Directed by Ana DuVarnay
Before I get in to the guts of this review, let me say how important and essential this documentary is…the discussion is…and its purpose is. It needs to be viewed. Any serious examination of the relationship of African Americans to America, and the pervasive culture of enslavement, is necessary and, when it is this well researched, should become part of the curriculum for citizens of this country. But my purpose on this blog is to convey my opinions and observations about films as…films, so when I critique in this instance, I am not critiquing the film’s importance, only it’s various elements, and how they relate to the whole.
Not that there’s much to negatively criticize. Wrapping chronologically-relevant statistics with talking heads (including Van Jones, Corey Booker and Angela Davis(!!)), DuVarnay has made a well-crafted doc that flies by, even with imagery that is purposefully hard to watch. I was fortunate to grow up with parents who made me aware of the importance of the Civil Rights Movement (including being taken to White House lawn protests at age five). I remember, very well, Angela Davis’ struggle and victory, and it was especially (and personally) inspiring to see and hear her opinions about the here and now.
And as stated, the pace of the film works well, only lagging about eighty minutes in – and then only for about fifteen minutes – before finding its way again. Especially effective are the animated and artful presentation of statistics juxtaposed against selected music of each era.
A couple things, though. The film works at its absolute best when DuVarnay takes herself out of the film and lets these incredible minds, her research and her core-vision do the work. But there are more than a few moments where she chooses style over substance – especially as it relates to the camera angles utilized in her interviews. The new paradigm of shooting an interview from a 90 degree angle has GOT to go. It’s a stylistic choice whose sole purpose is to let us know that it’s her film and, alas, gets in the way of the growing narrative that is hurling us, headlong, in to the struggles of Black America in modern life.
And then there is her inexplicable dropping of that narrative with twenty-five minutes to go. The entire force of the film is the juxtaposition of political decisions with the growing percentage of incarcerated African-Americans, which works incredibly well. Then, suddenly, it goes from 1995 to today, with a ten minute expose on A.L.E.C. (the American Legislative Exchange Council) – which John Oliver did a wonderful piece on not too long ago. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, to be sure, but it sure felt like a segment, rather than a piece of the overall film. A bizarre choice whose elements could’ve easily been woven in to the story without being so disruptive to the narrative.
Finally, she exposes many of our historically “progressive” politicians as being a major part of the problem, which is absolutely fair in context of the film’s premise. But even here, she picks and chooses clips that fit her narrative. Basically suggesting that Newt Gingrich (who comes across as a champion of African-American causes) is somehow more progressive on these issues than Hillary Clinton, which might make you think the film is being “fair,” or more “objective,” but is patently absurd. The story doesn’t require these Oliver Stone-esque slings. The facts and opinions expressed do the job quite nicely without it.
BUT, those small criticisms aside, your outrage will/should grow as the minutes slide by and the absurdity and danger of the system grows without abatement. I’m sure African-Americans who watch it will, more often than not, respond with, “yeah…we know what’s been going on. We have to live it. It’s the rest of this country that needs to watch and focus on this.” And given, our recent election and the terrifying level of power held by people who prefer their America to be a whiter shade of pale, it’s more important than ever that white America DOES watch this. Which leads me to say that, while it will undoubtedly be a nominee for a Best Picture Oscar, and is not in the same league as “OJ: Made In America”, I kinda hope it wins, so more white folk, like me, will watch it.
“But,” you might say, “it’s on Netflix? Can’t everyone watch it now?” The answer is yes, but its icon is BURIED in the Documentary section. Took me three minutes to find it, which is ridiculous. If it wins, Netflix will be forced to feature it on the main screen…where it belongs. A must watch.
Written on 12/11/2016