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Recommended Films at the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

- Opening Nights: in New York City – Producers Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver, director Anthony Mandler, and actors Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Wright, and Jennifer Ehle reflected on their work in All Rise; and in Washington, D.C. - Director Leana Hosea discussed her Thirst For Justice

Activism Celebrated and Encouraged at the First Annual Cinematters: Social Justice Film Festival

By Nora Lee Mandel

The weekend of Martin Luther King’s Birthday, a lively new film festival opened in New York City and Washington, D.C. that admirably reflected his concerns, commitment, and hopes for the future. According to the organizers, the intent of the First Annual Cinematters: Social Justice Film Festival was to select, from different local and national festivals, “impactful films that engage the community toward a more democratic, inclusive, and just society” by “inspiring towards action."

Running January 16 - 20, the screenings of ten films, supplemented by discussions and introductions to volunteer opportunities, in New York City were organized and hosted by The Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center of Manhattan’s Carole Zabar Film Center, which also spotlights minority perspectives through the Other Israel Film Festival and ReelAbilities Film Festival, and Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility on the Upper West Side.

The dual city program was also presented at the just beautifully renovated Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, DC by its JxJ arts project and Morris Cafritz Center for Social Responsibility. Five of the festival’s films were shown, through January 23, in the expanded cinema of Cafritz Hall, near Dupont Circle. The follow-up discussions included the films’ directors, producers, and activists from local organizations involved daily with such issues as inequality, injustice, racial discrimination, and LGBTQ rights passionately argued in the films.

All Rise
The All-Americans
Always In Season
American Muslim
Changing The Game
College Behind Bars
Slay The Dragon
Thirst For Justice
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality
We Are The Radical Monarchs

Commentary on the films of Cinematters: Social Justice Film Festival


Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman. Credit: Glen Wilson /Focus Features release

In making the first, and long overdue, bio-pic of the 19th century African-American woman who may yet be recognized as iconic on the $20 bill, director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons (Talk To Me) takes the populist educational approach of her chosen historical consultants to highlight Harriet Tubman’s own agency and can comfortably be shown in schools and general public Black History Month commemorations, including as the Closing Night festival feature in New York.

Broadway star Erivo’s first lead film role is such a charismatic performance that she helps to paper over the fairly fictionalized, bogged-down interpretation of her life and relationships as a slave in Maryland. Minty the slave experiences a premonition of being sold down South by her young indebted owner, and her escape to Philadelphia in 1849 plays as an anointed miracle. Choosing to name herself “Harriet Tubman”, her awkward adjustment to freedom then decade of determination before the Civil War to repeat that route as “Moses” on the Underground Railroad liberating her family and scores of slaves are effective period pieces. The threats of the Fugitive Slave Act reaching for her into the abolitionist movement up North are powerfully portrayed, albeit her owner’s continuing obsession seems staged for overly dramatic effect. Her service as a scout for the Union Army is a thrillingly re-created coda, so her subsequent decades of civil rights activism, into the 20th century, are a quiet after thought in this beautiful looking tribute.

All Rise
Kevin Harrison Jr. stars as Steve Harmon

Playing at the packed Opening Night in New York and the Closing Night in Washington, DC, this adaptation of the late Walter Dean Myers’s popular 1999 young adult novel Monster changed its shared title since premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The white Assistant District Attorney’s “J’Accuse” of the defendant charged with felony murder as a “monster” seems an even more extreme application of unjustified stereotyped perceptions of black male teenagers by law enforcement that have contributed over decades to mass incarceration.

In the screenplay by Radha Blank, Colen C. Wiley and Janece Shaffer, this version of Steve Harmon (yet another sterling performance by young Harrison, as in Luce) is now a 17-year-old Stuyvesant High School student from a stable, middle class Harlem family, living not far uptown from the JCC, with supportive parents played by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson. His very well-dressed lawyer (Jennifer Ehle) is confusingly labeled “an overworked public defender”, but in NYC she would probably be court-appointed. While one audience member at the Q & A in Manhattan was pleased to see a responsible African-American father on screen (unlike in the original book), another felt that the neighborhood guys who draw the budding filmmaker (studying with Tim Blake Nelson as his teacher) into their robbery-turned-accidental murder are clichés. But debut director Anthony Mandler, known for his music videos, defended A$AP Rocky aka Rakim Mayers’s choice to base his portrayal of instigator William King on his own late brother’s wayward life in Harlem, and noted the dialogue’s sophisticated analysis of the illegal economy in the neighborhood. With a last minute flashback, the ambiguity of the protagonist’s involvement is suspensefully left through the end.


Always In Season
Claudia Lacy at her son Lennon’s grave in Bladenboro, NC. Photographer: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Several years before #BlackLivesMatter movement erupted on social media in 2013 and onto TV news in late 2014, debut feature director Jacqueline Olive was already working on her extraordinary integration of contextualizing the contemporary violence against African-American men within a long American tradition. Beyond smoothly editing in talking head experts on then and now, with images of archival newspaper articles, she vividly brings the issue to life by following people who persist in keeping the connections public, for very private reasons.

The emotional anchor throughout the film is Claudia Lacy in Bladenboro, North Carolina, as she learns about the strange death of her 17-year-old football player son, Lennon, found hanging from a playground swing set on August 29, 2014. The police immediately declare the death a suicide. But with no investigation or evidence collected, his mother and brother are as skeptical as they are grief stricken. Alongside the family, Olive digs deeper into Bladenboro, where the whites say everyone gets along, and into how the teen was perceived. Throughout the years of filming, Mrs. Lacy shares with family and friends who remember Lennon, and she bravely persists in challenging the police finding.

The more that’s gradually revealed about Lennon’s life and death, the more he fits into the tragic history of lynchings in the U.S. Gruesome postcards from James Allen’s Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America show that the brutal mob attacks on blacks (primarily men), were witnessed by festive crowds of white families. Executive producer Danny Glover speaks the historical passages for additional resonances. (Not mentioned is that crusading journalist Ida B. Wells from the 1890’s and the NAACP through the 20th century led unsuccessful campaigns to make lynching a federal crime.)

So at first it seems shocking to see a group in Monroe, Georgia dangling a noose in front of an African-American man they are pushing along to a bridge. With much relief (spoiler alert) this is a re-enactment of an awful, well-documented case of the torture and lynching of four people in July 25, 1946 at the Moores Ford Bridge. Each of the white men and women stubbornly continuing the annual reenactments have intensely personal reasons for their commitment to make sure the town never forgets the power in the past of the KKK, including their own family members. As disturbing as is this community theater activism, it is a fascinating counterpoint to Civil War reenactments and the persistent loyalty to Confederate statues and symbols. Hopefully, their efforts may chip away at this cultural intransigency. After winning a special “Moral Urgency” award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival led to a brief run on the Lower East Side last fall, both festival cities gave the film and director a showcase for discussions before the premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens on February 24.

True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality
©HBO - Stevenson in front of the exhibited jars of soil collected by the Community Remembrance Project from some of this country’s 4,400 lynching sites at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, AL.

Stevenson is one of the lynching experts interviewed in Always In Season, and this bio-doc expands on his life, legal cases, and educational work, like the documentary take of his 2014 autobiography Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, that is also the basis for Destin Daniel Cretton’s current fictionalized bio pic, starring Michael B. Jordan as the young lawyer version.

Stevenson updates the historical perspective of racial brutality to term white Americans who participated in lynchings as terrorists and the six million black people who went north and west in “The Great Migration” as exiles and refugees. He compares how Germany is full of Holocaust markers, while the Southern landscape looks like the Confederacy won the Civil War. So he spearheaded the creation of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first monument “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” This perspective grew out of his experience in the courtroom.

Stevenson moved from Delaware, to Harvard Law, to Atlanta’s Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, to Montgomery, AL in the 1980s, where he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 to represent people on death row. EJI has achieved reversals, relief, or release for over 135 death row prisoners, defends the wrongly convicted and unfairly sentenced, has overturned numerous sentences, and won cases before the Supreme Court. (At both venues, activists discussed their related work.)

Stevenson’s legal work is exemplified through the case of Anthony Ray Hinton (portrayed in Have Mercy by O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who spent nearly three decades on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit, and is very grateful to his hero. The lawyer notes it’s easier to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Father and sons filmmakers Peter, George, and Teddy Kunhardt viewed Stevenson’s call-to-action TED Talk on racism in the criminal justice system, and saw him as an exemplar of the moral leadership they prioritize as a documentary subject; another brother who is the Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Foundation made the introduction. At age 59, Stevenson does come across as almost impossibly noble as he expands his fight against racism in the criminal justice system beyond Alabama, but this is suitable for educational use, that the directors plan on following through on, in addition to streaming on HBO platforms.

Thirst For Justice - East Coast Premiere
- Water protest in Flint, Michigan

In her debut feature documentary, BBC multimedia investigative journalist Leana Hosea followed women across the U.S. who have direct experience with the health impacts of being lied to by government agencies about the safety of their family’s drinking water. Separately and together, they demand clean water and Hosea herself was arrested for covering a protest.

Janene Yazzie, a young Navajo mother in Sanders, Arizona, guides us through the horrible history of wildcat uranium mining that has left dangerous pollution in the waters and land throughout the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest U.S. (Overlooking the Grand Canyon, Hosea demonstrates Geiger counter readings like near Chernobyl.) Yazzie coordinates with a Navajo PhD student for the first testing of contamination, and learns, for a start, the water in her local school is unsafe. Even as she introduces the audience to dying families and speaks up at government hearings, no authorities act.

Yazzie angrily presumes this is a symptom of the continuing genocide of her Native people, until Hosea brings her up to Flint and she’s surprised to find kindred spirits. Christina Murphy has been angry since the city’s water corroded the assembly line at the plant where her husband worked, and made him ill. But the company, the city and the state never told them until, like on the reservation, an outside academic did tests to reveal that everyone’s water in the city was unsafe due to government mismanagement. While there seems to have been lots of news, documentary, and other coverage of the Flint water crisis (the African-American community organizer Nayyirah Shariff featured here was played by Jill Scott in Bruce Beresford’s 2017 Lifetime movie), the shocker is that the government response is still so sluggish and unresponsive that even the continuing provision of the bottled water alternative has to be a battle.

Interspersed throughout this galvanizing film are spiritual comments on nature by indigenous activists, from Ojibwe Elder Mary Lyons to shamans in Finland. They connect to the participants joining the Sioux-led protest at Standing Rock against the pipeline that could easily pollute their Missouri River drinking water source. As the court cases dragged on into the anti-regulatory Trump administration, Hosea moved on to a smaller protest against a pipeline on Lake Superior in Wisconsin – where she was arrested. At both Festival Q & A’s, she credited a prominent New York First Amendment lawyer for getting the charges dismissed – a resource most activists can’t tap.

Slay The Dragon
- Katie Fahey, founder of Michigan grassroots organization Voters Not Politicians, photo courtesy of Participant Media/Magnolia Pictures

The Flint water crisis brought frustration with the Republican control of Michigan state government to a boiling point. People got angry enough to figure out that the esoterica of gerrymandering was to blame – which happens when the post-Census re-configuring of electoral district maps is manipulated into odd advantageous shapes by the party in power – and began organizing to do something about it.

Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance started out basing their documentary on journalist David Daley’s 2016 book Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. Daley guides how state representation in Michigan (and North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and more) was re-configured through the well-funded Republican State Leadership Committee’s computer data-driven Redistricting Majority Project, known as REDMAP. Run by Chris Jankowski, he proudly tells of first targeting state legislatures with post-Citizens United big bucks to achieve GOP majorities in the 2010 elections, then focused on locking in that victory for the next decade through the secretive mapmaking of Thomas Hofeller. Despite Hofeller’s warnings for top security, his hard drive files leaked after his 2018 death, and are here big reveals of the Republican intentions and calculations, and continue to figure in several lawsuits about redistricting, in Michigan and other states, as well as about the Census.

Jeff Reichert’s 2010 documentary Gerrymandering “starred” then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his successful push for the 2008 ballot initiative “The Voters First Act” to create an independent, transparent Citizens Redistricting Commission; he is frequently interviewed here without that context. Now considered a national model, this nonpartisan agency takes re-districting away from the politicians in the legislature, and inspired 20-something Katie Fahey to organize a similar effort in Michigan – first through social media, then starting the state-wide Voters Not Politicians. Now the co-founder and executive director of The People, a group that pushes for nonpartisan governmental reforms, her learning on-the-job how to organize a state-wide ballot race is a roller coaster of excitement and confusing legal challenges. The film also follows a similarly frustrating court case in Wisconsin.

The legal fights still go on; Common Cause is involved with many, and gave an update after this screening. Premiering at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, then to this Manhattan Festival showing, Magnolia Pictures will release Slay The Dragon in theaters on March 13.

Four documentaries profile diverse minorities, each with a different approach to activism: by example, by reluctant individual, and by group organizing:

The All-Americans
Player in the November East L.A. Classic high school football game, photo courtesy of Abramorama

As the radio airwaves of Los Angeles are heard filling with hate against migrants from Latin America, feature debut director Billy McMillin fills the screen with the James Garfield High School Bull Dogs and the Theodore Roosevelt High School Rough Riders preparing to continue an East Los Angeles football rivalry tradition that goes back to 1925. In the largest Latinx community in the U.S., “The Classic” packs 25,000 fans into the local college stadium.

Filming the year before the 2016 election, together with cinematographer Ann Rosencrans, the larger societal pressures are already affecting the students and coaches McMillin follows for more than the season. Roosevelt’s Coach Javier Cid is proud that his local team has a 100% graduation rate, and the camera spends time in their relevant classes, too. His Assistant Coach Alfred Robledo is a dedicated alumnus. Garfield’s Coach Lorenzo Hernández is fine with bringing in boys from out of the district to beef up his team. The new quarterback Stevie Williams from South Central is one of the few African-Americans in the school; he’s willing to ride buses for hours each day to play football at a better school.

Though the athletes are hard to keep track of when they are at practice and games, this is not a sports doc; non-football fans can appreciate the limited playing time. Seeing what it takes for them to get on the field is much more involving, for two young men in particular. Garfield’s Joseph Silva is heartbreakingly trying so hard to not be dragged down by his circumstances of parents who have been in and out of drugs, gangs, and jail, that working to support his baby daughter looms far over school and football; we can see his defensive linebacker position could help him learn to modulate his built-up aggression. At Roosevelt, Mario Ramirez is a top-notch student crammed into a small house with family who are undocumented immigrants, as is his girlfriend, all living with constant fear of deportation. We can see he deserves better college advising than to aim between unaffordable Ivy League schools or the local community college. He participated with the director in a panel after the screening.

A closing scroll updates the participants’ unpredictable lives. Abramorama did release the documentary in theaters last November, after West Coast festivals. With the current POTUS’s rants against migrants from south of the border wall heard briefly, the film is engulfed in the irony of their schools’ historic presidential names. The striving of their student-athletes is their activism.

American Muslim
- Yemeni-American teacher Debbie Almontaser at rally with her granddaughter, photo by Adam Zucker

Director Adam Zucker started researching American Muslims right after the Presidential election in 2016. When he saw members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah greeting Islamic Center at NYU worshipers that Friday, and weekly, with friendly flowers, he realized interfaith outreach was possible right in NYC’s diverse neighborhoods. He first joined with Afghan-American women on the Women’s March, and went on to interview five charismatic Muslims in Brooklyn and Queens and follow them cinema verité style:

Mohamed Bahi, a genial Algerian-American family man in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, founded Muslims Giving Back, and is seen as he conducts food and fundraising drives to feed the homeless and their Asian and Latino neighbors, as well as supporting an emergency women’s shelter. Touchingly, he mobilizes his mosque to adopt a new, overwhelmed immigrant family each month, helping with rent and furnishings.

Kobir Chowdhury is a modest Bengali-American leader of a mosque in the large Muslim community of Ozone Park, Queens, where we see him supervising transformation of a block-long parking lot into a giant Eid service, including many celebratory young men in traditional garb who are so often the target of prejudicial fear. At his day job, he runs a small shop providing financial services for new Bengali immigrants.

Imam Shamsi Ali is the Indonesian-American head of the Jamaica Muslim Center (Masjid Al-Mamoor) in Queens. A renowned author, he is seen presiding over colorfully elaborate Indonesian weddings, as well as conducting a workshop for Jews and Muslims at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

Aber Kawas, a young Palestinian-American woman in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, has been an activist with Muslim youth since 9/11 provoked anti-Muslim animosity. Worse, her undocumented father was detained for three years before being deported to Jordan—and has not been allowed to return.

Yemeni-American Debbie Almontaser is a long-time educator and activist. However, Zucker neglects to mention she has been a lightning rod in the city about Arabic studies in the public schools. When “the Muslim Ban” was first announced, she galvanized protests, and has organized to raise awareness how every Yemeni-American citizen in the U.S. has a relative stranded amidst the civil war there.

The ban spurred all the participants to be more visible to non-Muslims in the city, so they welcomed the filmmaker. They were all at last year’s DocNYC premiere; Cinematters showings were both at the JCC and at a Brooklyn screening room. Zucker now uses the film as the basis for the American Muslim Interfaith Project, which holds designated interfaith screenings with discussions.

Changing The Game
Andraya Yearwood outdoors training, photo by Turner Jumonville

Director Michael Barnett intimately profiles a tumultuous year in the lives of three teen athletes. From their points of view, each says they are living their “true self” as trans and compete in high school sports. While their families adjust, the young people have to train and grow up, amidst a storm of controversy.

In New Hampshire, skier Sarah Rose Huckman just wants, like the state license plates say, “to live free or die”. The school district rules were that a trans student had to have reassignment surgery to compete in their identifying gender category, but she lobbied hard to get the policy changed as an unreasonable expectation for a minor. When she’s not training, she, like so many girls, posts how to put on make-up videos, where she first came out as trans. Her mother: “I was never a girly girl, like she is. I had to change. I have to appreciate her getting hair and nails done. She influenced me to do it too.” As strong as she says she is, Sarah is tempted to hold back in races to avoid accusations of physical advantage.

In Connecticut, students can compete based on gender identity, so Andraya Yearwood was able to race to state track champion. Her coach argues: "Would it be fair to tell somebody that you have all of the rights and privileges of a given gender except in this one situation? Either you do or you don't."

In Texas, Mack Beggs is a wrestler. State rules require classification based on the gender on birth certificate, so he has to wrestle girls. His previous year’s Girls’ State Championship was fodder for Fox News, generating intense reactions as scary as death threats. In contrast, there is a lot of puppy-love screen time with his horse-loving girlfriend.

Other teens are accepting. The parents of their competitors are not, as seen in montages of their viciousness against these emotionally fragile kids, on radio, TV, and shouted at their sports events. However, only these really nasty, loud extremists are heard, rather than any discussions of the gendered differences between physical bodies in athletics, other than examples of unusually advantaged CIS athletes, like Michael Phelps’ long torso or NBA players’ heights. A coach defends that high school sports shouldn’t be about fairness or winning, but about the participants improving as people. I’m not sure that lofty rhetoric convinces them.

Since its world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary has primarily played at LGBTQ Pride Pride film festivals, before Cinematters. These young people’s determination and equanimity in the face of challenges are role models for anyone.

We Are The Radical Monarchs
Charter member Amia, 8 years old, in Oakland, CA’s first girls’ alternative troop

When two queer women of color community organizers, Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest, didn’t see a troop in Oakland, California especially for middle-school-age brown and black girls, like Martinez’s daughter, that reflected their social justice goals, they created the Radical Monarchs. Garnering publicity as soon as the dozen 8 – 11 years olds showed up to their first march in their distinctive brown berets, a la 1960s Chicano activists and the Black Panthers, they also attracted director Linda Goldstein Knowlton. She felt her film, seen in both Festival cities, was documenting the birth of a movement as she followed them for three and a half years, from the group’s early days in 2015 through their graduation.

With their background in child development, Martinez and Hollinquest created a curriculum to combine diversity with social action. Girls earn custom-made badges like: “Radical Beauty” where they challenge mainstream media images of women’s faces and bodies as ideals; “#BlackLivesMatter” where the girls study the Ferguson, Missouri protests with #BLM co-founder Alicia Garza; “LGBTQ Pride” in June for Pride Month in the San Francisco Bay Area; and “Disability Justice” with a guest activist’s personal perspective.

To cut through their repetitive, heavily jargoned, local rhetorical flourishes, it helps to know that the group decided “radical” means “fierce community advocate”. For all their talk of self-empowerment and affirmation (which includes repeating the leaders’ stock phrases and chants), a lot of the actual activities they are seen doing are making banners and participating in demonstrations for each cause, such as the Trans March during Pride Weekend and the Women’s March in Oakland.

Martinez and Hollinquest get many requests to help start similar troops, but this started out as a volunteer project while both were working full time. As they work to develop guidelines for replication (and then get laid off), they are seen holding workshops for future troop leaders. They usefully emphasize that all the material should be at age-appropriate level, and advise to check out guest speakers in advance for their relatability to kids. Even with their background in fundraising, it takes them several years, but the final scroll affirms funding so they can sustain the expansion. Since the film premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival last year -- where the girls caused a stir in their brown berets at a press conference asking NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “What advice do you have for girls of color who want to break into politics?”--, Troop #2 is well-established, and accomplishing AOC’s response: “Stop trying to navigate systems of power and start building your own power.”

College Behind Bars
Courtesy of New York Film Festival

In addition to these feature films, 45 minutes of highlights from director Lynn Novick’s revealing four-part documentary series were shown during the “Shabbat Shabbang” dinner in NY. This inside look at the difficulties and transformations for the incarcerated men and women students in the Bard Prison Initiative was filmed over four years with unusual access inside maximum and medium security prisons in New York State. I covered the 2019 New York Film Festival world premiere of the full four-hour series at Film at Lincoln Center in advance of the PBS broadcast.

For D.C. and New York cineastes, especially, compared to the seemingly hopeless and depressing issues featured in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the strident mix in the ramshackle Socially Relevant Film Festival, these films emphasize, and frequently demonstrate, determination and activism to change around lives and communities, for when the audience gets out of the theater.

updated 2/1/2020

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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