Archive for "Documentaries"

Movie Review: “Call Me Kuchu”

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 10:30 am.

(Photo: Courtesy CINDIGM Pictures)

Summary: A documentary about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda and how it’s affecting the country’s citizens — straight and gay.

Review: If there is one documentary to see, it’s Call Me Kuchu, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the movie deserves every ounce of its critical acclaim. The bold film tells the horrific story of a country being torn apart by homophobia. Chronicling over a year in Uganda, LGBT individuals are harassed demonized, murdered and accused of being terrorists — as are LGBT allies. White preachers from the west are encouraging anti-gay laws to be Uganda’s platform — not poverty, not HIV rates, not corruption in the government — but gays.

The well-publicized Anti-Homosexuality Bill includes: requiring teachers, parents and doctors to report LGBT children, banning landlords from providing lodging to LGBT individuals, putting anyone perceived to be homosexual at risk of incarceration, banning LGBT people (or people who are believed to be LGBT) who are HIV-positive from receiving treatment and more. Call Me Kuchu exquisitely puts a human face to those who are affected by the laws and hate, including David Kato — an LGBT activist who was violently murdered in his home.

Call Me Kuchu is not just a doc with only Uganda’s LGBT community speaking out. The other side of the debate is presented from preachers, lawmakers and citizens. Even though their perspective is disturbingly hateful, putting a face to the homophobes was paramount to understanding the country’s prejudices. For example, the managing editor of Ugandan paper Rolling Stone beams with joy when he talks about the 100 pictures printed in the newspaper of people who were allegedly gay. “I think Ugandans are interested in looking at pictures of homosexuals,” he said with a laugh. Even when David Kato was murdered, the editor was just as cheery, reconciling that gays get what they deserve.

In addition, the film breaks down the beginnings of Uganda’s anti-gay laws from white preachers from America who introduced the bill to the country’s roots of colonization — quickly debunking the myth that homosexuality is “un-African” and magically imported from Europe.

Call Me Kuchu wonderfully highlights the resiliency of Uganda’s LGBT people and their allies.  These are not sad, ruined people who are giving up on equal rights — they are fighting to death. The movie is simultaneously difficult to watch and a must-see. Many people think homophobia solely affects the LGBT community, but the Cinedigm film proves hate permeates and manifests beyond its bounds.  The flick implores us to turn the mirrors on ourselves and question the injustices we are upholding.

Call Me Kuchu opens in theaters in New York City on Friday, June 14 and Los Angeles on Friday, June 21.

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Movie Review: “Bully”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, December 14, 2012 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: Sundance Institute Documentary Fund)

Summary: A documentary on bullying, focusing on the tragic suicides of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley.

Review: Bullying is not a new phenomenon. Many of us can tell tragic stories of being tortured in our youth. Whether it is due to the Internet, social media or the pervasive meanness that dominates our culture, bullying today is an epidemic and Bully arrives with important timing.

Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film takes an intense look at bullying from the perspective of the victims. Through various stories, which include a young girl from Mississippi who brought a gun to school to protect herself, a lesbian teen ostracized from her community and a boy named Alex who is beaten on school bus rides. Bully documents the war zones many of our children endure. Shocking footage of children being attacked or mourning parents at the funerals of kids who committed suicide tug at your heart.

The stories in Bully are powerful and at times frustrating, especially despicable scenes of school officials failing to hear the outcries of their students. Hirsch clearly has a message: bullying is wrong and what are we, as Americans, going to do about it? However, one angle Hirsch missed was the voice of the bully.  What drives them to torture someone else? People aren’t born bullies, they are taught to bully. Is it their parents? Socioeconomic background? Were they once bullied?  None of this was explored, which left the doc feeling unbalanced, especially when the main question is, “Why?”

Regardless of the flick’s shortcomings, one cannot deny the awful stories of these teens and the results bullying had on their entire family. Hopefully the film will inspire parents to have a candid conversation with their children about being bullied and bullying. There is no pretty way to tie-up the horrors of children who are no longer with us, but Bully brings some needed attention.

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Movie Review: “The Central Park Five”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, December 7, 2012 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Florentine Films)

Summary: In 1989 New York City, five Black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully accused of assaulting Trisha Meili, who later became known as the Central Park Jogger. The wrongfully convicted boys would fight a losing battle in the court of law and the court of public opinion. Their youths robbed, The Central Park Five is their story.

Review: The story of the The Central Park Five (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam) is not only gripping and heartbreaking, but terrifying. The fact that five young boys can be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit with no DNA evidence and massive discrepancies proves that this American tragedy can happen to anyone — at any time. Strikingly similar to the Scottsboro Boys in 1931, the film makes the viewer question how far we have come as a nation, especially with recent horror stories like Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Russell Davis. The lives of young Black men are at risk and if people in power, whether it is with the law or a gun, decide to “stand their ground” or become an overly enthusiastic prosecutor — it could happen to anyone.

Thankfully, the directors of The Central Park Five, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, had the guts to make an outstanding documentary — even when attorneys for New York City attempted to not let the filmmakers use archival footage. Via jaw-droppingly biased news coverage from 1989, rare footage and each boy — now a man — telling their story, The Central Park Five is not only one of the best documentaries of the year, but one of the best films of the year.

What was most disturbing about The Central Park Five is how the media relished in criminalizing the teenagers without question. They were five Black and Latino teens accused of assaulting a white woman — quickly presumed guilty. When African-American leaders protested the convictions with no DNA evidence, they were accused of pulling the “race card.” In watching the doc, it appears strikingly obvious they were not the culprits — and the real criminal was on the loose committing more crimes that weren’t as media friendly.

The most damning evidence against the boys were four taped confessions. The teenagers confessed to assaulting the jogger only after over 24 hours of interrogation, being told the others confessed and eventually willing to say anything to go home.  Even the teen who didn’t confess on tape, Yusef Salaam, was still charged with a crime and sent to jail. They were confused, exhausted children who were manipulated by law enforcement.

Each of the Central Park Five tearfully told their story of aggressive police officers who took advantage of parents who were not familiar with the complicated legal system — they were bullied to use their imagination. These taped confessions would be used against them and send all of them to jail.  Even when they were exonerated, the men suffered the scars of a stolen childhood.  To this day, even after a confession from the real criminal, Matias Reyes, the prosecutors and detectives still argue the five boys are guilty.  Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., and Antron McCray have lawsuits against New York City.

The Central Park Five brilliantly tells an untold story with the victims, their families, journalists, one of the jurors and countless experts. The execution of the story is flawless, detailing an injustice that jailed innocent men who only got media attention when they were labeled criminals — not when they were proven to be innocent.  The documentary is fascinating yet sobering to watch. Well over 20 years since the incident, the film’s story is unfortunately still relevant.

The Central Park Five is in theaters now.

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Movie Review: “Marley”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, April 20, 2012 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Courtesy Cowboy Films)

Summary: Directed by Kevin Macdonald and co–executive produced by Ziggy Marley, the long-awaited doc reveals the journey of the late, great Bob Marley.

Review: Born in 1945, Robert Nesta Marley’s music changed the world.  His music has been the anthem for love, revolution and peace.  Over thirty years since his death, he is still a relevant artist with countless musicians from R&B to rock who attempt to emulate the legendary rasta. There have been many stories told about the “One Love” icon, but none with the backing of the Marley family and zero with the emotion, fever and soul of Kevin Macdonald’s Marley.

In select theaters today, Marley will go down in cinematic history as one of the greatest music documentaries of all time. Even at a whopping two hour and 24 minute running time, Bob’s story is exquisitely delivered with not one unnecessary frame.  The polished narrative takes us to Marley’s Kingston, Jamaica roots, where he grappled with racial identity. We see his rise to stardom, making reggae music a household name. But he was never hungry for fame, he was passionate for progress.  Sadly, we learn of his final days fighting cancer. With unseen archival footage and interviews with his family and close associates (even the wife of the doctor who tried to cure Bob Marley of cancer), there isn’t a stone unturned.

Most importantly, Marley smoothly humanizes the “No Woman, No Cry” singer-songwriter. Yes, he was gifted, but he was not perfect.  Bob was a “rolling stone” with 11 children with seven different women.  Although Bob was married to Rita Marley, in his mind he didn’t believe in marriage. Macdonald tastefully tells the side of the other women in Marley’s life, never sensationalizing the story, but answering all of the whys.

Other details discussed include: the assassination attempt on his life, his love for marijuana, his frenetic musical process and his other-worldly live performances. Even if you are not a fan of Bob Marley, the triumph in Macdonald and the Marley family’s storytelling skills trumps fandom.

When Bob Marley was alive, he was frustrated that Black American audiences did not embrace him. However, in an odd way, Bob Marley’s hopes of one love have come to fruition via his music. Bob Marley and the Wailers are not white, Black, Asian or Latino music; nor is the music solely for the poor or rich, Democrat or Republican. Bob Marley is music for the soul, regardless of your background, a universal sound that the globe has embraced.  Although he died of cancer at 36-years-old in 1981, there will never be a time when Bob Marley is an afterthought.

Hats off to Kevin Macdonald and the Marley family for properly, respectfully and finally telling the story of a worldwide icon. Marley is worth the wait and the first must-see movie of 2012.

Marley is in theaters today.

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Movie Review: “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, October 21, 2011 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Submarine Entertainment)

Summary: A doc on Kevin Clash, the African-American man behind the legendary puppet Elmo.

Review: Kevin Clash’s face is not well known, but his animated voice is the force behind a pop culture phenomenon, Elmo from Sesame Street.  The big-eyed hugger is a global star, and it all started with Clash, the first African-American to be part of the Jim Henson Empire, which gave us characters like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey follows the life of Clash from a child who was teased for having a passion for puppets to his eventually meeting Kermit Love, who introduced him to Jim Henson. The story of Clash as Elmo might not appear to be the most interesting for a 72-minute doc. However, the documentary is an inspiring tale, proving that if you find your calling, your life can be exactly what you deserve. Clash was focused when few believed and understood his gift when it was mocked. He was an ambitious Black kid from a poor section of Maryland who would eventually become a television icon.

Directed by Constance Marks, Being Elmo is straightforward storytelling. For those who want a dose of reality show-type docu-drama, you will not find that in Clash’s life. There are no sex tapes, drug binges or arrests. Clash saw his path and followed it, not letting anything get in his way. There isn’t even any talk of racial strife, being the first African-American to team with the late, great Jim Henson. Whatever obstacles Clash could’ve had, either he didn’t experience them or they weren’t detailed in the documentary.

That said, it would’ve been interesting to learn more about Clash’s life outside of Elmo. But Clash is notoriously private, and maybe his personal life is not interesting enough. Not everyone has a tragic story to tell or is ready to breakdown in tears on camera. There is no huge emotional climax, but the direct inspiration is refreshing in today’s over-dramatized storytelling climate.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey opens in New York today and select cities on Nov. 4.

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Movie Review: “Angel”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, September 2, 2011 at 12:00 am.

Summary: Directed by Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva and produced by Laurent Segal, Angel is the story of a former boxer turned transsexual prostitute in Paris who returns to the slums of Ecuador for a family visit.

Review: The first reaction of seeing Angel — a tall, muscular transsexual with cheek, breasts and butt “work” — were gasps from the audience at the 12th annual New York Latino International Film Festival. Equally as jarring was seeing how attractive she was as a man, chiseled body, structured face and nearly perfect features. Now some may say is a freak show. But after only a few minutes into the doc, the spirit of Angel glows. She is bold, confident and unapologetically herself. Many of us who have never changed genders couldn’t be as confident as she. Nonetheless, this is a heartbreakingly sad story about the lives many live in third world countries and the lengths they will go to escape.

Angel’s story is one that could’ve easily been exploited. However, Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva handled the documentary with care, humanizing Angel beyond her gender. We see Angel (who is also known as “Mujeron,” which means big woman in Spanish) as she travels home to Ecuador to visit her family in the unfathomably poor barrio of Guayaquil. It’s the kind of poverty that makes you think (no matter how poor you believe you grew up): “Thank God I live in the United States of America.”

Angel’s entire family is barely surviving. To make matters worse, her mother, brothers, sisters, nephews, father, cousins and random friends in the neighborhood all depend on her to send money back home — well aware that she is a sex worker. There is a creepy relationship we see with her brothers saying it’s better that she is a transsexual prostitute versus a drug addict because, “Then, we’d have to give him money.” Angel clearly says that her family is her number-one priority and she will do anything to save them.

Angel boldly struts through the slums of Ecuador. She stares down harassment from onlookers, snaps on children who mock her, letting them know she isn’t a “whore” like their mother and greets old friends, proudly showing off her soft breasts. Moments like these save the film from being a deeply depressing doc and give it some needed flair, which is obviously part of Angel’s personality, the darkness and the light.  D’Ayala Valva shows no one will dim Angel’s light.

Angel also bucks the notions of what one might think of a transgender person. This is no dainty lady. She is sawing wood (again, this is the third world), ruling the house and considered a mother-father figure in the family. One of his brothers explained, “If he wasn’t gay, he wouldn’t care so much.” A striking difference from the tragic coming out stories we hear and see in the alleged progressiveness of America.

In one gripping scene, an old friend says in 1989 she helped him land a job. He was deeply grateful and asked for his hand. In an environment where you would think someone who is gay or transgender would be hated on, Angel received respected — and demanded it.

Another unforgettable scene is Angel seeing his father, for the first time in years, who doesn’t know his son is now a woman and prostitute. However, his father is nearly blind from an illness. Angel repeatedly asks, “Can you see me?” but he cannot. Then, his father asked him, “What have you brought me?” It begs the question: Does his family truly love him or only love what he can give? Angel is hurt in more ways by his kin, but through it all, you can’t keep a good queen down.

Overall, Angel is one of those rare cinematic gems that transcend celluloid and hits you right in the heart; you feel you are part of the story.  If the film is in your area, it’s a must-see.  My only complaint? The doc ends at a quick 70 minutes. There was still much more of a story to tell.

Angel was presented at at the 12th annual New York Latino International Film Festival.

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Movie Review: “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, July 8, 2011 at 8:30 am.

Summary: A documentary on legendary hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, which consisted of Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White (White left the group after their first album in 1990 but rejoined them on tour in 2006).  Quest is best known for songs like “Bonita Applebum,” “Can I Kick It?” and their biggest hit on the pop charts, 1993’s “Award Tour.”

Review: Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest could’ve easily been tawdry and sensationalized. Unfortunately, Q-Tip and first-time director Michael Rapaport have been feuding over the film and even beefing on Twitter—Q-Tip said he was not supporting the movie. Back in March, Tip stressed the importance of telling our own stories—the connotation being that a white director like Michael Rapaport should not have so much control over how the story of this legendary hip hop group is told.

Tip has a point; there is an epic history of whites telling the story of African-Americans on the big screen.  As a result, our stories are often watered down and missing authenticity. However, while I understand Tip’s sentiment, I believe this is not the case with Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest—he did as good of a job as Spike Lee could’ve done. Michael Rapaport should be praised for not exploiting one of hip hop’s most cherished icons. He gracefully told a story of friendship and love and made you remember why you first fell in love with hip hop.

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest begins by telling the story of hip hop with the origins of A Tribe Called Quest as a backdrop. Packed with colorful imagery that was reminiscent of ATCQ’s album covers, the audience is transported to ’80s New York City. Right before the history lesson of hip hop started to feel redundant, the meat of the story kicked in, which is the formation, demise and reincarnation of ATCQ.  Rapaport takes us into the world of boys turning to men, struggling with fame and eventually battling with each other.

The main conflict: Q-Tip versus Phife.  Tip and Phife have consistent strife, with Phife describing Tip as the Diana Ross of the group. Tip’s diva antics entertain on screen, which is no fault of Rapaport’s. In truth, Tip is an artist, who is passionate and at times over-the-top, maybe sometimes believing his own hype. He even calls Phife a “faggot,” which is sure to offend some. That said, Phife comes across as the eternal victim, sometimes jealous, but he still has love for Tip. Ali is avoiding the drama—all about the music. No one knows how true any of these character assessments are. A landmark group’s history cannot be summed up in one hour and 35 minutes. Nonetheless, Rapaport handled each conflict with class and dignity. In truth, they are artists who are sensitive about their s—.

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
is a hip hop version of The Rolling StonesGimme Shelter and one of the best music docs to come out in recent years.  Whether you love hip hop or not, this is a documentary not to be missed and one that will not be forgotten.

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
is in theaters today.

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Could It Be True? Bob Marley Doc Gets A Release Date

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 8:00 am.

For years there has been talk of a Bob Marley documentary and biopic. Well, the biopic looks like it is forever stuck in legalities. At one point Jaime Foxx had the role but he fell off, Jonathan Demme was set to direct but he quit and supposedly the entire project was stalled due to rights with the music.

Now, there is the documentary, directed by Oscar-winning Kevin Macdonald and the movie is titled Marley. Supposedly he has the blessing of the Marley family. The film is set to be released in the fall of 2011, around the 30th anniversary of the reggae star’s death.

This is a film I’m definitely looking forward to but I hope the biopic still happens.   A few actors who I think could do Marley justice: Jeffrey Wright, Michael Ealy and Idris Elba.


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‘Ghetto Physics’ Opens This Friday

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, October 18, 2010 at 9:46 am.

The documentary Ghetto Physics opens this Friday in select cities.  Directed by William H. Arntz & E. Raymond Brown, the film includes commentary from Dr. Cornel West, Ice-T and KRS-One.  Here is the synopsis and trailer:

GhettoPhysics examines the interplay between Pimps and Ho’s and how that dynamic is the simplest expression of how power is wielded in the world. The film utilizes documentary footage, animation, satire and dramatization to illustrate examples culled from the Hood to Wall Street – be the players real-life pimps or corporate executives repeating the same power dynamics.

The film includes interviews with notable entertainers and thinkers, such as Dr. Cornel West, Ice-T, KRS-One, Too Short, John Perkins, Cynthia McKinney, William H. Arntz (Co-Director) and Norman Lear. Of course, it also includes a colorful contingent of street characters, with names such as Filmore Slim, Hook da Crook, Mac Breed and Lo Da Show.

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Movie Review: Waiting For ‘Superman’

Published by Clay Cane on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm.

Summary: A probing look at the American public school system.

Review: The news that our American public school system is in complete shambles is nothing earthshattering. This has been happening for years, especially in neighborhoods that have endured generations of poverty. However, in the past 30 years, the toxicity of public schools has even spilled over into the suburbs. As we all know, tragedy is often not taken seriously until the suburbs are affected. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director behind An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ examines the root of school failure. While many point to poor environments or budget cuts as the culprits, the film questions whether the problem is actually bad teachers. For some audiences, especially those who are teachers, the thesis of Waiting for ‘Superman’ will feel like another blame game. In reality, it’s a complex analysis of why public schools are failing, which the documentary tackles.

Guggenheim delivers some heavy educating on the U.S. public education system. The content is informative with diagrams and cute animations, but for some this will come off as didactic and too agenda-driven. But, what’s a documentary without an agenda?

Unlike Michael Moore, whose documentaries are always laced with wit and sarcasm, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is soaked in facts that have already caused controversy.  For example, the heroine in the film, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. schools, is now at risk of losing her job post the D.C. mayoral primary.  She terminated teachers, tried to reinvent the school system and was praised by many.  Now, post the documentary, Vincent Gray, the man who will more than likely be D.C.’s next mayor, said he is considering re-hiring some of the 266 teachers that Rhee fired for allegedly being incompetent (some due to budget reasons).

The viewer is almost left with a haunting feeling that this will never change; the system is broken and no one is bothering to fix it. Furthermore, what about the Americans who do receive a solid education but still cannot move forward due to the structures of race, gender and class?  Sometimes not even education can save you from the trappings of generations of societal imbalance.

Like most documentaries, the heart of the film is the personal stories. The climax of the movie features a lottery that each child must enter if they want a better education outside of public schooling. It’s heartbreaking to watch American children (we always assume American kids don’t value education), desperately wanting a chance at a fair education, have their fates decided by a bouncing ball with a number on it like the Mega-Million jackpot. Is a proper education truly based on luck? Seeing child after child and their parents – some of whom are the products of a poor education themselves – get rejected because luck wasn’t on their side, was horrifying.

Overall, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is a powerful documentary that should be seen by as many people as possible. We should all be hesitant to blame teachers; the reasons for America’s problems seem to shift to a new group every decade. Moreover, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is not blaming teachers, the doc is examining an area of education that has been ignored, our educators.  ‘Superman’ is about the personal stories of children at risk, regardless of the politics that will be argued for ions.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens in select cities Friday, September 24th.

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