s permit. When the food supply at the festival began to run dangerously low, Food for Love, with the help of numerous volunteers, stepped in to help feed people and even gave away a lot of food for free—something that would be unheard of in today’s over-priced festival environment. (According to the documentary, a lot of people “paid” for the free food by giving marijuana joints to the people handing out the food.) Yasgur, who died in 1973 at the age of 53, also provided a lot of the free food from his farm, which inevitably became a garbage-filled disaster area after the festival was over. Milk, oats and rice became welcomed and common nourishment at the festival.

The documentary interviews hippie icon Wavy Gravy, who stepped in to emcee at Woodstock and brought his Hog Farm community to the festival as unofficial security. The Hog Farm called themselves a “please force” instead of a “police force.” Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm were instrumental in keeping the crowds calmer than they could have been, given the high levels of drug use at the concert. Speaking of drug use at Woodstock, the documentary mentions that the festival was perhaps the first major concert event to have a massive amount of “freak-out” tents, where people tripping out on drugs could go to ride out their experiences. The tents were a necessity, given that medical assistance was also in short supply.

Another aspect of the festival that would be unthinkable today was the lack of adequate communication coming in and out of the festival. Because Woodstock happened decades before smartphones and the Internet existed, the festival had to make news announcements on stage, since most attendees did not have on-site access to radios, TV and newspapers. In addition, announcements were made on stage for festival attendees to contact frantic loved ones or friends who were looking for them. At the festival’s information center, attendees had to pin notes on the walls to get messages to other attendees. It’s hard to imagine today’s generation of young concertgoers being able to cope with these conditions.

Through testimonials of several attendees, the documentary de-mystifies the image of Woodstock being a blissful “peace and love” party. Yes, there were numerous people who had a good time and have fond memories of Woodstock, even if many of those memories were clouded by whatever drugs they were on at the time. But partying at Woodstock wasn’t the whole story. The reality was that most of the attendees had inadequate food and shelter, and things got worse when the festival was hit with rainstorms that caused a lot of disgusting mud. The rain could have caused electrocutions on stage, but fortunately did not.

In addition, government helicopters were constantly hovering, as if ready to step in and treat the festival like a war zone. Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York state at the time, kept threatening to send in the National Guard. Speaking of war, the documentary mentions that many of the male attendees of Woodstock were afraid of being drafted into the Vietnam War, so the hovering military helicopters that caused a lot of noise and discomfort probably didn’t help their nerves.

Of course, the best part of the festival that gets the most recognition and the highest praise is the music. The artists who are mentioned the most as being standout acts at Woodstock were Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Crosby Stills & Nash (who did their second public performance as a group at Woodstock) and Santana. In the documentary, Woodstock Festival opener Havens remembers that he didn’t want to be Woodstock’s first performer on stage, because the concert started late, and he thought the crowd would be angry. (He ended up getting a standing ovation.)

Although this “Woodstock” documentary could have used more artist interviews, they might have overshadowed the testimonials of the non-famous people in this documentary who spent a lot more time at Woodstock than the artists did. In the end, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” is a deeper dive into the harsh realities behind the festival. The documentary may not have a lot of new information, but it’s recommended viewing for people who want more of the real story of what happened behind the scenes.

PBS/American Experience Films will releaseWoodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” in New York City on May 24, 2019, and will expand the release to more U.S. cities on June 7, 2019. PBS will premiere “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” as part of the PBS “American Experience” series on August 6, 2019.

PBS Kids launches ‘Ocean Friends Forever’ with ‘Splash and Bubbles’ series to celebrate World Oceans Day

June 5, 2017

The following is a press release from the Jim Henson Company:

PBS KIDS SERIES SPLASH AND BUBBLES
(Photo courtesy of the Jim Henson Company)

The Jim Henson Company, Herschend Studios and PBS Kids are kicking off “Ocean Friends Forever,” a social media and community engagement initiative with multiple PBS station events across the country the week of June 1-8, to coincide with the internationally celebrated World Oceans Day on June 8. The effort is themed around the new PBS Kids series “Splash and Bubbles,” which encourages children to explore ocean science and marine biology. “Splash and Bubbles” airs daily on PBS stations nationwide and is available for free on PBS Kids digital platforms.

Awareness of the ocean and its diverse inhabitants continues to be an important necessity for us all. Few people realize how much we have left to discover about the animals, plants and unique habitats under the sea. In fact, a recent online omnibus study* of 1,000 adults provided some surprising results. Over thirty-seven percent of respondents believed that more than half of the world’s ocean has been explored, but scientists and researchers estimate that only 5 percent of the ocean has been explored! When asked if they know where most of the white sand on the world’s beaches comes from, only 6 percent of respondents knew the surprising fact: parrotfish poop. Parrotfish ingest dead coral and break it down into sand, which they then excrete. (Nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that white sand beaches are mostly comprised of rocks. Thirty percent answered glass.)

PBS stations across the country are gearing up to educate their community about the vast underwater world, with “Ocean Friends Forever” activities and materials for their summer events including screenings, activity pages, hands-on investigations, Splash and Bubble character appearances and more! Activity pages and hands on investigations are also available on PBS Parents/SplashandBubbles.

Event Dates:

6/3/2017  

Birch Aquarium at Scripps (KPBS – San Diego)

6/3/2017  

WFSU Studio (WFSU – Tallahassee)            

6/3/2017       

WFSU Studio (WFSU – Tallahassee)                           

6/3/2017      

NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher/Kure Beach, NC (UNCTV – Raleigh/Durham             

6/8/2017    

Challenger Learning Center (WFSU – Tallahassee)

6/8/2017 

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (WOSU – Columbus)

6/8/2017    

Bayou County Children’s Museum (LPB – Louisiana)

6/8/2017  

Children’s Museum of Acadiana (LPB – Louisiana)

6/8/2017  

Children’s Museum of Lake Charles (LPB – Louisiana)

6/8/2017  

Louisiana Children’s Museum (LPB – Louisiana)

6/10/2017 

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (WHUT – Washington D.C.)    

6/13/2017    

Webster Public Library (WXXI – Rochester)

6/27/2017  

Charlotte Library Branch (WXXI – Rochester)

Additionally, “Help Our Kelp,” a new digital game at pbskids.org/SplashandBubbles, will encourage kids to help a kelp forest stay healthy by cleaning invasive species, like sea urchins and clams, from the environment. The game will be available online and on the free PBS Kids Games app later this week.

PBS Kids series “Splash and Bubbles” encourages children to explore the natural undersea world and features endearing and humorous characters on fun-filled adventures. Utilizing the dynamic CG animation technology of the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, each episode introduces kids ages 4–7 to the adventures of its title characters – Splash, a yellowback fusilier fish, and his friend Bubbles, a Mandarin dragonet.  Splash migrated all over the ocean before settling down with his family in Reeftown.  Now, he and Bubbles explore the world’s ocean, meet wildly diverse marine animals and discover otherworldly undersea habitats with their friends Dunk (a pufferfish) and Ripple (a seahorse). Together, they bring back what they’ve learned to share with their neighbors.

“Splash and Bubbles” is a production of The Jim Henson Company and Herschend Studios. The series is executive produced by Lisa Henson and Halle Stanford of The Jim Henson Company, Julie Phillips and Merrill Puckett-Miller of Herschend Enterprises, as well as John Tartaglia, Michael Shawn Lewis and Jill Shinderman. The series is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

PBS ‘Chefs Flight’ spotlight in ‘American Masters’ includes documentaries on James Beard and Jacques Pépin

April 13, 2017

by Carla Hay

PBS is launching “Chefs Flight”as part of the network’s “American Masters” series that will include new documentaries on culinary icons James Beard and Jacques Pépin.

“James Beard: America’s First Foodie” premieres in most market on May 19, 2017, at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. (Check local listings.) The program chronicles a century of food through the story of Beard (1903-1985), who was a pioneer celebrity chef and author. Immediately after the Beard documentary, PBS will televise a rebroadcast of “American Masters – Julia! America’s Favorite Chef” at 10 p.m. ET.

Meanwhile, “Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft” (narrated by Stanley Tucci) premieres in most markets on May 26 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. (Check local listings.) Immediately after the Pépin documentary, PBS will have an encore presentation of “American Masters – Alice Waters and her Delicious Revolution” at 10 p.m. ET.

According to a PBS press release: Among the many highlights in the Beard documentary are Daniel Boulud and restaurant critic Gael Greene telling how Beard helped start Citymeals on Wheels; Jacques Pépin reminiscing about cooking with Beard; Martha Stewart sharing how Beard’s cookbooks influenced her; Ted Allen disclosing Beard’s challenges being an “out” gay man at a time when same-sex sexual activity was illegal; chefs Jonathan Waxman and Larry Forgione reflecting on Beard’s mentorship and its impact on their career; Wolfgang Puck recounting how he helped found the James Beard Foundation; Alice Waters explaining how Beard discovered Chez Panisee; chef Jeremiah Tower offering insight into Beard’s relationship with Marion Cunningham; chef Naomi Pomery demonstrating how to make the famous “James Beard’s Onion Sandwich”; and next generation chefs such as Marc Forgione, Greg Higgins, and Pomeroy discussing how Beard’s influence is still felt today. James Beard Award Foundation president Susan Ungaro and executive vice president Mitchell Davis also appear in the documentary.

Dubbed the “Dean of American Cookery” by The New York Times, Beard … spoke of the importance of localism and sustainability long before those terms had entered the culinary vernacular. He was a forerunner of the farm-to-table movement and helped create the iconic Four Seasons concept and menu. He was the first chef to host his own television show, “I Love to Eat,” which debuted on NBC in 1946, and taught not only women but men how to cook. He also had a cooking school that he operated out of his New York apartment.

Beard authored 22 cookbooks, penned a syndicated newspaper column and wrote countless magazine articles. He is credited with introducing Julia Child to the New York culinary scene, and he later becoming a best friend to her.

The James Beard Awards Gala and Reception are considered the “Oscars” of the food-service industry. The 2017 ceremony will take place  May 1 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is hosting the show. The complete list of nominations are here.