Review: ‘Descendant’ (2022), starring Kamau Sidiki, Emmett Lewis, Joycelyn Davis, Vernetta Henderson, Veda Tunstall, Ben Raines and Ramsey Sprague

October 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kamau Sadiki in “Descendant” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Netflix)

“Descendant” (2022)

Directed by Margaret Brown

Culture Representation: Taking place in Alabama and briefly in Washington, D.C., the documentary film “Descendant,” which was filmed from 2018 to 2021, features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one Native American) talking about the historical impact of Clotilda, the last-known ship that illegally carried enslaved Africans to the United States in 1860.

Culture Clash: The enslaved Africans on this Coltilda voyage were brought to Alabama, where many of their direct descendants try to come to terms with the ramifications of their families’ legacies and how white supremacist racism still affects their lives.

Culture Audience: “Descendant” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in seeing impactful stories about African American family histories and the damaging repercussions of slavery and racism in the United States.

A scene from “Descendant” with Ramsey Sprague (front row, fifth from left), Joycelyn Davis (front row center, in green shirt), Joe Womack (back row, center, wearing hat), Mary Elliott (front row, third from right) and Kern Jackson (far right). (Photo courtesy of Participant/Netflix)

“Descendant” is a triumphant declaration of an important part of African American history that some people literally tried to bury. There’s a lot of heartbreak in this documentary, but there’s also a lot of hope. “Descendant” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. “Descendant” also made the rounds at several other film festivals, including the 2022 SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival and the 2022 New York Film Festival.

When “Descendant” director Margaret Brown began filming the documentary in 2018, people had been searching for the remains of a ship called Clotilda for decades. As explained in the beginning of the movie, Clotilda was the last-known vessel to carry enslaved people from Africa to the United States, in an illegal voyage that took place in 1860. The international slave trade was abolished in the United States in 1808. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed enslaved people in the United States.

It is believed that Clotilda carried about 110 enslaved people to Alabama. The voyage was led by Captain William Foster, the owner of Clotilda. A wealthy business owner named Timothy Meaher reportedly bought many of the enslaved people from this voyage. Because this voyage and transaction were illegal, Clotilda was reportedly blown up to destroy evidence. Whatever was left of Clotilda was said to be buried in the water, off of the coast of Mobile, Alabama. (“Descendant” director Brown is originally from Mobile.)

Many of the descendants of the Clotilda captives still live in Mobile, which has a section called Africatown, where many of these descendants live. Karlos Finley, a municipal court judge in Mobile, says that from 1860 to about 1960, people in the area could get in a lot of trouble if they publicly talked about Clotilda. The ship was treated “like a dirty little secret,” according to Garry Lumbers, a descendant of Clotilda captives. The U.S. civil rights movement and the passage of U.S. civil rights laws in the mid-1960s led to more African Americans becoming more active in Black Pride activities, including finding out more about ancestral histories.

And for the descendants of Clotilda captives and other interested people, that meant finding what was left of Clotilda, in order to have a tangible and historical evidence linked to the legacies of an untold number of people. Many people in the United States can trace their family histories back to years before the United States became a nation in 1776. African people who were captured and enslaved in America had their personal histories erased with enslavement. And therefore, the descendants of these enslaved Africans don’t have the privilege of being able to trace back their family histories to the years before their enslaved ancestors were forced to live in America.

“Descendant” shows how, in July 2018, “local, state and national organizations coordinated a first-of-its kind search for Clotilda’s wreckage. Without the physical evidence, the story of the ship’s arrival in 1860, and the 110 captives it carried had been maintained largely by word of mouth,” according to a caption in the documentary. One of the biggest obstacles in finding the remains of Clotilda was conflicting information about where the remains were buried along the coast. In July 2018, the search began in Plateau, Alabama.

Throughout the years, a major resource for the history of Clotilda’s enslaved people came from historian/filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston’s book “Barracoon: The History of the Last ‘Black Cargo’,” which was originally meant to be published in 1931, but it stayed locked in a vault and unread by the public until 2018. “Barracoon” features extensive interviews with Cudjoe Lewis (1840-1935), the last-known survivor of Clotilda’s enslaved captives. Lewis was the unofficial leader of his community when the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery, and formerly enslaved people had to navigate life as people who were legally free but still oppressed by white supremacist racism that denied equal rights to people of color in America.

Emmett Lewis, an Africatown resident and a direct descendant of Cudjoe Lewis, shares stories in the documentary about how his father, Emmett Lee Lewis (who died in 2008, at the age of 61), would take him as a child to a local graveyard in Mobile after midnight and teach him the family histories about their ancestors and other people buried there. “Descendant” has poignant footage of Emmett Lewis returning to this graveyard and visiting his father’s grave. The weight of his emotions can be seen on the screen.

Vernetta Henderson, one of the descendants of Clotilda’s last enslavement voyage, is seen in the documentary commenting in 2018 on the search for Clotilda. She says that she would feel a certain completeness if the remnants of the ship were found, because it would fill the void of unanswered questions. She adds, “The ship is evidence that it took place. It’s a story worth sharing with the whole world.”

By contrast, Joycelyn Davis, another descendant of Clotilda captives, is shown in 2018 commenting on the search for the ship: “I could care less about the ship. Ask the family who built the ship.” Although a few descendants of Clotilda owner Foster are shown and interviewed in “Descendant,” an epilogue in the documentary says that descendants of Meaher did not respond to requests to participate in the documentary.

It’s not spoiler information to say that remnants of Clotilda were eventually found in 2019, and were scientifically confirmed, as shown in the documentary. A documentary caption states, “Clotilda is the most intact wrecked slave ship to exist in America.” This historic discovery was big archaeological news and began a new chapter in the history of the Mobile area.

“Descendant” includes interviews and other footage of journalist/diver Ben Raines, who is largely credited with uncovering the crucial evidence that led to finding what’s left of Clotilda. Not surprisingly, Raines wrote a book about his Clotilda experiences: “The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning.” The book was published in January 2022, the same month that “Descendant” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

The discovery of Clotilda changed how Alabama (particularly Mobile) began to view Clotilda. No longer was it just a local legend that couldn’t be proven. The discovery of the ship also became a tangible piece of the puzzle for many people’s family histories. Imagine being part of a family that was told for generations that there was no proof that the ship that carried your enslaved ancestors even existed, because that ship was believed to be buried at sea. And then that ship was finally discovered.

The documentary includes a scene where a National Geographic-commissioned painting of that 1860 Clotilda voyage is unveiled at a press conference, with the painting showing the enslaved people naked and huddled in fear at the bottom of the ship. Even with the tragedies, abuse and human rights violations associated with slave ships such as Clotilda, the discovery of Clotilda also became a potential moneymaker for those who wanted to profit off of this discovery. Even before Clotilda was found, there were plans to turn whatever was found into a tourist attraction.

What makes “Descendant” a great documentary is that it goes beyond this historic discovery and looks at the bigger picture. It would have been too easy for the movie to focus only on the feel-good aspects of this story. The documentary points out uncomfortable truths about how Clotilda represents the shameful legacy of slavery and white supremacist racism in America.

“Descendant” shows and tells in no uncertain terms that Africatown (and, by extension, many communities where with the majority of the population consists of African Americans) is surrounded by industrial operations that bring pollution to the area. As pointed out in the documentary, the Meaher family is a powerful clan that owns or rents out much of the land and property that is believed to cause this pollution. It’s mentioned that Africatown has a high rate of cancer-related deaths that are believed to be caused by this pollution.

And so, although slavery is no longer legal in the U.S., “Descendant” makes viewers aware that there are other ways that African Americans are being harmed by decisions made by labor-related groups that are largely owned and controlled by white people, many of whom are descendants of people who enslaved Africans and African Americans. Many people in Africatown and similar communities are dying because of these decisions. The documentary gives considerable screen time to this issue in a way that is factual and not preachy.

Land ownership still plays a role today in the “haves” and “have nots” of society, just as it did when slavery was legal in America. Ramsey Sprague of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition explains why land ownership and environmental zoning are relevant to the legacy of Clotilda and the descendants affected by Clotilda’s last voyage: “The fight over zoning is the fight over destiny.”

The majority of the land in Africatown is owned by the state of Alabama. However, large swaths of the land are owned by the Meaher family, whose Chippewa Lakes company leases the land to industrial companies known for heavy industrial waste. If you think it’s nauseating for the documentary to show how Africatown is surrounded by factories pumping chemical smoke into the air, imagine what it’s like to live there.

Africatown resident Davis, who is living with cancer, went from being apathetic about Clotilda in 2018, to becoming an activist involved in Africatown’s environmental justice issues. She wants people to know about the entire legacy of Clotilda and other ships that carried enslaved people from Africa. Davis says the discovery of Clotilda has now given her more pride about her ancestors, as well as regret that she previously felt some shame about being a descendant of enslaved people from Clotilda.

In one of the highlights of the documentary, Davis goes to Washington, D.C., where she is given a tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture by museum curator Mary Elliott. It’s an eye-opening and emotionally moving experience, where Davis can see for herself how Clotilda and Africatown are part of many similar stories of African American families and legacies. Elliott encourages Davis to be inspired by the museum and take what she’s learned to the work that Davis is doing to bring more attention to Africatown’s history. The documentary’s epilogue includes an update on Africatown Heritage House (a museum that’s set to open in the fall of 2022) and the Africatown Welcome Center, which is planned to open in 2025.

And although “Descendant” shows that Mobile declared a Descendants of Clotilda Day on February 8, 2020, to honor these descendants, the documentary never lets viewers forget that the irreparable damage caused by slavery still has lingering effects. Michael Foster, one of the descendants of Clotilda owner William Foster, is shown at this ceremony, where he is introduced to Robert Lewis, a descendant of Cudjoe Lewis. The two men have a cordial and brief conversation that is a little awkward. In a separate interview, Foster comments, “It’s kind of odd, because my relative caused all of this. I wouldn’t have come down here if I walked in that room and people were throwing rocks at me.”

After Clotilda is found, Kamau Sadiki, a master diver from the Slaves Wrecks Project, says emphatically, “Now, it’s time for justice.” Mobile municipal judge Finley says that although no one can be criminally prosecuted for Clotilda’s last voyage, there’s a possibility that members of the Meaher family, whose fortune was built from the work of enslaved people, could be held liable in a civil case. The issue of reparations comes up in “Descendant,” but most of the people who talk about reparations in the documentary say it would be very difficult to decide the amount that should be paid, when it should be paid, and to whom.

Henderson’s daughter Veda Tunstall, an Africatown descendant of Clotilda’s enslaved people, comments on the idea of getting and distributing reparations: “I have no idea how it’s supposed to work. As long as Timothy Meaher is not here, I don’t think there’s anyone to punish.” As for any measure of justice, people in the documentary say that, at the very least, historical figures who fought to keep slavery legal in the U.S. and/or were members of white supremacy hate groups should be not be celebrated by having things named after them or by having statues erected in their honor.

Other people interviewed or featured in the documentary include Africatown community leader Cleon Jones; folklorist Kern Jackson; National Geographic archaeologist in residence Frederick Hiebert; marine archeologist James Delgado; Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church pastor Chris Williams; “Barracoon” editor Deborah Plant; Alabama Tourism Department director Lee Sentell; reporter Nick Tabor; East Bay Automotive owner/Mobile resident Joe Turner; Clotilda captive descendants Lorna Woods, Patricia Frazier, Bobby Dennison and Darron Patterson; and Africatown community activists Joe Womack, Mae Jones and Anderson Flen.

“Descendant” doesn’t ignore these questions: “Who benefited the most from slavery and white supremacist racism? And who still benefits, even if it’s indirectly?” “Descendant” shows that events about Clotilda that involve money-making opportunities or media attention tend to attract a lot more white people than meetings intended to help marginalized and oppressed racial groups, such as meetings held by the Clean Health Educated Safe Sustainable group, which aims to bring solutions to the industrial-area Africatown pollution problems that disproportionately affect African Americans.

“Descendant” is the type of documentary that some people will never watch because they just don’t want to see any documentaries that remind anyone of the ugly history of slavery in America. Some people might think that movies like “Descendant” just fuel racism and bring up things that should be left in the past. But people who actually watch “Descendant” can see that it shows, through these very personal stories, racism actually thrives when people want to deny that it exists, but there’s a chance for healing when there are open and honest discussions about it.

Netflix released “Descendant” in select U.S. cinemas and on Netflix on October 21, 2022.

Review: ‘Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,’ starring Nina Menkes

October 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nina Menkes in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” (Photo by Hugo Wong/Kino Lorber)

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”

Directed by Nina Menkes

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” American filmmaker Nina Menkes and a group of filmmakers and film/culture experts (predominantly white, with some African American, Asians and Latinas) discuss how the male-dominated film industry affects the way that women are depicted on-screen in movies.

Culture Clash: The documentary shows examples of how the “male gaze” of male directors and other male filmmakers often portray women as sex objects instead of fully formed human beings.

Culture Audience: “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in filmmaking and seeing how misogyny and sexism against women are ingrained in many movies.

Nina Menkes looks at a photo still of “The Lady From Shanghai” star Rita Hayworth in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” will undoubtedly make some viewers uncomfortable in how it clearly demonstrates why misogyny and the objectification of women in movies are so pervasive. This documentary should be required viewing for anyone who cares about how manipulated images in movies can play a role in enabling sexism against women in society. Although some people might be in denial about it, the fact is that movies have a great deal of influence in how people behave, how they want to be perceived, and how they treat other people in real life.

Directed by Nina Menkes, a filmmaker who often makes speaking appearances about sexism in cinema, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” has interviews with several film experts, but the movie is also partially formatted like a university lecture, which might be somewhat of a turnoff to some viewers of this documentary. The movie’s lecture scenes (from Menkes’ presentation “Sex and Power, the Visual Language of Cinema”) were filmed at Walt Disney Modular Theater at the California Institute of the Arts. Menkes speaks on stage and shows several movie clips on a video projection screen as examples of how the “male gaze” in filmmaking has resulted in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways of how women are exploited and objectified on screen.

And the images of women often are far from empowering: Women on camera in movies are all too often being portrayed as subservient to men or existing mainly to please men. With some exceptions, when men and women co-star in a movie together and get equal billing, the men usually get more dialogue and screen time than the women. And in non-pornographic movies, women are expected to get fully naked on camera a lot more than men are expected to get fully naked. Menkes and the documentary do not put the blame only on male filmmakers for perpetuating this type of sexism in cinema, because it’s pointed out that some female filmmakers are just as guilty of the same sexism against women.

The fact remains though that men are the majority of directors, cinematographers and editors: the three types of filmmaking jobs that have the most influence in how performers look on screen. And that’s why the term “male gaze” came into existence. Early on in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” the phrase “male gaze” is defined for viewers who don’t know what it means in cinematic terms. Film theorist Laura Mulvey, who is interviewed in the documentary, is credited with being the first to coin the term “male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

The “male gaze” is considered to be a cinematic angle or viewpoint where women are presented as mainly existing to be pleasurable, passive or inferior to men. This is not the same thing as appreciating a woman’s inner or outer beauty. The “male gaze” point of view specifically shows in subtle and obvious ways that the men in the movie have the most control and power, while the women in the movie are never the men’s equals.

Mulvey says in the documentary that when she was in college, she watched a lot of movies. And it dawned on her: “Part of my pleasure in all of this filmgoing was that I was watching these movies [like] a male spectator.” She saw that the women on screen were often presented to be looked at, but not really seen as equal to the men. That feeling of “to be looked at-ness” (a phrase that Mulvey also coined) was also part of Mulvey’s awakening to the practice of female objectification in movies.

California State University at Long Beach faculty member Rhiannon Aarons comments, “Even though Mulvey’s foundational work was written in the ’70s, we still totally normalize the male gaze in cinema. I think the majority of people don’t ever question that form of looking. It’s so normal. It’s like asking if a fish is wet.” Filmmaker/TV producer Joey Soloway (who identifies as non-binary) comments on “male gaze” sexism: “To name it, to show it, is something that I think can change the world.”

Award-winning filmmaker Eliza Hittman (whose directorial credits include 2017’s “Beach Rats” and 2020’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) offers this perspective: “It’s not just optical. It’s perceptual.” She cites actor/director Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film “Lady in the Lake” (which has a main character showing misogynistic distrust of women) as “an extreme example of what subjectivity is. It aligns with my ideas about a male point of view and a male gaze.”

Several clips from movies are used as examples of scenes that objectify females in a sexual way. The movies include 1947’s “The Lady from Shanghai ” (directed by Orson Welles); 1981’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (directed by Bob Rafelson); 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” (directed by Spike Lee); 1998’s “Buffalo 66” (directed by Vincent Gallo); 2003’s “Lost in Translation” (directed by Sofia Coppola); 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” (directed by Denis Villeneuve); 2019’s “Bombshell” (directed by Jay Roach); 2020’s “Cuties” (directed by Maïmouna Doucouré); and 2020’s “365 Days” (directed by Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Mandes). Although the documentary focuses primarily on how women are objectified in cinema, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” includes a brief example of a man being sexually exploited on camera, by showing the scene in 1975’s “Mandingo” (directed by Richard Fleischer) where a white woman forces an enslaved African American man to have sex with her.

UCLA Film & Television Archive director May Hong HaDuong acknowledges: “I think sometimes, with films that are part of the canon, that are part of the ‘best’ films, there is a reticence to even question how they were made and the stories they tell. And I think it’s okay to to still love and see a film, and say it was great, but that it has some issues. And I think without questioning it, we’re doing a disservice to our own humanity.”

“Daughters of the Dust” director Julie Dash says, “As filmmakers, we have to be courageous and willing to be that force, and be willing to speak our minds, and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture? What’s the visual rhetoric we’re looking at? It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel correct. Let’s rethink this.'”

In the documentary, Menkes presents a theory that there’s a direct line between visual language of cinema, employment discrimination (against women in the film industry) and sexual abuse/assault. The employment discrimination is obvious when you consider how actresses over the age of 60 are rarely hired to be in movies as sexy, leading characters with an active love life. By contrast, male actors over the age of 60 can be cast as sexy leading characters with an active love life, and they usually have a female love interest in the movie who’s at least 15 to 20 years younger. The gender discrimination is even more prevalent when it comes to who gets cast as the headlining stars of action movies.

Rosanna Arquette, an actress who was 18 when her first movie (the 1977 TV-movie “Having Babies II”) was released, says that now she’s a middle-aged woman, she’s lost out on many jobs for what she thinks is age discrimination: “I got a great movie lately. It would’ve moved the needle. And they decided to go younger [casting a younger actress for the role] … That happens a lot. I have a lot of sadness even talking about it, because I love to work.”

The “male gaze” means that women in front of the camera are held to higher standards, in terms of pressure to look youthful and be of a certain body type, usually slender. Aarons says, “I think this visual language really contributes to female self-hatred and insecurity in a way that is not insignificant. What is normalized as beauty is seen specifically and dominantly through a male gaze.”

It’s hard to argue with this fact: Male actors can be considered “sex symbols” when they have gray hair and wrinkles, while actresses with gray hair and wrinkles are rarely considered “sex symbols.” Catherine Hardwicke (whose directorial credits include 2003’s “Thirteen” and 2008’s “Twilight”) comments, “I don’t worry if a guy has wrinkles because it just makes him look rugged as they get older, but you don’t want to think that for women.”

Who gets to decide what’s sexy? Who gets to influence people into thinking what’s sexy? In many cases, these influencers are the filmmakers who portray these actors and actresses as sex symbols, according to what the (usually male) filmmakers want. That type of influence has far-reaching effects on how people around the world perceive themselves. It’s probably no coincidence that women are the majority of people who get anti-aging plastic surgery.

Menkes sees five ways that the “male gaze” and sexism affect choices during the shot design, which is how a scene is filmed: (1) subject/object; (2) framing; (3) camera movement; (4) lighting; and (5) narrative positions of the characters, which are influenced by the previous four factors. For example, there are too many movies to name where the camera takes an ogling view of a woman: Her body is looked at up and down, sometimes in slow motion, while the men in the same movie don’t get the same camera treatment. Sometimes in these body-ogling scenes, the women’s face is not seen, as if her face doesn’t matter because she’s just an anonymous sex object to be stared at in a leering way.

Similarly, women are more likely than men to have their body parts singled out on camera for close-ups or camera angles that are meant to be sexually arousing. (We all know which body parts they are.) This type of filmmaking has become so common, many viewers don’t question it or don’t even think about it. “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” shows in no uncertain terms that this type of complacency is part of the sexism problem and why sexism continues to affect women and girls in a negative way.

Menkes and some other people who comment in the documentary come right out and say that “male gaze” sexism also plays a role in rape culture. Dartmouth College faculty member/filmmaker Iyabo Kwayana says, “I think we have to consider that it is through the formal visual language, we are effectively communicating meaning. It has to do with how [camera] shots are composed and framed, how they’re assembled, and ordered in a sequence of shots … If the camera is predatory, then the culture is predatory as well.”

The constant barrage of “male gaze”-directed images in movies that try to dictate what is “sexy” and “not sexy” in a woman can have real-world consequences on women’s self-esteem. As psychoanalyst Dr. Sachiko Taki-Reece says in the documentary about how a typical woman reacts to these movie images that are usually decided by men: “For women, because you are looking at those films, for instance, she would like to shape herself to be the object of the gaze. But she thinks, ‘Some part of me is not matching to that image.’ She feels empty. That’s the problem.”

Dr. Kathleen Tarr, who works with the Geena Davis Institute Task Force and Stanford University, comments on how sexist portrayals of women of movies can have consequences for women’s careers: “Absolutely, objectification of women impacts hiring practices … It becomes this way of dealing with women that is primarily around their sexual value. If they’re attractive to you, it absolutely has to do with how you’re treated on the job.”

An obvious and common question comes up in these types of discussions: “Why don’t more women just become movie directors?” The answer isn’t as simple as more women just need to go to film school, because there are sexist barriers to actually getting hired in the real world. The documentary cites a Los Angeles/San Diego State University study that found that about 50% of film school students in America are women, but women are less than 15% of the directors of the top-grossing movies in any given year.

Director/activist Maria Giese explains: “People are really happy for women to be attending film schools at parity with men, as long as they’re paying money into the system. But when we move into the professional playing field, and we’re asking the industry to pay [equal] money out to women, that’s where the door gets closed. Hollywood has been the worst violator of Title VII of any industry in the United States of America.”

Award-winning director Penelope Spheeris says when she was in school, including when she getting her master’s degree, “It never occurred to me to be a director.” That’s because in many people’s minds, the image of a movie director is that of being one specific demographic. As actress Charlyne Yi put its it: “Gender is a huge factor when you look around [movie] sets. Things haven’t changed that much. It’s mostly white men.”

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) certainly presents important visual evidence to bolster the premise of this documentary. However, the movie isn’t without some flaws. Perhaps the biggest flaw is in the last third of the film, which turns into Menkes going into a self-promotion tangent: She shows clips from her own movies as examples of a “female gaze” that empower women or have women on an equal level as men on camera. This part of the documentary just looks like ego posturing, Menkes patting herself on the back, and perhaps exaggerating the impact that her movies have had on the movie industry.

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” admirably gives some mention to female director pioneers, such as Alice Guy-Blaché and Dorothy Arzner. However, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” should have given more credit to contemporary women filmmakers who are avoiding the “male gaze” sexism trap. The documentary would have been enriched if these female filmmakers gave analyses of certain scenes in their movies where they made choices to present women on camera in an empowering way. Instead, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” kind of fizzles when the documentary veers off into what looks like Menkes doing an infomercial/sizzle reel of her own work. That’s not to say that Menkes shouldn’t have given analysis of her own work in this documentary but that she should’ve let more female filmmakers in the documentary have the chance to do the same.

The documentary also misses the mark by not including any perspectives of any male directors, particularly those who’ve used “male gaze” sexism, to get their side of the story of why they made these choices. (No men are interviewed in the documentary at all.) It’s very easy to dole out criticism of people in a documentary when those people don’t get a chance to respond in the documentary. It’s much harder to confront those people and give them a chance to explain their points of view in the documentary.

Other people interviewed in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” include “Liberating Hollywood” author Maya Montañez Smukler, Global Media Center for Social Impact founder Sandra de Castro Buffington, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, artist/activist Laura Dale and culture transformation scholar Dr. Raja G. Bhattar. Dale shares a story that she says happened to her when she was an actress, she refused to do a sex scene that wasn’t in the script. She later got an ominous message from a female casting agent, who made this thinly veiled threat in an attempt to coerce Dale to do the sex scene: “We can fix this so won’t destroy your life.”

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” comes across as an echo chamber of interviewees who essentially agree with the arguments that Menkes has in her presentation. As valid as many of these issues are, this documentary cannot be considered truly well-balanced if it doesn’t present opposing points of view. It would have made for a higher-quality documentary if it included a healthy exchange of dialogue from people with conflicting opinions.

In “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” Menkes makes a statement that could be considered a response to any criticism she gets about these issues. In answer to anyone who thinks she’s just an uptight feminist, Menkes has this to say in the documentary: “If you are a heterosexual male, and you want to photograph some woman’s behind, I am certainly not the sex police. I’m not telling you, ‘Don’t do that.’ I’m just pointing out the fact that a whole lot of majorly acclaimed directors through time have done just that. There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room for those of us seeing these things and are sick of the results of that kind of attack on our selfhood.”

Kino Lorber released “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Piggy’ (2022), starring Laura Galán, Richard Holmes, Carmen Machi, Irene Ferreiro and Camille Aguilar

October 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Laura Galán in “Piggy” (Photo by Jorge Fuembuena/Magnet Releasing)

“Piggy” (2022)

Directed by Carlota Pereda

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Villanueva de la Vera, Spain, the horror film “Piggy” features an all-Spanish cast of characters (white and Latin) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl, who is bullied by other young people for being overweight, finds an unlikely ally in a mysterious serial killer.

Culture Audience: “Piggy” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching oddball horror movies about oddball characters.

Richard Holmes and Laura Galán in “Piggy” (Photo by Jorge Fuembuena/Magnet Releasing)

Some of the most disturbing scenes in the horror film “Piggy” aren’t where people are being killed in bloody murders but are the scenes where the main character is emotionally damaged by the cruel bullying inflicted on her. For some viewers of “Piggy,” these harassment scenes might be more uncomfortable to watch than the blood and gore, because the psychological and physical abuse of bullying is more likely to happen to people in real life. The movie’s ending could have been better, but “Piggy” is still an intriguing and well-acted horror movie that provocatively explores issues of bullying, self-esteem and revenge.

Written and directed by Carlota Pereda, “Piggy” takes place in the small seaside town of Villanueva de la Vera, Spain. It’s the type of place that seems stuck in a bygone era and is an occasional vacation destination for tourists who like to go to places that are off the beaten path. “Offbeat” is one way to describe this movie too, which has some twists and turns that toy with viewer expectations of how the movie is going to end. “Piggy” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and won the prize for Best Horror Picture at 2022 Fantastic Fest.

“Piggy” is based on Pereda’s 2018 short film “Cerdita,” which means “little pig” or “piggy” in Spanish, and has the same star/protagonist for both movies: 16-year-old Sara (played by Laura Galán), who is the target of the bullying throughout the entire story. (Galán was actually in her 30s when she played this character in “Piggy” and “Cerdita.”)

in “Piggy,” Sara works part-time with her parents in their family-owned butcher shop. Her mother Asun (played by Carmen Machi) often insults and berates Sara for not looking more “presentable” for potential suitors, while Sara’s father Tomás (played by Julián Valcárcel) is a mostly passive parent who doesn’t seem very interested in making Sara’s life better. Sara lives with her parents and her younger, bratty brother (played by Amets Otxoa), who’s about 9 or 10 years old and who doesn’t have a name in the movie. Sara’s brother also teases her about her weight.

Four local teenagers, who are all in the same clique, have singled out Sara for merciless bullying. The group leader is Maca (played by Claudia Salas), who is the meanest of the group’s “mean girls.” Maca’s female sidekicks are Roci (played by Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (played by Irene Ferreiro), while the fourth person involved in the bullying is Claudia’s boyfriend Pedro (played by José Pastor), who is a good-looking troublemaker.

The four teens openly call Sara a “pig” or “piggy” to her face, and they sometimes make pig noises when she’s nearby. Claudia is the least cruel of the “mean girls,” but she goes along with a lot of the bullying and does nothing to stop it, which makes her just as guilty. There are some hints that Sara might have a crush on Pedro, so his taunting of Sara hurts her even more emotionally.

Maca, Roci and Claudia are in the butcher shop one day, while Sara and her parents are behind the counter. Maca leaves, and Roci and Claudia linger behind while Roci secretly takes a photo of Sara and her parents behind the counter. Sara later finds out that the photo was posted on social media with this caption: “Three Little Pigs. Fucking Fatso.” The photo has gotten numerous “likes” on social media.

Sara is understandably humiliated, sad and angry about this cyberbullying. And things gets worse for her. Sara goes to a local public swimming pool by herself, but she can’t even spend some time enjoying the pool before the bullies go after her. Maca, Roci and Claudia are also at this swimming pool, and they use a cleaning net to dunk Sara in the water.

These bullies don’t want to drown her, but this physical violence could still have harmful consequences. They don’t know if Sara has a medical condition that could cause a heart attack or some negative health reactions to this stressful situation. To add to Sara’s embarrassment, the three mean girls steal Sara’s non-swimsuit clothes before they leave, so Sara has to leave the pool wearing nothing but a bikini.

Before this attack on Sara, she saw a mysterious and unkempt-looking stranger in his 30s (played by Richard Holmes), who startled her with his presence at this public swimming pool. He says nothing to her, so Sara assumes he’s just a creepy person in a random encounter. Little does she know that she will see this man again many times over the course of the next few days.

Sara, who has to self-consciously leave the swimming pool with her swimsuit and no other clothes, is walking down a deserted road near a wooded area when three teenage boys follow her in a car, get out and chase her down, rough her up a little bit, and call her “Fatty,” “Fatso” and “Miss Bacon.” How much worse can Sara’s day get?

After the teenage harassers drive away, a white van drives by Sara. And she sees that Roci and Claudia have been kidnapped in the back of the van. Claudia sees Sara and makes frantic gestures for Sara to help her. A terrified Sara is seen by the van’s driver, who stops the vehicle and gets out. And lo and behold, the driver is the same man whom she saw at the swimming pool.

Sara is so frightened that she urinates on herself. What Sara didn’t see (but viewers can see) is that before driving off with Claudia and Roci, this same stranger had killed Maca and hid Maca’s body in the woods. When the driver gets out of the van, he and Sara make eye contact with each other.

In that moment, Sara could do any number of things. What she chooses is to wave her hand in approval when she realizes that this man probably saw her being bullied at the swimming pool. He silently drives away with the kidnapped Claudia and Roci in the back of the van. Now that this kidnapper/murderer knows that Sara is not going to report what she saw, the rest of the movie is about what happens in the cover-up of these crimes and whether or not Sara gets caught for helping this criminal.

Over time, it becomes obvious that this unidentified criminal has been stalking Sara, who develops a bizarre little crush on him, because he seems to be the first man who pays attention to her. Several questions arise throughout the movie, with the biggest ones being: “Who is this criminal?” and “Why has he decided to come into Sara’s life in the way that he does?” Don’t expect “Piggy” to give all the answers by the end of the movie.

“Piggy” is less concerned about solving the mystery of this unnamed stranger and more concerned about how Sara changes psychologically during the course of the story. The movie challenges viewers to ponder if bullying victim Sara deserves less sympathy once it becomes obvious that she aided and abetted in the kidnapping of at least two of her tormenters. When police investigators interview Sara about the missing teens, she lies and says she doesn’t know anything about their disappearances.

“Piggy” has plenty of suspense, but the movie doesn’t quite convince viewers that more people in this small town wouldn’t immediately notice and suspect this disheveled and creepy-looking stranger who’s been lurking around, doesn’t talk, and doesn’t seem to know anyone in this town. He never really gets on the police’s radar, which is the most unrealistic part of the movie. The middle section of the movie tends to drag with repetition about Sara lying to police, and Claudia’s mother Elena (played by Pilar Castro) immediately being suspicious that Sara is not telling all that Sara knows. When Elena confronts Sara and Sara’s mother Asun with these suspicions, it leads to one of the best scenes in the movie.

Asun vigorously defends Sara and chastises Elena for Claudia being a bully to Sara. Elena vehemently denies that Claudia has ever been a bully to anyone. This scene cleverly shows how both mothers don’t really know their daughters. And even though Sara is defended by Asun, Sara is still very angry at her mother for not seeming to care about Sara being bullied until after Sara was a “person of interest” in this missing persons investigation.

The last 15 minutes of “Piggy” turn into a literally bloody mess that will frustrate some viewers who want more definitive answers to the questions raised in the movie. However, thanks to Galán’s memorable performance (where she conveys a lot of emotions without saying much in the movie), “Piggy” has a way of getting viewers’ attention about this unfortunate fact of life: People who are bullied can sometimes turn out to be worse than their bullies if the motive is revenge.

Magnet Releasing released “Piggy” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022. The movie expanded to more U.S. theaters and was released on digital and VOD on October 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Riotsville, USA,’ an archival documentary about the U.S. government’s reactions to civil unrest in the 1960s

October 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Riotsville, USA” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Riotsville, USA”

Directed by Sierra Pettengill

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Riotsville, USA” features archival footage of white and African American people discussing how the U.S. government reacted to civil unrest in the 1960s, including the creation of mock cities on military bases to do riot drills.

Culture Clash: Many people believe that these government initiatives were created specifically to oppress civil rights activists, especially African Americans speaking out against systemic racism.

Culture Audience: “Riotsville, USA” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in civil rights history from the 1960s, but the movie has a tendency to give preference to politically left-wing viewpoints instead of having a more balanced variety of political perspectives.

A scene from “Riotsville, USA” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The archival documentary “Riotsville, USA” presents fascinating footage (the movie’s best asset), but the movie’s narration tends to be politically biased and preachy. Viewers can make up their own minds without being told what to think about the footage. At the very least, “Riotsville, USA” succeeds in its purpose to take a closer look at why the U.S. government reacted to the civil rights movement of the 1960s by building mock cities on military bases so that military and law enforcement could be trained on how to handle riots. A common nickname for such a mock city was Riotsville.

Directed by Sierra Pettengill, “Riotsville, USA” starts out strong in the first half of the movie, and then it becomes somewhat of a rambling compilation in the second half that presents a lot of left-wing talking points. The documentary has constant voiceover narration by Charlene Modeste from a screenplay written by Tobi Haslett. And although an archival documentary’s narration can be beneficial to put a lot of the footage in historical context, the narration of “Riotsville, USA” becomes a detriment when it forces a political bias (progressive liberal) perspective into the narration. It comes across as looking like the “Riotsville USA” filmmakers expected all viewers to automatically agree with this perspective just by watching this movie.

“Riotsville, USA” has no exclusive and new interviews with anyone giving “hindsight” perspectives, and yet the movie attempts to draw a throughline from the archival 1960s footage to 21st century civil unrest in the United States. The voiceover narration is the only “contemporary voice” heard in the movie, and that voice offers just one point of view. Therefore, “Riotsville, USA” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) looks exactly like what it is: a documentary that has a lot of meaningful archival footage but not enough contemporary perspectives.

“Riotsville, USA” opens with this background information on a title card: “This film consists of archival material from the late 1960s. All of the footage was created for broadcast television by the U.S. military.” In other words, because it was footage made by the U.S. government, the public has the right to access it under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the begnning of “Riotsville, USA,” the voiceover narration has this to say about the U.S. civil rights movement: “A door sprung open in the late 1960s and someone, something sprang up, and slammed it shut. Nothing that big, that bright, had ever happened. And in so many American cities, nothing so fierce or hard to grasp. The riots blew the roof off daily life.”

The movie then goes on to cite, as examples, the “riots” or “citizen uprisings” (depending on how you want to describe these events) in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965; Chicago in 1966; and Newark, New Jersey, in 1967. Detroit and many other cities had this type of society unrest in the mid-to-late 1960s. What all of these violent events had in common were discontent over racial inequalities and white supremacist oppression in America.

In July 1967, then-U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (a moderate Democrat) announced the formation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, whose members (all prominent politicians or other civic leaders) were appointed by Johnson. Otto Kerner Jr., who was governor of Illinois at the time, was named the commission chairman. The 11-member commission consisted of nine white men, one African American man and one white woman.

The commission’s purpose was to investigate why many civil rights protests in the U.S. were devolving into racial violence, even though a prominent civils-rights leader such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached non-violence. The narration in “Riotsville, USA” offers this explanation: “The people took revenge on the cities that confined them—retribution for a history of containment and contempt.” The narration then goes on to say, “Johnson wanted the Kerner Commission to substantiate his belief that many of the riots were incited by outside agitators.”

“Riotsville, USA” has news footage of a group of unidentified men and women (white and black) being interviewed about this commission to get the “ordinary citizen” perspective. The white men who are interviewed seem to be the most supportive of the commission, while the women (of both races) and the black men are a little more hesitant or skeptical. When asked what he thinks about the commission, a middle-aged African American man pauses, as if he’s knows that he has to be careful of what he’s going to say on camera, and replies (not very convincingly) that he thinks it’s a good idea. An African American woman, who appears to be his wife or companion, is more forthright with her opinion: “My greatest concern is, “Have we asked the people who are in need of the program what their needs might be?'”

Around the same time that this commission was doing its investigation, the U.S. military had been setting up mock Riotsville cities on military bases. “Riotsville, USA” shows some 1967 footage from one of these riot drills at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Other parts of the movie shows footage from other riot drills at other military bases. The audiences attending these drills were usually members of the military and officials from other members of the government, who watched the drills like they were watching a spectator sport.

These drills, with members of the military playing different roles, usually had the same predictability: Protestors (all men) shouting protest clichés, being rowdy, pretending to loot stores, and committing other crimes—and then being defeated and arrested by those in the roles of the military or the police. There weren’t enough black people involved in this role playing, so many of the white “actors” were cast as black people. A few even showed up in “black face” in order to pretend to be black, which would be considered a lot more racially offensive today than it was back in 1967.

In February 1968, the commission’s study was published in “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” also known as the Kerner Report, which went on sale to the public and became a bestseller. The report came to this conclusion, as quoted in the documentary: “The U.S. is moving into two societies—one white, one black—separate but unequal.” The year 1968 was also pivotal and tragic in U.S. civil rights history because it was the year that civil rights leader King and Robert F. Kennedy (who was a U.S. presidential candidate at the time) were assassinated.

“Riotsville USA” then turns to a lot of footage from “Public Broadcast Laboratory,” a public-affairs news/talk show on National Education Television, which was the U.S. TV network that was the predecessor to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). One of the archival interviews shows a lively “Public Broadcast Laboratory” interview with civil rights activists Dr. Kenneth Clark, Bayard Rustin and Charles Hamilton. There’s also some footage from the show of Jimmy Collier and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick performing their 1969 song “Burn, Baby, Burn.”

The documentary also mentions that Republican lawmakers often complained that “Public Broadcast Laboratory” had too much of a liberal bias, but the documentary fails to mention what “Public Broadcast Laboratory’s” response was to this criticism. The show’s footage that was chosen focuses strictly on African American civil rights leaders talking about race relations in America. It’s mentioned in the documentary that “Public Broadcast Laboratory” was cancelled in 1969, after the Ford Foundation withdrew funding for the show.

The “Riotsville, USA” narration points out: “At the end of the Kerner Commission’s report, there was an addendum titled ‘Supplement on the Control of Disorder.’ Its recommendations were the only parts of the report that Congress would ever implement … In 1968, Congress created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.”

In April 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed. It includes the Anti-Riot Act, which makes “travel in interstate commerce … with the intent to incite, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot.” The April 1968 assassination of King resulted in protests and riots in many big U.S. cities, including Chicago. “Riotsville, USA” has a brief TV interview clip of then-Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley saying that the Riotsville simulations were helpful in training Chicago law enforcement on how to deal with the riots.

The civil unrest during the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami also stemmed from racial issues. Much of the unrest was in Miami’s mostly black neighborhood of Liberty City, where protests by mostly young black people were happening at the same time as the Republican National Convention. According to “Riotsville, USA” NBC News incorrectly reported that the reason for the protests were that the protesters were unhappy about there being a small number of black delegates at the convention.

However, archival footage shows that the main reason for the protests were that demands weren’t being met for Liberty City to controlled by more black people. These demands included better programs for poor people, a guaranteed income (in other words, a higher minimum wage), and more black police officers and more black firefighters in Liberty City.

Miami officials had promised to meet with Liberty City leaders but failed to show up for the meeting. And so, the riots began. Reverend Theodore Gibson, a civil rights leader, is seen in archival footage commenting on this political snub: “You can’t lie to people forever and get away with it.”

The documentary also includes unsettling footage of the chaos in the Liberty City streets, where violence and fires were breaking out. An unidentified white man who was driving on one of the streets had a car with a George Wallace (conservative Republican politician) bumper sticker on the car. The car was vandalized, and the man was almost brutally attacked until he helped to safety by some compassionate black people. Police and the National Guard later responded to the riots with tear gas and brutality.

Bob Reed, an African American TV journalist who was on the scene for Channel 4 News in Miami, is shown being interviewed by a Channel 4 colleague about why Reed thinks the riots happened. He replies, “Pent-up anger, frustration, the idea of being trapped in society. It’s a bursting out, a breaking free. It’s just a way of saying, ‘I will accept the abuse no longer.'”

“Riotsville USA” would have been a better documentary if its editing had better storytelling. Much of the documentary is just archival footage strung together with a one-note narration of how the U.S. government came up with tactics to crack down on violent protests. And frankly, none of it is shocking, although “Riotsville USA” wants to act like it’s more shocking than it really is.

And without diverse political viewpoints, “Riotsville, USA” seems like a very one-sided exercise in trying to stir up political outrage over facts that are decades old. There isn’t a lot of information given about the Riotsville simulations that inspired the title of this documentary, other than to show the footage of these simulations. However, there’s enough overall archival information in “Riotsville, USA” to serve as a valuable history lesson and a reminder that many of the problems that resulted in protests in America in the late 1960s are problems that still result in protests today.

Magnolia Pictures released “Riotsville, USA” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘All That Breathes,’ starring Nadeem Shehzad, Mohammad Saud and Salik Rehman

Salik Rehman in “All That Breathes” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe)

“All That Breathes”

Directed by Shaunak Sen

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Delhi, India, the documentary film “All That Breathes” features a group of working-class Indian men involved in rescuing pollution-affected and injured birds, especially black kites.

Culture Clash: The members of this rescue group face obstacles such as civil unrest in India, a shortage of funds, and some disagreements about the direction of the group, when one of the members wants to relocate to the United States.

Culture Audience: “All That Breathes” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional documentaries about animal rescue groups and the environment.

A scene from “All That Breathes” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe)

With immersive cinematography, “All That Breathes” offers contemplative moments that tell more than just a documentary story about rescuing birds. Viewers can look at the bigger picture of how people’s decisions on what to save can affect our ecosystem. Rather than preaching what people should think, “All That Breathes” lets the story unfold so that viewers can make up their own minds by watching this moving and effective story about humanity and nature.

Directed by Shaunak Sen, “All That Breathes” focuses on a specific group of people in a specific place, but the themes in the movie are universal. The movie centers on three men involved in the grassroots group Wildlife Rescue, which was founded in 2010 by two brothers who live in Delhi, India. Older brother Nadeem Shehzad is the group’s intellectual leader, who plans to temporarily relocate to the United States to get more training on animal rescuing. Younger brother Mohammad Saud (who prefers to be called Saud) is the most extroverted member of the group featured in the documentary.

Nadeem (who gives voiceover narration) and Saud have had a specialty in rescuing birds, particularly black kites. As Needem says in a voiceover, they were teenage bodybuilders when they first noticed an injured bird. They took the bird to a veterinary clinic, which refused to give the bird medical treatment because it wasn’t a “vegetarian bird.”

The brothers’ bodybuilding experience gave them some knowledge of bandaging muscles and treating injuries, so they rescued the bird and gave it medical treatment on their own. It led to the formation of Wildlife Rescue, a makeshift animal sanctuary/clinic, which they operate out of their home with a great deal of compassion and care. The brothers have since rescued thousands of birds that have been sick or injured. Because of Delhi’s rampant air pollution, there’s been a crisis of black kites and other birds being afflicted with pollution-related diseases and injuries.

A third person who’s part of the Wildlife Rescue is Salik Rehman, who started volunteering for the group in 2010, and he officially became a staffer in 2017. The documentary shows that Nadeem has taken on most of the administrative duties, while Saud and Salik do most of the “leg work” in going out and rescuing birds that need help. Salik is not as confident as Saud, who often trains Salik or gives him encouragement when Salik wants to do something where he feels he doesn’t have enough experience.

Of the three men, Salik is the most tech-savvy, almost to a fault. Nadeem says in a voiceover, “Salik belongs to the digital age. He doesn’t understand mercury monitors.” Salik is also the one who’s the most caught up in social media. He has an easygoing, sometimes goofy personality that can lighten the mood when things get grim. And things do get very grim.

During their rescue efforts, the members of this tight-knit group of Muslims grow uneasy about the increasing civil unrest in India, where Muslims are being targeted over citizenship issues. Just as the black kites and other birds are at risk of being displaced from the sky because of air pollution, so to do the Wildlife Rescue team start to feel that toxic elements are making them uncomfortable about where they live. It shouldn’t be lost on viewers of this documentary why the members of this Wildlife Rescue Group can relate to the animals that are under siege from life-threatening factors.

If “All That Breathes” were a conventional nature documentary, it would go into much more detail about the technical aspects of these rescue efforts. And there would probably be at least one bird who would get its own story and possibly even a pet name. Although some information is given about black kites (for example, they use cigarette butts as repellents to attacking insects), and there are some scenes of birds getting medical treatment, this isn’t a documentary where viewers will learn a lot of about ornithology. After all, Wildlife Rescue is not a group of scientists.

“All That Breathes” has made the rounds at several film festivals, including the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (where the movie won the jury prize for World Cinema Documentary), the 2022 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie won the GoldenEye Award, the festival’s top documentary prize) and the 2022 New York Film Festival. The movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and gives a lot of screen time to showing visually striking scenes of the beauty and the grime of a crowded big city such as Delhi. If the point of “All That Breathes” isn’t made clear enough, Nadeem sums it up when he says in a voiceover, “Life is a kinship. We are a community of air.”

Sideshow and Submarine Deluxe in association with HBO Documentary Films will release “All That Breathes” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. HBO will premiere the movie in 2023, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘My Old School,’ starring Alan Cumming and the voices of Clare Grogan and Lulu

September 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alan Cumming in “My Old School” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“My Old School”

Directed by Jono McLeod

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “My Old School,” a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few people of South Asian heritage) talk about Brandon Lee, an unusual student who was enrolled in the high school Bearsden Academy in Glasgow Scotland, in 1993.

Culture Clash: Lee had a scandalous secret, which was eventually exposed while he was a Bearsden Academy student.

Culture Audience: “My Old School” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in seeing a “truth is stranger than fiction” documentary about the lengths that people will go to achieve a goal.

A scene from “My Old School” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

With whimsical animation and compelling interviews, the documentary “My Old School” tells the strange-but-true story of an unusual student who enrolled in Scotland’s Bearsden Academy high school in 1993. It’s a bittersweet tale of deception, denial and broken dreams. Although the scandal that’s chronicled in this documentary made international news, many viewers of “My Old School” don’t know about the scandal and might enjoy the documentary more if they don’t know about the scandal in advance. For this reason, this review will not give details about the scandal, which is revealed in the last third of the movie.

Directed by Jono McLeod, “My Old School” tells the story of Brandon Lee, a student who enrolled as a third-year student in the elite high school Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1993. It just so happens that McLeod was a Bearsden Academy student at the same time as Lee, which is why this documentary is titled “My Old School.” It’s explained in the beginning of the documentary that Lee gave audio-only interviews for the movie because he did not want to appear on camera.

Instead, Scottish actor Alan Cumming is shown lip-synching what Lee said in the interviews. Several years ago, Cumming was set to star in a feature-film drama about Lee, but that movie never happened because Lee “broke off ties with the production company,” according to an intro title card in “My Old School.” In its own way, “My Old School” gave Cumming a chance to play the role that he had been set to do in the dramatic feature film.

“My Old School” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) also has interviews with some of the Bearsden Academy students and faculty who knew Lee back in 1993. The documentary also uses quite a bit of animation to recreate descriptions of what the interviewees say happened while Lee was enrolled in Bearsden Academy. Lee had a scandalous secret that was exposed during his short-lived year at Bearsden Academy in the 1990s.

In “My Old School,” Lee describes his 1993 enrollment in Bearsden Academy as a “self-made hell.” From the beginning, he stood out because he looked a lot older than 16, which is the age he told everyone that he was. Lee’s story was that he was a transfer student from Canada. He was raised by a single mother, who was an opera singer, so he traveled and lived in many different places. Lee said that his parents were separated and that he had no contact with his father, who was described as a professor living in London.

Lee also said that he and his mother were in a car accident, where she died and he was left physically scarred. After his mother’s death, Lee said he moved in with his maternal grandmother in a council flat in Glasgow, which is how he ended up at Bearsden Academy. It’s not spoiler information to reveal that Lee was really a lot older than 16 in 1993. But it won’t be revealed in this review what Lee’s real age was at the time or why he lied about his age.

It’s not the first time there’s been a true story of an adult posing as a teenager in high school. But there are some very surprising elements to this story that make it more uncommon than most. “My Old School” also has commentary on social class issues that affected what Lee did and people’s perceptions of him.

It’s explained in the movie that Bearsden Academy is in an upper-class area of Glasgow. However, some people who lived in the Bearsden neighborhood were working-class and lived in an area nicknamed Spam Valley. It had that nickname in reference to the idea that the lower-income people who lived in the area had to eat spam, in order to afford living in the Bearsden neighborhood.

Living in a council flat (which is the United Kingdom equivalent of public housing in the United States) automatically labeled Lee as a Spam Valley person. He was enrolled in Bearsden Academy because he was highly intelligent. (Lee told people that he had a genius-level IQ.) He also had upwardly mobile ambitions to become a medical doctor.

At first, Lee was a misfit when he enrolled in Bearsden Academy. He was bullied by some of the students for his odd-looking appearance of looking much older than 16. In classes, he was clearly the smartest student in the room. Students and faculty assumed that because he was raised by an opera singer and traveled a lot, that was the reason why Lee appeared to be older and more sophisticated than a typical teenager.

Eventually, he made some friends at Bearsden Academy. One of the first friendships he formed was with Stefen Addo, one of the few black students in the school. Addo and Lee had something in common, because they were both treated like outcasts by other students. The two schoolmates got to know each other better during their biology class, where Lee often helped Addo.

Addo, who is interviewed in the documentary, comments: “He would also a do a very funny Clint Eastwood impression. He was just an all-around nice guy.” Addo says of race relations at Bearsden, “There was quite a lot of racism going on. I had quite a few hate mail letters delivered to my home … just the usual abuse, really.”

Lee adds of the neighborhood where Bearsden is located, “There were only a few people who weren’t white Anglo Saxons. It’s a little station where the rich people live, the well-to-do people. And there’s the attitude that accompanies it.” Addo says that Lee stood up for Addo when Addo got racist bullying in school, and the bullies eventually stopped attacking Addo.

Brian MacKinnon and Donald Lindsay (who are both interviewed in “My Old School”) were best friends when they attended Bearsden Academy. They also have vivid memories of Lee, who bonded with Lindsay over music. Lindsay says in the documentary, “What I remember talking to Brandon about was music.”

Lindsay adds that he secretly liked techno music, which wasn’t considered cool for guys to like at the time, but Lee admitted he also liked techno music. Lindsay remembers that Lee was a fan of music acts such as Television (a rock band) and 2 Unlimited (a dance music duo). Lindsay also became fans of those artists too.

Lee eventually became more popular with the Bearsden Academy students when they found out that he had a driver’s license and a car, so he became a useful “chauffeur” for students who wanted car rides from him. In the United Kingdom, people can get a provisional driver’s license at age 15, but aren’t legally allowed to drive a car until the age of 17. Lee explained to people that he got his driver’s license in Canada, where 16 is the minimum age to get a driver’s license.

Lee also made his mark on Bearsden Academy by being cast in the lead role of Lieutenant Joseph Cable in the school’s production of the musical “South Pacific.” Paul MacAlindin, who was a Bearsden music teacher at the time, remembers that he didn’t think Lee had the personality or talent to have this leading role. However, Lee could do an American accent very well, which is the main reason whe he got the role. Everyone at Bearsden Academy would later find out that Lee was doing a lot more acting than in his role in “South Pacific.”

The animation in “My Old School” might be a little too distracting for some viewers. However, the animation fits the tone of the movie very well and certainly works better than if the filmmakers had chosen live actors for the recreations. The story of Lee is almost cartoonish, so it seems appropriate that there’s some animation in this documentary. The voice actors in the animation scenes are Cumming (who does the voice of Lee in 1993), Clare Grogan, Lulu, Juliet Cadzow, Michelle Gallagher, Camilla Kerslake, Gary Lamont, Natalie McConnon, Joe McFadden, Carly McKinnon, Brian O’Sullivan, Wam Siluka Jr. and Dawn Steele.

“My Old School” has a breezy tone to it that makes the documentary almost seem comedic at times. That’s mainly because the people who were fooled by Lee can laugh about it now. They were easily conned, even though there were so many indications that Lee was lying about his real age. Even with comedic touches in “My Old School,” the movie also peels away the layers of Lee’s real story, which has a lot of sadness to it and is often pathetic. The main takeaway that viewers will have is that he is still living in the “self-made hell” that he started when he enrolled in Bearsden Academy under false pretenses.

Magnolia Pictures released “My Old School” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Summering,’ starring Lia Barnett, Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, Madalen Mills, Megan Mullally, Eden Grace Redfield and Sanai Victoria

September 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise from top left: Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Lia Barnett and Sanai Victoria in “Summering” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)


Directed by James Ponsoldt

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Utah, the dramatic film “Summering” features a white and African American cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In the summer before they start middle school, four 11-year-old girls find a dead man’s body in the woods, and the four friends decide to keep this discovery a secret among themselves.

Culture Audience: “Summering” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in stories about the lives of American tween girls, but “Summering” has very boring and often-ludicrous portrayals of how real tween girls act.

Lake Bell and Megan Mullally in “Summering” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Summering” is a monotonous pseudo-mystery about four 11-year-old girls who find a dead man’s body, and talk and act in ways that are very unrealistic for pre-teen girls. This pointless waste of time gets more irritating as it goes along. Avoid at all costs.

Directed by James Ponsoldt (who co-wrote the “Summering” screenplay with Benjamin Percy), “Summering” has a majority-female cast, but these female characters (especially the underage girls) are given fake-sounding dialogue that sounds like male filmmakers trying to pander to men’s ideas of how “progressive” women and girls should be. Almost everything in this movie looks phony and overly staged. “Summering,” which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, is undoubtedly one of the worst, most self-indulgent movies that screened at the festival this year.

“Summering” is very off-putting because you can tell that the filmmakers thought that they were making a great American movie about tween girls. It’s this pretentiousness that obviously clouded their judgment in not seeing how dull and clumsy everything turned out in “Summering.” One of the biggest problems is that the movie dangles a potentially good story in front of the audience, and then ruins the movie with a nonsensical plot that rambles, becomes unfocused, and ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere or have anything interesting to say.

What’s worse is that Ponsoldt claims he knows how to write about girls, just because he has a daughter. This movie is proof of what might have been a well-intentioned film to celebrate the female gender actually resulting in a tedious, mansplaining fantasy of how tween girls are supposed to act when experiencing something traumatic and making big decisions. In a director’s statement given to the media about why Ponsoldt made “Summering,” he had this to say, in part:

“‘Summering’ was born from a desire to make a film for my children, and especially for my daughter. It grew into a film about fears and anxiety—and ultimately, hope—in the age of COVID … While I’ve always loved films about childhood, our first encounters with death, and how young people use imagination to process trauma in a way that’s different than the logic of adulthood, I’m not sure I could’ve made ‘Summering’ until I became a parent. As the parent of three young children, I find myself constantly in this delicate gray space of both needing to protect my children and wanting them to live fearlessly.”

The statement continues, “As my daughter began seeking out more complex narratives, ones that mirrored her own hopes and fears, I became acutely aware of the privilege I enjoyed when I was her age: I could easily see myself in stories, because the protagonists were boys and young men. My sister didn’t always enjoy this same privilege. Neither did my wife. Or my mother.”

Ponsoldt’s statement adds, “There are notable exceptions, of course, but in many instances the ‘classic’ coming of age stories about friendship and first brushes with mortality involve boys. In most of the movies of my sister’s childhood, or my mother’s, the female characters were love interests, or the main character’s sister. And female friendship was often defined by trauma—a victimization, or a rupturing of a friendship (when boys or men enter the story). I wanted to make a film in which my daughter could see herself. And her friends. I hoped to dignify the emotional inner lives of young female characters, to explore their imaginations and fears and hopes while they’re on the cusp of adolescence.”

If Ponsoldt didn’t want to make a movie about female friendship defined by “trauma … (when boys or men enter the story),” then why did he make “Summering” a movie about how four 11-year-old girls react to finding a dead man’s body in the woods? For almost the entire movie, the girls talk about what they’re going to do (or not do) about this gruesome discovery. Finding a dead body would be traumatic for people of any age. The girls who find this corpse act like it’s not a big-enough deal to tell any adults or anyone else.

At first glance, “Summering” looks like it’s trying to be a ripoff of director Rob Reiner’s classic 1986 film “Stand by Me” (adapted from Stephen King’s 1982 novella “The Body”), which is about four adolescent boys who find a dead boy’s body near a swamp. In “Stand by Me,” the boys intentionally looked for the body of this missing boy and know his name before the corpse is found. In “Summering,” the girls accidentally find the dead body of a man who is a complete stranger to him.

Before anyone thinks that “Summering” is trying to copy “Stand by Me,” think again. “Summering” is too lazy to even be an imitation of a good film. A movie that tries to be a ripoff of a classic movie should at least be inspired by the best elements of that classic movie. “Summering” doesn’t even make any effort to be any good at all. “Summering,” which is cringeworthy from the very first scene, gets worse as the movie lumbers along at a sluggish pace.

“Summering,” which was filmed on location in Utah and takes place in an unnamed city, opens with four best friends (who are all 11 years old) walking through the woods together. It’s the last week of summer before they all start middle school. The four pals are outspoken feminist Daisy (played by Lia Barnett), rebellious brat Dina (played by Sanai Victoria), eccentric introvert Mari (played by Eden Grace Redfield) and mystic enthusiast Lola (played by Sanai Victoria).

Daisy gives intermittent voiceover narration throughout the movie. She says in one of these voiceovers: “Sometimes, I worry I need my friends more than they need me. But it’s hard to be sad when the sun is so huge and so right.”

Daisy continues, “Sometimes, my house has so many shadows in it, it feels so heavy, like it could sink into the earth. But I never felt that way with my friends. Summer has no walls. We can go everywhere, see everything.”

If that isn’t enough to roll your eyes at this pretentious, adult-sounding monologue that’s supposed to be coming from an 11-year-old girl, there will be plenty of other badly written and horribly staged moments in “Summering” that will make you roll your eyes at the thought that anyone thought this tripe was good filmmaking. During this walk through the woods, Dina says, “I hate skirts.” Daisy replies, “They’re so patriarchal.” This feminist speak might sound more believable coming from a teenager, but not an 11-year-old.

The girls are walking through the woods to bring incense, myrrh and gum to a Terabithia shrine that they made. The shrine was probably Lola’s idea, because much later in the movie, the four girls hold a seance at Lola’s urging. It isn’t long before the four friends find the dead body in the woods. The deceased man, who appears to be in his 30s, is fully clothed in a blue business suit. The girls speculate that he could have fallen from a bridge that’s 100 feet above them. This bridge has the nickname The Suicide Bridge.

Mari’s first reaction to seeing the dead body is to call 911. (All of the girls have cell phones with them.) However, Dina convinces her not to call for help or to tell any adults: “I mean, what’s the rush?” Dina asks. “He’s not in any rush,” she says of the dead man. Dina also says if they tell anyone else about the dead body, the girls’ mothers and the police will just ask “a million questions” that Dina doesn’t want to to answer.

Lola comments on this dead man, who is a total stranger to these four grls: “This is on us. This is our [dead] body.” The girls all agree that they should wait one day before telling any adults about this body. But that one day turns into two days, and then several days where they don’t tell anyone. The girls keep the body a secret because they want to try to find out the mystery of this stranger all by themselves.

What kind of garbage is “Summering” selling? Most 11-year-old kids would not be able to keep something like finding a dead body a secret just because they think it would be cool to play dectective and find out more about a dead man whom they found in the woods. This atrocious movie depicts these girls in such a phony manner, none of them has nightmares about the body. These girls don’t show any real guilt about hiding information about someone who’s probably been reported missing.

Instead, the girls decide to move the body and use latex gloves, so their fingerprints won’t get on the corpse. While they hide this secret from everyone but themselves, the four pals do somersaults on lawns and frolic around the neighborhood, as if they don’t have a care in the world. It’s all just so heinous.

Another thing that’s very fake about “Summering” is that it takes too long in the movie for the girls to do an Internet search about this mystery man they found in the woods. An Internet search would be one of the first things that 11-year-old kids with access to the Internet would do. It just makes these girls look less-than-smart, which is not exactly the “female empowerment” message that director Ponsoldt claims to have for this terrible movie.

And where are the parents during all of this nonsense? In its bungled effort to be a strong, female-oriented film, “Summering” mainly shows the girls’ mothers interacting with them in mostly shallow ways. Daisy’s divorced father (played by Dale McKeel) is shown briefly as being a deadbeat dad. All of these parents are underdeveloped characters and are in the movie’s many filler scenes.

Daisy’s no-nonsense mother Laura (played by Lake Bell) is a police officer. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. “Summering” wants you to believe that a cop’s 11-year-old daughter is moving a dead man’s corpse around in the woods with three of her other 11-year-old friends, because the girls think it’s an adventurous thing to do before they start middle school.

Mari’s goofy mother Stacie (played by Megan Mullally) has a close relationship with Mari, the only one of the four pals who shows a little discomfort about their big secret. But it’s not enough discomfort to tell any adults about this huge problem. Even though Stacie thinks she knows Mari very well, Stacie has no clue that Mari is essentially involved in serious crimes (tampering with evidence; unauthorized removal of a corpse) related to a dead body.

Dina’s high-strung mother Joy (played by Ashley Madekwe) has her hands full with Dina’s mean-spirited teenager sister Carol (played by Willow Corner-Bettweiser) and Dina. Carol and Dina frequently feud with each other. Lola’s laid-back mother Karna (played by Sarah Cooper) is an artist who is usually seen painting something on an art canvas. What these mothers do have no big impact on the movie’s main plot of the girls hiding the secret of the dead body.

In addition to the off-balance tone of “Summering,” the movie badly stumbles in its mismatched casting of talented and experienced cast members (the actresses who play the mothers) with less-experienced cast members (the actresses who play the four 11-year-old friends), whose talent doesn’t reach the same level. On screen, the disparity in these two levels of talent just makes everything look worse.

“Summering” is not presented as a satire or as an absurdist escapist film. This dreadful movie really wants to be viewed as a serious drama that’s supposed to accurately reflect the interior lives of 11-year-old girls. When it comes to this attempt at authenticity and being an influential film about girlhood, “Summering” is a complete and utter failure.

Bleecker Street released “Summering” in select U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Aftershock’ (2022), starring Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard, Bruce McIntyre, Helena Grant, Neel Shah, Felicia Ellis and Paul Ellis

September 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Shawnee Benton Gibson and Bruce McIntyre in “Aftershock” (Photo by Kerwin Devonish/Hulu)

“Aftershock” (2022)

Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Boston, Houston and Tulsa, Oklahoma, the documentary film “Aftershock,” which was filmed from 2019 to 2021, features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and a few Asians) talking about the systemic racism in U.S. maternal health care that results in a disproportinately high death rate of African American women who died from childbirth or complications from childbirth.

Culture Clash: Family members of African American women who died in hospitals during childbirth have become activists to try to end systemic racism in maternal health care, but they face uphill battles and resistance from people who want to enable or deny this racism.

Culture Audience: “Aftershock” will appeal mainly to people who are interested seeing true stories about how race relations and social classes affect the type of health care that people get in the United States.

Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard and Khari Maynard in “Aftershock” (Photo by Kerwin Devonish/Hulu)

“Aftershock” is a disturbing but necessary documentary to watch for a reality check about how systemic racism in the U.S. health care system has resulted in black women dying after childbirth at disproportionately higher rates than other races. The film isn’t just about spouting statistics and facts, although that important information is included. What will emotionally resonate with viewers the most are the stories of real people whose lives have been permanently changed by these medical injustices.

Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, “Aftershock” is a no-frills documentary that thankfully isn’t overstuffed with too many talking heads. “Aftershock” (which is Lewis Lee’s feature-film directorial debut) had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where “Aftershock” won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award called Impact for Change. “Aftershock,” which is filmed and edited clearly and concisely, is certainly the type of documentary that will motivate people to want improvements in the U.S. medical care system.

“Aftershock” essentially tells three main stories of African American people who’ve been affected by maternity health care in the United States. Two of the stories are about two families coping with the deaths of a woman in their family who died after childbirth. The third story is about a married couple who have to decide if the pregnant wife will give birth in a hospital or opt for an alternative location. Meanwhile, some experts and activists weigh in with their perspectives and sharing of information.

One of the documentary’s main stories is about the aftermath of the October 2019 death of 30-year-old Shamony Gibson, who died in New York City from pulmonary embolism (blood clotting in the lungs), 13 days after giving birth by C-section to her second child, a son named Khari. “Aftershock” shows how Gibson’s mother Shawnee Benton Gibson and Gibson’s partner Omari Maynard (the father of Khari) became activists as a result of Gibson’s death, which they believe could have been prevented if she received adequate medical care from the medical professionals who knew about her blood clot symptoms.

Before she died, Gibson had been suffering from shortness of breath and chest pains, which are two symptoms of pulmonary embolism. Gibson’s reported these health problems to medical professionals, who dismissed her concerns and told her that she just needed to rest more. According to Gibson’s family, she also was repeatedly asked by medical professionals, “Are you on drugs?”

Gibson was not using drugs, and the medical people were repeatedly told that information, but they didn’t seem to believe it, because they kept asking the same question. The family members believe that the medical people who repeatedly asked this “Are you on drugs?” question would not have been so stubborn in assuming that Gibson was a drug user if Gibson were a white person. They also believe that medical professionals would not have been so quick to dismiss Gibson’s health problems if she were white.

Unfortunately, the hospital where Gibson was taken was underfunded and understaffed. According to Gibson’s family (including her sister Jasmine Gibson, who is interviewed in “Aftershock”), Gibson was taken to the emergency room, where she had to wait 12 hours before getting medical treatment. By then, it was too late. She died at the hospital.

In “Aftershock,” Benton Gibson says that she worked at the hospital as a loyal employee for 25 years and never thought that the hospital would play a role in her daughter’s death. It was a rude and tragic awakening that fuels a lot of Benton Gibson’s activism. One of her biggest messages, particularly to Black women who give birth, is to not be fooled into thinking that what happed to her daughter can’t happen to them.

Another documentary story is about what happened after the April 2020 death of 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac, who passed away after having a C-section at Montefiore Hospital in New York City’s Bronx borough. Isaac’s son, Elias Isaac McIntyre, survived the C-section, but Isaac did not. Bruce McIntyre (Elias’ father) eventually met Maynard, and they formed a support group for single fathers whose partners died from maternity health care that’s believed to be inadequate and rooted in racism.

While in the hospital for the childbirth, Isaac was diagnosed with HELLP (Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets) syndrome, a pregnancy complication that affects the blood and liver. Isaac’s family members believe medical negligence caused Isaac’s death and are suing Montefiore Hospital with this claim. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit contends that Isaac could have been diagnosed with HELLP syndrome long before she was in the hospital to give birth. Isaac’s family also believes that Isaac would have received better medical attention if she were white.

The third main story in “Aftershock” follows married couple Felicia Ellis and Paul Ellis as they prepare for the birth of their first child in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Felicia and Paul know about the horror stories about black women (especially low-income black women) getting treated as inferior in the U.S. health care system, compared to women of other races. The documentary shows Felicia and Paul being wary of Felicia going to a hospital for the birth of their child and looking into the birth center Breathe Birth and Wellness as an alternative. The documentary includes footage of Felicia giving birth.

It would be very easy for skeptics to say that people are just being paranoid when it’s pointed out that racism exists in the U.S. health care system. However, plenty of statistics from independent reports back up the racism claims. “Aftershock” has those statistics, which are also publicly available to anyone who wants to find them.

One of the alarming trends is that childbearing black women in the U.S. are more likely than childbearing women of other races to be told that they need a C-section when giving birth. C-sections take less time than vaginal births, but because C-sections are surgeries, women giving birth are more likely to die fom C-sections than from vaginal births. In addition, “Aftershock” points out the cold, hard fact that hospitals get more money from C-sections than they do from vaginal births.

Helena Grant, director of Midwifery at Woodhull Medical Center (a public health facility in New York City), comments in the documentary: “Very early on in my career, black women were used as guinea pigs.” Grant, who is also a certified nurse-midwife (CNM), mentions that people training in obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) in the U.S. usually do their training in hospitals and clinics in low-income communities, which are often largely populated by people of color. These inexperienced OB-GYN professionals are more likely to be the lowest-paid in the OB-GYN field and most likely to make mistakes. And guess who suffers the most as a result?

Multiple people in the documentary mention that Black women are at the most risk of getting the worst maternity health care in the U.S. because of attitudes that still linger from the enslavement of black people in America. Enslaved black women were considered “property,” not human beings, and therefore were not given the health care that people who were not enslaved were entitled to get. There’s also a persistent misconception, stemming from America’s shameful slavery history, that black women are more tolerant of physical pain than women of other races.

“Aftershock” also mentions how patriarchal and sexist attitudes changed practices of assisting during childbirth. Before the 20th century, midwives and home births used to be more common in the U.S. than they are now. During the years when slavery was legal in the U.S., enslaved black women were often the midwives for the white families who enslaved them.

When men wanted to take over the practice of assisting during childbirth and make money from it, the OB-GYN profession was born in the 1700s. In the OB-GYN profession’s earliest years in the U.S., the profession was open only to people who had access to a getting a medical degree, which usually meant white men only. And although medical schools in the U.S. can now enroll people of all races and genders, to this day, most OB-GYN doctors in the U.S. are white men.

“Aftershock” also mentions the money-motivated campaign that began the early 1900s to get more women to go to hospitals to give birth, in order to take business away from midwives who helped women give birth in places other than hospitals. There are certainly advantages to having a doctor rather than a midwife assist in childbirth. However, “Aftershock” shows that more people are considering alternatives to giving birth in a hospital (options include licensed birth centers or home births) if they think the hospital will be giving incompetent care due to a patient’s race.

Neel Shah, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School, comments: “I think the well-being of moms is the bellwether for the well-being of society in general. That’s why every injustice in society shows up in maternal health care.” Shah also notes that it wasn’t until 2018 that the U.S. federal government began tracking maternal health trends. Many racial disparities can be found in these trend reports.

“Aftershock” includes footage of Shah leading an OB-GYN seminar, with McIntyre as a guest speaker. The seminar’s students (who are mostly women of various races) are visibily moved by McIntyre’s story and seem to have learned a lot from his personal account of how racism can affect the health care that someone can get. One of the students speaks to McIntyre after his talk and says to him that she had heard about Isaac’s death on Twitter, but it made a difference to see firsthand how her death affected someone in Isaac’s family.

“Aftershock” also has powerful moments of Benton Gibson, Maynard and McIntyre doing activism work to try to raise awareness about racism in maternity health care and to pass better laws about maternity health care. They attend rallies and do community outreach in these endeavors. In one scene, Benton Gibson passionately testifies during a New York City Council hearing on maternal health. New York City Council member Carolina Rivera expresses her support of Benton Gibson during this hearing.

In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, Maynard and McIntyre choose Weeksville Heritage Center as a meeting place for other single fathers who have experienced similar tragic losses of their partners who died from childbirth-related deaths. Maynard says of this meeting place: “I want to create a space where we can star to try to change policy, where we can have hundreds of thousands of people backing what we’re saying, because that’s the only way it works.”

Maynard, who is an artist who paints portraits, also began painting portraits of other women of color who died as a result of inadequate maternity health care. Maynard has met many of these women’s families through his advocacy/activist work, and he gives these portraits as gifts to the surviving family members. In one of the documentary’s emotionally potent scenes, Maynard gives a portrait of the late Maria Corona to her surviving partner Sam Volrie Jr., who is moved to tears by this gift.

Other people featured in the documentary include registered nurse Giselle Chebny; certfied nurse-midwife Regina Kizer; and Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative executive director LaBrisa Williams; and doulas Nubia Martin, Ashlee Wilson and Myla Flores. Toward the end of the documentary, Maynard and McIntyre are shown making plans to eventually open birth center in the Bronx, with the intention to help low-income pregnant women in particular, since these low-income women are less likely to get the proper medical care that they need.

“Aftershock” is not propaganda for birthing centers, nor is it a sweeping and unfair condemnation of all hospitals and OB-GYN medical professionals. However, the documentary does a very good job at sounding the alarm that pregnant black women in America are more likely to die from inadequate or incompetent medical care than pregnant women of other races. “Aftershock” is an effective presentation of facts and human stories to serve as a reminder that this problem is not just a concern for people of color but for all people who are against racism.

Hulu premiered “Aftershock” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on July 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Resurrection’ (2022), starring Rebecca Hall, Tim Roth, Grace Kaufman and Michael Esper

September 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rebecca Hall in “Resurrection” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Resurrection” (2022)

Directed by Andrew Semans

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the horror film “Resurrection” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A business executive, who’s a single mother to a teenage daughter, experiences emotional turmoil when a man from her past comes back into her life.

Culture Audience: “Resurrection” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth, and will appeal to viewers who are open to watching horror movies with unexpected and disturbing twists.

Tim Roth and Rebecca Hall in “Resurrection” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Just like the 2021 horror film “Malignant,” the 2022 horror film “Resurrection” has an unsettling and shocking reveal that viewers will either love or hate. The movie isn’t perfect, but the surprise ending offers a bizarre twist that shows bold originality. “Resurrection” is better than the average horror movie, largely due to the suspenseful mystery at the center of the story, as well as the cast members’ convincing performances.

“Resurrection” is the second feature film from writer/director Andrew Semans, who previously directed the offbeat comedy/drama “Nancy, Please,” about a hellish experience with a roommate. “Nancy, Please” made the rounds at several film festivals in 2012, before getting a very limited release in the U.S. in 2013. “Resurrection” (which has its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) is a movie that is much darker in tone and will leave many viewers disturbed by some of the visuals and how the story concludes.

“Resurrection” takes place in an unnamed part of upstate New York (the movie was actually filmed in Albany, New York), where biotech executive Margaret Ballian (played by Rebecca Hall) thinks she has her entire life under control and in order. The movie’s opening scene shows Margaret having a private meeting in her office with her young intern/administrative assistant Gwyn (played by Angela Wong Carbone), with Margaret giving Gwyn some advice about Gwyn’s personal life. Apparently, Gwyn is in a very bad relationship with a love partner, because Margaret tells Gwyn that Gwyn’s belittling partner is a “sadist,” so Margaret advises Gwyn to end this toxic romance.

Because of the sensitive nature of this conversation, Gwyn asks Margaret not to tell anyone about what they discussed in this meeting. Gwyn doesn’t know it, but Margaret’s own love life isn’t exactly going so well either. She’s having a secret affair with a married man named Peter (played by Michael Esper), who is the father of a teenage daughter named Chloe. Margaret, who is not married, is also a parent to a teenage daughter. Margaret’s daughter Abbie (played by Grace Kaufman), who 17 or 18 years old, is a college-bound student in her last year of high school.

Although Peter and Margaret care about each other, they’re not in love with each other. They both know it’s a dead-end affair that came about from lust and a need for companionship. During one of their sexual trysts, Margaret gets an alarming phone call: Abbie is in a hospital after getting into a drunken biking accident with a friend named Lucy. Luckily, Abbie recovers from her injuries, but this health scare starts to trigger maternal feelings in Margaret that affect her for the rest of the story.

Margaret and Gwyn are then shown in another private meeting in Margaret’s office, where Gwyn confides in Margaret that she broke up with the abusive partner. Margaret congratulates Gwyn and praises her by saying, “You’re tougher than leather.” Although Margaret and Gwyn have not been working together for very long, it’s apparent that Margaret feels protective of Gwyn, almost like a mother is protective of a child.

Not long after this meeting, Margaret attends the Biotech Rising Conference and is shocked to see who someone who is one of the conference’s speakers: His name is David Moore (played by Tim Roth), who is a confident and intelligent scientific researcher. Margaret’s reaction to seeing David on stage is that of someone who suddenly physically ill from fear.

Margaret is so unnerved by seeing David, she rushes to her home and calls out for Abbie, who is at home, safe and sound. Margaret bursts into Abbie’s room and asks Abbie if she is okay. Abbie says yes. Margaret is immensely relieved to see that nothing has happened to Abbie, who is confused over why Margaret is acting so paranoid, and she asks Margaret why.

Margaret won’t tell Abbie anything, except to insist that everything is just fine. But when Margaret goes into a bathroom, she begins sobbing. What is it about David that’s caused Margaret to be so distressed? It should come as no surprise that David is someone from Margaret’s past whom she wants to forget. And he ends up making contact with her, much to her dread.

Most of “Resurrection” is about the unnerving cat-and-mouse game between David and Margaret. David takes pleasure in knowing that his presence is upsetting to Margaret. She starts having nightmares, including one where she finds a burned baby inside of a stove. It’s enough to say that much of the horror in “Resurrection” is about Margaret’s issues with motherhood and abuse.

The nightmare about the burned baby isn’t what most viewers will think it is, because the secrets about Margaret’s past, which are eventually revealed in the movie, have some unpredictable elements. Hall gives a very tormented performance as Margaret, whose mental health begins to unravel the more that she sees David. Roth gives an effective performance too, but he’s played creepy villains in many other movies, so there are no real surprises in how Roth portrays David in “Resurrection.”

The pacing of “Resurrection” sometime drags slowly, but Semans’ writing and directing are solid enough to maintain viewers’ curiosity about what will happen next. “Resurrection” has some horror imagery about children that might be too upsetting for sensitive viewers. As gruesome as “Resurrection” can be, it’s a horror movie that offers glimmers of hope and makes a memorable statement about the power of a mother’s love.

IFC Films released “Resurrection” in select U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,’ starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown

August 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/Pinky Promise LLC/Focus Features)

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

Directed by Adamma Ebo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Atlanta, the comedic film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A megachurch’s preacher and his wife strive to make a comeback after his fall from grace due to sexual misconduct scandals.

Culture Audience: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, and will appeal to viewers who like mockumentaries that are satires of people who place more value on fame and fortune than on honesty and morality.

Conphidance and Nicole Beharie in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/Pinky Promise LLC/Focus Features)

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a comedic mockumentary that adeptly skewers religious hypocrisy, vanity and greed in megachurch culture. The movie’s pacing drags in some parts, but Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown captivate with their lead performances as disgraced megachurch couple Trinitie Childs and Lee-Curtis Childs. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” also offers bittersweet observations that are examples of the religious adage, “All that glitters is not gold.”

Written and directed by Adamma Ebo, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is Ebo’s feature-film directorial debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s producers include Hall, Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, Adamma Ebo and her identical twin Adanne Ebo. Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. It’s a movie that puts a spotlight on the impact of religious leaders on African American communities and what can happen if one of those leaders is knocked down from a pedestal and tries to get back up on top again.

Although some things in the movie might seem over-the-top ridiculous, anyone who has followed news about scandal-plagued religious leaders will know that many of their antics, denials and posturings are very close to what’s portrayed in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” The movie gets its title from several scenes in the movie where Trinitie, at Lee-Curtis’ persuasion, holds up a sign that reads “Honk for Jesus” to passing cars on the street, in desperate attempts to attract followers. Over time, Lee-Curtis convinces Trinitie to degrade herself when holding up the “Honk for Jesus” sign, such as telling her to shake her rear end in a sexually suggestive manner.

Beyond the obvious comedic parts, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a searing indictment of the patriarchal ways of megachurch culture and how women are expected to be subservient to men. In the movie, Lee-Curtis is the one who caused the scandal that lead to his megachurch’s downfall, but his loyal wife Trinitie is the one who gets the brunt of the pressure to redeem their reputation. Lee-Curtis makes demands on Trinitie that slowly chip away at her soul, and Trinitie has to decide if her marriage to Lee-Curtis is worth this erosion of her self-esteem and self-worth.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” begins with Trinitie doing a sit-down interview by herself in the empty building of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, which Trinitie and Lee-Curtis founded but whose congregation has drastically shrunk from 26,000 members to five loyal members. The church’s followers have diminished, but Lee-Curtis has accumulated a lot of personal wealth that he and Trinitie are determined to keep. Trinitie and Lee-Curtis not only believe that they deserve this wealth but that it’s also God’s destined plan for them.

A documentarian named Anita Bonet (who is heard occasionally in the movie but never seen on camera) is directing a documentary about Trinitie and Lee-Curtis and their attempt to make a comeback after Lee-Curtis experienced several accusations of sexual misconduct. Several of Lee-Curtis’ accusers are suing him over these allegations. The details of these allegations are revealed about halfway through the movie but won’t be mentioned in this review.

Trinitie says in her interview: “Every woman is not built for the responsibility of being a first lady. Lee-Curtis and I, we’re just going to the other side … You know, have you ever seen a rat go from the inside of a house to the outside of a house? They chew through. So, we’re going to gnaw through the hardest parts.”

Lee-Curtis is arrogant and unapologetic about his alleged misdeeds. He also has unwavering confidence that the couple’s comeback, which they plan to take place during the upcoming Easter Sunday, will be entirely successful. Over time, some cracks in his veneer of morality start to show, which should come as no surprise when considering many real-life religious leaders who go through scandals with former secrets that expose their hypocrisy.

The mockumentary includes interviews with Lee-Curtis, Trinitie, some of the couple’s supporters, some of the couple’s critics and people from the general public who are somewhat neutral. In addition, there are snippets of “archival” footage of Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church services in the couple’s heyday at the church. In one of his sermons, Lee-Curtis shows his homophobia by saying that the “homosexual agenda” is “disrespectful to marriage. Take it from me: I am the prophet with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous Bugatti.”

The Childs couple’s five loyal followers are Deacon Alastor Culpepper (played by Robert Yatta); his wife, Deaconess Culpepper (played by Greta Glenn, also known as Greta Marable Glenn); Kensington Straterly (played by Perris Drew), a Divinity School graduate student; Sapphire Devaughn (played by Crystal Alicia Garrett); and Aria Devaughn (played by Selah Kimbro Jones), Sapphire’s daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Kensington says, “Pastor Childs is ahead of his time. He’s a visionary.”

While Trinitie and Lee-Curtis try to win back their flock of followers, they have some competition: a polite younger pastor named Keon Sumpter (played by Conphidance) and his devoted wife Shakura Sumpter (played by Nicole Beharie), who want to form their own megachurch in Atlanta. The Sumpters have founded Heaven’s House Baptist Church, which has more than 1,000 congregants so far and has gained many new members who used to be congregants of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. And what a coincidence: Heaven’s House Baptist Church plans to have its grand opening on the same Easter Sunday that the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church plans to re-open.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” mines this megachurch rivalry for all of what it’s worth, but the more interesting power dynamics are between Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. There’s not enough shown about Keon and Shakura to get a handle on their true personalities. Keon and Shakura have the polish of religious people who don’t want to say a bad thing about anyone in public, but there’s no real indication of what Keon and Shakura are really like in private. The movie seems to suggest that Keon and Shakura have not yet been corrupted by greed and fame because Keon and Shakura aren’t at the megachurch level where Lee-Curtis and Trinitie used to be and which Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are trying to reclaim.

Some scenes in the movie work better than others. For example, a scene of Trinitie visiting a hat shop isn’t as funny as it could have been. A much better comedic scene is one where Trinitie and Lee-Curtis interact with their few remaining congregants at the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, in a pathetic attempt to pretend as if all is going well at the church. Another amusing scene shows the supposedly pious Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, who publicly preach about the evils of cursing, but privately in their car, they rap along to Crime Mob’s curse-filled song “Knuck If You Buck.”

There’s a sex scene in the movie that looks a little out of place because it’s the only scene that doesn’t look like it was filmed for a documentary. However, the purpose of this scene is made clear later in the movie when Lee-Curtis’ sex scandals are revealed in more detail. There are other clues that point to the nature of these sexual misconduct allegations and the damaging impact that Lee-Curtis’ actions have had on his accusers.

Lee-Curtis is very transparent in his ambitions, so his character is very easy to predict. Trinitie is less predictable and more interesting because she has moments where she looks like she begins to wonder if she made the right decision to “stand by her man.” There’s a very telling scene in the movie where Trinitie has breakfast with her mother Sabina (played by Avis-Marie Barnes), who gives advice that is an example of how sexist patriarchy is enabled and encouraged in the name of religious tradition.

Aside from certain aspects of church and religion, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” offers social commentary on what lengths people will go to, in order to pursue fame and fortune; create an “aspirational” wealthy image; and try to give the impression of having a “perfect” life when one’s life is actually falling apart. The characters in this movie just happen to be African American. However, the movie cleverly brings up issues that are timeless and relevant to any culture.

Focus Features will release “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on September 2, 2022.

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