Review: ‘The State of Texas vs. Melissa,’ starring Melissa Lucio

November 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Melissa Lucio in “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” (Photo by Cyril Thomas/FilmRise)

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa”

Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas, the documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” features a group of Hispanic and white people from the working-class and middle-class discussing the case of Texas death-row inmate Melissa Lucio, who was convicted in 2007 of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Maria, but has proclaimed that she is not guilty of the crime.

Culture Clash: The documentary raises questions about Lucio’s guilt and suggests that Lucio’s race and financial disadvantages played big roles in her not getting good legal counsel.

Culture Audience: “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in criminal-justice issues, particularly those affecting women or people of color.

Daniela Lucio and her children in “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” (Photo by Cyril Thomas/FilmRise)

There’s an old saying that prisons are full of innocent people, because so many prisoners claim they didn’t commit the crimes that landed them in prison. The riveting documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” makes a compelling case that Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death row in Texas, is really telling the truth when she says that she didn’t murder her 2-year-old daughter Mariah. Melissa was convicted of this crime in 2007, but the documentary exposes far-reaching and troubling aspects of the case demonstrating that, at the very least, Melissa should get a new trial.

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” director Sabrina Van Tassel makes a statement in the movie’s production notes that she made the movie with the firm belief that Melissa is not guilty of the murder that landed Melissa on death row. In the statement, Van Tassel (who is from France) says that she originally intended to do a documentary about five women on death row in the United States. Van Tassel remembers: “Oddly, Melissa’s story was the one that I was the least drawn to,” because of Melissa’s troubled past as a drug addict with a history of neglecting her kids.

However, in the statement, Van Tassel says that she changed her mind after meeting with Melissa: “I knew instinctively that she was telling me the truth. That her story was full of facts that had never been explored. In her eyes, I saw all the flaws of the American judicial system which tends to get rid of the most vulnerable defendants.”

Even though Van Tassel admits this bias up front, and even though there are many prisoners who are very skilled con artists and liars, the director approaches the documentary not as a gullible crusader but as an investigative journalist determined to get to the truth, no matter what. The documentary looks at both sides of the argument over Melissa’s guilt or innocence in this horrific crime. And the movie uncovers disturbing evidence and eyewitness statements that were never brought up in Melissa’s original trial.

Melissa (who is incarcerated in Gatesville, Texas) participated in this documentary, as did some of her family members, who are divided over thinking that she’s guilty or not guilty. A few of the family members have never been interviewed on camera. Also interviewed are attorneys and other people who are either involved in the case or have some type of inside knowledge about the case.

Speaking about how her imprisonment has devastated her family, Melissa says in the documentary: “I’ve lost … years without my children. Some of them have memories of me, and some of them don’t. It’s confusing … because I don’t understand how the court system could have done this to me.”

After Melissa was sent away to prison, Melissa’s eldest daughter Daniela took primary responsibility for raising her then-underage siblings. Daniela, who has nine children of her own, is interviewed in the documentary. She is one of her mother’s biggest defenders and advocates.

One person who is not interviewed is former Texas district attorney Armando Villalobos, who prosecuted the case. In 2014, he was convicted of bribery and extortion for accepting more than $100,000 to illegally tamper with cases that happened before Mariah’s death. He was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison.

The details of Villalobos being exposed as an unethical D.A. are included in the documentary, including an interview with assistant U.S. attorney Michael J. Wynne, the lead prosecutor in the case against Villalobos. The implication is clear: If Villalobos was busted for bribery over several cases, then how many other cases did he illegally tamper with where he wasn’t caught? 

Melissa’s case gets even more complicated with what could be shady agendas, because Melissa’s original defense attorney, Peter Gilman, now works for the Texas district attorney’s office. Gilman gets some criticism in the documentary for giving incompetent legal services to Melissa. And now that Gilman works for the D.A.’s office, it raises questions over how much he has invested in not wanting any of his alleged botched legal services to be brought up in court if Melissa gets a new trial.

Who is Melissa Lucio and how did she end up on death row? Born on June 18, 1969, she is a divorced mother of 14 children. She lived primarily in Harlingen, Texas, where the crime occurred. And her life before she was convicted of murder was one filled with poverty, chaos, drug addiction and domestic abuse.

The documentary doesn’t try to portray her as a saint, because it includes details over Melissa’s admitted addiction to cocaine and how some of her kids were temporarily taken away from her by child-protective services. The children were taken away from her after reports that the kids were homeless, neglected, and relying on school for food and hygiene needs. When the kids did have a home, there were also complaints from neighbors that the household reeked of marijuana smoke.

According to what Melissa says in the documentary, temporarily losing custody of some of her kids happened while she and her then-husband Guadalupe Lucio (the father of her five oldest children) were in the depths of their cocaine addiction. Melissa says she was often the victim of domestic abuse by Guadalupe, who is not interviewed in the documentary. Mariah’s father is not mentioned or interviewed in the documentary. Melissa eventually got clean from her cocaine addiction, but her life got turned upside down when she was convicted of murdering Mariah, who died of blunt-force trauma to the head on February 17, 2007.

The prosecution’s main evidence against Melissa was the confession that she made in police custody. That videotaped confession, which is partially shown in the beginning of the documentary, was a false and coerced confession, according to Melissa and her attorneys. The video includes Melissa giving a damning demonstration of how she supposedly killed Mariah. And when a police officer showed her photos of her dead child, Melissa says, “I wish it was me, not her.”

Melissa has recanted the confession and claims that Mariah died after falling down a flight of stairs. Melissa claims she’s not responsible for Mariah’s fatal tumble. However, forensic pathologist Dr. Norma Jean Farley, who examined Mariah’s body, says in the documentary: “This was the worst case of child abuse I’d ever seen. There were bruises everywhere.”

Thomas Young, a forensic pathologist who examined the evidence and autopsy findings of Mariah, says that “the bruising is a result of the brain injury. All of a sudden [previous injuries] started to show up.” Melissa claims that she never abused Mariah. If Melissa didn’t do it, then who did?

The documentary’s most chilling interview is with Melissa’s daughter Alexandra, who was a teenager when Mariah died. Alexandra coldly admits that she was often physically abusive to her younger sister Mariah and was jealous of her. “I guess you can say I didn’t feel like she was my sister,” Alexandra says in the documentary. Alexandra also says that she doesn’t know who killed Mariah.

Litigation specialist Norma Villanueva gave an affidavit that Alexandra admitted to a social worker that Alexandra was responsible for Mariah falling down the stairs. Other family members believe that Mariah’s tumble down the stairs wasn’t an accident and that she was deliberately pushed. However, in her documentary interview, Alexandra claims to have no memory of this confession. Gilman, who was Melissa’s defense attorney at the time, told Villanueva not to disclose Alexandra’s confession to the police or prosecution, according to Villanueva’s affidavit.

Melissa’s family members who believe in her innocence say in the documentary that one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the case was that neither the defense nor the prosecution bothered to interview the children who were at home at the time of Mariah’s death. And both sides never fully investigated any other possible suspects, even if another suspect or person of interest might be in the same family.

Robert Alvarez, one of Melissa’s sons, was 8 years old when his mother was sentenced to death row. He says in the documentary: “They didn’t actually ask any of us kids who were there when it happened. My mom wasn’t a violent person.” Alvarez believes that his mother suspected Alexandra of being the real culprit, but that in order to protect Alexandra, Melissa made the false confession. 

In the documentary, it’s clear that Melissa regrets the confession and now believes that, at the very least, Alexandra was the one who caused the bruises found on Mariah’s body. Melissa’s advocates say that one of the biggest mistakes that the police and prosecution made was automatically assuming that Melissa could have been the only one in the household to commit that abuse. But that raises another question: How could Melissa not see that Mariah was being physically abused, since the abuse left several bruises on the child?

To understand the mentality of someone who would let this kind of dysfunction take over her life, the documentary includes an interview with Dr. John Pinkerman, a psychologist who has interviewed Melissa. Pinkerman says, “She had a history of really inadequate men entering her life and being exploitative, abusive, and who were very troubled individuals who were doing illegal things, including drug dealing. She was caught up in that maelstrom. She didn’t meet the criteria of mothers who kill their children.”

Melissa also talks about her abusive background. She says that she got married at 16 years old “to escape my childhood. I was molested by my mother’s boyfriend.” Melissa says that when she told her mother about the boyfriend’s sexual abuse, her mother didn’t believe her, and that lack of support devastated Melissa.

Melissa’s mother is briefly interviewed in the documentary. She doesn’t comment on these allegations, of sexual abuse, but she believes that her daughter didn’t commit the murder. Melissa’s brother Rene says that Melissa’s childhood trauma led Melissa down a self-destructive path, and he comments on Melissa’s addiction to cocaine: “Her demons took over everything she had.”

Melissa sister Diane says about Melissa: “She was a very loving person, but she had a rough life. Melissa was a good person. I never had a disagreement with Mel—not that I remember, even as an adult.” Diane also says that their sister Sonya would often fight with Diane and Melissa. It might explain why there’s still some lingering bad blood between Melissa and some of her siblings,

And not all of Melissa’s siblings on her side with this murder case. Her sister Esmerelda, who is in the movie, believes that Melissa is guilty. Sonya stops short of saying on camera that she thinks Melissa is guilty, but she doesn’t exactly praise Melissa either. Sonya says that Melissa was always ashamed of being poor: “I don’t even think Melissa ever owned a piece of new furniture … She felt she was the black sheep [of the family].”

It’s highly unlikely that Melissa is thinking about what kind of furniture she had before she was locked up in prison for murder. Her priority is righting the wrongs that she says happened to her in this case. Melissa’s appellate attorney Margaret Schmucker says in the documentary that there is “no evidence that Melissa was physically abusive.”

But what happened to Mariah still haunts Melissa, who says she sometimes has dreams of Mariah being alive and doing things like playing dress-up with Melissa. “I often think about my daughter Mariah,” Melissa comments. “There are days where I wish I could leave this place and be with Mariah.”

The documentary aims to show that in Melissa’s murder case, it wasn’t just a corrupt prosecutor who was capable of doing damage. Several people in the documentary accuse Melissa’s former defense attorney Gilman of unethically mishandling the case. Some of Melissa’s children who were home at the time of the murder have gone on record in this documentary and elsewhere to give statements about what they saw and heard. However, Gilman never called any of Melissa’s children to testify in her trial.

Lynn Marie Gracey, a private investigator who worked on Melissa’s appeal has this to say about Gilman: “I think the guy knew that he sabotaged the case so bad that he didn’t want anybody to rework it, re-investigate it. My gut told me that it was all messed-up.”

In the documentary, Gracey claims that she once confronted Gilman about why he didn’t further investigate Melissa’s admittedly abusive daughter Alexandra as a likely suspect. Gracey says that Gilman told her, “Why would I want to ruin a teenager’s life? She wasn’t my client anyway.” And then Gracey says that Gilman abruptly ended the conversation.

Gilman is interviewed in the documentary, and he doesn’t adequately explain his actions in the case. For example, during the trial, he didn’t raise any reasonable doubt by showing evidence that someone else could have committed the crime. It’s a strategy that any good defense attorney is supposed to have. In the documentary interview, Gilman doesn’t even attempt to hide that he didn’t respect Melissa as a client or as a person. These negative feelings probably affected how he handled the case.

Gilman describes Melissa as “very docile” but adds: “It was very difficult to defend somebody who didn’t seem to want to have a defense attorney there. She was not a good mother. Did she kill her child? I don’t know.”

As for why he never called any of Melissa’s children to testify on her behalf in the original trial, Gilman gives this excuse: “I didn’t feel that any of the children would be helpful.” He also describes the children as undisciplined. Gilman says that he figured that if the kids were in the courtroom, they would probably be running around the courtroom and they would upset the jury.

And when it comes to reports that at least one of Mariah’s siblings was physically abusive to her, Gilman would only say “that sounds about right.” But he also says that he “doesn’t remember” all the details of those reports, and he claims that he didn’t have access to the family’s social-services records.

People who know about criminal-justice cases know how hard it is for someone convicted of murder to be exonerated. That’s because most prosecutors don’t want to admit that the case could have been mishandled by overlooking evidence or even tampering with crucial evidence. The state also usually doesn’t want to spend the money to re-try a case.

Alfredo Padilla, a prosecutor in Texas’ Cameron County, is one of the people who thinks justice was served with Melissa’s murder conviction and sentencing to death row. Padilla says in the documentary: “The case was defended well. The system worked … Don’t blame the decision. Don’t blame the attorneys … She has no one to blame but herself. She put herself there. Whose fault is it that she’s there, if it’s not hers?

An update to Melissa’s case is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, and it’s a clear indication that there are indeed serious questions being raised over Melissa’s conviction. This update won’t be revealed in this review, but there are plenty of news reports about what happened after this movie was filmed, if people want to find out the latest developments.

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” does an impressive job of presenting different perspectives of this very complicated case. It’s a cautionary tale of how difficult it can be for defendants to overcome a recanted confession, even if there’s evidence suggesting that someone else committed the crime. It’s also a sobering example of how someone’s socioeconomic status determines the quality of their legal services and therefore the outcome of a case. This documentary about Melissa Lucio is completed, but her case represents a quest for justice that will never be over as long as there are convicted prisoners who are appealing their cases.

FilmRise released “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 3, 2020, and on digital and VOD on October 20, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Time’ (2020), starring Fox Rich

October 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Fox Rich and Rob Rich in “Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Time” (2020)

Directed by Garrett Bradley

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1990s to the 2010s, the documentary “Time” features a predominantly African American group of working-class and middle-class people discussing Louisiana woman Fox Rich’s quest to get her husband Rob released from prison and reunited with his family.

Culture Clash: Rob Rich was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole for a botched armed robbery, which is a sentence that Fox Rich and others in the documentary say is a punishment that is too harsh for the crime and rooted in racism.

Culture Audience: “Time” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about people who battle against systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Fox Rich in the 1990s (above) and Fox Rich in the 2010s (below) in “Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The gripping and emotionally moving documentary “Time” doesn’t follow the usual formula in a movie about someone on an against-all-odds quest to get someone else released from prison. The convict in this case isn’t someone who proclaims to be innocent of the crime. Nor is there a crusading lawyer who is the hero of the story. Instead, this movie takes a raw and intimate look at the journey of a convict’s wife named Fox Rich, who fights to get her husband Rob G. Rich freed from prison while he’s serving a 60-year sentence without the possibility of parole. It’s a story that’s a true example of extraordinary persistence, love and hope.

“Time” is director Garrett Bradley’s feature-film debut, but the movie consists of a great deal of video footage that Fox Rich filmed herself during the family’s ordeal that began in the late 1990s and continued through 2018. In the movie, she also has the names Sibil Verdette Fox (which is her birth name) and Sibil Richardson. Fox (who was born in 1971) does most of the voiceover narration in “Time,” but most of the six sons she had with Rob also narrate the film.

There are no “talking head” legal experts, journalists or other pundits who are interviewed in this documentary. “Time” is essentially a family video album that chronicles the ups and downs of Fox’s determination to emancipate her husband over the course of 21 years. Although the original footage from the early years was filmed in color, everything in “Time” is entirely in black and white. There’s also some footage of the family in happier times before Rob was incarcerated.

The movie is not shown in chronological order, and the year that footage was taken is not shown on screen, although the year is sometimes mentioned by the people in the footage. Viewers can also tell the periods of time that the footage was filmed by how Fox looks and the ages of the children. In the 1990s and early 2000s footage, Fox’s is wavy-haired and more idealistic. In the later footage, her hair is straight and she’s more realistic but still hopeful. She’s also become a businesswoman at a car dealership, as well as a passionate public speaker about reforms in the criminal justice system. In her public speaking, Fox shares her personal stories about how Rob’s incarceration has affected the family.

What happened to cause this prison sentence to devastate the family? In 1997, Fox and Rob were a married couple in their mid-20s who met when they were in high school. They were on their way to living the American Dream, with three sons, their first purchased home and a plan to open the first hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport, Louisiana.

But, as Fox tells it in the documentary, they ran into financial problems in trying to launch the business. And they got desperate. On September 16, 1997, their lives changed forever when they committed this crime: Rob, Fox and Rob’s nephew robbed the Grambling Credit Union in Grambling, Louisiana. Fox says she remembers that her motivation for committing the crime was she didn’t want the business to fail and she was going to do what it took to get the money that they wanted.

Fox was the getaway driver, while Rob and his nephew committed the botched armed robbery in the bank. They ended up with about $5,000 from the robbery, but they were quickly apprehended and pleaded guilty. While Fox pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison (she was released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years of that sentence), Rob lost out on a plea bargain where he would be sentenced to 12 years in prison if he pleaded guilty. Instead, through some bad luck and bad legal advice that are not detailed in the movie, he ended up facing trial and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. By any standard, it’s a very harsh sentence, considering that there are many people who get lesser sentences for murder or rape.

Just like many other people who think the U.S. criminal justice system is corrupt and flawed, Fox believes that the system is very racist, because people of color are more likely to get worse punishments than white people who commit the same crimes. She comments in the documentary: “Our prison system is nothing more than slavery. And I see myself as an abolitionist.”

Fox’s mother, a retired educator who’s not identified by her name in the movie, also says that prisons are another form of slavery. She doesn’t excuse the crime that Rob and Fox committed that landed the spouses in prison, but she believes that Rob’s punishment should have fit the crime. She says, “I’ve always been a firm believer: Right don’t come to you doing wrong.”

Fox’s mother also adds that she always thought her daughter would marry “a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief.” She comments, “I’ve got nothing against Rob. I just don’t know him.” Viewers also don’t really get to know Rob either, since Fox doesn’t really describe what her husband’s personality is like, and the movie only shows brief snippets of her talking to him on the phone while he’s in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

However, “Life” does have a lot of footage over the years of Fox with her and Rob’s six children, who are all sons: Mahlik, Remington (also known as Remi), Laurence, Justus, Freedom and Rob II. Justus and Freedom (who are identical twins) and Rob II were born while Rob Sr. was in prison. The most heartbreaking parts of the movie have to do with the children not being able to grow up with their father in the home.

But the movie also has plenty of inspirational moments. Defying the negative stereotype that children of prison inmates are doomed to become uneducated criminals, Mahlik, Remi and Laurence (the three oldest sons) are all college-educated and thriving. Remi is shown graduating from dental school. Laurence graduated from high school two years earlier than his classmates and is shown to be an aspiring law student who wants to become a public advocate for criminal justice reform.

Remi comments in the documentary: “My family has a strong image, but hiding behind it is a lot of pain … Time is influenced by a lot of our emotions. It’s influenced by our actions.”

And Fox is the most inspirational of all, with her steely determination to never give up on her goal to get Rob out of prison and reunited with his family. There are moments of despair, hope, defeat and triumph. “Time” shows how Fox evolved into a charismatic public speaker, whether she gives speeches at places like Tulane University or stands up in front of a church audience and asks for forgiveness for the crime she committed.

In one of these speeches, Fox also mentions that she made amends with some of the bank robbery victims when she met with them personally to ask for their forgiveness. In private, she gives pep talks to Rob, their kids and to herself. And she’s often seen on the phone doing what she has to do to get Rob back home with the family.

One thing that might surprise people who watch this movie is that there is very little footage of any lawyers. There’s a brief scene of Fox in a meeting with attorneys in an office, but that’s about it. There are hints that Fox has become disillusioned with lawyers and the legal system in general, because she does as much as she can on her own. Fox says at one point in the movie that she paid a previous lawyer (whose name is not mentioned) about $15,000 in cash for his services, and he ended up telling the family that there was nothing he could do for Rob.

Besides being entirely in black and white, “Time” isn’t a conventional documentary about the U.S. criminal justice system because of director Bradley’s musical choices for the movie. There is no cliché musical score with rousing orchestral music, no traditional gospel songs that chime in at emotionally charged moments, no stereotypical hip-hop music with angry anthems. Instead, the jazzy score by Edwin Montgomery and Jamieson Shaw (taken mainly from 1960s piano compositions by Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou) is a lot like the frequently meandering tone of this film: “Time” flows along with no distinct “acts” or “chapters” because of the non-chronological order of the film.

However, there is a “crescendo” to the film that is an absolute must-see. People who know the Rich family’s story might already know how this film ends, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing certain defining moments captured in this film. As Fox says at one point in the movie, “I came from a people who had a strong desire to have something, to make something of ourselves.” Her unshakeable loyalty to her husband and family in the face of overwhelming obstacles can be an unforgettable inspiration to people who believe in the power of love and the human spirit.

Amazon Studios released “Time” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘Driven to Abstraction,’ starring Patricia Cohen, Martha Parrish, Luke Nikas, M.H. Miller, Hongtu Zhang, Victoria Sears Goldman and Laura Gilbert

August 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Luke Nikas in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

“Driven to Abstraction”

Directed by Daria Price

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “Driven to Abstraction” features a predominately white group of people (with a few Asians) discussing the art forgery scandal that shut down Knoedler Gallery in New York City and resulted in lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

Culture Clash: The scandal was an example of how the world of fine art (where one painting can be worth millions) is susceptible to forgeries, with art dealers as knowing or unwitting accomplices to the forgeries.

Culture Audience: “Driven to Abstraction” will mostly appeal to people interested in true-crime stories or the inner workings of the fine-art world.

Patricia Cohen in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

The documentary “Driven to Abstraction” (directed by Daria Price) takes a fascinating look at how greed and the often-secretive world of art dealing collided and exploded into one of the biggest art scandals in history: Knoedler Gallery, which was New York City’s oldest art gallery, was accused of selling about $80 million worth of forged paintings from 1994 to 2009.

The scandal led to the abrupt closure of Knoedler in 2011, after being in business for 165 years. It came out during the investigation that Knoedler had been in serious financial trouble in the final decade before it closed. The money from the forgeries had been keeping the business afloat and was the main reason why the business hadn’t shut down sooner. All of this is such a compelling story that another documentary film has been made about the scandal: director Barry Avrich’s “Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art,” which has been making the rounds at film festivals in 2020 and is expected to be released in 2021.

One of the people at the center of the scandal was Knoedler’s longtime director Anne Freedman, who was accused of selling 40 forged paintings for about $60 million from 1994 to 2009, the year that she resigned from the company. Freedman received these paintings from an obscure art dealer named Glafira Rosales, who was based on New York’s Long Island. Rosales said she was selling these rare paintings on behalf of a wealthy friend who wished to remain anonymous.

This mystery seller claimed that he inherited the paintings, which were bought by one or both of his parents directly from the artists in the artists’ homes in “top secret” sales. The mystery seller also insisted that the paintings be acquired by private collectors, because it was supposedly his parents’ wish as part of the inheritance. Alfonso Ossorio, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, was a well-known artist from the Philippines, whose name was given as the supposed liaison who gave access to the art world to the mystery seller’s parents, whose names were also kept a secret from buyers.

All of the paintings that Rosales sold to Knoedler were forgeries. The artists whose paintings were forged included Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner and Sam Francis. Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, the live-in boyfriend of Rosales, would be exposed as the ringleader for the forgeries, according to law enforcement.

Why did these forgery sales go on for so long? And who was creating these forged paintings? The forgeries turned out to be work of Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant/former art student who had been in the United States since the early 1980s. At the time of the forgery sales, Qian was living in the New York City borough of Queens, where he created all of the forged paintings in his home.

As news reports, court documents and this documentary point out, there were many red flags that could have prevented these forgery sales from continuing as long as they did. For starters, the story kept changing about the mystery seller. Rosales and Freedman told different people different things about this mystery seller.

The contradictions included that the mystery seller’s country of origin was either the Philippines or Mexico and that he was living in Mexico or Switzerland. One story was that he got the paintings as an inheritance from both of his parents, who were actively involved in buying the paintings directly from the artists. In another story, it was only the father, not the mother, who had anything to do with the paintings.

And even the story kept changing about why this seller wanted to remain anonymous. People heard that the seller wanted to keep his family’s financial situation private. But another story was that the seller’s father had a closeted gay lifestyle that was connected to Ossorio, and the seller didn’t want this secret to be revealed to the public. Ossorio’s longtime partner Ted Dragon, who was still alive when the paintings were sold, was one of the people who sounded an unheeded alarm that the paintings were fake and that the “mystery seller” was lying about Ossorio being connected to the seller’s father.

Another big warning sign that the paintings were fake was that there had been no previous record of these paintings ever existing before. Most of these famous artists kept meticulous records and documentation of their work and had people who’d seen these paintings, even if these paintings were sold directly to a private collector. To suddenly have a large collection of these “lost, never-seen-before” paintings emerging in the possession of one person was very suspicious, to say the least.

However, Freedman was able to convince people that the paintings were real by providing lists of known art experts who vouched for the paintings’ authenticity. Apparently, none of the duped buyers seemed to have checked with the experts themselves before buying these paintings. If they had, they would have found out that the people on Freedman’s lists had only casually looked at the paintings in Freedman’s office but hadn’t authenticated them. Freedman put their names on the list anyway, allegedly without their knowledge or permission. And the buyers trusted Freedman because of her exalted and influential position in the art world.

The scam got exposed as buyers who purchased the forgeries would get them tested by art forensics experts and find things such as a Pollock painting that would have a certain type of paint that wasn’t invented until 1970, which was years after Pollock died in 1956. Another Pollock forgery sold by Knoedler had Pollock’s signature misspelled on the painting. Imagine the embarrassment that these buyers felt that they didn’t have these things checked out before they forked over millions for these paintings.

Patricia Cohen, the journalist who broke the story for The New York Times, says in the documentary: “If it hadn’t been for Jack Flam [president/CEO] of the Dedalus Foundation, none of this scandal would have come to light.” The foundation was launched by Motherwell, who kept such detailed records of his own work that Flam knew immediately that the suspicious Motherwell paintings being sold by Knoedler were forgeries. Flam sounded the alarm, which set off a chain of events leading to buyers taking closer looks at the paintings they purchased from Knoedler.

Not surprisingly, Freedman and all the other defendants who faced lawsuits or criminal charges in this scandal are not interviewed in the documentary. Billionaire couple Domenico and Eleanore De Sole’s lawsuit against Freedman and Knoedler (whose owner Michael Hammer was a defendant) went to trial. One of the centerpieces of the lawsuit was that Domenico De Sole—a chairman of Tom Ford International and Sotheby’s and a former president/CEO of the Gucci Group—had unknowingly purchased a fake Rothko painting in 2004 for $8 million from Knoedler, which refused to give him a refund when he discovered it was a forgery.

Although cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, the documentary includes a few courtroom illustrations, as well as brief video clips of Freedman, Hammer and the De Soles outside the courtroom. The plaintiffs and defendants make no comments in these archival video clips, but Freedman’s attorney and the De Soles’ attorneys who were involved in the trial are interviewed in the documentary. Even though the outcomes of these cases have been widely reported, they won’t be revealed in this review, in case people who see “Driven to Abstraction” want to find out what the outcomes were by seeing the documentary.

However, it’s enough to say that Freedman has maintained all along that she did not knowingly sell forgeries. It’s a denial that many people interviewed in the documentary say they find hard to believe, given that these paintings seemed to come from out of nowhere and there were no records that they had existed before this “mystery seller” wanted to unload these paintings. Freedman also fell under suspicion for being part of the scam because she purchased these paintings from Rosales for well below what would have been the paintings’ market value.

The documentary’s production notes have a director’s statement, in which Price comments: “Attending the De Sole v Freedman/Knoedler trial, I met all the players and later interviewed witnesses who were willing to go public. But I also encountered the same reluctance to go on the record that the trial itself exposed—the very same silence that allowed this scam to continue for 15 years. While there are brave insiders, like art consultant and witness Martha Parrish, willing to spill the beans in this film, there are others for whom legal or just plain embarrassing predicaments inhibited their participation.”

However, “Driven to Abstraction” does round up a good range of people from the art world to interview for a lot of insightful perspectives. Parrish, a former board member of the Art Dealers Association of America, comments on the forgeries and why any legitimate art expert should have suspected from the beginning that these paintings were fake: “There were no reproductions in any books. There were no exhibition records. There were no records with any of the dealers that represented those artists. There were no shipping receipts to show how these works … got back to the United States. There was nothing.”

In addition to The New York Times’ Cohen, the documentary’s interviewees include several journalists, such as The Art Newspaper’s Laura Gilbert; ArtNet senior market editor Eileen Kinsella; Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson; Art and Auction and Robb Report writer Judd Tully; art critic/author Blake Gopnik; The Art Newspaper writer Bill Glass; and M.H. Miller of The New York Times and formerly of Art News Magazine.

Hongtu Zhang and Andy Chen—two artists and former friends of forger Qian—are interviewed in the documentary and offer some insight into why he turned to a life of crime. Zhang attended the Art Students League (an art school in New York City) with Qian in the early 1980s. He says that Qian was very talented and thought his art education would lead to professional opportunities, but Qian became frustrated and disillusioned when he found it difficult to make a living as an artist. At one point, Qian (who is described as quiet and introverted) was selling his art on the street for very little money.

Chen says he noticed that Qian became more content over time when Qian’s financial situation improved enough that he was able to buy a house. Qian told people, including Chen, that a gallery was paying for his artwork. In essence, that was true. But what Qian left out of those stories was that his art that the gallery was buying were all forged paintings.

The documentary also mentions that after the scam was exposed, Qian claimed that he was making commissioned “tribute” paintings and wasn’t aware that it was illegal. “Tribute art” is common in Chinese culture. However, it’s pointed out that because the artist’s signatures were being forged on paintings, those forged signatures crossed a line into illegal territory. And because Qian received his art education in the U.S., it would be hard for him to convince people that he was a naïve Chinese immigrant who didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal.

Several people in the documentary marvel at how closely Qian was able to convincingly replicate the styles of so many diverse artists. Ironically, the forger who made it possible for these fake paintings to be sold for millions per painting was the one who got paid the least out of all the people accused of being involved in the scam. Qian reportedly got paid only a few thousand dollars per painting. It was only after the scammers got busted that he found out what his forgeries had been sold for, and Qian was reportedly very shocked.

The documentary’s interviews include several experts in art deals, such as art dealer/art advisor James Kelly, provenance researcher Victoria Sears Goldman, gallerist Doug Walla and Center for Art Law founder Irina Tarsis. Kelly had recommended that the De Soles buy the Rothko painting that turned out to be a forgery and the center of the De Soles’ lawsuit. In the documentary, Kelly admits he was fooled because Freedman showed him a list of known art experts whom she said had authenticated the painting. “Nothing really struck me that it was not an authentic painting,” Kelly comments in retrospect. “It was a beautiful classic.”

Freedman’s attorney Luke Nikas says about Freedman in the documentary: “Not a single person in the art-dealing world came to her and said to her: ‘These are fakes. You can’t sell them.'” As far as Freedman was concerned, Nikas says, she thought that the paintings from Rosales really were long-lost paintings that had been kept a secret from the public.

De Sole attorneys Emily Reisbaum, Gregory Clarick and Aaron Crowell (who are all interviewed in the documentary) obviously disagree. The say that even if Freedman believed that the paintings were real, she just took Rosales’ word for it, which is highly irresponsible for a gallery director on Freedman’s level. And the amounts she paid Rosales were suspiciously low (in some cases, less than $1 million per painting) for these “rare” art pieces.

The Art Newspaper’s Gilbert says that Freedman did get several warnings that the paintings were forgeries but that Freedman was “extremely resistant” to those warnings. Gilbert got the first exclusive interview with Freedman after Freedman’s trial. Gilbert says that Freedman insisted that the interview (which was published in April 2016) be a conversation instead a rehash of the trial. Gilbert describes Freedman having this attitude about the accusations against her: “It’s the art world. Get over it. I didn’t slay anyone’s first-born.”

Art forensic specialist Jeffrey Taylor gives his opinion in the documentary on why Freedman sold forgeries for so many years, regardless of whether or not she knew they were forgeries at the time of the sales: “Hubris is a good word. She began to believe in her own infallibility. Before her fall, she really was the queen bee of the art world.”

When it comes buying and selling fine art, the real price isn’t the market value but rather what someone is willing to pay for it. Anonymous buyers and sellers are not unusual. The business of art dealing at the highest level is fueled by the possibility that wealthy buyers will pay above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable asking price—and it’s the same reason why the business is so susceptible to forgeries. Cohen sums it up in the documentary by saying of the Knoedler scandal: “To pull off a forgery like this, it takes a village … The art world lacks transparency.”

“Driven to Abstraction” director Price also wrote and edited this documentary, which does a very good job of bringing the story together in a cohesive and engaging style. The main area where the documentary needed improving is the sound mixing, which is at times very uneven. However, you don’t have to be an art collector or a fan of these painters to enjoy this movie, because the documentary shows the pitfalls of being dazzled by a famous name and assuming that the name automatically equals authenticity.

Grasshopper Film released “Driven to Abstraction” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 28, 2020.

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

August 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

Directed by Muta’Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Athlete A,’ starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Jennifer Sey

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maggie Nichols in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Athlete A”

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Culture Representation: The documentary “Athlete A” interviews an all-white group of people to discuss how officials and survivors handled the crimes of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines how Nassar’s crimes were actively covered up by officials and how a team of Indianapolis Star investigative reporters exposed the Nassar scandal in 2016.

Culture Audience: “Athlete A” will appeal primarily to people who like true-crime documentaries, but the movie doesn’t uncover anything new and leaves out some important details.

Rachael Denhollander in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There will be inevitable comparisons of Netflix’s 2020 documentary film “Athlete A” (directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) and HBO’s 2019 documentary film “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (directed by Erin Lee Carr), because both documentaries essentially cover the same topic. Neither film uncovers anything new about the 2016 scandal that exposed Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of female patients while he worked as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. “Athlete A” takes a different angle from “At the Heart of Gold” by giving more of a spotlight to the Indianapolis Star newspaper team that broke the story.

“Athlete A” gets its title from the alias that was given to gymnast Maggie Nichols when she filed a formal complaint with USA Gymnastics in 2015 to report that Nassar had sexually abused her numerous times, in the guise of administering “medical examinations.” Nichols’ complaint was one of several that USA Gymnastics actively covered up and did not report to police. Michigan State University also did the same thing when it received numerous sexual-abuse complaints about Nassar, whose known abuse spanned more than 20 years.

Maggie Nichols is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse who are interviewed in “Athlete A,” which also interviews former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher, who are also survivors of Nassar’s abuse. “Athlete A,” which focuses more on how the scandal went public, has a much smaller number of people interviewed, compared to “At the Heart of Gold,” which has a broader look at the aftermath of the scandal. And ultimately, taking a much narrower view might be why “Athlete A” provides a less complete picture than “At the Heart of Gold.”

The Nassar scandal exposed the culture of cover-ups, abuse, silence and intimidation that many female gymnasts (who are usually underage when the abuse starts) have had to endure in their quest for athletic glory. Several media outlets and documentaries have already done in-depth investigations and reported their findings of the Nassar scandal, but the Indianapolis Star was the first to break the story.

“Athlete A” gives a lot of screen time to the Indianapolis Star team members who broke the story: investigations editor Steve Berta and investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans. They all give a step-by-step replay of how they uncovered how deep the scandal was and how far back the cover-ups were, as more and more women started coming forward to the Indianapolis Star with their Nassar horror stories.

Berta says of the culture of female gymnastics: “What the culture was like was new to me, and we were sort of plunged into it.” Kwiatkowski explains that the Indianapolis Star (which is nicknamed the Indy Star) somewhat stumbled onto the Nassar story when the newspaper was investigating a broader story on why people don’t report sexual abuse in schools.

The Indianapolis Star got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, and that led the reporters down the path to find out about Nassar’s sex crimes and what officials did to cover up the complaints against him. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.)

Curiously, “Athlete A” paints an incomplete picture by focusing mostly on USA Gymnastics as the chief perpetrator of the cover-ups, and the documentary largely ignores Michigan State University’s similar cover-ups of Nassar’s crimes. Several officials from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University have since been fired or have resigned because of the Nassar scandal. Many of these disgraced officials are facing criminal and/or civil cases because of their involvement in the scandal.

As many people who are familiar with the scandal already know, USA Gymnastics had a policy to not report a sexual-abuse claim to the police unless the alleged victim, the alleged victim’s parents and/or an eyewitness signed the complaint. Most of the accusers were underage children, so this policy goes against most U.S. state laws that require companies and organizations to report complaints of underage sexual abuse to police.

Nassar certainly wasn’t the only one to be accused, and when his sex crimes were exposed, the media also uncovered that over a period of 10 years, USA Gymnastics had received sexual-abuse complaints against approximately 54 coaches (most of the crimes were against underage girls), but those complaints were never reported to police. USA Gymnastics often transferred many of those coaches to other locations.

Steven Penny Jr., who was president/CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017, is portrayed in “Athlete A” as the king of the Nassar cover-ups. The documentary includes some brief commentary about him, including people who say that Penny abused his power and that his marketing background caused him to give more priority to image and sponsorship deals for USA Gymnastics instead of the safety and well-being of the athletes.

Berta says, “They [USA Gymnastics] were so busy trying to sell that brand that they didn’t have time for these girls.” The documentary also includes archival news footage of Penny’s pathetic appearance in a 2018 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, when he invoked the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in his refusal to answer any questions.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols, the parents of Maggie Nichols, say in “Athlete A” interviews that they had trusted Penny when he told them that USA Gymnastics would be handling Maggie’s sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar. The Nicholas parents say that when Sarah Jantzi, Maggie’s coach at the time, first reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015, the company ordered the Nichols parents and Jantzi not to go to the police and were told that the matter was going to be handled internally by USA Gymnastics.

A human-resources consultant hired by USA Gymnastics interviewed Maggie, but when her parents followed up to find out the status of the investigation, they were stonewalled by USA Gymnastics and told that they couldn’t reveal any details because it was an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be a USA Gymnastics doctor, and several gymnasts later testified that he abused them before, during and after the 2016 Olympics.

Maggie Nichols eventually went public in 2018 about how Nassar abused her. But her experience is strikingly similar to others who survived his abuse. (Nassar is believed to have sexually abused at least 500 female patients.) All of his survivors, and even people who weren’t abused by Nassar, say that he easily fooled people into thinking he was the “nice guy” in a sea of gymnastic coaches and officials who were tough and openly abusive to athletes.

If people are wondering why all these parents of underage kids didn’t take it upon themselves go to the police after finding out about the abuse, it’s explained in “Athlete A” (and other documentaries/news reports about the Nassar scandal) that USA Gymnastics had the power to decide who would be selected to go to the Olympics. These parents naïvely trusted that USA Gymnastics would do the right thing in handling the abuse complaints, but there was also fear of upsetting Penny and other people at the top who could make or break their daughters’ Olympic dreams.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols believe that Maggie was blackballed from being on the Olympic team because she was a “whistleblower.” Maggie was a bronze medalist at the 2014 USA Gymnastics National Championships and a silver medalist at the 2015 USA Gymnastics National Championships. She was considered a top contender to be chosen for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a having a knee injury at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, Maggie performed well, but didn’t make the Olympic team, while some Nationals team alternates were chosen instead. Gina Nichols and John Nichols say in the documentary that they saw signs that USA Gymnastics had blackballed them because the organization treated them differently after Maggie’s abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, but the complaint against Nassar hadn’t been made public yet.

After the abuse was reported, Gina Nichols and John Nichols say that at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, they didn’t have reserved seats and there weren’t TV cameras following them, as there normally would have been for all the other USA Gymnastics televised events where star gymnast Maggie previously participated. The Nichols parents don’t come right out and accuse anyone specific for causing this blatant snubbing, but it’s obvious that they believe several people’s claims that Penny demanded it. The good news is that Maggie went on to achieve gymnastic championships in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Athlete A” includes archival video footage of Denhollander being interviewed in 2016 by the Indianapolis Star when she came forward to expose Nassar, 16 years after he abused her. She says at one point: “I wish I had dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it, but I can now.”

The documentary also shows the toll that this abuse took on the survivors, many of whom were ridiculed and not believed when they first came forward. Denhollander, who looks painfully thin in her 2016 interview with the Indianapolis Star, says that she had trouble eating because of all the stress. Dantzscher, who was on the USA Olympics team in 2000, says that gymnastics was her “first love,” but she tearfully admits that it took her years to be proud to be an Olympian because Nassar abused her at the Olympics and she associated the Olympics with the shame of the abuse.

“Athlete A” also delves into the history of women’s gymnastics to explain how it went from being a sport that had mostly regular-sized adult women prior to the 1960s but it eventually changed into a sport dominated by underage girls, and a height of 5’4″ was considered “tall” for female gymnasts. This “little girl” aesthetic for female gymnasts coincided with the rise of Romanian gymnastic coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, a husband-and-wife duo whose Karolyi Ranch training facility in Texas was where Nassar committed a lot of his sexual abuse.

Beginning with Russian gold-medalist gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics and especially with Romanian gold-medalist gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, the trend moved in the direction of underage, very petite girls being pushed to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Comăneci was only 14 when she became a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics. Her victory made her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi highly in demand to train female gymnasts.

In 1981, the Károlyis defected to the United States with their choreographer Geza Poszar, who is interviewed in “Athlete A.” The Károlyis also went on to coach Olympic gold-medalists gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. “Athlete A” spends a little too much time going off-topic by rehashing the Olympic victories of Comăneci, Retton and Strug. These gymnasts had nothing to do with Nassar.

Poszar says that the Károlyis’ method of working with gymnasts was “total control over the girls.” He says that Károlyis (and coaches just like them) often abuse the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically. It was common for the gymnasts to be slapped and be told that they were fat animals, says Poszar. That type of abuse was “acceptable” in his native Romania, he says, and it apparently was acceptable in the United States too.

Károlyi Ranch, a training facility near Hunstville, Texas, closed in 2018. The Károlyis are no longer USA Gymnastics coaches (Béla retired in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016), and they have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. “Athlete A” includes a clip from a videotaped deposition of Márta Károlyi admitting that she knew about complaints of Nassar’s abuse that was happening at the ranch.

People familiar with Károlyi Ranch describe it as an oppressive, isolated compound where parents weren’t allowed to visit, gymnasts were forbidden to call people outside the ranch (where cell-phone reception was difficult anyway), and people were punished for reporting abuse. The Károlyis, just like everyone else accused of covering up for Nassar, are not interviewed in “Athlete A.”

Giving her perspective on coaching techniques is former U.S. Nationals Team gymnast is Jennifer Sey, author of the 2008 memoir “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Sey, who competed as a gymnast in the 1970s and 1980s, says that coaching methods for female gymnasts haven’t changed much over the years: “You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athletes.”

Sey adds, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” She and other people in the documentary (including Dantzscher) mention something that’s commonly known in the gymnastics world: Gymnasts are often forced to compete with serious injuries, including fractured or broken bones. As an example, “Athlete A” shows Strug’s 1996 Olympic victory, which happened despite her severely injuring her ankle during the last stretch of the Olympic match.

Tracee Talavera, who was on the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics, says she remembers how the Olympic gymnasts from Eastern Europe always looked scared and they never looked happy. Mike Jacki, who was president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994, adds his perspective, by saying that the popularity of Mary Lou Retton and more American female gymnasts starting to win at the Olympics, was the start of USA Gymnastics becoming a bigger business.

“Athlete A” clearly discusses Olympic gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s, as a way to put into context the culture of abuse that enabled Nassar. But this detour into the history of female gymnastics ultimately takes up too much time in the documentary, which should have kept its focus on the Nassar cases.

And for a documentary about the investigation of a sexual abuser who had hundreds of victims, “Athlete A” has a surprising scarcity of interviews from people in the fields of law and law enforcement. Only one personal attorney is interviewed: John Manly, who is Dantzcher’s lawyer. From law enforcement, Michigan State University Police detective lieutenant Andrea Munford and Michigan state assistant attorney Angela Povilaitis are interviewed, and they describe their involvements in the Nassar case. (Again, nothing new is revealed here.)

“Athlete A” also includes the expected news archival footage of the survivor impact statements that were read during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearings, after he pleaded guilty to numerous charges. Denhollander and Dantzscher were among the survivors who read their statements while a shamed Nassar sat in the courtroom. Maggie Nichols did not attend these hearings, but her mother Gina read Maggie’s statement in court. “Athlete A” does not have interviews with Nassar’s most famous survivors, including Olympic gold-medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney.

Former USA Gymnastics president/CEO Penny was arrested in 2018 on charges of  evidence tampering. His criminal case is pending, as of this writing. Video footage of his arrest is included in “Athlete A.”

But in an apparent myopic zeal to make Penny look like the top evil overlord of covering up for Nassar, “Athlete A” oversimplifies and overlooks the fact that a cover-up of this magnitude and length wasn’t just orchestrated by mainly one person. “Athlete A” fails to mention two of the toxic enablers who were given some scrutiny in “At the Heart of Gold”: John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach). Geddert is under criminal investigation, as of this writing.* In February 2020, Klages was convicted of two counts (one felony and one misdemeanor) of lying to police.

There have been other people who’ve been accused of actively covering up for Nassar’s crimes, including former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in 2018. In 2019, Simon was charged with lying to the police, but in May 2020, those charges were dismissed. In 2018, Scott Blackmun resigned as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That same year, Alan Ashley was fired as U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance over his involvement in the Nassar scandal. Simon, Blackmun and Ashley are not mentioned in “Athlete A” or in “At the Heart of Gold.”

“Athlete A'” does mention Rhonda Faehn, who was a USA Gymnastics vice president at the time that Maggie Nichols filed her complaint against Nassar, but Faehn did not go to police with the complaint. In yet another example of omitting information, “Athlete A” never mentions what happened to Faehn: She testified against Nassar in 2018 in grand-jury proceedings, then she was hired by the University of Michigan in 2019 (and then fired after one day, due to public backlash), and later that year, Faehn was given a temporary job as an international team coach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Australia.

“Athlete A” certainly has good intentions to put the spotlight on the serious issue of abuse, as it pertains to American female gymnasts. However, the documentary ultimately just recycles information that other people already reported. The documentary’s interviews are compelling, but the filmmakers’ lack of original investigative reporting and omission of crucial details are ultimately a letdown for this important subject matter.

Netflix premiere “Athlete A” on May 24, 2020.

*UPDATE: John Geddert committed suicide on February 25, 2021, the same day that he was indicted on 24 counts of abuse-related crimes, including human trafficking and sexual assault.

Review: ‘Parkland Rising,’ starring David Hogg, Manuel Oliver, Rebecca Boldrick Hogg, Kevin Hogg, Ryan Deitsch, Aly Sheehy and Ronit Reoven

June 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

March for Our Lives activists in “Parkland Rising” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Parkland Rising”

Directed by Cheryl Horner McDonough

Culture Representation: Taking place in Parkland, Florida, and various other U.S. cities, the documentary “Parkland Rising” has a racially diverse group of activists (white, black, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: People affected by the mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School band together for activism against gun violence, but they face harsh opposition from National Rifle Association (NRA) supporters and other people who don’t want current U.S. gun laws changed.

Culture Audience: “Parkland Rising” will confirm the beliefs of the people who agree with this activism, while people opposed won’t change their minds or might have some misconceptions dispelled about these activists.

Patricia Paduay Oliver, David Hogg and Manuel Oliver in “Parkland Rising” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

There have now been several documentary films made about how people affiliated with Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, have been coping with the tragedy of the mass murder that killed 17 people at the school on February 14, 2018. It’s understandable if some people might get all of these documentaries confused, and these documentaries (which are all independent films) will inevitably be compared to each other.

Before this review gets into discussing “Parkland Rising,” here’s a brief summary of the Parkland tragedy documentaries that have been completed so far:

“Parkland: Inside Building 12” (directed by Charlie Minn and released in 2018) has a step-by-step timeline account of the shooting spree, and the film includes interviews with the some of the survivors.

“After Parkland” (directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman and released in 2019) focuses on a small group of students and some of their parents, to show how the tragedy affected them. Although activism for stricter gun control (including the formation of the activist group Never Again MSD) and school safety are mentioned and shown, the film is mainly centered on the film subjects’ lives in Parkland after the tragedy. (For example, what it was like for the students to attend their high school prom a few months after the shooting.)

“Parkland Rising” (directed by Cheryl Horner McDonough and released in 2020) takes a deep dive into chronicling the activism of the Parkland students, parents and supporters. There’s a lot of footage of what happened during the 2018 Never Again MSD tour across the United States.

“Us Kids” (directed by Kim A. Snyder) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and the film does not have a distributor or release date yet, as of this writing. “Us Kids” is also about the activism, but it focuses only on the students, not the parents or other authority figures.

“After Parkland,” “Parkland Rising” and “Us Kids” also cover the March for Our Lives event on March 24, 2018. The event, which was organized largely by Parkland survivors, had its flagship rally in Washington, D.C., but there were hundreds of other March for Our Lives rallies around the world that were part of the event.

Some of the same people are prominently featured in “After Parkland” and “Parkland Rising,” such as student activists David Hogg and Sam Zeiff; Manuel Oliver and Patricia Paduay Oliver, the parents of slain student Joaquin Oliver; and Rebecca Boldrick Hogg, who is David Hogg’s mother.

People interviewed in “Parkland Rising” also include Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was among those murdered in the shooting; Ronit Reoven, a psychology teacher at the school, who’s shown in the documentary leading a support group for student survivors; and David Hogg’s father, Kevin Hogg, a former FBI agent who is his son’s unofficial bodyguard and safety advisor.

“Parkland Rising” also includes footage of life at the high school after the mass murder. Teacher/yearbook advisor Sarah Lerner is shown with some students as they put together the school’s yearbook that includes tributes to the slain students. There are also separate commentaries from students in psychology teacher Reoven’s support group, including Danielle Gilbert, Morgan Williams, Elizabeth Stout, Amanda Lee and Stephanie DeOliveira.

Zeiff and Aly Sheehy (one of the more prominent Parkland student activists) are shown griping about the school’s new rule of prohibiting any backpacks that are not see-through. Sheehy calls it a “band-aid” to the problem. Zeiff holds up his cluttered see-through backpack and asks, “Do you know for certain that I don’t have a knife in here?” He adds, “It’s embarrassing that our school has to go through this. I definitely don’t think any young people were involved in this decision … We’re waiting for real change.”

One of the best things that “Parkland Rising” does that “After Parkland” does not is show how this activism does not exist in a bubble. “Parkland Rising” includes footage of a lot of raw and often angry reactions from people on the other side of the debate over gun laws. It’s what makes “Parkland Rising” a much more comprehensive film than “After Parkland,” because gun laws are a very emotional and divisive topic in the United States. “Parkland Rising” doesn’t sugarcoat or ignore that controversy at all.

“Parkland Rising” includes footage of opposition to the goals of Never Again MSD and similar groups. That opposition is shown as coming out in various ways—cyberbullying and death threats; counter-protestors or angry bystanders who try to shout down the Parkland activists during rallies and media appearances; and NRA supporters who have civil discussions with the activists.

For example, the documentary shows that every time David Hogg goes out in public, he can get praise or insults within seconds of each other in the same place. “Parkland Rising” chronicles a Never Again MSD boycott demonstration at a Publix supermarket in Florida, to protest Publix’s financial support of NRA advocate Adam Puth, a Republican who was running for governor of Florida in 2018. The protesters planned to do a “Die-In at Publix” demonstration, by lying down as a group in the supermarket, to symbolize and commemorate the people who’ve died because of gun violence.

While doing TV interviews outside the store before the protest, David Hogg (one of the most recognizable of the Parkland shooting survivors) is loudly heckled by angry white men. One of the hecklers chants while standing near his car in a nearby parking lot, “God bless America! NRA!” Another shouts from his car on the street, before speeding off: “Fuck you, David Hogg, you fucking bitch!” David Hogg wryly responds to the camera, “It means I’m doing something right.”

During another media interview, David Hogg is surrounded by TV camera people, and his father Kevin hovers protectively nearby. Kevin explains that when he accompanies his son to these types of public appearances, he’s always checking the hands of the people around David, to make sure that none of them will suddenly pull out a weapon.

During this public appearance, a middle-age male video blogger heckled David Hogg and shouted an accusation that David was being paid by billionaire George Soros, a high-profile contributor to Democratic politician campaigns. David Hogg replies to the heckler, “Dude, who the fuck is George Soros?”

David Hogg was a senior in high school when the shooting happened. At a time when many kids are worried about where they’re going to go to school or work after they graduate from high school, David Hogg and other Parkland students who became activists have to worry about death threats. The documentary shows this harsh reality and how it can take a toll on these young people and their parents.

Rebecca Boldrick Hogg, David Hogg’s mother comments in the documentary: “I’m not surprised that David’s become an activist, because he’s pretty much been an activist his entire life … My husband and daughter [Lauren] and I are the same way. That’s pretty much how we roll.”

She adds that since the mass murder, there’s been a change in David’s personality. She describes David as a “fun person,” but that people don’t see that side of him now because he’s been so “angry “since the shooting. The Hogg family also had install an elaborate security system for the home because of the death threats and other threats of violence.

Later in the documentary,  Kevin Hogg says of his children and other student activists: “I’m proud of them, but I’m sorry for what they have to go through at that age. I wish I could just put all that BS in the cabinet and let them live their years at the high school.”

His wife Rebecca adds: “I always wanted my kids to have—and they joke about this—the John Hughes high school experience, like the teen movies when I was a kid. And then, the shooting happened. I don’t there’s ‘typical’ anything anymore.”

Although the Parkland activists such as David Hogg admit that the bullying and violent threats can take a toll, they make it clear in the documentary that the changes they are fighting for mean much more to them than any threats, and that everything they’re doing to help their agenda for gun safety is worth the risk. Jaclyn Corin, one of the Parkland student activists, says that after the shooting: “My initial reaction was to get political. People were like, ‘This [political activism] isn’t going to work.’ Oh yeah, it is.”

Several times throughout the film, the activists have to reiterate that they are not against the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), and they’re not about taking away people’s legally owned guns. In fact, many of the activists come from families who believe in owning guns. David Hogg’s mother Rebecca says, “We always had guns in our house.” But she admits, “Before the shooting, we never really talked about gun control.”

March for Our Lives co-founder Ryan Deitsch says that Never Again MSD has five main goals: (1) Repeal the Dickey Amendment to allow Centers for Disease Control research for gun violence; (2) Digitize records for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (also known as ATF), which currently keeps records on paper; (3) Ban high-capacity magazines for guns; (4) Implement universal background checks for gun buyers; (5) Ban assault weapons for private owners.

Out of all the parents of the murdered children, Manuel Oliver is perhaps the most visible and the most involved in getting media coverage for this activism. Several of the Parkland student have given him the affection name Tío Manny, which is Spanish for Uncle Manny. A Venezuelan immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen, Oliver is a visual artist who has done murals in various U.S. cities to commemorate his son Joaquin and other victims of the Parkland shooting. After Joaquin’s death, Manuel launched the nonprofit activist foundation Change the Ref, whose purpose is more gun safety and to empower future leaders who believe in this cause.

The documentary’s moments with Manuel Oliver and his family (including wife Patricia Paduay Oliver and Joaquin’s older sister Andrea Ghersi) are among the most emotionally powerful and unforgettable, especially when they have visceral reminders of Joaquin. Before leaving for a trip, he breaks down and cries as he listens to “Thinkin Bout You” from Frank Ocean, who was Joaquin’s favorite artist.

Manuel Oliver shares his philosophy on how he’s been coping with his son’s tragic death and how to handle the pushback against his activism: “I think the one main thing is to stay away from hate.” He says that he believes that Joaquin in heaven, and that his goal as a father is to do what is necessary to get to heaven. “I cannot risk the chance to be with Joaquin again.”

David Hogg praises Manuel Oliver by saying, “It’s amazing to see how the amount of love and compassion this man can have after such tragedy occurred.” Manuel Oliver says what keeps him motivated in his activism after experiencing the aftermath of the shooting: “I don’t want any other kids to feel the same nightmare, or any other parent to go through this.”

One of the standout segments in the film is showing how the Never Again MSD activists participated in a protest at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, on August 4, 2018—what would have been Joaquin Oliver’s 18th birthday. Manuel Oliver gives a heartbreaking speech. And the approximately 1,000 activists easily outnumber the counter-protesters, who numbered about 40.

Vikiana Petit-Homme, a teenage executive director of March for Our Lives Boston, comments on the counter-protesters: “My problem with counter-protesters is … they don’t come to get anything out of it, other than to yell and scream and a bunch of kids. I know I’m on the right side of history on this one. I don’t think they can say the same.”

Guttenberg, one of the parents of a slain Parkland student, says in a separate interview: “The NRA creates this aura of this large, scary, massive group of people who are not affected by your loss and are going to punish you. And the majority is bullshit. They’re just people who buy into the delusional lie that when you say two words together—”gun safety”—that you are automatically going to be an anti-Second Amendment coming to take their guns … What’s different about Parkland is that not only are none of us shutting up, if they push at us, we come back harder.”

There are also some celebrity cameos in the film. Jennifer Hudson and Chance the Rapper are shown rallying with protesters during a March for Our Lives event in Chicago., one of the executive producers of “Parkland Rising, is seen performing at another event. (Katie Couric, another executive producer of “Parkland Rising,” is not in the film.)

Several times during the filming of the movie, there were more mass shootings in the United States. The activists are shown reacting to this sad and tragic news. At one point in the documentary, there’s a harrowing montage list of mass shootings that occurred in the U.S. while the film was being made. It’s an effective way of showing how the crisis of gun violence has gotten worse, and it’s an issue that goes far beyond what is in this documentary.

“Parkland Rising” is undoubtedly sympathetic to the activists’ agenda, but director Horner McDonough does an admirable job of presenting the good, bad and ugly sides of this activism. Other documentaries might have put politicians in the film to give the perspectives of people who can make or revise these gun laws, but “Parkland Rising” wisely chose to keep the film focused on Parkland people and their supporters who are trying to make a change on a grassroots level. And really, if people need to see politicians talk about their stances on gun laws, there are plenty of other places to watch these politicians’ canned speeches. As David Hogg says at the end of the film about the activists’ goals: “This is a long fight, but the fight continues.”

Abramorama released “Parkland Rising” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 5, 2020.

2020 IDCon: Investigation Discovery’s annual fan event goes online-only with IDCon: Home Together

May 8, 2020

Joe Kenda (Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery)

The following is a press release from Investigation Discovery:

ID’s beloved fan engagement event, IDCON, is going virtual for 2020 with IDCON: HOME TOGETHER. For the first time ever, ID fans are welcome to pour their favorite beverage, cuddle up with their cat and join ID for a network fan event that takes you behind the scenes of your favorite TV channel – right from the comfort of your own couch. This year will focus on keeping us all safe at home together, while still offering the chance to interact with ID’s stars. Attendees will be encouraged to ask their burning fan questions and will be treated to surprises, activations and special guest appearances throughout the two-hour event. Additionally, attendees will receive sneak peeks of upcoming programming for the network’s exclusive true-crime programming event, ID PRESENTS: NINE AT 9, kicking off on Memorial Day and featuring premium headline-making cases at 9 p.m. ET every night. ID Addicts can join the fifth annual IDCON: HOME TOGETHER on Zoom on Thursday, May 21 from 6-8 p.m. ETsign up at IDCON2020. In lieu of an attendance fee, ID is encouraging donations to nonprofit organizations that we support at the channel, including: the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) , and  One Love.

“Connectivity is something we’re all longing for right now, and we know how devoted our ID Addicts are to our network and stars,” said Henry Schleiff, Group President, Investigation Discovery, Travel Channel, Destination America and American Heroes Channel. “For the past five years, fans have come to us in New York City and now, as a special treat during these trying times, we are coming to all of you. No lines. No sold-out venue – just the ID stars you love, the true crime content you crave, and you, from the comfort of your own home.”

IDCON: HOME TOGETHER will consist of four sessions running from 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, May 21st, and is scheduled to go until 8 p.m. ET. The session schedule is as follows:


Join crusaders of justice John Walsh and Callahan Walsh as they discuss their careers in crime-fighting and the meaningful work that they do on “In Pursuit with John Walsh.” The series alone, which relies on help from an active and engaged audience, in its past two seasons has helped bring 15 featured fugitives to justice and five missing children home. The Walshes will also discuss the inspiring work that they do with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and how their work keeps Adam Walsh’s legacy alive. Discussion will be moderated by SVP of production at ID Sara Kozak.


Take an inside look at how the justice system works through three unique perspectives – retired homicide detective Chris Anderson (“Reasonable Doubt”), former New York prosecutor Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi (“True Conviction”), and criminal defense attorney Fatima Silva (“Reasonable Doubt”). What cases are they following now?  How is the justice system adapting to change? How common are wrongful convictions?  How is self-isolation changing the crimes committed today?  Join ID for a conversation about convictions of the past and crimes of the present. Moderated by CBS’ “48 Hours” correspondent Maureen Maher.


These are the stories that make headlines. The cases you think you know, but never really do. Join our panel of expert crime reporters, legal analyst Ashleigh Banfield, crime journalist Diane Dimond, and psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig, as they discuss famous crimes that always seem to pose more questions than answers. From the purported suicide of Jeffrey Epstein to the suspicious death of Hollywood starlet Brittany Murphy, this is a discussion you won’t want to miss – and you won’t have to leave your own home to get the scoop. Moderated by Pamela Deutsch, Vice President of production for the “ID Mystery” franchise.


After 9 seasons and 142 episodes, it’s time to see a new type of Joe! Fans of the long-running hit “Homicide Hunter” were devastated to hear that the series had come to an end this past January. But with a brand-new series coming to ID later this year, we have not seen the last of Joe Kenda. Fans are invited to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear from Joe himself in the comfort of his own home – and we all know who will be operating the camera behind the scenes and hopefully make a special guest appearance! Fans are encouraged to submit video questions to Joe in advance – he might choose your question to answer in his own signature style! Moderated by Thomas Cutler, Vice President of production for “Homicide Hunter.”

About Investigation Discovery

Investigation Discovery (ID) is the leading crime and justice network on television, delivering the highest-quality programming to approximately 80 million U.S. households. From harrowing crimes to in-depth investigations and heart-breaking mysteries behind these “real people, real stories,” ID is the #1 destination for true crime stories on television. For exclusive web content and bonus material, fans can follow ID on TwitterInstagram and Facebook or check out the network’s true crime content anytime and anywhere through ID’s TV Everywhere offering, IDGO.

Investigation Discovery is part of Discovery, Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK), a global leader in real life entertainment, serving a passionate audience of superfans around the world with content that inspires, informs and entertains. Available in 220 countries and territories and 50 languages, Discovery delivers over 8,000 hours of original programming each year and has category leadership across deeply loved content genres around the world. For additional information about ID, please visit

May 21, 2020 UPDATE: Here is the entire livestream of IDCON: Home Together:

Total running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes

Review: ‘Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story,’ starring Cyntoia Brown, Ellenette Brown, Kathryn Evans Sinback, Paul Bruno, Charles Bone and Georgina Mitchell

April 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Cyntoia Brown and Charles Bone in “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story”

Directed by Daniel H. Birman

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tennessee, this true-crime documentary tells the story of biracial Cyntoia Brown, who was adopted by a working-class black family; was convicted in 2006 of murdering a prostitution customer when she was a teenager; and spent years in a legal system of white prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and psychiatrists.

Culture Clash: Brown and her lawyers filed appeals over the years to have her life sentence reduced, because she claimed that she killed out of self-defense and that she should not have been tried as an adult because the killing happened when she was 16.

Culture Audience: “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” will appeal mostly to people interested in true-crime cases that explore issues over how different legal standards should or should not be applied to criminal defendants who are under the age of 18.

Kathryn Evans Sinback and Cyntoia Brown in “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Filmed from 2004 to 2019, the true-crime documentary “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (directed by Daniel H. Birman) makes it clear from the start that it’s on the side of Nashville native Cyntoia Brown. She shot a man to death in 2004, when she was 16, and was convicted of first-degree murder two years later. Brown claimed the killing was in self-defense.

Her case and its final outcome have received a lot of media attention, so there’s really not much suspense in watching this film, which chronicles her 15-year saga to have her life-in-prison sentence reduced. (And if people don’t know the final outcome of the case, the title of this documentary pretty much gives it away.)

The film (which unfolds in chronological order) includes interview footage from the beginning of Brown’s case in 2004, when she was arrested for murdering real-estate agent Johnny Allen, who hired her for a prostitution encounter in his home. Allen was shot in the back of his head, while lying in bed with his hands clasped in front of him. Brown said she shot him because he threatened her, and she has never wavered from that story in her legal proceedings.

The beginning of the film shows Brown interviewed in juvenile detention, while awaiting trial. The main source of contention in her case was the sentencing she faced if found guilty. Under Tennessee law at the time, an underage person convicted of first-degree murder would get either a prison sentence of life without parole or a prison sentence of 60 years with the possibility of parole after 51 years.

Kathryn Evans Sinback, who was a defense-attorney advocate for Brown from the beginning, fought vigorously to prevent Brown from being transferred from juvenile detention to an adult jail. She lost that battle, but the documentary shows how the psychiatric evaluations of Brown were crucial to her defense. As Evans Sinback says in the film, “My job is to show the judge that Cyntoia is worth saving.” Evans Sinback, who at the time had to represent juveniles in the juvenile court system, was removed from the case when Cyntoia was transferred to the adult court system.

With a lot of up-close access, the documentary shows Brown’s evaluation sessions with forensic psychiatrist William Bernet and forensic psychologist James Walker in the months before she goes to trial. One of her meetings with Walker includes a Robert’s Apperception Test, where a patient is shown a drawing or a picture and asked to tell what they think is the story behind the picture. Her stories, as shown in the film, involve a lot of negative thoughts about betrayal and mistrust.

The teenage Cyntoia Brown reveals in these evaluation sessions that mood swings are very common for her and that she gets angry when she thinks people are trying to control her or tell her what to do. Viewers also are taken inside the meetings that the defense lawyers have to prepare for the trial, which include discussing with Bernet and Walker the results of Brown’s psychiatric evaluations.

Both doctors say that Brown was a very troubled person, with a mindset full of chaos, anger and paranoia. The consensus was that Brown has a serious personality disorder that required therapy in a residential program. But she was on trial for first-degree murder, and this wasn’t a charge that she could get off the hook for with a light sentence.

How did Brown end up in this mess? Although it’s already been covered in her trial and in the media reports about the case, the documentary shows that Brown had a very dysfunctional background. Her biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, came from a family with a history of alcoholism, mental illness and suicidal acts. Mitchell, who also spent time in prison, got pregnant with Cyntoia at the age of 16.

In the documentary, Mitchell says that she abused alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine during the pregnancy. She eventually gave up custody of Cyntoia, because she said she couldn’t handle being a single mother. While still a toddler, Cyntoia was fostered and later adopted by Ellenette Brown (a teacher) and Thomas Brown (a truck driver), who is not interviewed or mentioned in the documentary. It’s implied that Ellenette and Thomas Brown eventually got divorced.

The documentary shows that Mitchell didn’t come back into Cyntoia’s life until after Cyntoia was arrested. Part of the reason was because the defense needed information about Cyntoia’s biological family background to explain why Cyntoia turned out the way that she did. The film also shows Mitchell visiting with her own mother, Joan Warren, because Mitchell says that she wants prove to the filmmakers how “crazy” her mother is and how her mother knows how to “push her buttons.” The two women don’t get into any big arguments on camera, but it’s clear that they have a very tension-filled relationship.

Ellenette, the quintessential fiercely loyal mother, says in the documentary that Cyntoia began to rebel as a teenager. She was expelled from public school, and she was enrolled in an alternative school, where she ran away. Cyntoia eventually dropped out of school, and moved out of her parents’ home. In documentary interviews, Cyntoia admits to being a rebellious drug abuser in her teen years and that she sought the wrong kind of attention, particularly from men.

By the time she was 16 years old, when the crime happened, Cyntoia was living in a motel with what she describes in the documentary as her boyfriend-turned-pimp Gary McGlothen, also known as Kut-Throat or Kut, where they would spend most of their time “getting high and having sex.” Cyntoia says that he pressured her to start prostituting herself, which led to her encounter with Allen, who picked her up from the street and took her back to his place.

According to Cyntoia, it was very unusual for her to go to a customer’s home for a prostitution job, since most of what she did as a prostitute took place in motels. She claims that during the encounter with Allen, she was very nervous because no one else knew that she was there, and he intimidated her because he seemed to be very controlling. She says she got even more frightened when he showed her his guns, but she wasn’t frightened enough to leave, because she was hoping he would fall asleep.

And at one point, when they were in bed together, she claims that Allen reached for what she thought was one of his guns, and that’s when she shot him with a gun that she kept in her purse. Courtroom footage shows that assistant district attorneys Jeff Burke and Lisa A. Naylor put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Allen was shot in the back of the head and then robbed by Cyntoia, as proof that it was first-degree murder. Although Cyntoia never denied that she killed Allen, she and her attorneys couldn’t convince a jury that she acted in self-defense. The jury came back with the guilty verdict in just six hours.

One of the core issues of Cyntoia Brown’s appeals in her case was whether or not Tennessee’s laws were too harsh in how juveniles were judged and sentenced in first-degree murder trials. The documentary also mentions that at the time she was convicted of murder, underage children involved in prostitution were treated the same as adults accused of the same crimes, but the law was eventually changed to classify underage children involved in prostitution as victims of child sexual abuse and/or sex trafficking.

The documentary moves along at a deliberate and meticulous pace, showing the dates and locations of each segment of footage. A great deal of time is devoted to courtroom footage (cameras were allowed in the trial, appeals and parole hearings), as well as interviews with the defense attorneys that Cyntoia has had over the years. In addition to Evans Sinback, Cyntoia’s other defense attorneys who are interviewed include Wendy Tucker and Rich McGee (who were the defense attorneys during the trial) and post-trial attorneys Paul Bruno, Charles Bone and J. Houston Gordon.

One of the major arguments in the defense’s appeal was that Cyntoia’s criminal actions were largely because she had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), due to her biological mother’s abuse of alcohol while she was pregnant with Cyntoia. Studies have shown that FASD negatively affects judgment, and a high percentage of criminals have FASD. Cyntoia’s defense attorneys argued that this was crucial evidence that should have been introduced in her trial.

The documentary includes footage of forensic and criminal psychiatrist Richard Adler testifying during Cyntoia’s appeal that he examined her in 2011 and determined that she had FASD. The state of Tennessee countered with the argument that there was no medical proof (only the word of Cyntoia’s biological mother Mitchell) that Cyntoia was born with damaged health due to Mitchell’s alcohol abuse during the pregnancy.

If the conviction couldn’t be overturned, the defense team had the goal to get Cyntoia’s sentence reduced. The defense argued that Cyntoia, who had gotten a college education in prison, was a model prisoner who had greatly matured and had turned her life around. Cyntoia, her lawyers and many of her other supporters said that she was an example of someone who was rehabilitated and worthy of being let out of prison so that she could be a productive member of society.

A series of occurrences converged to create the circumstances that led to the final outcome of the case. First, and perhaps most importantly, after years of being locked up in prison, Cyntoia’s case got international media attention in 2017, when pop star Rihanna started a social-media campaign to get Cyntoia out of prison. The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral, and other celebrities began publicly supporting the cause, including rapper T.I. and reality TV star Kim Kardashian. These celebrity endorsements were the game-changing catalyst for the case moving forward.

Secondly, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam was leaving office in 2019. He was under pressure to give Cyntoia Brown clemency, as a good-will gesture before leaving office. Whichever side you’re on, the documentary makes it clear that Haslam’s decision had a lot to do with the timing of him leaving office. It’s up to viewers to decide whether or not Haslam’s decision was a political strategy for any future career ambitions he might have.

And what about the dead victim in all of this focus on Cyntoia? The documentary gives less than two minutes of screen time to show Anna Whaley, a family friend of Allen’s, speaking at Cyntoia’s final parole hearing. Whaley says about Cyntoia: “I hope sincerely that God has transformed her life.” She adds, “Johnny’s life mattered.” It’s the only time that the documentary tries to portray Allen as a human being who had a life worth living.

Although the documentary is undoubtedly sympathetic to Cyntoia, it’s clear that her case greatly benefited from celebrities who endorsed her. And although it’s not mentioned at all in the film, you also have to wonder if a lot of people would have cared as much if Cyntoia weren’t an attractive, photogenic young woman. Preston Shipp, a former Tennessee appellate prosecutor who changed his mind about Cyntoia serving out her life sentence and testified on her behalf during a parole hearing, seems to almost have a mild crush on her, by calling her “luminous” in his testimony.

The reality is that for every Cyntoia Brown, there are numerous other people in similar circumstances who don’t have the benefit of media attention or celebrity advocates for their cases. The media and celebrity attention definitely fast-tracked the final outcome of the Cyntoia Brown case. Otherwise, she would probably still be in prison, and director Birman would still be filming this documentary.

Although “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” rightfully gives credit to the defense team that didn’t give up, the documentary could have been a little more honest (and more interesting) if it explored how celebrity connections to fame, power and wealth can profoundly affect the outcome of a criminal case. In that respect, Cyntoia Brown isn’t quite the underdog that the documentary wants her to be by the end of the film.

Netflix premiered “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” on April 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Bad Education,’ starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney

April 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in “Bad Education” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/HBO)

“Bad Education” (2020)

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on Long Island, New York, and partially in Las Vegas, the drama “Bad Education” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Indian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, the movie tells the story of corrupt administrators and their accomplices, who embezzled an estimated $11 million from the school district of Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York.

Culture Audience: “Bad Education” will appeal primarily to Hugh Jackman fans and people who like dramas based on true crime.

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in “Bad Education” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Bad Education” follows many familiar tonal beats of true-crime movies, but the riveting performances of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney elevate what could have been a somewhat mediocre film. Based on true events that happened in 2002, “Bad Education” portrays the investigation that led to the downfalls of several people involved in an embezzlement/fraud scam that stole an estimated $11 million over several years from the high-school district in the upscale suburban city of Roslyn, New York. It’s said to be the largest prosecuted embezzlement in the history of American public schools.

The two people at the center of the crimes against Roslyn High School are school superintendent Frank Tassone (played by Jackman) and assistant superintendent/business manager Pam Glucklin (played by Janney), who work closely together and also cover up for each other. As it’s eventually revealed in the movie, they cared about more than just increasing the prestige level of Roslyn High School, the high-ranking  jewel in their school-administration crown. They also cared a great deal about increasing their personal wealth using illegally obtained school funds, mostly by billing the district for lavish trips, homes, cars and other personal expenses.

In the beginning of the film, which is effectively bookmarked with a similar scene at the end of the film, Frank is introduced like a rock star at a school assembly, which has gathered to celebrate Roslyn High School’s achievement of ranking at No. 4 in the U.S. for being the highest academically achieving high school. The school has reached this level under Frank’s leadership, and his goal is to elevate Roslyn High School to No. 1.

Frank’s friendly charm and winning smile have made him very popular with his co-workers, parents and students. By contrast, Pam has a prickly and dismissive personality, but her strong alliance with Frank has given her a lot of clout in the school district. Their boss is school board president Bob Spicer (played by Ray Romano), who is Frank’s biggest champion.

One of the school’s goals is a skywalk proposal, which would build a multimillion-dollar skywalk bridge to link the school from end to end. A bright and inquisitive student named Rachel Bhargava (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) is tasked with doing an article about the skywalk for Roslyn High School’s newspaper, The Beacon. At first, when she does a very brief interview with Frank for the article, she thinks it’s going to be a boring puff piece.

Rachel thinks so little of the assignment that she even tells Frank that it will be a puff piece. His response: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece. A real journalist can turn an assignment into a story.” It’s unknown if the real Frank Tassone ever said those words to any of the real student reporters of The Beacon who broke the news of the embezzlement scandal, but those words will come back to haunt Frank in this movie.

While preparing the article, Rachel needs to get some facts and statistics about the skywalk construction proposal bids that the school district received from contractors. She has to get permission from Pam to access those documents, which are in a very cluttered storage area of the school. While Frank was accommodating and gracious in giving his time to Rachel, Pam is impatient and condescending when talking to Rachel for the article. Pam gives Rachel the room key to access the requested documents, but warns her that the area is so messy and disorganized that it will be challenging for her to find the paperwork that she’s seeking.

The storage area turns out to have a treasure trove of documents that Rachel’s assigning editor Nick Fleischman (played by Alex Wolff) happens to notice when he accidentally knocks some of the papers out of her backpack when he impatiently tries to stop her while walking down a school hallway. (It’s one of those moments in the movie that probably didn’t happen in real life, but was fabricated for dramatic purposes.)

Nick thinks she may be on to a big story, so Rachel finds out through further investigation that the documents have a lot of proof that invoices charging a fortune have been billed to the school district, but many of the companies listed on the invoices don’t exist. Rachel gets help from her father David Bhargava (played by Hari Dhillon) in doing the grunt work of making calls to investigate the legitimacy of companies that are listed on the school invoices.

Why does Rachel’s father have that much free time on his hands? In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that he lost his job because of accusations that he was involved with insider trading. In the midst of investigating corruption at her own school, Rachel at one point asks her father if he really was guilty of insider trading. His answer serves to telegraph Rachel’s decision to report what she’s found out.

What happens next has a domino effect that exposes elaborate, longtime schemes orchestrated by Frank and Pam. Because of this high-profile case, many viewers might already know about the outcome. However, screenwriter Mike Makowsky (a Roslyn native who graduated from high school seven years after the scandal) and director Cory Finley infuse the movie with enough suspense and sly comedy to make it a slightly better-than-average telling of a crime story.

“Bad Education” takes a sometimes sardonic look at how manipulative and cunning Frank was in covering up his crimes. He was a man of many faces—literally, since his vanity facelifts and meticulous application of makeup are shown in the movie—and many secrets, which he covered up with a web of lies that eventually unraveled. Even in his personal life (Frank was a closeted gay man), he deceived the people who were closest to him. The movie is also a takedown of the weak-willed enablers who knew about the corruption, but were complicit in covering it up because they didn’t want to lose their jobs and they wanted to keep up the appearance that they had an ideal school district.

Frank also mastered the art of deflection, so that when he was under scrutiny, he was able to turn it around on potential accusers to make them afraid of getting in trouble for not detecting the problem earlier. He also used, to his advantage, the administration’s fixation on increasing the prestige of Roslyn High School, which tied into many administrators’ ulterior motives of raising the property values in Roslyn too.

Janney doesn’t have as much screen time as Jackman does, but she makes the most of characterizing Pam as being more than just a selfish and greedy shrew. The movie shows how she was generous to a fault in sharing her illegally funded wealth with her family. That generosity would turn out to be her downfall, since she allowed certain family members to use school credit cards to fund their lavish personal spending. The family members who were also part of the widespread scam included Pam’s husband Howard Gluckin (played by Ray Abruzzo); Jim Boy McCarden (played by Jimmy Tatro), her son from a previous marriage; and her co-worker niece Jenny Aquila (played by Annaleigh Ashford), who relies on Pam for financial help.

All of these family members are dimwitted in some way—they didn’t do much to hide their identities in the paper trail that exposed their crimes—but Jenny is portrayed as particularly loathsome. At one point in the movie, even after some of the crimes were exposed, Jenny tries to take over her aunt/benefactor Pam’s job at the school. Jenny also makes a pathetic and botched attempt to blackmail Frank, who quickly puts Jenny in her place and reminds her that she’s no match for him and his devious manipulations.

When Pam’s world starts to unravel, Janney uses subtle cues in showing how this character’s carefully constructed façade starts to crumble, as her perfectly posh, enunicated English starts to give way to a very working-class Long Island accent. Pam is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that she makes the mistake of being too loyal to Frank when things start to crash down on them.

“Bad Education” is a very Hollywood version of a seedy true crime story. In real life, none of the people were as glamorous-looking as the actors who portray them in the movie—although, in real life, the embezzlers spent money as if they were Hollywood celebrities. The movie accurately shows that people got away with crimes of this length and magnitude because they were able to fool others by having a “respectable” image. The ending scene effectively illustrates that Frank’s inflated ego and arrogance led him to believe that he was a legend in his own mind—and the results were reckless crimes that destroyed school finances, careers and people’s trust.

HBO premiered “Bad Education” on April 25, 2020.

Review: ‘A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy,’ starring Dana DeKalb, Christopher Worth, Zipporah Lomax, Nusheen Bakhtiar, Shonda Jones, Dontay Davis and Octavio Choi

April 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy.” Pictured from left to right: Ciera Hart, Jeremiah Hart, Abigail Hart, Devonte Hart, Hannah Hart and Markis Hart. (Photo courtesy of 1091 Media)

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy”

Directed by Rachel Morgan

Culture Representation: This true-crime documentary—about a white American lesbian couple who committed murder and suicide by driving themselves and their six black/racially mixed kids off of a cliff in 2018—interviews a diverse group of people, including friends of the couple; some of the children’s family members; and various people with knowledge about the tragedy.

Culture Clash: The lesbian couple—Jennifer and Sarah Hart—had a long history of allegedly abusing the children, but were able to fool people into letting them keep custody of the kids.

Culture Audience: “A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy” will appeal primarily to people interested in true-crime stories and real-life examples of the deep systemic flaws in America’s child-welfare system.

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy.” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Markis Hart, Sarah Hart and Jennifer Hart. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ciera Hart, Jeremiah Hart, Abigail Hart, Devonte Hart and Hannah Hart. (Photo courtesy of 1091 Media)

The disturbing documentary “A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy” examines what led up to the tragedy of two mothers driving themselves and their six adopted children off of a cliff in Mendocino County, California, on March 28, 2018. Although the film (directed by Rachel Morgan) does not uncover anything new (the story has been extensively covered by the media), the documentary gives some insight into how people can be fooled by superficial images on social media.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who were both 38 at the time of their deaths, were a married lesbian couple who adopted six children whose biological parents no longer had rights to them. The children were two sets of biological siblings. Adopted first, in 2006, were racially mixed biological siblings Markis (born on July 1, 1998), Hannah (born on February 25, 2002) and Abigail (born on December 26, 2003), who had the same mother. In 2008, the Harts adopted their next set of biological siblings, who were all African American with the same biological mother: Devonte (born on October 24, 2002), Jeremiah (born on February 24, 2004) and Ciera (born on April 20, 2005), who sometimes had her named spelled as Sierra.

All of the children came from Texas. Tammy Scheurich—the biological mother of Markis, Hannah and Abigail—voluntarily relinquished her parental rights because she spent time in prison. Scheurich has a brief audio interview in the documentary, where she says: “When they took my children, I went into a deep depression.” She explained her decision to give up her kids: “I tried to make the most unselfish decision for the children.”

Sherry Hurd—the biological mother of Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera—is not interviewed, but several court records shown in the documentary indicate that she lost custody of the kids because of her drug addiction. The biological fathers of all six children were unable to take custody of the kids. Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera were living with an aunt named Priscilla Celestine (a sister of their biological father), who then lost custody of the three kids for reasons that are not stated in the documentary. (According to news reports and court records, it was because Celestine violated a court order not to let the kids be around their biological mother.) And that’s how the three kids ended up being adopted by Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who were living in Minnesota at the time.

Shonda Jones, a family attorney in Houston who was involved in the Celestine case, says in the documentary that the court’s decision to yank the children from the custody of their aunt was abrupt, unfair and cruel. She gets emotional when talking about how Celestine (who’s not interviewed in the documentary) wasn’t given a real chance to fight for custody of the kids.

Meanwhile, Hurd’s stepson Dontay Davis talks about how, because of his own legal problems, he wasn’t allowed to see his stepsiblings because he was told that he was a “bad influence” on them. Nathaniel Davis (who’s identified in the movie as a stepfather of Devonte, Jeremiah and Dontay) says in the documentary that once kids end up in the child-welfare system, “they’re lost.”

After adopting the kids, the Harts lived in Minnesota, then Oregon, and finally in Washington state, where they moved in 2017. They were investigated for child abuse by child-protective services in all three states, beginning in 2008, with reports saying that the children showed signs of being beaten and deliberately starved. In 2010, when the family lived in Minnesota, Sarah was also arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic assault and malicious punishment of a child. She pleaded guilty, was fined $385, and given a 90-day sentence, which was later stayed, and she was put on supervised probation for one year. Abigail later told people that Jennifer was the one who caused most of the abuse, but Sarah took the blame for it.

The documentary (whose total running time is just 57 minutes) gives almost most no information about the two women’s backgrounds, such as how they met and what their own family upbringings were like. The film also has no investigation into why Jennifer and Sarah Hart were able to adopt six children in such a short period of time when it’s hard enough for people to adopt one child. What the documentary also doesn’t mention is that after Sarah Hart’s arrest, the children were home-schooled, with Jennifer as the stay-at-home-mother, while Sarah was the one who worked outside of the home in low-income retail jobs.

Also not mentioned in the movie: Both women were college-educated and majored in elementary education. It’s a sad fact that they went to college to become teachers for children, considering all the abuse that they were accused of inflicting on their own kids. As for how Jennifer and Sarah Hart were getting money to raise six kids, it came mostly from the state of Texas. That’s an important fact that should have been mentioned in the film because it shows that the Harts were raising their family mostly through government funds from a state that clearly did not keep track of or was not notified about the child-abuse allegations.

The relatives of Jennifer and Sarah Hart are not interviewed in the documentary, but several of their friends are. They all claim that they only saw a happy family and were shocked to hear about the murder-suicide tragedy. The documentary doesn’t really explain how long these friends of the Harts knew the family, but what’s clear is that all the friends were deceived into thinking that the Harts had a loving home. It’s also why they initially couldn’t believe that the car crash was a murder-suicide.

Christopher Worth, one of the family friends, described the children this way: “They were all one big hug. No pretense, no dishonesty” and that they were “completely full of effervescent, intoxicating love.” However, he admits that Jennifer (or Jen, as her friends called her) “didn’t really anticipate what she signed up for” in adopting six kids, and she sometimes seemed overwhelmed.

Other family friends who give their perspectives include Nusheen Bakhtiar, Zipporah Lomax, Riannah Weaver, Dan Corey and sisters Amanda and Jennifer Price, who all say the same thing: They saw no signs of abuse. There’s also an interview with Sharyn Babitt, who’s described as an “online gaming friend” of Jennifer Hart, who spent at least one or two hours a day playing online games. And there’s an interview with Brittini New, who used to work with Sarah at a Kohl’s store where Sarah was a manager. According to New, Sarah was very quiet and almost never talked about her kids when Sarah was at work.

Based on these interviews, a picture emerges of Jennifer and Sarah Hart being very different behind closed doors in their home, compared to the way they presented themselves to the rest of the world. They isolated their family until it was time for them to go to public events, such as music festivals and rallies, where they would pose for staged family photos and videos. It’s implied, but not explicitly stated, that the people who call themselves “family friends” of the Harts knew them mostly from these social events, not from frequently visiting the Hart family home.

Jennifer was the more dominant, abusive mother, while Sarah was the more passive, quieter person in the relationship. Based on what the children told some people, Sarah is described as someone who initially tried to stop Jennifer from abusing the kids, but then eventually Sarah tolerated the abuse. And although the family friends interviewed in this film say that they didn’t know about any abuse allegations against the Harts, some of them were aware that Jennifer expressed feelings of anger and depression about being a mother. However, the family friends assumed that they were normal, temporary feelings that all parents feel sometimes when they’re frustrated with their kids.

To the outside world, Jennifer and Sarah Hart were politically progressive liberals who would bring their kids to Black Lives Matter rallies and other events for social-justice issues. The Harts also liked to go to music festivals—many of the friends interviewed in the film are definitely neo-hippie/musician types. And the Harts posted numerous photos and videos on social media (the documentary includes many of these images), that showed that they had a seemingly loving and happy family. Unfortunately, these images were all part of an elaborate façade.

Dana DeKalb, who was the Harts’ closest neighbor in Woodland, Washington, gives the most compelling interview in the documentary. She describes how Devonte would come over to her home, sometimes multiple times a day, and ask her to give him food. Over time, he began to ask for more food and became more specific about what he wanted, but he begged her not to tell his mothers that he was getting food from her.

Eventually, DeKalb called child-protective services, which had a pending investigation against the Harts at the time of the murder-suicide. Some people speculate in the documentary that the Harts killed themselves and their children because the ongoing CPS investigation in Washington state would have uncovered information that would have led to the Harts being fully exposed as child abusers and they would have lost custody of the kids.

Even more harrowing than Devonte begging for food was an incident involving oldest daughter Hannah. DeKalb said that the first time she knew something was wrong in the Hart household was when late one night, she was awoken by a very distressed Hannah at her door. The child burst into the home and pleaded for help, by asking DeKalb to hide her from Jennifer and Sarah, whom Hannah described as “abusive and racist.” DeKalb says that she was in shock while Hannah hid in a room and while she could hear Jennifer, Sarah and the other kids outside looking for her.

Eventually, the Hart family members found Hannah hiding in the house, and Jennifer made the child leave with the family. In the documentary, DeKalb also reads an apology note that she received the next day. The note was written and signed by Hannah, but it sounds like it was dictated by an adult. In the note, Hannah says that she was sorry for the disturbance, but she was emotionally upset because of her siblings and also sad that the family had recently lost their two cats.

However, the incident with Hannah was so disturbing that DeKalb’s father, Steve Frkovich, called 911 (part of the phone call is played in the film) to report suspected child abuse in the Hart home. DeKalb tears up with emotion when she remembers that Devonte later confessed to her that what Hannah said that night was true, but Devonte implored DeKalb not to tell anyone that he told her that.

The documentary shows that DeKalb, more than the “family friends” of the Harts, comes across as the most aware that the kids needed help. And this observant and concerned neighbor also wasn’t blinded by superficial images that Jennifer and Sarah Hart put on social media. Although the film has plenty of the staged “happy family” photos and videos, there’s one heartbreaking photo that clearly shows a shirtless Devonte and Jeremiah looking emaciated with strange marks on their bodies. It’s not stated in the documentary if this photo was ever posted on social media, but it would have been enough evidence to put the kids in protective custody if their abuse had been properly investigated.

Devonte, who’s described as the “star” of the family because he was the most charismatic and sensitive of the six kids, briefly experienced fame in 2014, because of a photo of him that went viral. The photo shows Devonte, with tears streaming down his face, hugging Sergeant Bret Barman of the Portland Police Department in Oregon during a rally protesting the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting of Michael Brown.

Because the photo became a viral sensation, the Harts experienced overnight fame, but got extreme reactions (admiration and hate) as a result. Some of the family friends in the documentary try to place some of the blame on social media for the murder-suicide tragedy, by claiming that the negative attention caused Jennifer to go into a downward spiral. But it’s a weak argument, because there were clearly major problems in the family long before they became semi-famous through social media.

Speaking of haters on social media, DeKalb said that some of the Harts’ family friends (whom she does not name) targeted her for hate on social media when they found out that her family had reported the suspected abuse of the Hart kids. DeKalb says that she was accused of being racist and homophobic by these friends of the Harts. Jennifer and Sarah Hart reportedly used these type of bigotry accusations to their advantage, in order to deflect scrutiny when people questioned their parenting skills. It might explain why they never lost custody of the kids, despite growing accusations that the Harts were abusive to the children.

Octavio Choi, a child psychiatrist who didn’t know the Harts, is interviewed in the documentary, and he warns people not to use “perfectly curated” images on social media as a way to judge how people really are, because those images are often not reality or they don’t tell the whole story. The documentary’s coverage of the police investigation in the car crash relies heavily on archival footage of a press conference given by California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates. After the investigation, the case was officially ruled a murder-suicide.

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy,” although it has several interviews and is an absorbing documentary, doesn’t really uncover anything new or insightful into how the system failed these children. There’s no mention if the filmmakers tried to contact any of the social workers who were involved in investigating the abuse claims. And there’s absolutely no explanation for why Jennifer and Sarah were able to continue to get a lot of government funding from Texas to raise these adopted kids when they weren’t even living in Texas anymore and apparently weren’t accountable to the child-welfare system in Texas. (It would be different if the children were in foster care and still wards of the state.)

There are also issues about interracial adoptions and gay-parent adoptions that aren’t fully explored in the movie. If Jennifer and Sarah Hart were black, would they have gotten away with what they did for so long? If the kids were white, would they have been treated better by the system? And in an adoption system where politically conservative states such as Texas make it difficult for same-sex couples to adopt one child, how did Jennifer and Sarah Hart end up with six adopted children from Texas?

These are questions that will never have one definitive answer, but the documentary doesn’t show any attempt to give much background information on the adoption process for these children. Did Jennifer, the more abusive parent, have a history of abuse or mental illness before she became a parent? What was the screening process for Jennifer and Sarah Hart to adopt six kids in such a short period of time? It doesn’t seem to be enough for the film just to say that the biological mothers lost parental rights to these kids.

There could have been an extra 15 or 20 minutes covering this important aspect in explaining how these kids ended up being adopted by Jennifer and Sarah Hart. The documentary also should have covered who in the child-welfare system was responsible for monitoring the kids’ well-being, considering the children’s troubled background, the numerous abuse allegations, and the fact that Jennifer and Sarah Hart were using Texas government funds to raise the children.

However, a lesson to be learned from this tragedy is that people should not be fooled by what’s presented on social media. And the most important message is that if abuse is witnessed, or if people say they are being abused, then it needs to be reported, even if there is pressure to stay silent.

1091 Media released “A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy” on digital on April 17, 2020. A portion of this movie’s proceeds will be donated to Teens Voice USA and Honor the Earth, which are two causes that were supported by the Hart kids.