Seven Seconds–Black Lives Matter?

 

Seven Seconds Netflix Original Series

The Netflix Original  series Seven Seconds (premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.

The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?

In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.

There are two main characters, both black women.   Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.

The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.

These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.

Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them.  This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.

 

Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Internet’s Own Boy”: The Story of Aaron Swartz

 

The Internet's Own Boy

Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a documentary that pulls the viewer into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.

A master in software development (some would argue the computer programmer equivalent of the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking), Aaron was reading novels by kindergarten. When he was 13, Aaron had started the equivalent of Wikipedia, before Wikipedia existed, but it failed to attract attention. He went on to create watchdog.net, a precursor to change.org, but nothing came of either of those. Why did Wikipedia and change.org become Internet giants while the Web sites he developed at the age of 13 and 14 were failures? Probably because the gatekeepers in the fields of technology did not take seriously the insightful, prescient programming of a barely pubescent boy.

Later, Aaron drops out of high school and yet is accepted at Stanford. Then Aaron leaves the university’s computer science program after one year, because the classes were “pointless and boring”. Funded by Y Combinator, an “incubator” firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aaron starts Infogami, eventually merging with another Y Combinator start-up, Reddit, which is sold to Condé Nast. Aaron becomes a millionaire at the age of 20.

“The Internet’s Own Boy” gains more momentum as a dramatic thriller, after the historical overview of why Aaron Swartz’s life matters. Beyond the contributions this young savant has made to the Internet as we know it, we witness the FBI’s two-year surveillance of every move he makes. Why the surveillance? After becoming a millionaire, Aaron Swartz turned to political activism, developing software for open access to public information, including medical and legal documents. After all, corporate websites saw these databases as a source of revenue. The public had to pay to gain access, charging for information sponsored by nonprofit institutions or undertaken with government funding. Neither the corporations nor academia were pleased with Aaron Swartz and open access.

Swartz was indicted on multiple felony counts for downloading several million articles from the academic medical database JSTOR. [For those of you who have googled a medical problem on the Internet, JSTOR is one of the primary databases for medical research. After one or two sentences describing research from a prestigious university, the user has to pay several hundred dollars to read the entire university report.) JSTOR filed a complaint with the US government, in conjunction with MIT (even though MIT’s computer system is open to anyone on campus).

Soon after his arrest, he returned the data he had taken, and JSTOR considered the matter settled. For reasons that are unclear, MIT continued to cooperate with the prosecution, despite many efforts, internal and external, to dissuade it.

Aaron Swartz was also concerned about the relation between political candidates’ wealth and their electoral success, and, while successful candidates’ financial disclosure records were available on the Internet, unsuccessful candidates’ records, while public and digitized, were not online. If you wanted to see them, you were required to make paper copies in a library, but Swartz wanted access to the digital files so he could analyze the data. With the help of fellow programmer Alec Resnick, they spent days in a library attempting to hack into the files. But the government had not forgotten about Aaron’s mission to make public records accessible. Resnick was held in jail overnight and then released.

Next Swartz went to a library in Chicago and downloaded twenty per cent of the pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database for public documents. He then gave the data to the Stanford Law Review for publication. As the FBI investigation was in its infancy in 2008, Swartz and a few other hackers wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.” Meanwhile , the FBI conducting surveillance on his parents’ house, near Chicago.

Shortly after Swartz was arrested, the prosecutors subpoenaed Quinn Norton, his ex-girlfriend. This is perhaps one of the most devastating scenes in which we see how the US prosecutorial team manipulated Norton, in order to compel her to cooperate with the investigation.  His family was horrified. There was concern that he would commit suicide if he went to prison.

“The  Internet’s Own Boy” has relevance that has never been stronger than it is today with the manipulation of Facebook by unseen agents . Swartz’s belief that the influence of money in American politics was so enormous a problem that he wanted to devote his considerable programming genius to expose the influence of wealth on the political process.

But it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that has us all deeply in his debt. This film is Aaron Swartz’s personal story about the price we all pay when we accept the business models undergirding their profits  on one hand , and misunderstand or ignore the power of free access to public information. The privatization of public information is at stake.

“The  Internet’s Own Boy”, a  moving portrait of a computer genius whose mission was to provide a better world through digital access to information, reveals how powerful information is and how access to it is hoarded and brutally protected by corporations and government agencies. Timely exposé indeed!

 

Note:  “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (2014) is available on Netflix (DVD).

 

 

 

 

 

“Roseanne” (2018): Neither Here Nor There

Roseanne 2018

Having the highest ratings for any network sitcom in almost four years, the revival of the ABC television show “Roseanne” had 18.2 million viewers last week, and features most of the original cast.

And then this high-concept sitcom begins to evoke memories of the good old days of “Roseanne” and “All in the Family”, with the same old-fashioned couch, the living room that made “Roseanne” a bona fide pioneer (1988-1997) with its focus on blue-collar Americans in Lanford, Illinois. Still set in this fictional town in the Midwest, now Roseanne is back, and Trump is in. And every viewer knows Illinois is a “red state”.

Although the divisive Trump is never mentioned by name (rumored to be a requirement for funding the show), Roseanne Barr has let it be known that her show would grapple with how the 2016 election has divided American families and friendships. This is an intriguing goal for revitalizing the most difficult of comedic themes: family dysfunction and how families change and redefine themselves. Now overlay that with the cultural and political wars of today.

In the opening scene we see Dan Conner (played by John Goodman) come back to life literally after the 1997 finale in which Dan died of a heart attack. The new Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) is an unabashed Trump supporter while her sister, Jackie (the Tony-award winning Laurie Metcalfe) again plays Roseanne’s polar opposite. She wears a “pussy hat” , “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, and battles almost every argument her sister puts forth.

“Roseanne” of the 1988-1997 seasons had many darkly political themes including sexism, racism, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the landscape has changed. The highest-rated series among adults under 50 is currently “This Is Us,” and tackles the same issues of the old “Roseanne” but now interracial marriages and relationships, same-sex marriage, and a host of former hot-button divisive issues are more widely accepted in some demographics. In attempting to update the new “Roseanne” with current issues, the premiere features a grandson who wears skirts suggesting he will be transgender and a granddaughter who is biracial.

Laughing at the old Roseanne, Jackie, and Dan Conner of the late 20th century, viewers were encouraged to see the Conner family torn by everyday challenges that many viewers did not have personal experience with. We were pulled in by razor-sharp dialogue, character arcs driven by superb actors, and humor not overridden by laugh tracks. The vintage sitcom was enjoyable regardless of whether the political arguments were ones the viewer agreed with.

What happened to Roseanne Barr’s gift for vocal range, not strident or flat delivery? And the two additions of child actors–the possibly transgender little boy struggling with bullying from classmates and the little biracial girl who silently sits at the dining room table so the viewer notices her? They have no character development. Roseanne is afraid for her little grandson but isn’t sure confronting the school administrators is the answer. Why not have Dan go to school in a tutu to challenge the bullies? The little girl is assumed to be part African American. Why not have her play with a white Barbie and a black one and ask her grandpa which one he thinks is prettier? That would be suggestive of the “Roseanne” I miss so much.

The reboot of “Roseanne” was an opportunity to explain the nation’s culture wars to an audience that sorely needs to hear it. And the producers and writers passed. Millions of viewers, perhaps, gathered around their televisions and, as in the vintage ” Roseanne”, some may still see themselves in the Conner family. But it is not the Conner family we came to understand in the vintage show. The 2018 “Roseanne” doesn’t deliver what was promised and the acting is a lukewarm flat series of performances, with the exception of the incomparable Laurie Metcalfe.

Too bad that blue collar and low socio-economic class are now identified with Trump. This is both inaccurate and overly simplistic.

Some reviewers called the new “Roseanne” timeless, but with its overtly political message that no one (including Trump) can ignore, what is timeless about 2016? ABC executives and “Roseanne” producers reject the notion that the show’s popularity is mainly because of its appeal to Trump supporters. Will we see sustained viewer numbers or will the gap between what was promised and what was delivered be too wide? Certainly this viewer was turned off.

Note: The top audience markets for the debut were a red-state checklist: Cincinnati, OH; Kansas City, MO.; Tulsa, OK, Springfield, IL. Liberal metropolises like New York and Los Angeles did not crack the top 20.   Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, said “the success of ‘Roseanne’ was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.”