13th –Not a Lucky Number

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The Academy award-nominated documentary by director Ava DuVernay (Selma) opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.

The beginning of 13th is almost a recap of Slavery by Another Name. (See my review  , September 17,   2016). We see the Jim Crow laws up close and personal. Convict leasing and lynchings reached their peak at the turn of the 20th century. This vigilantism had the support of businesses who needed free convict labor to substitute for slavery which had been ostensibly outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Increasingly, as labor was needed, more behavior was criminalized. Historical photos and movie footage disturbingly show what happens when blacks use whites-only facilities, look at a white person eye-to-eye, congregate in small groups or fail to move off the sidewalk at the sight of a white person. At the same time, blacks were excluded from the judicial system as jurors and, when sentenced for violating a Jim Crow law, were given fines they could not pay, sending them back to prison to become free labor.

Convict labor took a new turn following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. We see the connection between the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing of drug users, the rise in prison labor, and eventually the symbiotic relationship with for-profit prisons. 13th notes the Republican Party’s appeal to Southern white conservatives, to be the party to fight the war on crime and war on drugs. After their presidential candidates lost to Republicans, Democratic politicians including Bill Clinton joined the war on drugs. Insidiously, this “war on drugs” became a war on blacks. Minority communities endured severe penalties for first offenders while young white offenders were often given probation. By the late 20th century, mass incarceration had become an industry with privatization of prisons  served by corporate contractors to supply phone, clothing and food at exorbitant prices. Securus, for example, provides telephone services at exorbitant rates and Aramark  provides food services that are often substandard.These same special interest groups lobby for criminalizing minor activities and lengthening sentences in order to keep the prisons to capacity. For the prisoners, one felony conviction–for a minor drug offense–virtually ensures that their prospects for stable employment, living arrangements, and even voting would be out of reach.

The film explores the role of ALEC (The American Legislative Executive Committee), backed by corporations, that has provided like- minded state and federal legislators with draft templates for legislation to support the prison-industrial complex among other issues. Only after journalists exposed ALEC’s corporate sponsors did corporations like Wal-Mart and others drop out of the organization.

The relationship between profits based on 19th century slavery and profits based on for-profit private prisons is depressingly illustrated. 13th explores the demonization of African Americans to serve political ends, contributing to fears of minorities by whites and the persistent problems of police brutality against minority communities. In the 21st century, the regularity of fatal police shootings of unarmed minorities in apparently minor confrontations has been demonstrated by videos taken by bystanders and by the increasing use of cams in police cars or worn by officers. DuVernay ends the film with a graphic mosaic  of recent videos of fatal shootings of blacks by police.

DuVernay powerfully shows that the United States, in the final analysis, has to recognize its role in criminalizing not a subset of black people but black people as a whole. This has become a heinous process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it. The over-incarceration of adults, the movie goes on to assert, has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children.

This is an extraordinary film, a history lesson for us all.

My Top 19 Netflix/Amazon Movies and Series for 2016

 

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Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online and were not widely distributed through movie theaters.   Of the 43, here are my favorites.  It was much more difficult than in past years, since this year was absolutely stunning. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling.

The following list is not ranked –only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA  amazon-logo

1) “No”–Mad Men in Politics (June 19, 2016 review):  In this Chilean film, with uncanny similarities to the recent election in this country, we see how voting can be manipulated by brilliant promotional advertising. ”No” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2012.

2) “The Past” (Le Passe)–Does the Past Define Us? (July 24 review): “The Past” is a a web of intrigue of Rashomon proportions. Everyone tells their version of the truth, but they do not explain everything. As the story unfolds, each character is imprisoned by his or her own version of the past, reminding us of our own mistakes and unintended consequences.

3) “Buen Dia Ramon”–The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” (July 31 review): Ramon’s remarkable openness to accept the kindness of strangers and begrudge none of his hardships is rendered believable. Struggling to survive on the street, he sleeps in a train station, and becomes increasingly desperate to earn money to send home. Yet he never builds defenses, remaining optimistic and determined, with an innocent enthusiasm that is, at times, astonishing in its emotional generosity and guilelessness.

 4) “The Tunnel”–Turf War or Building Bridges  (August 7 review): “The Tunnel” is more than a dramatic police thriller about fighting crime. The dualities of culture and personality, people divided by politics and history, are fascinating to watch for their layers of complexity. The uneasy chemistry between the two main characters is a metaphor for the cultural gap and ideological boundaries separating all of us: the powerful from the powerless, and the self-interest and turf-war conflicts between nations. “

 5) “Bron“–The Original “Bridge” (October 16 review): This detective series outdoes its own standard of excellence in each succeeding season. The main character is a reserved, non-emotive personality. She is brusque where her male partners are the emotional, sensitive policemen trying to understand her behavior and lack of social skills. And as the series progresses, the viewer comes to admire her professional drive and ache for the damage and horrific backstory that makes Saga who she is.

 6) Requiem for the American Dream–A Pending Nightmare (December 5 review): This eerily prescient 2015 documentary narrated by Noam Chomsky was in development before the official announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Yet, in the “Ten Principles of the Concentration of Wealth and Power” the viewer sees the redesigning of the US economy.

 7) WadjdaA Feisty Little Girl (December 12 review): A delightful gem of a film celebrating the human spirit and a ten-year-old Saudi Arabian girl’s unwillingness to simply accept fate or broken dreams, “Wadjda” is a movie that will touch your heart.

PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL (US ONLY)

8)  “Truth” -And Nothing But (March 16 review): This movie raises the question: “What is truth? And how do we know?” Much like in a crime drama, the viewer follows the clues and the trail to the usual suspects. Based on a 2005 memoir, the wounds are still unhealed in this 12-year-old case.

9) “Confirmation”–The Sexual Harassment of Anita Hill (April 24 review): A drama that is more of a “street fight”, “Confirmation” portrays Senators Ted Kennedy, John Danforth and Joe Biden as unlikeable characters who engage in behind-the-scenes fights and backing down under political pressure. Not since “House of Cards” has there been seen such political ruthlessness and behind-the-scenes maneuverings.

10) “Closed Circuit”–We’re Under Surveillance (July 10 review): An adrenaline-pumping political thriller, portrays corrupt government forces who will stop at nothing. “Closed Circuit” is designed to raise the alarm over both the injustice of closed court hearings and the use of surveillance technology. We don’t know who’s watching or how they’re using what they see.

11) Weiner”– An Attention- Getter (September 11 review): Hubris, narcissism, tabloid spectacle and massive self-deception collide with the mesmerizing inevitability of a slow-motion trainwreck. “Weiner” is an engrossing, almost shamefully entertaining documentary about “politics at its most sensationalist and superficial.

12) Slavery by Another Name”– The Re-enslavement of Black Americans in the US (September 17 review): This documentary eviscerates one of America’s most cherished myths: the belief that slavery ended in 1863. Conveniently overlooked by the nation and perpetrated across an enormous region over many years, the institution of forced labor as a fixture of African American life perniciously suffocated their aspirations and opportunities for their families and their very existence.

13) Snowden –A Companion Piece to “Citizenfour” (October 9 review): In what is now the most well-known disclosure of US intelligence and surveillance practices, “Snowden” has opened a window to how counterintelligence is carried out in the global arena. A must-see for 2016 or 2017!

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

14) “The Night Manager”(May 3 review):   Like a Bond movie, part of the  pleasure in watching this story unfold is suspending one’s disbelief at the preposterous plot lines and heroic battles. Suffice it to say the spycraft in this series is entertaining with a quirky subplot on the sad bureaucratic lives of government intelligence officers.

15) Bates Motel (Seasons 1-3)– Mother-Son Obsession (June 13 review):   A prequel to “Psycho”, in “Bates Motel” we see the twisted relationship between Norma and her son –the heart of the narrative—which drives the narrative to an end we expect but nonetheless gasp at. “Bates Motel” dares to touch this subject matter in such a brilliant and fearless manner. A tour-de-force like no other!

16) Bates Motel–Season 4— A Masterpiece (November 1 review): This controversial season takes us to where only the intrepid can bear to see such damage inflicted so ferociously on family. “Bates Motel” dares to touch the unspeakable in such a brilliant and fearless manner.

17) “The Night Of” –A Tale of Darkness (August 14 review): The connective tissue holding together the evidence both for and against Naz, a young Pakistani American indicted for murder, constantly shifts the viewer’s assessment of his guilt or innocence. This dark tale is addictive, deeply moving, compulsive television!

 18) Goliath–A New Amazon Prime Winner (October 23 review): Part film noir, part legal drama “Goliath” tells the story of a derelict, drunken grizzled lawyer who is a bottom-feeder taking on a case which turns out to be against his former partner. A nightmare of Shakespearean proportions, closed circuit surveillance system and a vicious fight add to the twisted conclusion.

19) The Crown–Glory to Her Highness (November 30 review): The anachronistic British aristocracy must sensitively negotiate its relationship with its public. “The Crown” is the story of a conflict between private and public, between the personal feelings of a wife, mother, and sister and the queen (Elizabeth II). At its core, however, this is a character study and a family drama. Do you put personal fulfillment over political duty and obligation?

 

 

“Slavery by Another Name”—The Re-enslavement of Black Americans in the US

 

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This 90-minute PBS documentary, based upon the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, eviscerates one of America’s most cherished myths: the belief that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. “Slavery by Another Name” documents how thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality, sanctioned by the judicial and legislative system, and propelled by the loss of slave labor after the Civil War.

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African Americans were systematically charged for petty crimes, and sentenced to hard labor working for former white slave owners. “Convict leasing” became “Slavery by Another Name”, coercing African American “convicts” to work on chain-gangs and for major corporations. A form of “industrial slavery”, these purported convicts, who worked on month-to-month leases, were used and disposed of at will. Moreover, the brutality imposed on “prisoners” in the last part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century was identical to that used against slaves prior to the Civil War. The mortality rate was as high as 30-40% or more. No records were kept.

One strategy to recreate the slave economy was the creation of the crime of “vagrancy”. This provided a steady supply of “vagrants” forced to work off their sentences under heinous labor conditions. Convicts were repeatedly bought and sold throughout their sentences, again to former white slave-masters and industrialists. Replacing the outlawed debt slavery or peonage, convict leasing resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate profit. Tolerated by both the North and South as essential for raising the gross domestic product and propelling the United States to unprecedented economic power, this form of industrial slavery did not begin to decrease until the Second World War [motivated in part by the Japanese intention to use US racism to justify their own military actions] and the need for African American soldiers.

Deeply moving, fascinating, and repugnant all at the same time, “Slavery By Another Name” opens our eyes to the deliberate exploitation of African Americans. A courageous refutation of the ongoing myth that “Lincoln freed the slaves,” the documentary “Slavery By Another Name” demonstrates that slavery survived long past emancipation, until less than eighty years ago.

Conveniently overlooked by the nation and perpetrated across an enormous region over many years, the institution of forced labor as a fixture of African American life perniciously suffocated their aspirations and opportunities for their families and their very existence. This documentary film should be a required history lesson for us all.