Powerful Stories Reveal The American Heart

“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” Anthony de Mello

I gravitate towards documentaries in my middle age. When I was younger, documentaries were the films in my Netflix queue that were always delayed for the latest blockbuster or drama. But the real-time, real-life stories that unfold in documentaries inform me about the world, keep my mind churning for days and cause wonderful conversations with friends. These stories have the power to change a heart and to cause action! To quote my friend and fellow Zekefilm contributor Sharon Autenrieth, “Movies mean things, they have power, and viewers who just consume them like movie popcorn – mindlessly, reflexively – are missing out on the fullness of what they have to offer us.”

While I have enjoyed watching all the Oscar nominated films, the documentaries are the ones I find myself thinking through and recommending the most. But these aren’t your average Ken Burns’ documentaries. This year’s nominees take on Autism, the Civil Rights Movement, migrants and O.J. Simpson. Weighty Stuff! Fire At Sea is a Italian film with no narration which is not the norm for the Oscar nominated documentaries. Ava DuVernay’s 13th has free public screening for schools, book clubs and community groups. And then there’s the almost eight hour, 5 part, ESPN produced O.J.: Made In America. (It saw a limited release in theaters so it could be considered for some of these awards.) Based on what’s nominated I believe we can see America’s passions and frustrations. These are the stories that matter.

I read an article today that claimed 60% of Americans can’t name a Best Picture Nominee for this year’s Oscars. I’m guessing that percentage is higher for Nominated Documentaries. (I feel like if a documentary was a human they would be a social worker. Mad respect and honest but never the life of the party.) So I thought I would watch them all, share some thoughts and tell you where you can watch them. I did have a favorite, thus the reason they are ranked, but I loved every single one and highly recommend them all.

5.  Life, Animated – Roger Ross Williams

“So, Owen, how ya’ doin’?” he asks in Iago’s voice. “I mean, how does it feel to be you?”

If you watch the news then the name Ron Suskind might sound familiar. He chronicled the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. But rarely do we see the private lives of reporters. In Life, Animated we meet his family and learn how Ron and his wife Cornelia used dialogue from Aladdin, Dumbo and every Disney animated film to communicate with their autistic son, Owen. Ron, Cornelia and older brother Walter tell Owen’s story from typical toddler to isolated and silent child. At age 6 they make a remarkable discovery, Owen will talk with Iago the parrot from Aladdin. Eventually they learn that through reciting Disney quotes Owen is able to express how he feels, communicate what he wants and even offer encouragement to his family. Jump forward and now a grown Owen is leading Disney movie groups, moving out of his parent’s home and navigating the perilous waters of dating, all with the help of his family and a team of professionals. He even has a chance to speak to a group of therapists and doctors about Autism in France. This once silent boy is now the teacher and speaking French to boot!

Throughout the film the Suskind Family’s dignity is respected but they are open and honest about all the gains and failures in caring for Owen, Walter and each other. This is a dear story about how a family cares for one another but it’s hard story to process. Autism is a long road. In America, the odds are high that you know someone with Autism. How can we live life with our Autistic friends? Watch Life, Animated and learn how.

Life, Animated is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DLLFuiyWRY&w=560&h=315]

4.  13th – Ava DuVernay

“The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”

Ava DuVernay’s (Selma) provocative documentary, 13th, sheds light on a clause in the 13th amendment of the Constitution that basically legalizes slavery through criminalization and mass incarceration. Narrated by a diverse group of activists and lawmakers, 13th focuses on the affects that clause has had on the African America community, as well as how “Big Business” and presidential administrations have had a hand in keeping the cycle alive in Black communities for decades.

After watching 13th I understood that I don’t understand. I am out of touch with politics and honestly too in the “White Christian bubble” to connect. But I should change! That’s the point, awareness and change! PS… Thank you Ava DuVernay! You are a strong African America director that is a great example to so many young ladies in America.

I host a film forum in the small suburb of Normal, Illinois. One film we watched last summer was Zootopia. The news of the summer informed the film selection. Black men, one after another, across the country were being shot and killed by police officers. I thought the animated children’s film would offer a gentle start to a hard but needed conversation. The majority of folks that come to the film forum are middle-class, young and White but there are a few exceptions. My friend Nick, a young African American professional, is a regular at our movie nights. Nick shared some of his thoughts about the fear and reality of what it’s like to be a Black man pulled over by a White cop. This is my friend’s struggle! This moment of realization is similar to the feeling I had as I watched 13th. We need to listen to these stories and to each other and pray for changed hearts!

If I had to put money on which documentary will win the Oscar, every dime would be on Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

13th is available to stream on Netflix.

3.  O.J.: Made In America – Ezra Edelman

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.!”

This documentary is tangible. I watched that white Bronco cruise the Santa Ana Freeway the summer of 1994. I had just graduated from high school. His trial was on every TV in every home. I remember hearing Johnnie Cochran say “If it (the glove) doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” and thinking, O.J. must be innocent! But what my naive mind didn’t put together was how the Rodney King case and other events in L.A. effected that verdict.

This five part docu-series starts with Orenthal James Simpson’s college football days at University of Southern California in 1967 and ends with his sentencing in Nevada in 2008. You witness his rise to fame, his professional football career and his desires to act. His private life is revealed: a gay father, an affair, a drowned child and unlimited wealth and white friends. Meanwhile pressure in L.A. builds between the African American communities and police. (The power of “meanwhile” is used well here.) Because director Ezra Edelman was granted so much freedom and no time constraints by ESPN, no event in O.J.’s life is skipped. The people interviewed are close to the conflict in California and to “Juice” as well. All is revealed, jury members confess, photo’s of the murder scene horrify and all the while O.J. is camera ready! Edelman’s point, the race war in America rages on, there are casualties on both sides, the American judicial system can’t save us and O.J. Simpson is the star of this bitter drama.

O.J. :Made In America is available to stream on ESPN, Hulu and on Amazon.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrB3rOcrJxg&w=560&h=315]

2.  I Am Not Your Negro – Raoul Peck

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” 

James Baldwin’s words and prophetic thoughts are the centerpiece of this beautiful film. In I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck used an unpublished work of Baldwins, Remember This House, to walk from 1957 when Baldwin returned to America, to 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Peck uses that history mixed with images from current American race conflicts to show that not much has changed in 60 years. Baldwin’s words spoken through the powerful narration voice of Samuel L. Jackson are a gut-punch. Jackson is serious and subdued, quite different from his normal characters. I Am Not Your Negro forces you to face the challenge, to see the history and to look at America in all it’s courage and ugliness.

I gained so much from this film and I am thankful for Baldwin’s remembrance of Dorothy Counts, a 15 year-old girl that desegregated a Charlotte, North Carolina High School. As she walked to school that first morning there was a mob of aggressive and dangerous white people tormenting her. Reports said her long, red-and-yellow dress was covered in spit by the end of the day. Her courage is a testimony, her persistence a stone of help! I Am Not Your Negro is full of these stories and they are worth your time.

But don’t just take my word. ZekeFilm Co-Founder Jim Tudor listed I Am Not Your Negro in his Top Ten Films from 2016. And he knows a lot about movies!

I Am Not Your Negro is available to pre-order on Amazon, and it’s playing in select theaters nationwide. (It is showing at The Normal Theater February 28th and March 2nd & 5th)

1. Fire At Sea – Gianfranco Rosi

“It’s the duty of every human being to help these people.”

What I Am Not Your Negro did with words, Fire At Sea does with a picture. This quiet giant is a must see for this moment in history. We are a country at war over the migrant and refugee. What do we do? What is best for the refugee? What is best for us? Gianfranco Rosi confronts these issues without narration. He shows us the life of Lampedusa, a small island between Libya and Sicily. We are introduced to Samuele, an active adolescent who struggles with a lazy eye and anxiousness, knows how to make a mean slingshot and spends time on the family fishing boat with his father. Meanwhile, right off the coast, Italian naval vessels and volunteers fight to save the tens of thousands of migrants that sail across the Mediterranean in hope of a better life. They are from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and they have no home. They have given everything they have to buy passage on a small fishing boat that will take multiple days to reach it’s destination. For example, a “First Class” ticket cost $1,800.00 and this gives you a spot to sit in the open air on the boat. No food provided, not a room and this is “First Class”. In “Third Class” people are shoved into cargo holds under the deck near the engines. Many die from fuel poisoning, starvation and illness. Hope is lost and the Mediterranean becomes a graveyard for thousands. Rosi doesn’t have to say a word, the dead bodies and weeping mothers scream the point! (I was unnerved.) All of this in contrast to the steady life of house wives making coffee and a small boy with the freedom to explore his island home. But the people of Italy and Lampedusa do not ignore the S.O.S. call when the boats get in radio distance. On the contrary, they do whatever they can to save the lives of those aboard the boats. (Amen!)

That relevance along with the stunning cinematography and the alternate approach to story telling gave it the slight advantage over I Am Not Your Negro. Both are important and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in the current political issues that wallpaper our Facebook feeds and dominate our conversations.

Fire At Sea is available to buy on iTunes.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFuE5sjGG7U&w=560&h=315]

2016 was a wonderful year for documentaries! While these are superb I would also highly recommend Eagle Huntress, Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World, Gleason, Miss Sharon Jones!, Into The Inferno, Sky Ladder: The Art Of Cai Guo-Qiang, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week and Gimme Danger.