Movie and TV Reviews

Reviews for New Movies Released December 4, 2020 – January 22, 2021

76 Days (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)
All My Life (Photo by Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)
Black Bear (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)
Bloody Hell (Photo courtesy of The Horror Collective)
Breaking Fast (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan (Photo courtesy of The Gift Film Ltd./Magnolia Pictures)
A Day in the Life of America (Photo by Evett Rolsten)
Dear Santa (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
The Emoji Story (Photo by David Allen)
Farewell Amor (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
Fatale (Photo by Scott Everett White/Lionsgate)
Greenland (Photo courtesy of STX)
Half Brothers (Photo by John Golden Britt/Focus Features)
Herself (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)
Hunter Hunter (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)
I’m Your Woman (Photo by Wilson Webb/Amazon Studios)
JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened? (Photo courtesy of Polaris/Discovery+)
The Marksman (Photo by Ryan Sweeney/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)
MLK/FBI (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
Monster Hunter (Photo by Coco Van Oppens/Screen Gems)
News of the World (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)
Nomadland (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
One Night in Miami… (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
Our Friend (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)
Parallel (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Promising Young Woman (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)
P.S. Burn This Letter Please (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)
Songbird (Photo courtesy of STX)
Soul (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)
Sylvie’s Love (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
Through the Night (Photo by Naiti Gamez)
Wander Darkly (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)
Wild Mountain Thyme (Photo by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street)
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem (Photo by Samanta Helou-Hernandez)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Photo by Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures & © DC Comics)

Complete List of Reviews

1BR — horror

2/1 — drama

2 Graves in the Desert — drama

2 Hearts — drama

2 Minutes of Fame — comedy

5 Years Apart — comedy

12 Hour Shift — horror

17 Blocks — documentary

37 Seconds — drama

76 Days — documentary

The 420 Movie (2020) — comedy

2040 — documentary

7500 — drama

Aamis — drama

Abe — drama

Advocate — documentary

After Class (formerly titled Safe Spaces) — comedy/drama

After Parkland — documentary

After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News — documentary

AKA Jane Roe — documentary

Algorithm: Bliss — sci-fi/horror

All Day and a Night — drama

All I Can Say — documentary

All In: The Fight for Democracy — documentary

All My Life — drama

All Roads to Pearla (formerly titled Sleeping in Plastic) — drama

Almost Love (also titled Sell By) — comedy/drama

Alone (2020) (starring Jules Willcox) — horror

Alone (2020) (starring Tyler Posey) — horror

Amazing Grace — documentary

An American Pickle — comedy

American Street Kid — documentary

American Woman (2020) — drama

Amulet — horror

And Then We Danced — drama

Antebellum — horror

Anthony — drama

Apocalypse ’45 — documentary

The Apollo — documentary

The Argument — comedy

Artemis Fowl — fantasy

The Artist’s Wife — drama

Ask for Jane — drama

Ask No Questions — documentary

The Assistant — drama

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal — documentary

Athlete A — documentary

Ammonite — drama

Baby God — documentary

Babysplitters — comedy

Babyteeth — drama

Bacurau — drama

Bad Boys for Life — action

Bad Education (2020) — drama

Bad Therapy (formerly titled Judy Small) — comedy/drama

Banana Split — comedy

Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art — documentary

Beanpole — drama

Beastie Boys Story — documentary

Becoming — documentary

Behind You — horror

Beneath Us — horror

Big Time Adolescence — comedy/drama

The Big Ugly — drama

Bill & Ted Face the Music — sci-fi/comedy

The Binge — comedy

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — action

Black Bear — drama

Blackbird (2020) — drama

Black Box (2020) — horror

Black Is King — musical

Black Magic for White Boys — comedy

Blessed Child — documentary

Blood and Money — drama

Blood on Her Name — drama

Bloodshot (2020) — sci-fi/action

Bloody Hell — horror

Blow the Man Down — drama

Blue Story — drama

Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island — horror

Body Cam — horror

The Booksellers — documentary

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — comedy

The Boys (premiere episode) — sci-fi/drama

Brahms: The Boy II — horror

Breaking Fast — comedy

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists — documentary

The Broken Hearts Gallery — comedy

Browse — drama

Buffaloed — comedy

Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn — documentary

Burden (2020) — drama

Burning Cane — drama

The Burnt Orange Heresy — drama

Cagefighter — drama

Calendar Girl — documentary

The Call of the Wild (2020) — live-action/animation

A Call to Spy — drama

Call Your Mother — documentary

Cane River — drama

Capone — drama

Carmilla — drama

Castle in the Ground — drama

Centigrade — drama

Changing the Game — documentary

Chasing the Present — documentary

Chick Fight — comedy

Children of the Sea — animation

Chop Chop — horror

Circus of Books — documentary

The Clearing (2020) — horror

Clementine — drama

The Climb (2020) — comedy/drama

Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun — documentary

Clover — drama

Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert — documentary

Coded Bias (formerly titled Code for Bias) — documentary

Coffee & Kareem — comedy

Collective — documentary

Color Out of Space — sci-fi/horror

Come as You Are (2020)  — comedy

Come Play — horror

Come to Daddy — horror

Console Wars — documentary

The Cordillera of Dreams — documentary

Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes — documentary

The Craft: Legacy — horror

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words — documentary

Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine — documentary

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — documentary

Critical Thinking — drama

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan — documentary

The Croods: A New Age — animation

Crown Vic — drama

CRSHD — comedy

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw — horror

Cut Throat City — drama

Da 5 Bloods — drama

Daddy Issues (2020) — comedy

Dads — documentary

Dangerous Lies — drama

The Dark Divide — drama

Dave Not Coming Back — documentary

A Day in the Life of America — documentary

Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont — documentary

Days of the Whale — drama

A Deadly Legend — horror

Dear Santa — documentary

Decade of Fire — documentary

The Deeper You Dig — horror

The Delicacy — documentary

Denise Ho — Becoming the Song — documentary

Desolation Center — documentary

Desperados — comedy

Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge — horror

Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo — documentary

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy — documentary

Disappearance at Clifton Hill — drama

Disclosure (2020) — documentary

Diving With Dolphins — documentary

The Dog Doc — documentary

Dolittle — live-action/animation

Dolphin Reef — documentary

Do Not Reply — horror

Don’t Look Back (2020) (formerly titled Good Samaritan) — horror

The Doorman (2020) — action

Dosed — documentary

Downhill — comedy

Dreamland (2020) (starring Margot Robbie) — drama

Driven to Abstraction — documentary

Driveways — drama

Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America — documentary

Duty Free — documentary

Easy Does It — comedy

Elephant (2020) — documentary

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things — documentary

Embattled — drama

Emma (2020) — comedy/drama

The Emoji Story (formerly titled Picture Character) — documentary

End of Sentence — drama

Enola Holmes — drama

Entwined (2020) — horror

Epicentro — documentary

The Etruscan Smile (also titled Rory’s Way) — drama

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga — comedy

Evil Eye (2020) — horror

Exit Plan — drama

Extraction (2020) — action

A Fall From Grace — drama

Farewell Amor — drama

Fatal Affair (2020) — drama

Fatale — drama

Fatima (2020) — drama

Fatman — comedy

The Fight (2020) — documentary

First Cow — drama

Flipped (2020) — comedy

Force of Nature (2020) — action

For They Know Not What They Do — documentary

The Forty-Year-Old Version — comedy

Four Kids and It — fantasy

Framing John DeLorean — documentary

Freaky — horror

Friendsgiving — comedy

From the Vine — comedy/drama

Game of Death (2020) — horror

Ganden: A Joyful Land — documentary

The Garden Left Behind — drama

The Gasoline Thieves — drama

Gay Chorus Deep South — documentary

The Gentlemen — action

Get Duked! (formerly titled Boyz in the Wood) — comedy

Get Gone — horror

The Ghost of Peter Sellers — documentary

A Girl From Mogadishu — drama

A Girl Missing — drama

The Go-Go’s — documentary

Goldie — drama

Good Posture — comedy

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind — documentary

Greed — comedy/drama

Greenland — sci-fi/action

Gretel & Hansel — horror

Greyhound — drama

The Grudge (2020) — horror

Guest of Honour — drama

Half Brothers — comedy

The Half of It — comedy

Halloween Party (2020) — horror

Happiest Season — comedy

Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics — documentary

Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation — documentary

He Dreams of Giants — documentary

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful — documentary

Herself — drama

The High Note — comedy/drama

Holly Slept Over — comedy

Honest Thief — action

Hooking Up (2020) — comedy

Hope Gap — drama

Horse Girl — sci-fi/drama

The Host (2020) — horror

Hosts — horror

House of Hummingbird — drama

How to Build a Girl — comedy

How to Fix a Primary — documentary

Human Capital — drama

Human Nature (2020) — documentary

The Hunt — horror

Hunter Hunter — horror

I Am Human — documentary

I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story — drama

I Am Vengeance: Retaliation — action

I Hate New York — documentary

I Hate the Man in My Basement — drama

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me — documentary

Impractical Jokers: The Movie — comedy

I’m Thinking of Ending Things — drama

I’m Your Woman — drama

Incitement — drama

Infamous (2020) — drama

The Infiltrators — docudrama

The Informer (2020) — drama

Initials SG — drama

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica — documentary

Instaband — documentary

In the Footsteps of Elephant — documentary

The Invisible Man (2020) — horror

Iron Mask (formerly titled The Mystery of the Dragon Seal) — action

Irresistible (2020) — comedy

I Still Believe — drama

It Takes a Lunatic — documentary

I Used to Go Here — comedy/drama

I’ve Got Issues — comedy

I Want My MTV — documentary

I Will Make You Mine — drama

Jay Myself — documentary

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey — musical

John Henry — action

John Lewis: Good Trouble — documentary

JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened? — documentary

Judy & Punch — drama

Jungleland (2020) — drama

Kajillionaire — comedy/drama

Kat and the Band — comedy

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! — documentary

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections — documentary

Killer Therapy — horror

The Kill Team (2019) — drama

Kill the Monsters — drama

The Kindness of Strangers — drama

Kindred — drama

The King of Staten Island — comedy/drama

La Llorona — horror

The Last Full Measure — drama

The Last Vermeer — drama

The Lawyer — drama

Leftover Women — documentary

Les Misérables (2019) — drama

Let Him Go — drama

The Lie (2020) — drama

Like a Boss — comedy

Limerence — comedy

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — documentary

Lingua Franca — drama

The Lodge — horror

The Longest Wave — documentary

Lost Bayou — drama

Lost Girls — drama

Lost Transmissions — drama

Los Últimos Frikis — documentary

Love and Monsters — sci-fi/horror/action

The Lovebirds — comedy

Love Wedding Repeat — comedy

Low Tide — drama

Lucky Grandma — action

Luz: The Flower of Evil — horror

LX 2048 — sci-fi

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over — documentary

Mai Khoi & the Dissidents — documentary

The Main Event (2020) — action

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound— documentary

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — drama

The Marksman (2021) — action

Martha: A Picture Story — documentary

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words — documentary

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back — documentary

Mighty Ira — documentary

Mighty Oak — drama

Military Wives — comedy/drama

The Mindfulness Movement — documentary

Misbehaviour — drama

Miss Americana — documentary

Miss Juneteenth — drama

MLK/FBI — documentary

Monster Hunter — sci-fi/action

Mortal — sci-fi/action

Most Dangerous Game — action

Most Wanted (formerly titled Target Number One) — drama

Mr. Soul! — documentary

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado — documentary

Mulan (2020) — action

Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story — documentary

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story — documentary

My Boyfriend’s Meds — comedy

My Dad’s Christmas Date — comedy/drama

My Darling Vivian — documentary

My Spy — comedy

Mystify: Michael Hutchence — documentary

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind — documentary

The Nest (2020) — drama

Never Rarely Sometimes Always — drama

Never Too Late (2020) — comedy

News of the World — drama

A Nice Girl Like You — comedy

Noah Land — drama

Nocturne (2020) — horror

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin — documentary

Nomadland — drama

No Small Matter — documentary

The Old Guard — action

Olympia — documentary

Olympic Dreams — comedy/drama

Once Upon a River — drama

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — documentary

One Hour Outcall — drama

One Night in Bangkok — drama

One Night in Miami… — drama

Only — sci-fi/drama

On the Record — documentary

On the Rocks (2020) — drama

On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries — documentary

Onward — animation

Open — drama

Ordinary Love — drama

Origin of the Species — documentary

Otherhood — comedy

The Other Lamb — drama

Other Music — documentary

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles — documentary

Our Friend (formerly titled The Friend) — drama

Our Time Machine — documentary

Out of Blue — drama

The Outpost — drama

Out Stealing Horses — drama

The Painter and the Thief — documentary

Palm Springs — comedy

Parallel (2020) — sci-fi/drama

Parkland Rising — documentary

A Patient Man — drama

The Personal History of David Copperfield — comedy/drama

The Photograph — drama

The Place of No Words — drama

The Planters — comedy

Plucked — documentary

Plus One (2019) — comedy

The Pollinators — documentary

Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys — documentary

Possessor Uncut — sci-fi/horror

Premature (2020) — drama

The Prey (2020) — action

The Price of Desire — drama

Project Power — sci-fi/action

Promising Young Woman — comedy/drama

Proxima — sci-fi/drama

P.S. Burn This Letter Please — documentary

Public Enemy Number One — documentary

The Quiet One — documentary

The Racer — drama

Radioactive — drama

A Rainy Day in New York — comedy

Raising Buchanan — comedy

Rebuilding Paradise — documentary

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — documentary

Red Penguins — documentary

Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs — animation

A Regular Woman — drama

Relic — horror

The Rental (2020) — horror

Rent-A-Pal — horror

The Rescue List — documentary

Resistance (2020) — drama

Retaliation (formerly titled Romans) — drama

Rewind — documentary

The Rhythm Section — action

Ride Like a Girl — drama

River City Drumbeat — documentary

Roald Dahl’s The Witches — horror/fantasy

Robert the Bruce — drama

Run (2020) — drama

Runner — documentary

Run With the Hunted — drama

Saint Frances — comedy/drama

Save Yourselves! — sci-fi/horror/comedy

The Scheme (2020) — documentary

Scheme Birds — documentary

Scoob! — animation

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street — documentary

Screened Out — documentary

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth (formerly titled Seahorse) — documentary

Seberg — drama

The Secret: Dare to Dream — drama

A Secret Love — documentary

The Secrets We Keep — drama

See Know Evil — documentary

See You Yesterday — sci-fi/drama

Selah and the Spades — drama

Sergio (2020) — drama

Shadows of Freedom — documentary

She Dies Tomorrow — drama

She’s in Portland — drama

Shine Your Eyes — drama

Shirley — drama

Shithouse — drama

Shortcut — horror

The Short History of the Long Road — drama

Showbiz Kids — documentary

The Show’s the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock — documentary

A Simple Wedding — comedy

Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons — documentary

Skin Walker — horror

Skyman — sci-fi/drama

Slay the Dragon — documentary

Sno Babies — drama

Somebody Up There Likes Me (2020) — documentary

Sometimes Always Never — comedy/drama

The Sonata — horror

Songbird — sci-fi/drama

Sonic the Hedgehog — live-action/animation

Sorry We Missed You — drama

Soul — animation

Sound of Metal — drama

Spaceship Earth — documentary

Spell (2020) — horror

Spelling the Dream (formerly titled Breaking the Bee) — documentary

Spontaneous — sci-fi/horror/comedy

Sputnik — sci-fi/horror

Standing Up, Falling Down — comedy/drama

Stardust (2020) — drama

Starting at Zero — documentary

The State of Texas vs. Melissa — documentary

Stevenson Lost & Found — documentary

Still Here (2020) — drama

The Story of Soaps — documentary

The Stranger (Quibi original) — drama

Stray Dolls — drama

Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash — drama

The Stylist — horror

Sublime — documentary

Summerland — drama

The Sunlit Night — comedy/drama

The Surrogate — drama

Survive — drama

Swallow — drama

The Swerve — drama

The Swing of Things — comedy

Sylvie’s Love — drama

Synchronic — sci-fi/horror

Tape (2020) — drama

Tar — horror

A Taste of Sky — documentary

Ten Minutes to Midnight  — horror

Tesla  — drama

Then Came You (2020)  — comedy

The Thing About Harry  — comedy

Think Like a Dog — comedy/drama

This Is Personal — documentary

This Is Stand-Up — documentary

A Thousand Cuts (2020) — documentary

A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy — documentary

Through the Night (2020) — documentary

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison — comedy

Time (2020) — documentary

The Times of Bill Cunningham — documentary

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made  — comedy

To Kid or Not to Kid — documentary

The Tobacconist — drama

Tommaso — drama

Tom of Your Life — sci-fi/comedy

Totally Under Control — documentary

The Trial of the Chicago 7 — drama

The Trip to Greece — comedy

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts — documentary

Trolls World Tour — animation

Troop Zero — comedy

The True Adventures of Wolfboy — drama

The Truth — drama

The Turning (2020) — horror

The Twentieth Century — comedy

Tyson — documentary

Unbelievable (premiere episode) — drama

Uncaged (also titled Prey) – horror

Uncorked — drama

Underwater — sci-fi/horror

Unhinged (2020) — action

Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music — documentary

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own — documentary

Valley Girl (2020) — musical

The Vanished (2020) (formerly titled Hour of Lead)— drama

The Vast of Night — sci-fi/drama

Vas-y Coupe! — documentary

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations — documentary

Vivarium — sci-fi/drama

Waiting for the Barbarians — drama

Wander Darkly — drama

The War With Grandpa — comedy

Watson — documentary

The Way Back (2020) — drama

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme — documentary

We Are Little Zombies — comedy/drama

We Are Many — documentary

We Are the Radical Monarchs — documentary

Weathering With You — animation

Welcome to Chechnya — documentary

What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali — documentary

What We Found — drama

What Will Become of Us — documentary

When the Streetlights Go On — drama

The Whistlers — drama

A White, White Day — drama

Widow of Silence — drama

Wig — documentary

Wild Mountain Thyme — drama

The Windermere Children — drama

The Wolf House — animation

The Wolf of Snow Hollow — horror

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem — documentary

Wonder Woman 1984 — action

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation — documentary

Words on Bathroom Walls — drama

Work It — comedy/drama

The Wretched — horror

The Wrong Missy — comedy

XY Chelsea — documentary

Yellow Rose — drama

You Cannot Kill David Arquette — documentary

You Don’t Nomi — documentary

You Go to My Head — drama

You Should Have Left — horror

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn — documentary

Zappa — documentary

Zombi Child — horror

Review: ‘JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?,’ starring John Ramsey, Cindy Marra, Mark Smit, Paula Woodward, John Anderson, John San Agustin and Greg Walta

January 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

JonBenét Ramsey in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Polaris/Discovery+)

“JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?”

Directed by Kim Duke

Culture Representation: The documentary “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one Asian) discussing the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, a Colorado rich girl who was brutally killed on Christmas Day 1996, when she was 6 years old.

Culture Clash: The unsolved case has been controversial because investigators and prosecutors disagree over evidence and who might be the prime suspect or suspects.

Culture Audience: “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” will appeal primarily to people interested in this case or in true crime overall, but the documentary does not reveal any new facts that are helpful to this case.

Lou Smit in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

Because there have already been so many news reports and documentaries about the JonBenét Ramsey case, any new ones that come along almost never have new information that can help make progress in the case. Almost every documentary about the case seems to have an agenda to push only one or two theories of who killed JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered on Christmas Day 1996 in her millionaire family home in Boulder, Colorado. This highly disputed case remains unsolved because there are conflicting accounts about the crime-scene evidence and numerous theories about who committed the murder.

It’s rare for a JonBenét Ramsey documentary to truly include perspectives of people who have very diverse viewpoints and theories about the case. “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (directed by Kim Duke) is one of those “agenda” documentaries, because it seems less concerned about interviewing people with a variety of perspectives and more concerned about being a one-sided tribute to Andrew “Lou” Smit, who was a prominent investigator for the Boulder district attorney’s office on the JonBenét Ramsey case. He was also an unpaid private investigator for the case when he stopped working for the Boulder D.A.’s office.

Smit (who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 75) firmly believed that an unknown intruder or intruders committed the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The documentary includes interviews with people who say the same thing (including JonBenét’s father John Ramsey), but not any interviews with people who believe in other theories. Furthermore, a copious amount of time in the documentary looks like a fawning biography of Smit instead of a well-rounded investigation that looks at all sides of this contentious murder case.

The documentary pushes a narrative that Smit was a crusading and often-misunderstood investigator who constantly battled over this case with the Boulder Police Department, because the Boulder PD immediately put JonBenét Ramsey’s parents at the top of the list of suspects. The documentary (which uses a lot of the same archival footage that have been in many other JonBenét Ramsey documentaries) includes clips from Smit’s personal diary-type audio tapes that he made during the investigation. However, these audio tapes do not reveal anything new, unless you want to hear some ranting from Smit about how he felt mistreated by the Boulder PD. An epilogue in the documentary mentions that the Boulder PD declined to participate in the film, because the Boulder PD has a policy not to comment on the JonBenét Ramsey case.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Smit refused to believe the Ramseys could be guilty because he thought that they seemed like nice people. In his audio tapes, Smit says that people like the Ramseys don’t kill their children, and he had a gut feeling they weren’t guilty. What happened to the crime investigator rule that even if people who appear to be “nice,” it isn’t enough of a reason to decide that they can’t commit a crime? It’s about evidence, not personality. It’s no wonder that Smit got a lot of criticism for not being objective enough in this case.

Smit often accused the Boulder PD of having tunnel vision by not properly looking into other suspects. However, Smit displayed a certain amount of tunnel vision of his own with very biased actions during his investigation, by going out of his way to show the Ramseys that he was on their side. The documentary mentions that during Smit’s investigation while he was working for the Boulder D.A., Smit would park in front of the Ramseys’ house every day to pray for them and even invited John Ramsey to pray with him too. While this praying activity with a possible suspect might be considered noble by some people, it’s actually very unprofessional for a murder investigator to act this way with a witness who’s under suspicion while the investigator is working on the case.

Although there have been very divisive opinions on who committed the murder, these are the indisputable facts, which have been widely reported and are reiterated in the documentary: JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home sometime during the night or early-morning hours. Her parents (businessman John Bennett Ramsey and homemaker Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey) and JonBenét’s older brother Burke, who was 9 years old at the time, were also home at the time of the murder. All of them have denied having anything to do with the murder. The Boulder D.A. cleared the Ramseys as suspects in 2008.

On the morning of December 26, 1996, Patsy called 911 to report that JonBenét was kidnapped. At the crime scene was a three-page, handwritten ransom note that was written on Patsy’s notepad and using a pen that was owned by the Ramseys. When the police arrived at the Ramseys’ 11,000-square-foot, three-story house, John and Patsy had already invited several of their friends and neighbors over to the home to comfort them. The Ramseys called some of these visitors over to the house before they called the police. Unfortunately, all of these people in the house inevitably contaminated the crime scene.

Instead of securing the crime scene and telling the visitors to leave, the Boulder police officers let the visitors stay and asked John to search the house again for JonBenét. John found JonBenét’s body in a basement-like area of the house. An autopsy determined that JonBenét had blunt force trauma to her head and had been strangled with a wiry cord that was still tightly wound around her neck. There are disagreements among investigators over whether she had been hit on the head first or had been strangled first. JonBenét had also been sexually violated with one of Patsy’s broken paintbrushes that was found near JonBenét’s body.

Although a former schoolteacher named John Mark Karr (born in 1964) confessed to the murder in 2006 and was arrested for it, it was later proven that Karr gave a false confession, and he was never prosecuted for the murder. He wasn’t even in Colorado when the murder happened, and his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Karr is now living as a transgender female named Alexis Valoran Reich.

Whatever people think about the JonBenét Ramsey case, the main theories of who committed the murder identify these four possibilities:

  • John Ramsey
  • Patsy Ramsey
  • Burke Ramsey
  • An unknown intruder or intruders

People who believe that the Ramseys were involved think that the Ramseys know more than they’re telling and that the Ramsey family is covering up the truth. (Patsy died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 49.) The severe ligature strangulation of JonBenét indicates that it was done by an adult.

Those who think Burke was the real culprit have a theory that Burke brutally hit JonBenét on the head with an unknown object during an argument, and the blow possibly left her unconscious. According to the theory, John and Patsy found out and perhaps thought JonBenét was dead, and so the parents might have panicked because they were afraid of the scandal that it would cause their prominent family.

The “Ramseys are guilty” theory usually believes that John and/or Patsy then further assaulted JonBenét to establish another cause of death and to make it look like a stranger did it, in order to confuse investigators. A kidnapping was staged to also confuse investigators, according to the “Ramseys are guilty” theory. People who believe this theory think that even if one person in the Ramsey family actually committed the physical crime, the other family members who were home at the time eventually knew about it and helped cover it up.

Most people who think the Ramseys are guilty point to clues that the killer or killers seemed comfortable taking a lot of time to commit the crime without fear of being caught in the act. There was the highly unusual and long ransom note, written on a paper and pen from the Ramsey home. Handwriting analyses ruled out John as the writer of the note, while Patsy could neither be completely identified nor completely ruled out as the writer of the ransom note.

Everyone agrees that the words of the ransom note indicate that it was written by an educated adult. The only fingerprints found on the note were those from Patsy (who said she found the note), investigators and visitors who were in the house. The intruder theory is that the intruder could have worn gloves.

Another big clue, which was not mentioned in this documentary, was that the autopsy of JonBenét found some undigested pineapple in her stomach, indicating that she died shortly after eating the pineapple. A bowl of pineapples was on the kitchen counter when the police arrived at the crime scene, but the Ramseys denied knowing anything about it and said that it was unlikely that JonBenét prepared the pineapple meal herself.

Was it an intruder? And if so, what kind of intruder would feel comfortable enough in the Ramsey home to kidnap a child but stay long enough to feed the child a pineapple meal? And why use Patsy’s notepad in the house to write the ransom note instead of writing the note somewhere else in advance?

The Ramsey family was out attending a party earlier that evening, and the intruder theory is that an intruder could have been hiding in the house for hours and written the ransom note while alone in the house. (The Ramseys did not have all of their doors locked when they were away and when they were at home.) But no one can seem to explain the sequence of events that led to JonBenét eating pineapple in the middle of the night shortly before she died.

Police found that there were no signs of a disturbance in JonBenét’s bedroom on the night of the crime. Investigators have different theories on how JonBenét could have gone from sleeping in her second-floor bedroom, to being murdered, to her body being found by her father in an area of the house that’s below ground level and was known to few people outside of the Ramsey family. John, Patsy and Burke have maintained that they were asleep when the murder happened, and that they didn’t know that something had happened to JonBenét until the next morning.

People who believe the intruder theory think that the intruder used a stun gun to subdue JonBenét, because there were marks resembling a stun gun on the side of JonBenét’s face and on her back. People who believe that John, Patsy and/or Burke were involved think that JonBenét likely went down to the kitchen for her pineapple meal voluntarily, and something happened that caused her violent death. The marks on her face and back also matched a detached section of a toy train track owned by Burke, according several news reports with details of what the police found at the crime scene.

The documentary also mentions that Smit was able to show in video evidence that an intruder could have easily entered and left the side window to the room where JonBenét’s body was found. Smit demonstrated by climbing in and out of the window himself. However, what the documentary didn’t mention is that photographic evidence at the crime scene showed that after JonBenét’s body was found, an open window in that room had undisturbed dust and cobwebs on the window sill. If there was an intruder, the undisturbed dust and cobweb evidence definitely can raise doubts that someone entered or left by that window.

A neighbor reported hearing the sound of a frightened child screaming from the Ramsey house on the night of the murder. The documentary mentions that Smit found that there was a pipe in the room where JonBenét’s body was found that can carry sound from that room to outside of the house, but the sound cannot be heard on the upper floors inside the house. It fits into the theory that John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey couldn’t hear any signs of distress during the murder, if they were asleep in their bedrooms as they claimed.

However, the documentary doesn’t question the other side of this belief: If a kidnapped child was crying out that loudly inside the house while being murdered, how did the killer know that other people in the house wouldn’t be able to hear those noises? Furthermore, several people in the documentary describe JonBenét’s murder as slow and tortuous. And yet, it’s never explained why a kidnapper/intruder would feel comfortable murdering a screaming child in her own home, in a slow and tortuous way, without any fear of being caught by other people in the house. Wouldn’t a scared intruder kill her quickly instead of slowly torturing her?

The documentary mentions the biggest evidence to support the intruder theory: unknown male DNA was found in JonBenét’s underwear and on her longjohns that she was wearing when her body was found. All of the Ramseys’ DNA did not match this unknown DNA. What the documentary didn’t mention is that police have not ruled out that this DNA could have been touch DNA, which is DNA that could have gotten there if a man, such as a store employee or factory worker, had contact with this item of clothing before it was packaged. Because John Ramsey got to JonBenét’s body before the police did, and he carried to body to another location in the house, his DNA was all over critical areas, so it did not prove either way if he killed her or not.

Because this documentary seems to have been made to convince people that the intruder theory is the only correct theory and that Smit should get the most credit for this theory, it’s an echo chamber of people who essentially agree. In addition to John Bennett Ramsey, the documentary has interviews with John Andrew Ramsey (JonBenét’s oldest brother, from John Bennett Ramsey’s first marriage); Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra; Smit’s son Mark Smit; and Smit’s attorney Greg Walta. Also interviewed are investigative journalist/author Paula Woodward, who covered the JonBenét murder case from the beginning; John Anderson, a retired sheriff of Colorado’s El Paso County; and Ramsey Family private investigator John San Agustin, a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office commander.

The beginning of the documentary lists Smit’s impressive work credentials, including his role in helping solve the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest, Colorado, as if it’s proof that he could never be wrong. He spent more than 20 years working for the Colorado Springs Police Department, in addition to experience working in a coroner’s office and as an investigator for district attorneys. He later became a private investigator who refused any payment and gifts for working on the Ramsey case. John Bennett Ramsey says in the documentary that Smit even refused his offer to buy ice cream for Smit.

And yet for all this investigator experience, Smit is heard on audio saying about the Ramsey case: “I don’t think this ransom note was written by the parents. Look at all the references to death and dying.” It’s as if Smit believes that “good” parents aren’t capable of talking about their children dying. That’s Smit’s opinion, but this opinion shouldn’t be used as proof of the parents’ guilt or innocence in this case.

In another audio clip, Smit says the Ramseys should be ruled out as suspects for this reason: “There’s no bad character with the Ramseys.” Just because someone doesn’t have an arrest record or seems to have a “nice” personality isn’t proof that someone can’t commit murder. It’s an appallingly bad assumption for a murder investigator to have, because it’s based on opinion and bias, not evidence.

This documentary makes it clear that Smit had it stuck in his head that the Ramseys (who were millionaires at the time) couldn’t possibly be involved in this heinous crime. And there’s nothing wrong with believing in “innocent until proven guilty.” But time and again, in audio tapes played in the documentary, Smit makes telling comments that show a conscious or unconscious bias that appears to be based on the Ramsey’s social class. He says he thinks that the Ramseys are too “nice” or “not the kind of people” to be involved in murdering a child. It’s all really code for “I don’t think people in this income bracket should be considered likely suspects.”

One of the most noticeable flaws in this documentary is that it doesn’t offer anything substantial about what kind of person would commit this crime. If the killer was an intruder, then who else had access and intimate knowledge of the Ramsey’s home and sleeping habits to get away with this crime so easily? None of that is mentioned in the documentary, even though Smit and other investigators surely developed profiles of possible suspects.

The documentary has a brief and vague mention of a large computer database of tips from the public and other information that Smit compiled. But he also complains in his audio diaries that the police didn’t follow up on the majority of this information. Smit acknowledges what has already been widely reported: The Boulder PD was fixated on proving the Ramseys guilty, while Smit was fixated on proving the Ramseys were not guilty. The clashes were inevitable, but they show flaws and narrow-mindedness on both sides.

In 1999, a Boulder grand jury indicted John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse related to JonBenét’s murder. However, then-Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter declined to prosecute John and Patsy Ramsey, based on lack of evidence. This secret grand jury decision wasn’t made public until 2013. John Bennett Ramsey, who gives credit to Smit for influencing Hunter to make this decision, comments in the documentary that Smit “saved our lives.”

JonBenét’s father doesn’t say anything in the documentary that he hasn’t already said in other interviews. He comments that when people ask him what he would say to JonBenét, it would be this: “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That’s my job as a dad.”

He also defends JonBenét’s participation in beauty pageants, by saying it was JonBenét, not him or his wife Patsy, who insisted on being in these contests. John and Patsy were vilified for allowing JonBenét to dress and act like an adult in these pageants, with critics claiming it was “proof” that they were bad parents. There has been speculation that JonBenét could have become a murder target because of her pageant activities.

We might never know why JonBenét Ramsey was killed and who murdered her. But her father says in the documentary that the “real tragedy” is that Patsy “has been maligned as awful. She was an amazing mother.” He also says that the Ramsey family and their supporters won’t give up until JonBenét’s killer is caught. Sadly, unless there is a confession backed up with proof, this is a murder that’s unlikely to be solved.

Smit’s family members seem to be carrying on his legacy by being interviewed about the case and by making public his audio and video recordings that he made about his investigation. Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra and his granddaughters Lexi Marra and Jessa Van Der Woerd (who have a JonBenét Ramsey podcast) were prominently featured in ABC’s “20/20” episode titled “The List: Who Killed JonBenét?,” which aired on January 15, 2021. This “20/20” news report is very similar to “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (including interviewing some of the same people), except the “20/20” report had a variety of interviewees and at least made the effort to explore Smit’s suspicions about who could have been the “mystery intruder.” Unfortunately, it all adds up to recycled information that does nothing to make a breakthrough in the case.

Discovery+ premiered “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Hunter Hunter,’ starring Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Summer H. Howell and Nick Stahl

January 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Camille Sullivan in “Hunter Hunter” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Hunter Hunter”

Directed by Shawn Linden

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed rural area of Canada, the horror flick “Hunter Hunter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (and one indigenous person) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A husband, wife and their 12-year-old daughter, who live together in a remote area, have to deal with a suspected killer wolf and encounter some surprises.

Culture Audience: “Hunter Hunter” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “slow burn” horror films that have unexpected twists.

Devon Sawa and Summer H. Howell in “Hunter Hunter” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

The horror flick “Hunter Hunter” has a relatively small cast, but the movie is big on gradually building suspense, which culminates in a shocking and very gruesome ending. This is not a movie for people who get easily squeamish at the sight of blood. But if you can tolerate blood-drenched scenes in a movie, then “Hunter Hunter” might make you curious enough to see what’s going to happen in the movie’s much-talked-about ending.

Written and directed by Shawn Linden, “Hunter Hunter” starts off as more of a psychological thriller before it turns into a gorefest. And it takes a long time (the first third of the movie) before any real action takes place. It’s a “slow burn” movie that might trick viewers into thinking that it’s going to be a predictable horror flick. It’s not a typical horror film, but the ending of the movie has such an abrupt switch in tone that it’s a climax that will no doubt confuse or anger some viewers.

“Hunter Hunter” takes place in an unnamed remote, wooded area of Canada, where a family of three people live in a modest wood house and get most of their food from hunting or growing food on their land. (The movie was actually filmed in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Alberta.) Joseph “Joe” Mersault (played by Devon Sawa) and his wife Anne (played by Camille Sullivan) live as quiet recluses with their homeschooled 12-year-old daughter Renee (played by Summer H. Howell), who is a very inquisitive and perceptive child. The family has also has a male dog named Tova.

Although the Mersaults live in a very primitive way (they don’t have electricity or phone service), they aren’t completely cut off from the world. They have a truck, which is the main way that they can make money for their fur trappings or get any needed help. Joe and Anne mostly have contact with the nearest general store, where they drive to get supplies and sell fur or other animal products.

This farming season hasn’t been a good one for the family. The harsh winter weather has yielded a smaller number of crops than usual. And money is tight. When Anne goes to the general store, she doesn’t have enough cash to buy what she needs. She offers to do a trade deal with the store’s manager, but it’s still not enough to get all the items that she wants.

To make matters worse, there are signs that there’s a wolf on the loose that’s been eating the rabbits, racoons and other animals that the family depends on for meat. While out hunting, Joe and Renee find a racoon’s paw in a trap, with the paw showing signs that the rest of the body was chewed off.

When Anne is at the general store, she notices a real-estate flyer on the bulletin board. The flyer is advertising a house for sale in the suburban city of Kearney. Anne takes the flyer. Astute viewers will also notice that the bulletin board also has a missing-person flyer for a brunette woman in her 30s named Lynne Petit.

While the family is having dinner, the topic of the nuisance wolf comes up. Anne and Joe suspect it’s the same elusive wolf that they’ve been trying to catch for a while. (The movie never goes into details of how Anne and Joe have been trying to get the wolf.)

Joe says of the wolf: “Something’s bringing it back. Either it’s food or it’s a female. If I could figure out what it’s attracted to, I could bait it.” Anne says, “It’s attracted to us. I already know. We’re a steady food supply.”

Whatever is attracting the wolf, Joe makes it clear that he wants to be the only one to handle trapping the wolf. He insists that it’s too dangerous for Anne and Renee. However, Renee persistently begs to tag along with her father, until he eventually relents later in the story. Joe teaches Renee how to look for signs of wolves and bears, how to lay animal traps, and how to skin animals. He also instructs Renee that if she ever encounters a wild animal that can kill humans, she should not run but instead she should calmly walk away.

Anne shows Joe the real-estate flyer for the house in Kearney and mentions that it might be a good idea to buy the home. Joe thinks it’s a crazy idea, since they can barely afford to feed themselves. Anne is insistent that they at least think about moving to a more modern home in a more populated area.

Sensing that they’re going to have an argument about this topic, Joe asks Renee to temporarily leave the table so he can Anne can have the rest of their conversation in private. It’s a tense discussion that Joe really doesn’t want to have. But in order to avoid a major argument, he tells Renee that he’ll at least think about moving, and they can discuss it later.

In another scene in the movie, it’s revealed that Joe and Anne use to have a modern life somewhere else, and it was entirely Joe’s idea to move in a remote area, where they could live off of the land. Anne is really starting to regret that decision. She also thinks that Renee should be raised in an environment where Renee can be around other children.

Anne says to Joe: “It feels like the world has left us behind. There isn’t another generation left.” Joe replies, “There is if we make one. Nothing pushes us out of our life. Not even you.” Anne says the only reason why she chose the life they’re living now is because she chose Joe.

This marital friction is later put on the backburner when strange things start happening. While looking to trap the wolf in the woods, Joe makes a horrifying discovery, which won’t be described in this review, but it’s something that most people would immediately report to police. Oddly, Joe does not tell anyone what he found. When he goes home, he pretends that everything is normal.

And then, the family dog Tova goes missing. Renee is very upset and fears that the wolf might have killed the dog. Anne suspects the same thing, which is why she won’t let Renee accompany her when looking for the Tova in the woods. When Anne goes to look for the dog, she makes a discovery that she also keeps a secret.

Later, Joe goes in the woods again to look for the wolf. And he doesn’t come back when he was expected. After waiting several hours and there’s still no sign of Joe, Anne goes out in the woods to look for him. She can’t find him.

A worried Anne then goes to the nearest place of authority to get help: the Municipal Conservation Department, which mostly responds to complaints about wild animals on people’s property and takes care of cleaning up any roadkill. The two employees on duty are named Barthes (played by Gabriel Daniels) and Lucy (played by Lauren Cochrane), who are both in their 30s.

Barthes and Lucy have a wisecracking banter with each other. They like to sarcastically tease each other with mild insults. But underneath the joking, it’s clear that these co-workers respect each other in a platonic way. When Anne shows up to report that Joe has been missing, she’s disappointed and frustrated when Barthes tells her that there’s nothing that this department can do because the Marsaults live on federal land, which is out of the department’s jurisdiction.

This is where there’s a noticeable plot hole in “Hunter Hunter,” because most worried spouses would then find out which authorities would handle this missing-person case and file the missing-person report there. But Anne doesn’t do that. She just goes home and continues to look for Joe in the woods. She might have been reluctant to go to other authorities because Barthes questioned if the Marsault family had a right to live on federal land, and Anne had a defensive reaction to that line of questioning.

One night, Anne hears some noises coming from the woods. She thinks it might be Joe calling for help, so she takes a risk and goes outside to find out who or what is causing these noises. Instead of finding Joe, she finds an unknown man with an injured leg. He’s barely conscious.

Anne doesn’t hesitate to help this stranger. She brings him into her house and treats the bleeding gash on his leg while he’s passed out. When he regains consciousness, it’s revealed that his name is Lou (played by Nick Stahl), and he says he’s a photographer who foolishly got lost in the woods. It seems as if his legs got tangled in some thorny bushes. When Anne asks Lou if he saw anyone fitting her husband’s description, he says no.

Anne tells Lou that she can drive him to the nearest hospital because he needs professional medical care. Anne mentions that she has limited medical supplies and she doesn’t want his wound to get infected. However, Lou is very reluctant to go to the hospital. Renee wonders why Anne is going to all this trouble to help a stranger, and Anne tells her that it’s what good people are supposed to do. But will this act of kindness be a mistake?

“Hunter Hunter” keeps people guessing on whether or not there’s a supernatural element to the story. Viewers won’t get a clear answer until the last third of the film, where most of the horror takes place. Linden’s twist-filled writing and direction make “Hunter Hunter” a true mystery where the clues aren’t obvious, but they make sense in hindsight to viewers who are really paying attention.

The cast members all do good jobs with their performances, but Sullivan is the clear standout. It’s not just because she has the most screen time, but it’s mainly because her Anne character goes through a metamorphosis from being a dutiful wife to taking charge of the household once her husband goes missing. Because of something extreme that happens at the end of the movie, some viewers will have trouble reconciling it with the rest of the story. However, it’s clear that “Hunter Hunter” doesn’t want to offer easy answers on issues relating to morality or death.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Hunter Hunter” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Breaking Fast,’ starring Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy

January 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy in “Breaking Fast” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Breaking Fast”

Directed by Mike Mosallam

Culture Representation: Taking place in West Hollywood, California, the romantic comedy “Breaking Fast” features cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay Lebanese American man, who is a religious Muslim, is still pining over his ex-boyfriend, when he meets a potential new love (a white American man who isn’t Muslim) during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and abstaining from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset.

Culture Audience: “Breaking Fast” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Arab Americans, Muslim religious practices and the LGBTQ community.

Amin El Gaman in “Breaking Fast” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

In many ways, “Breaking Fast” sticks to a familiar romantic comedy formula of two people meeting, having a courtship where there’s some fear of commitment, and then getting into a big argument that threatens to ruin the relationship of the would-be couple. But in so many other ways, “Breaking Fast” is definitely not a typical romantic comedy. That’s because much of the movie is about what it’s like to be a gay, religious Muslim and how to handle dating someone who’s neither religious nor Muslim. The results are a charming movie that makes up for some exaggerated acting with genuine heartfelt moments that can be relatable to any adult, regardless of religion or sexuality.

Written and directed by Mike Mosallam, “Breaking Fast” (based on his short film of the same name) takes place in West Hollywood, California, which has a large LGBTQ population. However, Lebanon is a big influence on the movie’s main character Mohammed (played by Haaz Sleiman), a hospital doctor in his mid-30s who goes by the nickname Mo. That’s because Mo’s parents and some other relatives are immigrants from Lebanon. Mo was born in the United States, but he often refers to Lebanon as “home,” as do many of his relatives who live in America.

Mo is a well-respected gastroenterologist who happens to be gay. Everyone in his life knows it, and his family members have accepted his sexuality. Mo, who is an only child, is very close to his mother (played by Rula Gardenier), who can be meddling, effusive and domineering. She keeps pestering Mo about wanting to become a grandmother. Mo could be considered a “mama’s boy” because he talks to his mother on the phone every day, sometimes more than once a day.

Mo’s father, nicknamed Baba (played by Serop Ohennisian), has a very different personality from Mo’s Mother: Baba is laid-back and quiet. Also living in the Los Angeles area are Mo’s aunt (played by Lameece Assaq); Mo’s uncle (played by Abdul Alnaif); and Mo’s beloved maternal grandmother nicknamed Tata (played by Fatima Quwaider), whom he seems to adore the most because she never pressures him to change anything about his life. They are a very tight-knit family who spend a lot of time together.

But not everyone in Mo’s life has this type of supportive and loving family. At the beginning of the movie, Mo and his family are at Mo’s house to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, a Muslim tradition where for one month, Muslims who observe this tradition have to fast, avoid thinking impure thoughts, and abstain from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. Mo’s boyfriend Hassan (played by Patrick Sabongui) is also there, but he’s not in a celebratory mood.

Hassan, whose entire family is in Lebanon, is still “in the closet” about his sexuality to his family. Hassan is extremely worried because a female cousin has found out that Hassan is gay, and she’s threatening to tell Hassan’s homophobic father. The cousin found out about Hassan’s sexuality through Hassan’s secret Facebook account, which he has now deleted. Hassan is terrified of being disowned by his family.

Mo tries to comfort Hassan and advises him to just continue doing what he’s been doing: Telling his family that he’s single and he’s still looking for the right person. But Hassan is so paranoid about his family finding out the truth that he tells Mo that he’s thinking about finding a woman to marry so that his family won’t even suspect that he’s gay. Mo thinks it’s a terrible idea, and the look on his face shows that Mo also thinks it’s insulting to their relationship for Hassan to go to those lengths to live a lie.

Hassan reminds Mo that Mo doesn’t know what it’s like to live in fear of family who will disown other family members who are LGBTQ. Hassan seems pretty sure that he’s going to go through with a fake marriage. As Hassan joins Mo’s family for the Ramadan dinner and acts like nothing is wrong, Mo looks heartbroken and alienated from the boyfriend he thought he knew.

The movie then fast-forwards to a year later. And sure enough, Mo and Hassan have broken up and are no longer in contact with each other. Mo is in an exercise class with his flamboyant gay best friend Sam (played by Amin El Gamal), who is also a Lebanese American, but he’s not religious in the way that Mo is religious.

During this workout session, Sam chastises Mo for not being able to move on from Hassan. Mo is feeling down because he’s found out through social media that Hassan is now married to a woman and expecting a child with her. Sam thinks that Mo is long overdue to start dating again, so Sam insists that Mo go to Sam’s birthday party that night, even though it’s on the first night of Ramadan.

Mo is very reluctant, but he ends up going to the party. Sam has a crush on a guy named John (played by Christopher J. Hanke), who shows up at the party with a friend named Kal (played by Michael Cassidy), whom Mo initially thinks is out of his league because Kal is so good-looking. When John and Kal go over to Mo and Sam and introductions are made, Mo is friendly, but Mo gives the impression that he’s not looking to date anyone. However, it’s clear that there are undercurrents of attraction between Mo and Kal from the way that Kal jokes with Mo and how Mo seems to like it.

Despite this immediate attraction, the first meeting between Mo and Kal does have some awkward moments. Kal is an actor, and Mo blurts out that he doesn’t understand actors. Kal has the type of dry humor where he can say something that seems serious, but he has tell people that he’s really joking if they take it the wrong way. It happens several times between Kal and Mo that night.

Soon after Mo and Kal meet, Sam is ready to play matchmaker with Mo and Kal and speaks some words of encouragement in Arabic to Mo about it while Kal is standing there. To Sam and Mo’s surprise, Kal speaks Arabic too and lets it be known that he could understand everything that Sam was saying to Mo.

Why does Kal know how to speak Arabic? Kal spent part of his childhood in Jordan, where his military father was stationed. Therefore, Kal is also very familiar with Islam and Muslim traditions. Kal is not religious or Muslim, but he has no problem respecting other people’s religious beliefs. During Mo and Kal’s conversation, Kal finds out that Mo strictly observes Ramadan.

After an embarrassing situation where Sam practically harasses Mo to follow Kal into the bathroom (nothing sexual happens), Mo is ready to call it a night. As Mo is leaving, he notices Kal standing outside. Kal invites Mo to walk with him to a nearby grocery store. Kal tries to make an excuse not to go, but Kal persuades him.

It’s during their walk together that romantic sparks start to fly between Mo and Kal. The icebreaker happens when Kal mentions that his full name is Kal-El, because he was named after the birth name of Superman. That’s when Mo and Kal find out that they’re both big fans of Superman and that their favorite “Superman” movie actor is Christopher Reeve. And they both say that their favorite “Superman” movie is the first one from 1978.

During this conversation, Kal and Mo find out that they both do not drink alcohol. They also talk about how Mo’s Muslim faith affects his life. Kal says to Mo: “It must be hard to find a good Muslim guy in this town … I bet most Muslims [reject] you for being gay, and most gays don’t get down with God.” Mo replies, “I was born gay, and I love God. The two can and should be able to co-exist.”

During this leisurely stroll, Kal mentions that he’s going to head to Fubar, a local gay nightclub, to meet up with some people he knows. He asks if Mo wants to join him, but Mo politely declines and says that nightclubbing isn’t his thing. When Mo and Kal arrive at Fubar, they go their separate ways.

The next day, gossipy Sam finds out that Mo and Kal spent some time together after the party. Naturally, Sam wants to hear all the details. Sam is shocked and disappointed to find out that Mo and Kal didn’t kiss, didn’t exchange phone numbers, and didn’t even tell each other that they wanted to see each other again.

But there would be no “Breaking Fast” movie if Mo and Kal didn’t see each other again. That moment comes when Mo is in an elevator at his hospital job, and Kal just happens to step into the elevator. They are pleasantly surprised to see each other. Mo asks what Kal is doing at the hospital, and Kal says he was there to visit a patient and that everything is fine, but he doesn’t go into further details.

Kal teases Mo by asking him why Mo “ditched” him outside Fubar. Kal says that he thought he made it clear to Mo that night that he was only going to be in the bar for a few minutes. He thought Mo would be waiting for him outside, so Kal was disappointed to see Mo was gone. Meanwhile, Mo expresses genuine surprise and says he wasn’t aware of this misunderstanding.

Kal is more assertive and open about his attraction to Mo, so he suggests coming over to Mo’s place to cook an Iftar dinner for them. Iftar is the after-sunset meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan, to break the fasting for the evening. Mo and Kal have a cute meet-up at a grocery store to buy ingredients for the dinner. It’s where Kal shows his knowledge of Arabic food, and he flirtatiously informs Mo that he doesn’t like stems in tabouli, while Mo playfully disagrees.

Although Kal seems like a great guy, Mo is approaching this possible relationship with caution, not just because it’s starting during Ramadan but also because Mo doesn’t want to get his heart broken again. Mo takes a “let’s be friends first” approach to hanging out with Kal, who respects Mo’s wishes to keep their budding romance chaste, for now. Mo is so strict about following Ramadan that he won’t even allow Kal to talk about kissing during the hours that Ramadan must be observed.

One of the funnier scenes in the movie is when Kal shows up early to Mo’s place for their first dinner date. Mo has just gotten out of shower, wearing nothing but a towel. He answers the door, not expecting Kal to be there. They hug, but Mo’s towel accidentally drops. A mortified Mo then asks Kal not to look as the towel is retrieved. Kal thinks the whole situation is hilarious.

Eventually, Mo and Kal have more home dinner dates, where Kal does the cooking. Mo and Kal open up some more about their backgrounds. Kal reveals that he had a troubled, dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic father whom Kal hints was verbally abusive. Kal’s parents knew that Kal was gay from an early age, and Kal’s beloved mother (who died when Kal was 16) tried to protect Kal in the homophobic military environment where he grew up. Kal is comfortable being openly gay, but he’s not very comfortable talking about painful experiences from his past.

Kal and Mo also tell each other why they chose their respective careers. Kal says that he was inspired to be an actor because when he was a kid, he did skits for his mother, who told Kal that he was the only person who could make her laugh. Despite being in a profession where he gets a lot rejections, Kal says he doesn’t want to do anything else as a career except being an actor. Mo says that he knew he wanted to be a doctor after a terrifying experience as a child, when he was at the movies with his grandmother, who choked on some popcorn and was saved by a doctor who happened to be there.

“Breaking Fast” has some sweet moments during Kal and Mo’s dates. But over time, some of Kal’s and Mo’s differences come to light and could mean trouble for their relationship. Kal is very distant from his family. Mo sees this family estrangement firsthand when he and Kal are on a date, and they happen to run into Kal’s stepmother Judy (played by Veronica Cartwright), who seems to want to have a pleasant conversation with Kal. However, Kal has a hostile reaction to her.

It’s the first time that Kal shows that he’s the easygoing, happy-go-lucky person that he first appeared to be. Some of Kal’s family secrets are eventually revealed. Meanwhile, Mo’s tendency to be rigid and judgmental also causes problems in his relationship with Kal. Mo believes that Hassan’s family problems had a lot to do with why he and Hassan broke up, so Mo is wary of getting romantically involved with another man who has “family baggage.”

Sleiman and Cassidy mostly succeed in their nuanced and layered portrayals of Kal and Mo. who find out whether or not their differences are too big to overcome, or if they can find enough common ground to start a serious romance. Their portrayals are grounded in a lot of realistic emotions, which are complemented by their appealing dialogue.

El Gamal’s Sam character often serves as the film’s often loud and vulgar comic relief, which might get on some viewers’ nerves. Some people might also be turned off by Sam being a very stereotypical effeminate gay character. However, El Gamal brings the type of charisma to the Sam character where—love him or hate him—Sam lights up the screen and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Sam isn’t just a clownish character, since he has a big dramatic moment in the film where he expresses why he doesn’t agree with Mo’s devotion to Islam.

“Breaking Fast” falters when some of the actors look like they’re trying too hard to be funny. However, the heart of the story remains Mo and Kal’s relationship, which has a lot of emotional authenticity. The movie, under the earnest directing and writing from Mosallam, doesn’t fall into a trap of absurdist melodrama. Instead, the movie has plenty of moments that are true-to-life but told from a complex cultural perspective that isn’t represented too often in American movies.

Vertical Entertainment released “Breaking Fast” on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.

Review: ‘Our Friend,’ starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel

January 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

“Our Friend”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2000 to 2014 in Fairhope, Alabama; New Orleans; and briefly in Pakistan, the dramatic film “Our Friend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple and their male best friend go through ups and downs in their relationship, especially after the wife gets ovarian cancer and the best friend temporarily moves in the family home to help the spouses take care of their two young daughters.

Culture Audience: “Our Friend” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally authentic, dramatic movies about loyal friendships and how cancer affects relationships.

Isabella Kai, Jason Segel and Violet McGraw in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

The tearjerker drama “Our Friend,” which is inspired by a true story, departs from the usual formula of a family coping with cancer. When someone in a family has this disease, cancer dramas usually focus on how a spouse, parent or child is dealing with it. Those aspects are definitely in “Our Friend,” but there’s also the unusual component of a male best friend moving into the family household to be a nurturing supporter. Thanks to heartfelt performances from the main cast members, “Our Friend” is a genuine and relatable film, despite being the type of drama where it’s easy to predict exactly how it’s going to end.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, “Our Friend” is based on a 2015 Esquire magazine essay titled “The Friend,” written by journalist Matt Teague. (“The Friend” was the original title for this movie.) In this deeply personal article, he described the generosity of Dane Faucheux, the longtime best friend of Matt and his wife Nicole Teague. After Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dane (who was a bachelor at the time) put his life on hold in New Orleans to temporarily move in with the couple in Fairhope, Alabama, to help them take care of their household and the couple’s two young daughters Molly and Evangeline, nicknamed Evie.

The movie “Our Friend” expands on that essay by jumping back and forth in time to show how the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane evolved over 14 years, including the highs, lows and everything in between. The movie’s story spans from the year 2000 (when the three of them met) to the year 2014, when Nicole’s cancer was at its worst. The cinematic version of the story avoids a lot of nauseating details that are in the Esquire essay about bodily functions of a cancer patient. Instead, the movie focuses on showing this intense friendship from the individual perspectives of Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Nicole and Dane met each other while living in New Orleans in their early 20s, when she was one of the stars of a local musical theater production and he was a lighting operator in the crew. Nicole is open-hearted, compassionate and the type of person whom a lot of people feel like could be their best friend. Dane is socially awkward and somewhat introverted but an overall good guy who has some immaturity issues.

In the movie, Nicole was already married to Matt when she met Dane, who didn’t know that Nicole was married when he asked Nicole out on a date. Dane’s courtship mistake is never shown in the movie, but it’s mentioned in conversations. Once Nicole told Dane about her marital status, they were able to overcome this minor embarrassment and became good friends. Dane and Nicole are comfortable enough with each other that talk about their love lives with each other.

Dane is thoughtful and generous (he gives homemade mix CDs to Nicole), and he and Nicole love to talk about music, even when they agree to disagree. She thinks Led Zeppelin is “the greatest band ever,” while he doesn’t really care for Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin reference in the movie is significant because two of Led Zeppelin’s original songs—”Ramble On” and “Going to California”—are used in emotional montage scenes in “Our Friend.”

By making Nicole an actress who loves musical theater, “Our Friend” gives Johnson a chance to showcase her singing skills, which are very good but not outstanding. Johnson sings two songs in the movie: “Hands All Hands Around” (from the musical “Quilters”) and a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s “If I Had the World to Give.” Johnson also did some singing in her 2020 movie “The High Note,” so maybe this is her way of demonstrating that she wants to be a professional singer too.

One day, Dane asks for Nicole’s advice about how to approach a theater co-worker named Charlotte (played by Denée Benton) whom he wants to ask out on a date. Unbeknownst to him, Charlotte isn’t attracted to Dane and has already been dating the theater’s stage manager named Aaron (played by Jake Owen). Minutes after Dane confides in Nicole that he’s going to ask Charlotte on a date, Charlotte tells Nicole in a private conversation that she suspects that Dane has a crush on her but Charlotte isn’t interested in dating Dane. It’s one of many examples in the movie that show how Nicole is a trusted confidante to many people in her life and she knows how to make people feel special.

Of course, Dane eventually finds out that Charlotte and Aaron are dating. Dane mopes about it for a little bit when he sees Charlotte and Aaron showing some heavy public displays of affection at a bar on the night that Nicole introduces Matt to Dane. The first time Matt and Dane meet, it’s at this bar, and Dane makes an apology to Matt for asking Nicole out on a date. Matt tells Dane not to worry about it and says that he has no hard feelings.

While Dane watches Charlotte and Aaron from a distance at the bar, Dane seem to takes their coupling way more personally than he should. He grumbles to Nicole and Matt that Charlotte seems to be rubbing her feelings for Aaron in Dane’s face. It’s a sign (one of many) that one of Dane’s flaws is that he can be emotionally insecure and overly needy.

As the movie skips back and forth in time, it’s eventually shown that Charlotte and Aaron have gotten married and have two children together. Charlotte and Nicole remain very close friends, even after Matt and Nicole move to Fairhope. Matt and Nicole relocated to Fairhope so that Nicole could be close to her parents. The parents of Matt and Nicole parents are never seen in the movie. After Nicole finds out that she has cancer in 2012, Matt tells Dane that Nicole has been afraid to tell her parents about the cancer diagnosis.

By the time that Nicole and Matt are living in Fairhope during her cancer ordeal, it’s shown in the movie that their daughter Molly (played by Isabella Kai) is about 11 or 12 years old, while their daughter Evie played by Violet McGraw) is about 5 or 6 years old. Molly is sometimes moody and quick-tempered, while Evie is generally a happy-go-lucky kid. Molly’s personality is more like Matt’s, while Evie is more like Nicole.

Over the years, it’s apparent that Aaron likes to make snide, condescending comments about Dane to other people whenever Dane isn’t around to defend himself. Aaron always makes digs about Dane working in dead-end jobs (such as a sales clerk at an athletic clothing store) and Dane not seeming to have an career goals or any real direction in life. Dane (who has a goofy sense of humor) has tried to be a stand-up comedian, but these dreams never really go anywhere, mainly because he just isn’t that talented. However, when Dane practices his stand-up routine for Nicole, she politely laughs at his corny jokes, and it makes him feel good.

Dave has financial problems, to the point where he’s sometimes temporarily homeless and has to stay at friends’ places or has to move back home with his parents, and he seems unsure of his purpose in life. B y contrast, Matt’s career as a journalist is flourishing. One of Matt’s first jobs was as a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he felt stifled and bored with covering fluffy local news. Matt’s real goal is to be a globetrotting journalist, where he gets to cover what he calls “important” news, such as wars and politics, that can make a big difference in people’s lives.

Matt gets his wish and his career is thriving as a freelancer covering war news for publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. But all that traveling has taken a toll on his marriage to Nicole. In 2008, while Matt is on assignment in Pakistan, he and Nicole have an argument on the phone because he took an assignment to go to Libya without discussing it with Nicole first.

Matt doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, because he says that the family needs the money. Nicole, who’s now a homemaker, tells Matt that she feels like she’s a “single parent” and complains to him: “I feel like I married a war correspondent, not a journalist.”

Matt goes home for a few days before he has to go to Libya. And he gets unsolicited advice from Dane to not take the assignment in Libya and stay with the family. This leads to an argument between Matt and Dane where Dane points out Matt’s personality flaws, while Matt insults Dane for having a directionless life with no real career.

Because the movie’s timeline is not in chronological order, viewers have to piece together the ebbs and flows of the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane. There are hints that Dane struggles with his mental health, especially in an extended scene taking place in 2010 that shows Dane abruptly packing up and leaving his parents’ house so he can go camping by himself in remote Southwest canyons. Before he leaves, Dane’s older brother Davey (played by Richard Speight Jr.) asks Dane if Dane is having one of his “episodes.”

During this solitary excursion, Dane meets a friendly German camper named Teresa (played by Gwendoline Christie), who’s also traveling by herself. Teresa asks Dane to join her on her hikes. Dane is standoffish at first, but Teresa insists on hanging out with Dane, and he eventually warms up to her a little bit. Teresa senses that Dane is deeply troubled and unhappy with his life, so she shares with him a very personal experience that changes his perspective. It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, proving that not all of the emotional gravitas in “Our Friend” has to do with Nicole’s cancer diagnosis.

However, “Our Friend” is still very much a cancer movie. There’s the heart-wrenching scene showing Matt and Nicole deciding how they are going to break the news to their children that Nicole is going to die from cancer. There’s the predictable scene where Nicole makes a “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies, with Matt and Dane frantically trying to make some of the more difficult things on the list (such as being grand marshal of the next Mardi Gras parade) come true for Nicole. And then there are the expected scenes of Nicole having medication-related meltdowns.

The Teague family members also have the misfortune of their beloved pet pug Gracie being diagnosed with cancer around the same time that Nicole gets sick with cancer. While Matt spends time with Nicole in the hospital, Dane has the task of taking Gracie to the veterinarian, who tells Dane that it’s best if the terminally ill dog undergoes euthanasia. Dane, who is not the owner of the dog, is put in the awkward position of having to represent the Teague family when the dog is permanently put to sleep. Dane also has to tell Molly and Evie the bad news about Gracie’s death, because Matt and Nicole are too preoccupied in the hospital.

During all of this cancer drama, Dane gets some pushback and criticism for deciding to move in with Matt and Nicole. At the time of Nicole’s cancer diagnosis, Dane was living in New Orleans and had been dating a baker named Kat (played by Marielle Scott) for about a year. Dane and Kat’s relationship has progressed to the point where Kat has given him spare keys to her home.

At first, Kat was fine with Dane going to visit the Teagues in Fairhope (which is about 160 miles away from New Orleans), as a show of support for the family. But the visits became longer and longer, until Dane eventually moved in with the Teagues. And Kat wasn’t so okay with that decision. Aaron also makes snarky comments to the Teagues’ circle of friends about Dane being a freeloader, until Matt eventually puts Aaron in his place for being such an unrelenting jerk about Dane.

The movie also shows that Matt and Nicole have other challenges in their lives besides her cancer. Before she was diagnosed with cancer, their marriage hit a rough patch due to issues over jealousy and infidelity. And before and during Nicole’s cancer crisis, Molly was feeling resentment toward Matt because of his long absences from home. Molly sometimes lashes out at Matt and makes it clear that she thinks Nicole is a much better parent than Matt is.

The biggest noticeable flaw about “Our Friend” is there seems to be a gender double standard in how the three main characters physically age in the movie. Nicole looks like she’s barely aged throughout the entire movie, even though the story takes place over the course of 14 years. It’s a contrast to how Matt and Dane age over the years, particularly with their hair. In the early years of the friendship, Segel wears a wig to make Dane look younger, while in the later years, he sports his natural receding hairline. Likewise, Affleck’s natural gray hair is seen in the later years of the friendship.

This discrepancy has a lot to do with the fact that in real life, Johnson is 14 years younger than Affleck, and she’s nine years younger than Segel. The real Nicole, Matt and Dane were much closer to each other in age. This movie’s unwillingness to show a woman aging over 14 years and casting a much-younger female co-star as the love interest of the leading male actor are part of bigger age discrimination issues that make it harder for actresses over the age of 35 to be cast as a love interest to someone who’s close to their age.

And when Nicole has cancer, the physical damages from cancer are barely shown. There’s the typical “dark circles under the eyes” look with makeup, as well as mentions of Nicole’s hair falling out because of chemotherapy. (At various times, she wears a headband or a wig.)

But the movie could have used a little more realism in showing the devastating physical toll that cancer can take. More often than not in the cancer scenes, the movie makes Nicole just look like she’s hung over from a wild night of partying, instead of looking like a real cancer patient who’s deep in chemotherapy. It’s not as if Johnson had to lose a scary amount of weight to look like a convincing cancer patient, but more could have been done with makeup and/or visual effects to make it look more realistic that her character was dying of cancer.

However, the filmmakers (including film editor Colin Patton) should get a lot of credit for taking the non-chronological scenes and making everything into a cohesive story that’s easy to understand. “Our Friend” is not the type of movie that can be watched while distracted by something else, because the year that a sequence takes place is shown on the screen to guide viewers. People watching this movie have to pay attention to these milestone year indicators to get the full scope of the story.

“Our Friend” is a well-cast movie where all the actors do convincing portrayals of the emotions expressed in the movie. (Cherry Jones has a small but important role as a hospice nurse named Faith Pruett.) As much as the movie is about Matt and Nicole’s marriage, it’s also very much about the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Even though Nicole and Dane were friends before Dane and Matt knew each other, Nicole and Dane’s friendship starts to wane a little bit, the more debilitated with cancer she becomes. There’s a noticeable brotherly bond that develops between Matt and Dane, especially when they have to face the reality of life without Nicole. It doesn’t diminish Nicole’s role in the film, but it realistically shows how relationships can change when people have to prepare for the end of a loved one’s life. “Our Friend” is not an easy film to watch for anyone who hates to think about dying from cancer, but the sadness in the movie is balanced out by the joy of having true love from family and friends.

Roadside Attractions and Gravitas Ventures released “Our Friend” in U.S. cinemas, on January 22, 2021, the same date that Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released the movie on digital and VOD.

Review: ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version,’ starring Radha Blank

January 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Directed by Radha Blank

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedic film “The Forty-Year-Old Version” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white, Latino and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling African American playwright decides to reinvent herself as a rapper a few months before her 40th birthday, and she has to come to terms with her definition of “success” versus “selling out,” as she deals with racism and sexism.

Culture Audience: “The Forty-Year-Old Version” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories of self-identity from an African American perspective.

Reed Birney and Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a comedic film that skillfully shows a mid-life crisis that has never before been portrayed on screen: Just a few months before she turns 40 years old, a struggling New York City playwright, who’s looking for a new way to express her creativity, decides that she wants to become a rapper. It’s a career move that’s risky and outside her comfort zone not only because hip-hop isn’t generally welcoming of female rappers but it’s a music genre that also has incredibly difficult barriers for beginner rappers who are over the age of 30. Radha Blank makes a captivating feature-film debut as the star, writer, director and one of the producers of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical movie that strikes the right balance of showing uncomfortable truths with whimsically raw comedy.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is entirely in black and white, which gives the movie a somewhat timeless look. This creative choice might also draw comparisons to filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1986 feature-film debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” which was also entirely in black and white. Both movies are comedies with an independent-minded woman as the main character. And although the overall tone is comedic, both movies also have underlying serious social commentary about how relationships are affected by gender roles and race.

In “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Blank portrays a playwright named Radha, who is about to turn 40 in a few months, and she feels like her life is imploding. She’s grieving over the death of her beloved widowed mother. Radha is also having financial problems and is trying not to get depressed that she hasn’t lived up to her expected potential.

Years ago, Radha received a “30 Under 30” prize by an influential theater organization, to signify that she was considered a promising playwright under the age of 30. And now, all these years later, Radha can’t even get a workshop of her latest play. To pay her bills, Radha teaches an after-school class on dramatic writing at a local high school. But even in that job, she’s not appreciated, because some of the teenage students in her small class (which has eight students) don’t really want to be in her class and show little to no interest in theater.

Radha’s latest play that she’s hoping to get produced is called “Harlem Ave,” which is set in New York City’s predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. She describes the play as being about “a young man who inherited a grocery store from his parents and struggles to keep the business afloat with an activist wife.” Radha wants the play to be reflective of the real Harlem, by having a predominantly black cast.

In the hopes of getting “Harlem Ave” in regional theater, Radha meets with a pretentious acquaintance named Forrest Umoja Petry (played by Andre Ward), who owns the local OUmoja Theatre, an off-Broadway venue whose specialty is African American stage productions. Forrest, who founded the theater in 1988, doesn’t really take Radha that seriously. Instead of discussing the play with Radha, he makes her meditate with him in his office that he likes to fill with burning incense.

Radha’s best friend Archie (played by Peter Kim), an openly gay Korean American, is an aspiring theater producer. It’s later revealed in the movie that Radha and Archie have been best friends since high school. They were each other’s prom dates back then, when Archie was still closeted to most people and afraid to tell his family about his sexuality. Archie is staunchly loyal to Radha, but he disagrees with her “I’ll never sell out” mindset when it comes to getting her plays financed. Radha wants to be a success, but only on her terms.

Archie excitedly tells Radha that he’s scored an invitation to a black-tie party that will be attended by a powerful, Tony-winning producer named J. Whitman (played by Reed Birney), who could be a likely investor in “Harlem Ave.” Archie wants Radha to be his “plus one” at the party, which Archie thinks will be the perfect opportunity for Radha to pitch her play to Whitman. Radha is very reluctant to go to this party and tells Archie: “J. Whitman only does black ‘poverty porn’ plays. I’d rather do a workshop with Forrest and his stinky-ass ancestors than suck up to J. Whitman!”

But after some pleading from Archie, Radha eventually agrees to go to the party. The soiree is upscale and filled with a lot of well-to-do “theater patron” types, who are usually over the age of 60. It’s the type of party where Archie and Radha stand out because they’re relatively young by comparison, and they’re two of the few non-white people at the party.

Sure enough, Radha gets a chance to talk to Whitman, so she tells him about “Harlem Ave.” Whitman says he would be interested in investing, but he thinks the play should be about “gentrification.” It’s really code for saying, “There needs to be white people as main characters in the play, in order to sell it to a predominantly white audience.”

Radha thinks it’s demeaning for Whitman to suggest that she change her play in this way, but she doesn’t say it out loud to Whitman. Instead, she politely tells him that she doesn’t want to change to focus of her play. She’s ready to end the conversation, but a tone-deaf Whitman adds insult to injury and tells Radha: “I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical.”

This racial condescension enrages Radha, who then lunges at Whitman and begins strangling him. It’s played for laughs in the movie, but the scene demonstrates how infuriating people like Whitman can be, because they think of themselves as “open-minded liberals” but they believe in the same racist stereotypes as close-minded conservatives. Radha is unapologetic for her outburst, but Archie is horrified. Archie tells Radha that he wants to smooth things over with Whitman, but Radha tells Archie not to bother.

Publicly, Radha is defiant. Privately, she’s wracked with self-doubt. In her small and dumpy apartment where she lives alone, she cries in despair and wails: “I just want to be an artist! Mommy, tell me what to do!”

Just then, Radha hears rap music playing nearby. She has a silent “a-ha” moment and suddenly feels inspired to write rap lyrics. The next day, Radha tells Archie that she’s going to try something new with her life: She wants to make a rap mixtape and see where it’ll take her in a possible career as a rapper.

Archie is incredulous and thinks Radha shouldn’t give up her career in theater. But Radha has already made up her mind. Whitman has decided to forgive Radha for physically attacking him, but he tells Archie that he should be a theater producer and that Archie shouldn’t be wasting his time with Radha, whom Whitman calls a “washed-up writer.”

Radha hears about a home recording studio in Brooklyn that works with aspiring rappers, so she goes there to see if she can find a producer who can make the music for her lyrics. When she goes to the cramped, smoke-filled apartment, she’s the only female in a roomful of guys in their 20s. A sullen-looking 26-year-old, who goes by the name D (played by Oswin Benjamin), is the producer/engineer operating the recording equipment. He barely acknowledges Radha in this first meeting.

The entire meeting is awkward because it’s obvious that these guys don’t take Radha seriously. When one of them asks Radha what her rap name is, she’s taken aback and makes up a name on the spot: RadhaMUSPrime. It’s a play on words of the “Transformers” robot hero character Optimus Prime.

Radha has the money to pay for a recording session. D seems reluctant to work with her though, because it’s obvious that he thinks she’s a joke. That is, until Radha starts rapping her song “Poverty Porn,” a scathing rebuke of greedy people who make money in entertainment by exploiting African American poverty. When D sees her perform and hears the lyrics, he shows signs of being impressed with Radha’s talent.

“Poverty Porn” is told from the point of view of the exploiter who would rather make entertainment showing African Americans as poor and down-trodden instead of showing the reality that most African Americans are not poor but are middle-class. The lyrics of the chorus include: “You regular blacks are just such a yawn. Yo, if I want to get on, better make me some poverty porn.”

Radha’s experience with Whitman is the obvious inspiration for “Poverty Porn,” but the lyrics suggest that Radha has had a lifetime of these racist experiences in trying to be a successful playwright. Later in the story, Whitman lets it be known that he still wants to be the lead producer of “Harlem Ave,” but only if Radha makes the changes that he wants. The offer comes when Radha is at a low point in her confidence and financial stability, so she has to make a choice on whether or not she will “sell out” and do the play with Whitman in charge.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” also has a subplot about two of Radha’s students who clash with each other almost every time that they’re in class together: a tough-talking butch lesbian named Rosa (played by Haskiri Velazquez) and a foul-mouthed diva named Elaine (played by Imani Lewis), who is sought-after by many of the boys in the school. Rosa has a crush on Radha and doesn’t try to hide it. For example, Rosa makes gushing comments about Radha such as, “She’s like Queen Latifah and Judge Judy rolled into one!”

Meanwhile, Elaine is often disrespectful to Radha and acts like being in Radha’s class is a waste of time. One day, Elaine insults Radha by calling her a failed playwright. Rosa jumps to Radha’s defense and gets in a brawl with Elaine. Rosa and Elaine are both punished by the school, but the two teens still act like enemies when they’re together in the classroom. Much later, Radha sees something in the school hallway which explains why Elaine is acting the way that she does.

As Radha spends more time with D to write and record her rap songs, she and D become closer, even though their personalities are almost polar opposites. Radha is talkative and high-strung. D is quiet and laid-back. There’s also their age difference and the fact that they have very different social circles.

Even though Radha is trying to be a rapper, she comes from the intellectual theater world, while D has more of a “street life” background. Both Radha and D have a strong sense of identity as African Americans, but their respective upbringings and educations have taken them on different paths. Their relationship is a situation where hip-hop really did bring them together.

Much of the absurdist comic relief in the story comes from recurring appearances of neighbors as a sort of “Greek chorus” who make funny and sometimes rude remarks separately to the camera, as if they’re speaking to or about Radha. These outspoken neighbors are an elderly African American woman (played by Jackie Adam), who’s called Snazzy in the film’s credits; a young Dominican woman (played by Cristina Gonzalez); an elderly Korean vendor (played Charles Ryu); and two of Radha’s students named Waldo (played by Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (played by T.J. Atoms). When they’re asked what they think of Radha turning 40, the young woman replies, “When a single woman turns 40, she’s like fruit in the ground for the bugs to eat.”

There’s also a scene-stealing homeless man named Lamont (named Jacob Ming-Trent), who hangs out near Radha’s apartment building and lets her know that he watches all the comings and goings that happen to and from her home. During a pivotal conversation that Radha has on the street when she asks someone for help with her career, Lamont who’s watching nearby shouts: “Give the bitch a chance! Her desperation is making me nauseous! Although technically, you’ve got to eat something to throw up.”

Because “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a low-budget film, it’s fairly obvious that many of the cast members are not professional actors. Some of the cast members deliver their lines better than those whose acting is a little rough around the edges. But that’s part of the movie’s charm, since it looks like many of the people in the movie are really playing versions of themselves and aren’t doing a slick acting job. Of the main cast members, Blank and Kim fare the best in scenes that show the genuine and sometimes volatile friendship between Radha and Archie.

One of the best things about “The Forty-Year-Old” version is how it authentically reveals layers to the story without making it too cluttered. Viewers will get poignant glimpses into Radha’s family life and how her mother’s death affected her. Radha’s brother Ravi (played by Blank’s real-life brother Ravi Blank) wants her to help him decide what to do with their mother’s possessions, but Radha has been avoiding his phone calls. When the siblings eventually meet up, they have a heart-to-heart conversation that’s a standout scene in the movie.

It’s revealed in the story that Radha and Ravi’s parents were both artists but had to take day jobs to support the family. The siblings’ mother was a painter who worked as a teacher, while their father was a jazz drummer who worked as a plumber. Radha is single with no children, so she doesn’t have the family financial obligations that her parents had. However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” shows that one of her underlying fears is not being able to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional and respected artist.

At an age when most people are settled down and secure in their careers, Radha is restless and insecure in her chosen profession. What makes this story stand out is how she takes a bold risk to “blow it all up” to start over in hip-hop, which is a male-dominated and often-misogynistic industry. It’s a risk that most women in the same circumstances would never take. But “The Forty-Year-Old Version” accurately shows what happens when artists follow their instincts, despite any massive obstacles and naysayers in their way.

Thanks to her tour-de-force work in front of and behind the camera, Blank makes “The Forty-Year-Old Version” a truly unique gem of a film that feels very personal yet relatable to anyone who knows what it’s like to be underestimated or discriminated against simply because of race, gender or other physical characteristics. There are plenty of examples of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in the film.

However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” isn’t too heavy-handed about showing this bigotry, and Radha isn’t wallowing in a self-pity party. She just gets on with what she has to do. But there are also moments when Radha has to decide if she should listen to “rational” advice or follow what’s in her heart.

And any decision to go against the grain and listen to her inner voice requires her to be extremely vulnerable when it would be much easier to go along with what she’s pressured to do by other people. There’s a telling moment in the movie where Radha, who usually wears a do-rag that completely covers her hair, decides to take off this headpiece, and it’s symbolic of her shedding a self-protective shell and showing her true self.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is also an incisive commentary on artistic integrity and how it’s often at odds with financial offers that artists can get. At some point, artists who expect to be paid for their work must ask themselves: “Is this monetary offer in line with my values? If it isn’t, is it worth compromising my integrity for what I would be paid? And how much control of my work do I want to give to other people?”

The music of “The 40-Year-Old Version” is a mixture of mostly hip-hop and jazz, which perfectly exemplify the two artistic worlds that Radha inhabits in the story: the rough, street-oriented world of rap and the more refined, traditional world of theater. In addition to “Poverty Porn,” original songs with Blank’s lyrics include “This Is 40,” “F.Y.O.V.,” “Mamma May I,” “”Pound Da Poundcakes” and “WMWBWB,” which stands for “White Man With a Black Woman’s Butt,” a reference to a scene in a movie when Radha sees a white man with a very round and large bottom.

Other songs that are part of “The Forty-Year-Old Version” soundtrack include Queen Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” Babs Bunny’s “I Want In,” Nai Br.XX’s “Adventure Time,” Quincy Jones’ “Love and Peace” and several tunes from jazz artist Courtney Bryan. Radha says in the movie that her song “F.Y.OV.” can stand for things other than “Forty-Year-Old Version,” such as “Find Your Own Voice,” “Find Your Own Vision” or “Fill Your Own Void.” They are all perfect descriptions of the movie’s overall impactful message.

Netflix premiered “The Forty-Year-Old Version” on October 9, 2020.

Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please,’ starring Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Michael Alonga, Robert Bouvard, Claude Diaz, George Roth and Joseph Touchette

January 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Arango, also known as Adrian, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please”

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.

Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.

George Roth, also known as Rita George, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Zachary Shields/Discovery+) 

Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?

The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in their 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.

The interviewees include:

  • Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
  • Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
  • James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
  • Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
  • Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued at $3,000 at the time
  • Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
  • Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
  • George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
  • Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”

Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”

And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer in the U.S. during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.

The friends, many of whom became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidant, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.

Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”

Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.

Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”

In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.

Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”

Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.

The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.

Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.

Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.

Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”

The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”

The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point for LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.

Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.

Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘MLK/FBI,’ starring Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Clarence Jones, Beverly Gage, Donna Murch and David Garrow

January 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Martin Luther King Jr. in “MLK/FBI” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“MLK/FBI”

Directed by Sam Pollard

Culture Representation: The documentary “MLK/FBI” features an American group of white and black scholars, authors, civil rights activists and law enforcement officials commenting on American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by J. Edgar Hoover, when King was at the height of his power in the 1960s.

Culture Clash: King’s civil rights activism and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War angered high-ranking U.S. government officials, who labeled him as an enemy.

Culture Audience: “MLK/FBI” will appeal primarily to people interested in King’s legacy, the history of U.S. civil rights and reports involving government conspiracies.

Martin Luther King Jr. (speaking at podium) in “MLK/FBI” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The riveting documentary “MLK/FBI” gives a clear and precise presentation of how the FBI targeted civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. King, who was also a Baptist minister, was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. It isn’t a secret that the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, had intense surveillance of King and plotted to dig up scandalous information on him, in order to disgrace King and take away his power. The FBI documents detailing this surveillance have been declassified and are available for public viewing. What “MLK/FBI” (directed by Sam Pollard) does notably is provide an important historical context of what was going on in King’s life that escalated the FBI’s scrutiny of him.

“MLK/FBI” immerses viewers into King’s civil rights years by having almost nothing but archival footage from this era. The only exception is toward the end of the documentary, when several of the commentators who are interviewed or shown on camera during the last 10 minutes of this 106-minute film. Prior to being shown on screen, the commentators are only heard in voiceovers.

Many documentaries fall into a trap of interviewing too many people, which can often overstuff a documentary and make it too messy and unfocused. Instead, “MLK/FBI” wisely took a “less is more” approach. Only eight people are interviewed in the documentary. They are:

  • James Comey, FBI director from 2013 to 2017
  • Beverly Gage, Yale University history professor and author of “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century”
  • David Garrow, author of “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” (which is the basis of the “MLK/FBI” documentary) and “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”
  • Clarence Jones, attorney and former speechwriter who worked with King
  • Charles Knox, retired FBI special agent in counterintelligence
  • Donna Murch, Rutgers University history professor and author of “Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California”
  • Marc Perrusquia, journalist for the Memphis-based newspaper The Commercial Appeal
  • Andrew Young, civil rights activist and former politician who was executive director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1964 to 1969. King was the first president of SCLC, which was launched in 1957.

All of them except for Perrusquia and Comey (who doesn’t say much in the movie) appear on camera at the end of the documentary. But what they all have to say confirms that by the time that King was murdered, the FBI had labeled him a menace to society and he lost the support of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). In addition to King’s political activities making him a target of the FBI, his marital infidelities became the focus of a smear campaign to ruin his credibility as a moral leader.

It’s already been widely reported that the FBI’s plan, according to declassified documents, was to expose salacious details about King’s sex life. The FBI audio recorded many of his trysts with women by spying in hotels and various other places, and placing recording devices in the rooms where King was staying. King and many of his close associates had their homes “bugged” with surveillance devices, and their phones were wiretapped.

The documentary mentions that in 1977, the FBI was ordered to turn over the surveillance tapes to the National Archives. These sealed recordings can be unsealed and released to the public in 2027. While retired FBI agent Knox says in the “MLK/FBI” documentary that no good come from releasing the tapes, most of the other pundits in the documentary say that it’s in the public’s best interest to know what’s on the tapes.

There’s no doubt very explicit sexual content on the tapes, and it’s been public knowledge for decades that King cheated on his wife Coretta. But aside from the sexual content, the curiosity about the tapes has a lot to do with how far the FBI went in trying to bring down King and ruin him. Who was worse in the failings of morality and ethics? The FBI or King?

“MLK/FBI” also mentions a disturbing allegation noted in the FBI surveillance documents: During an alleged sex orgy, King allegedly stood by and laughed while witnessing an unnamed Baltimore minister rape a woman. However, Murch, Gage and some of the other documentary pundits point out that what the FBI agents reported should get some level of scrutiny and skepticism, since the FBI agents who were spying on King were rewarded for digging up the nastiest dirt possible on King. Therefore, it’s likely that some FBI agents might have been motivated to exaggerate or fabricate information that was put in the written documents.

It’s not a mystery why King became a target of the FBI. Gage comments: “The FBI was most alarmed about King because of his success. And they were particularly concerned that he was this powerful, charismatic figure who had the power to mobilize people.” Murch adds that civil rights leaders are often seen as heroes by the general public but are branded as “troublemakers” or “threats” by law enforcement: “When you look at the social movements from the point of view of the FBI, it looks very different … J. Edgar Hoover is famous for saying that he feared a black Messiah.”

Young and Jones, the close confidants of King who are interviewed in “MLK/FBI,” both say that the U.S. government underestimated King and then eventually began to fear him. King advocated for a non-violent civil rights movement, in keeping with his Christian faith. It’s a philosophy that not everyone agreed with (such as the Black Panthers and other left-wing groups) because these critics of King’s non-violent approach felt that the use of violent force was necessary to get things done.

Young comments on being involved in a grassroots movement for social change where King told activists not to use weapons and to treat their oppressors with kindness: “He let us accept the fact that what we were doing was insane … We were trusting in the power of God, and only crazy kind of people of faith would be willing to put their lives on the line and trust in God.”

What wasn’t crazy was Jones’ paranoia that King and his closest associates were under FBI surveillance. Jones found out that his own home was “bugged” and wiretapped when his wife told him about men who came to their house while Jones was away. These men claimed to be phone company employees who were ordered by Jones to work on the house’s phones.

However, what the men said was a lie because Jones made no such request. Jones says that King didn’t believe at first that the FBI would go to the trouble of spying on King. However, King got a rude awakening when the FBI sent sexually explicit recordings of his infidelities to King and his wife, with a cruel note saying that King should kill himself.

According to the documentary, the FBI also leaked some of these sex recordings to the media when King was alive, but the media refused to report these scandalous details, much to the annoyance of Hoover. Ironically, Hoover had his own sexual proclivities that he wanted to keep secret from the public. The documentary alludes to Hoover’s reported homosexuality (without mentioning that he was also a cross-dresser in private), but doesn’t sink into tabloid territory by going into tawdry details, since the movie is about King, not Hoover’s private life.

However, the documentary repeatedly names Hoover (who founded the FBI and was the FBI’s leader from 1935 to 1972) and William C. Sullivan (who was FBI director of domestic intelligence operations from 1961 to 1971) as the chief instigators of the campaign to ruin King’s life. According to Jones, the FBI under Hoover’s leadership had this attitude toward King: “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.”

King’s close friendship with attorney/accountant Stanley Levison, who got to know King through Jones, also made King a target of Hoover’s Communist-hating FBI because Levison was a known Communist associate. As Garrow explains it in the documentary, the FBI went to then-U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy Jr. (JFK) to warn the two brothers about King’s ties to Levison. RFK then advised King to distance himself from Levison, and King agreed.

But in reality, the FBI found out through surveillance that King still secretly kept in touch with Levison. The FBI took this information back to RFK as “proof” that King couldn’t be trusted. RFK then authorized the wiretaps of King. But what started out as surveillance of King as a perceived “Communist threat” turned into something much more personal when the FBI discovered that King was a serial cheater in his marriage.

The FBI surveillance wasn’t the only way that the FBI dug up dirt on King. The FBI also paid informants who were either part of King’s inner circle or had regular close access to King. It’s explained that because FBI agents at the time were almost all white men who couldn’t go undercover as black people, the FBI used black people as informants to get other inside information on King. Two of the African American informants named in the documentary are photojournalist Ernest Withers and SCLC comptroller Jim Harrison. None of this is new information, since it was reported decades ago.

The documentary also chronicles how the FBI’s vendetta against King went public when Hoover ignited a feud with King in 1964, when he told reporters at a press conference in Washington, D.C., that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” King then offered to meet with Hoover to try to sort out their differences. That closed-door meeting, which was the first and only time that King and Hoover met in person, was described as “very friendly” by King in the documentary’s archival footage of King being surrounded by reporters after coming out of the meeting.

However “friendly” that meeting might have been, it didn’t stop the FBI surveillance, and King continued to speak out and protest against racial injustice. And he also took up the cause of the anti-Vietnam War movement. LBJ was King’s ally until King began speaking out against the Vietnam War.

It’s pointed out in the documentary that in 1965, King had abided by LBJ’s request to stay publicly silent about the Vietnam War. King heeded that request until 1967, when he saw a photo spread in Ramparts magazine that had graphically gruesome photos of Vietnamese people (particularly children) who were bombing victims in the war. Footage of King’s famous 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church in New York City is included in the documentary.

King was assassinated shortly after he announced the Poor People’s Campaign protests to march near government buildings and demand more resources for financially disadvantaged people. A longtime criminal named James Earl Ray was arrested and convicted of the murder, but some of the documentary’s pundits imply that Ray was not someone who acted alone to plan this heinous crime.

In addition to a wealth of archival visual footage (which naturally includes King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington), “MLK/FBI” also includes snippets of audio recordings that were secret at the time. There’s an undated audio clip of a conversation between LBJ and an unidentified FBI agent. In the conversation, LBJ says he’s being pressured to attend a dinner in New York with King, and he wonders if he should still go. The FBI agent advises LBJ not to attend the dinner. (The clip doesn’t say which dinner this was, so viewers won’t know if LBJ actually did attend or not.)

For some added pop-culture context, “MLK/FBI” also includes clips from the 1959 movie “The FBI Story” (starring James Stewart as a loyal FBI agent) and the 1948 film “Walk a Crooked Mile,” starring Dennis O’Keefe as a crusading FBI agent who teams up with a Scotland Yard detective to track down Communists. These clips are used in “MLK/FBI” to contrast the heroic images of FBI agents in entertainment media with the sinister reality of what the FBI was doing behind the scenes to King.

Several of the people interviewed in “MLK/FBI” say that the real motive to make King a target of FBI surveillance wasn’t because he was a threat to U.S. democracy but because he was a threat to white supremacy. After all, King preached non-violence and he was definitely not a Communist. King’s colleague Young says in the documentary: “In a very emotional and volatile environment, it was very important for us to come across as reasonable, sane and patriotic—because we were. We just wanted America to be what America said it was supposed to be.” Tragically, King was murdered for these beliefs, but his civil rights legacy continues to live on.

IFC Films released “MLK/FBI” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Enola Holmes,’ starring Millie Bobby Brown, Sam Claflin, Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin in “Enola Holmes” (Photo by Robert Viglaski/Legendary/Netflix)

“Enola Holmes”

Directed by Harry Bradbeer

Culture Representation: Taking place in England in 1884, the dramatic mystery thriller “Enola Holmes” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister Enola Holmes, who is determined to outsmart Sherlock and solve the mystery of their missing mother, ends up getting entangled in another mystery of a teenage lord who is the target of an assassination plot.

Culture Audience: “Enola Holmes” will appeal primarily to fans of Sherlock Holmes and the stars of this movie, as well as to people who are interested in a feminist-leaning perspective on mystery stories.

Millie Bobby Brown and Helena Bonham Carter in “Enola Holmes” (Photo by Alex Bailey/Legendary/Netflix)

“Enola Holmes” vibrantly does justice to the mystery book series for which it is named, thanks to a splendid cast and a twist-filled, engaging adventure that will leave viewers wanting more “Enola Holmes” movies. There’s a lot to like about this cinematic adaption of the book “The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery,” written by Nancy Springer as part of the “Enola Holmes” mystery book series. The “Enola Holmes” movie (directed by Harry Bradbeer and written by Jack Thorne) offers a dashing and often socially conscious interpretation of what it would be like to be a female teenage sleuth in 1880s England while navigating a patriarchal society that constantly underestimates her or tries to undermine her.

In the movie, Enola Holmes (played Millie Bobby Brown, who is one of the producers of “Enola Holmes”) is trying to establish her identity as a detective, apart from her older brother Sherlock Holmes, who’s a famous detective. Enola has been raised by her eccentric, non-conformist widowed mother named Eudoria (played by Helena Bonham Carter, mostly in flashbacks), who has taught Enola not to let her gender prevent her from learning things that have been traditionally male-dominated, such as math, science and martial arts. Eudoria has been enthusiastically training and homeschooling Enola in these male-dominated fields.

The words “feminist” and “free-thinking” are never said in the movie, but it’s a life outlook that Eudoria is teaching Enola to have. The movie takes place in 1884 England, and by this particular society’s standards, Enola is considered a bit of a “wild child” because she’s not very interested in traditionally feminine things or looking prim and proper. For example, Enola often wears her long hair in a way that was considered very un-ladylike at the time: by letting her hair loose and without pinning it up or wearing a hat.

Throughout the movie, Enola talks directly to the audience, as if she’s letting viewers into her own private thoughts. It’s a creative decision that works well in the movie, for the most part, especially when it comes to showing Enola’s comedic sarcasm. However, there are times when this “breaking the fourth wall” technique gets a tad grating because it disrupts the flow of a scene and takes viewers, however briefly, out of the scene’s intended tone.

On Enola’s 16th birthday, Eudoria mysteriously disappears with no indication of where she has gone. Enola, who has a very close relationship with Eudoria, suspects that Eudoria has not been kidnapped. Eudoria was very private and liked to keep secrets. Enola is determined to find her mother and get to the truth.

But before she can start investigating, Enola (who is the youngest of three children) is horrified when she’s told that because of Eudoria’s disappearance, Enola now has to be in the custody of one of her older bachelor brothers: middle child Sherlock Holmes or eldest child Mycroft Holmes, who are both about twice the age of Enola. Sherlock and Mycroft left home when Enola was very young and never really visited. Therefore, she barely knows them.

In fact, Sherlock and Mycroft haven’t seen Enola since she was a prepubescent child. When she goes to meet Mycroft and Sherlock at the train station, they don’t even recognize Enola at first. In a private meeting that Mycroft and Sherlock had before reuniting with Enola, Mycroft (who is greedy, bossy and very snobbish) agreed to take custody of Enola because he has an ulterior motive: He wants possession of the house where Enola grew up, in case their mother has permanently vanished.

Sherlock (who is even-tempered, analytical and usually compassionate) is somewhat relieved that he won’t have the responsibility of taking care of Enola. His true love is his detective work, and taking care of a rebellious teenage sister doesn’t fit into his lifestyle. Mycroft doesn’t really want to have Enola live with him either, so he immediately makes plans to send her to a boarding school. The school is headed by an uptight middle-aged spinster named Miss Harrison (played by Fiona Shaw), who is infatuated with Mycroft and will do anything he asks her to do.

Mycroft makes it clear to Enola that he doesn’t respect Enola or the way that their mother raised Enola. It’s revealed later in the movie that Mycroft was cruel to their mother, which is one of the reasons why Eudoria didn’t seem to mind that she hadn’t seen him for years. Mycroft mentions the difficulty of finding a boarding school that won’t consider Enola a “complete failure.” Mycroft adds, “With Miss Harrison’s help, we’ll make [Enola] acceptable to society.”

Enola’s first meeting with Miss Harrison doesn’t go well at all. Enola defiantly tells her, “I don’t need to go to your ridiculous school!” In return, Miss Harrison slaps Enola in the face. Enola pleads with Sherlock to live with him, but he tells Enola that the matter is out of his hands because Mycroft is now the legal guardian of Enola.

Sherlock is Enola’s idol (she keeps newspaper clippings of all his cases), but she also feels competitive with Sherlock to solve the mystery of their mother’s disappearance before he does. Just like Sherlock, Enola is smarter than the average person, but she has more obstacles than Sherlock at being taken seriously because she has three strikes against her in this society: She’s female, she’s underage, and she’s a non-conformist.

In a flashback memory, Eudoria tells Enola: “There are two paths you can take, Enola: yours or the path others choose for you.” It’s a philosophy that Enola takes to heart. And more often than not, Enola trusts her own instincts, even if things don’t always work out the way that she planned. Luckily, Enola is a quick thinker who can come up with alternative solutions when she finds herself in a jam.

In a candid conversation, Sherlock tells Enola what she already suspected: There must be a very important reason for their mother’s disappearance, which seems to have been staged by Eudoria. Enola can’t solve the mystery while confined at a boarding school, so she runs away from home before she can be taken to the boarding school. Before she leaves, Enola finds some clues left by her mother that lead to a large stash of cash that Enola takes with her because it will come in handy during her investigation.

Enola disguises herself as a boy and sneaks onto a train. While in her private passenger car, Enola is surprised to find another runaway, who’s been hiding in a travel bag stowed in the car. He’s a boy around her age named Viscount Tewkesbury, the Marquis of Basilwhether (played by Louis Partridge), who has left home because he says his relatives are too controlling.

Enola immediately wants nothing to do with Tewkesbury, which means that later on in the movie he’ll become her love interest, in that “I like you but I’m going to pretend that I don’t” kind of way. She doesn’t have much time to kick him out of her train quarters because a sinister-looking man, whose name is later revealed to be Linthorn (played by Burn Gorman), has followed and ambushed Tewkesbury and tries to throw him out of the moving train. (And like a true villain in stories like this, Linthorn wears a derby/bowler hat.) Enola comes to the rescue of Linthorn and saves his life. The two teens jump off the train and immediately run away together, even though they don’t really know where they are.

During their time on the run, Enola and Tewkesbury get to know each other, and they find out that they have some things in common, besides not wanting to be under the control of bossy relatives. Enola and Tewkesbury both have fathers who have died. They both are resisting being “sent away” by relatives in restrictive environments. Enola doesn’t want to go to boarding school, while Tewkesbury doesn’t want to give in to his relatives’ demands that he enroll in the army. The two teens have also been following the news of about the Representation of the People Act 1884 (also known as the Third Reform Act), which proposes the expansion of voting rights to more citizens and which Parliament will decide on in an upcoming vote.

The beginning of a romantic spark between Enola and Tewkesbury is evident when Enola decides that Tewkesbury’s hair needs to be cut, so she cuts it for him. She acts as if she’s too independent to think about dating boys, but it’s easy to see that she’s growing fond of Tewkesbury and doesn’t want to admit it to him or to herself. Enola wants to solve the mystery of what happened to her mother, and she thinks dating someone would be too much of a distraction.

Tewkesbury and Enola eventually go their separate ways when Tewkesbury changes his mind about being a runaway and decides to go back home. He lives on a lavish estate with his widowed mother Lady Tewkesbury (played by Hattie Morahan); his paternal uncle Sir Whimbrel Tewkesbury (played by David Bamber); and his paternal grandmother called the Dowager (played by Frances de la Tour). Enola decides to move on and go to London. Even though Enola and Tewkesbury amicably part ways, it won’t be the last time they see each other in the story.

Enola has been declared a runaway, so she has to dodge the authorities. Mycroft has enlisted the help of a Scotland Yard inspector named Lestrade (played by Adeel Akhtar) to track down Enola. Mycroft feels angry, humiliated and insulted that his teenage sister was able to slip out of his custody. During her time on the run, Enola also comes across a female jiu jitsu class led by an instructor named Edith (who Susan Wokoma), who knows Eudoria and provides Enola with some valuable information, as well as a crash course in jiu jitsu.

Most of the charm of “Enola Holmes” can be credited to Brown and her spirited and charismatic performance of this intrepid sleuth. Enola is no shrinking violet, as she can get down and dirty in some fight scenes. However, the violence is tame enough that “Enola Holmes” can be considered a family-friendly film that adults and kids over the age of 7 can enjoy. The movie’s production design and costume design are on point, as are other technical elements such as cinematography, musical score and the stunt/action scenes.

“Enola Holmes” at times gets a little too heavy-handed with its feminist messages by making feminism look like it’s anti-men, based on some snide male-bashing comments that Enola makes in the movie. True feminism isn’t about being demeaning to men; it’s about believing in gender equality. Let’s hope that in future “Enola Holmes” movies (and you know there will be sequels), the filmmakers have Enola espouse more of the true gender equality spirit of feminism, because Enola doesn’t need to have a negative attitude toward men to be a good feminist.

There are enough twists and turns in the movie to please fans of mystery detective stories. Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t as intense as the character has been portrayed in other movies, but that’s because this Sherlock Holmes is at the beginning of his illustrious career. Claflin’s portrayal of Mycroft Holmes is fairly standard as a selfish villain, and it’s pretty obvious that Mycroft is a symbol for oppressive patriarchy. The supporting actors all do good jobs in rounding out this well-cast ensemble.

Overall, director Bradbeer keeps a brisk pace and infuses some modern-ish elements to the story (such as the female jiu jitsu class) to lighten up some of the stuffiness that would have dragged down this 123-minute movie if it strictly adhered to replicating everything about the real 1884 England. Purists can watch documentaries for that type of historical realism. “Enola Holmes” is what it is: good, fun escapism.

Netflix premiered “Enola Holmes” on September 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Through the Night’ (2020), starring Deloris Hogan and Patrick Hogan

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

“Through the Night” (2020)

Directed by Loira Limbal

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Rochelle, New York, the documentary “Through the Night” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and Latinos) who are connected in some way to Dee’s Tots Childcare, a family-owned business that does 24-hour childcare.

Culture Clash: Many of the parents who are clients of Dee’s Tots Childcare are overworked and have financial strains that make it hard to afford childcare.

Culture Audience: “Through the Night” will appeal primarily to people who want an insightful look at how a childcare business works when it’s open 24 hours a day.

Deloris “Nunu” Hogan in “Through the Night” (Photo by Naiti Gamez)

Affordable childcare is big issue for a lot of parents who have to work outside the home. And it becomes even more complicated and difficult if parents work the night shift, since many childcare facilities are only open during the day. “Through the Night” (directed by Loira Limbal) takes an intimate look at a family-owned business called Dee’s Tots Childcare (located in New Rochelle, New York) that is one of the few 24-hour childcare places in the area.

The husband and wife who own Dee’s Tots Childcare are Deloris Hogan (nicknamed Nunu) and Patrick Hogan (nicknamed PopPop), who co-founded the business sometime in the late 1990s. Deloris and Patrick take turns in their work shifts to watch the children in their care. The Hogans also have about five or six employees who help with running the business, which cares for children of a wide age range, from infants to those attending high school.

In addition to providing childcare needs (shelter, food, drinks and a place a sleep), Dee’s Tots Childcare gives some basic education in math and English for the children who need it. The childcare center also teaches gardening in a small nearby garden. The atmosphere is very much like a family home, and most of the clients come from working-class households.

Although Deloris and Patrick share duties in running their childcare center, when someone in the documentary comments, “PopPop is king,” Deloris is quick to clarify by declaring: “Actually, I’m queen and the king.” She also talks about why she started the childcare center. Deloris used to be a homemaker, but the idea to start a childcare business happened after a female friend of Patrick’s got into a car accident and asked the couple to look after her son while she was recuperating in the hospital.

Deloris comments on being in the childcare business: “It’s not just a job. This really is our life. My children, ever since they were the age of 2 years old, they had to share me with other children.” The children shown in this documentary are well-behaved and respectful. If people are looking for a comedy-styled film where the childcare center has to contend with some unruly brats, this isn’t that movie. There are plenty of fictional films with a story about kids who make trouble for babysitters.

To make their childcare center as home-like as possible, the Hogans celebrate children’s birthdays. They also give Christmas gifts to the parents and kids who are their regular clients. (Two kid siblings named Naima Harrell and Noah Harrell get a lot of screen time.) And when children in their care age out and become too old for childcare, the Hogans have a graduation ceremony for them. It’s made clear that children who are “alumni” of Dee’s Tots Childcare are welcome to come back and visit. And many of them often do.

“Through the Night” is a bare-bones documentary that is more “slice of life” than groundbreaking. A few parents are interviewed on camera and predictably praise Dee’s Tots Childcare. A registered nurse (who is unidentified) says, “It was hard to make the adjustment to leave my child with someone else for 14 years, but I felt secure with Nunu.” Another unidentified woman, who says she’s a single mother who has two part-time jobs, comments: “If I didn’t have Nunu, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Deloris, who is more talkative and has more screen time than her husband Patrick, also talks about the couple’s courtship. Deloris says that when she met Patrick, she knew pretty quickly that he was “the one” and predicted on their first meeting that they would get married. He was fixing her brother’s bicycle, and Patrick confessed later that this repair job was intentional because he had a crush on Deloris and wanted to be closer to her.

Not everything goes smoothly in the documentary. Deloris experienced major health problems during the course of filming. During a doctor’s visit for numbness in her shoulder, the doctor tells Deloris that if the numbness continues, she will have to have surgery. Deloris says that her shoulder numbness is the result of years of heavy lifting and other physical strains because of her job.

Later in the movie, things get even more serious for Deloris, as she has emergency surgery for a large tumor in her head. After the surgery, she lost 50% of the vision in one of her eyes. Her senses of taste and smell were also significantly diminished.

Despite these health problems, Deloris remains determined to still work in childcare. She also refuses to wallow in self-pity. Deloris says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself because “I could’ve been dead … I have to keep moving because I have something to do.”

Although Deloris mentions that the state of New York could improve its childcare resources, the documentary doesn’t get too much into details about what child caregivers such as the Hogans can do about it. Instead, the documentary shows that Dee’s Tots Childcare is more focused on being involved in community outreach activities. For example, there’s a scene where Dee’s Tots Childcare participates in a local Thanksgiving parade.

“Through the Night” might seem boring to some people who are expecting this documentary to be a faster-paced film. Ultimately, the movie gives a realistic and endearing portrait of how a family-owned business is surviving as a 24-hour childcare center. (“Through the Night,” which had been scheduled for a world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered the childcare industry.) “Through the Night” doesn’t pretend to have any solutions to long-term childcare industry problems, but the documentary presents a story that is relatable to a lot of people.

Long Shot Factory released “Through the Night” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The PBS series “POV” will premiere the movie in May 2021, on a date to be announced.