Looking at documentaries nearly 90 yrs after “Nanook of the North”

On June 11, 1922 the “father of documentary film,” Robert J. Flaherty, made his most significant work, “Nanook of the North.”  This film is reputed to be the pinnacle of his documentary career as “Citizen Kane” is routinely deemed the pinnacle of Orson Welles’.

Nanook of the North 1922

So roughly 90 years later, I figure that it’s good to ask two questions:

  • How many people watch documentaries?
  • Which recently released ones, by or about people of color, are worth watching?

Documentaries seem to be some of the least respected and loved films.  Unless critics or viewers have raved about a film, and then it has been carried by word of mouth, it seems to be left to sink or swim in the media market place.  The trailers and previews for documentaries seem to be very few and far between.  One well-established and well-known Minneapolis producer, Craig Rice, an African-American, corrects us about the idea of an abyss for documentaries.

They’re “more popular now than they ever were before” Rice said.  He said that, whatever fans of popular films might assume, documentaries are out there.  “And they’re making money.” When asked about people of color, particularly African-Americans’ interest, he said, “I don’t think we watch documentary films!  It’s always about popular films.”

The ones that are worth watching, like those that I’ll recommend, have as much drama, or action, or whatever you want in a movie experience, as the films at the cineplexes.

I’ll recommend three films:

Ken Burns’ “Unforgivable Blackness,” from 2004, is about a brazen iconoclast.  He is Jack Johnson, an African-American.  He was a boxer competing with Anglo (white) foes, in the 1910s when that was neither typical, nor safe.  Anglo men were expected to win and retain the heavy weight title well before the opposite was assumed.  He was such a force of personality that he couldn’t have been ignored in this century and certainly not 100 years ago at the start of the 20th.

He preferred and openly romanced Anglo women.  So 100 years ago, nearly 50 years before the criminal courts made miscegenation legal, he ignored the colorline and lived.

The Film:

“Unforgivable Blackness” is an exceptional film.  It is a compelling story about a 20th century character, Jack Johnson, who seems barely known and rarely discussed in mainstream media.  But he was larger than life.  His bravura preceded, and may have rivaled, that of Mohammed Ali.  At the time, boxing was one vital pillar of Anglo (white) American manhood.  By wanting to compete, as an equal, with Anglo fighters, Mr. Johnson showed his desire to knock that pillar down.  White manhood was at stake.

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Marshall Curry’s “Street Fight,” from 2005, is about a brawling political contest in Newark, New Jersey.  It was that year’s Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature.  This was a mayoral contest between two strong-willed African-American men from disparate backgrounds and who carry themselves with very different swaggers.  There was the 32 year incumbent, Sharpe James, and the Rhodes scholar upstart, Cory Booker.  They are from disparate generations and each one fights to keep and maybe lift the beleaguered city of Newark, New Jersey out of its economic and criminal justice abyss.

The Film:

The film shows those unorthodox and guerilla campaign tactics which Mr. Sharpe’s team used to keep to his mayoral power within his clutches.  He used his official power to have city employees do his crony work, while Mr. Booker strove to run a professional and civil campaign.  With the way that Mr. Booker seems to have chafed against the voters, they seem to have sided with the corruption they know and understood, Mr. James, in lieu of taking a chance with a different smooth talker who might just be an updated Mr. James.  “The Washington Post” called it the best political documentary since “The War Room,” which was a chronicle of James Carville’s and George Stephanopoulos’ work with the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign.

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Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s “Daughter from Danang,” from 2002, is a gut-wrenching story about two women’s reunion: a trans “racial” Vietnamese and American daughter, Heidi Bob, (born Mai thi Hiep) and her Vietnamese birth mother.  It was that year’s Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature.   Ms. Bob, now in her 30s, hadn’t seen her mother since she was taken away at seven years-old.

Their story is complicated by the context and questions of the United States’ Vietnam-era foreign policy.  So, this is the dual narrative of these women’s intertwined stories and an even-handed criticism of that slim portion of American foreign policy.

The film:

“Daughter” opens with the story of how Ms. Bob, a trans “racial” adoptee, was “evacuated” you might say from Vietnam.  This broaches a phalanx of rich, mixed, and probably bittersweet emotions on the parts of the Vietnamese and North American families.  They each want to believe that they are acting for virtue; for the children’s, their families’, and even their respective nations’ sakes.

One stunner.  An irony is that she is one of many adoptees who were relocated to the United States as supposed orphans when they were not; their families were often assured and trusted that the U.S. would reunite them with their children…at some point.

This film opens viewers’ eyes and minds to a little discussed chapter of post-Vietnam war history and the story of trans “racial” adoptees.  As “Daughter” shows it is as simple and as complex as that.

It reminds me of a fiction film: Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth,” from 1993.  It is the third in his defacto Vietnam trilogy.  In its essence it’s a very complex story, with composite characters, about making a life and recreating oneself in a new, foreign, and at times forbidding reality.

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