The folks at DISH—sensing that it might be a sensible idea to remain on my good side—offered up what they call “Kids Binge-a-Palooza” in the latter part of July this month. (Apparently this is their second year of sponsoring this, having had a month-long celebration previously in 2017.) What this entails is offering subscribers gratis access to family-oriented channels like the Nickelodeon quartet of Nickelodeon, Nick, Jr., NIcktoons, and TeenNick, as well as other offerings like Boomerang, Starz Kids & Family, and StarzEncore Family. We’re already getting this last channel as part of our StarzEncore package, so after a quick glance at Starz Kids & Family and seeing nothing worth missing dinner for, I dismissed Binge-a-Palooza with a wave of the hand.
DISH then decided to extend the “Palooze” through August 14, and while cruising around the On Demand selections I noticed that they granted access to all of the Starz On Demand titles as a result of the Kids & Family freeview. (Henhouse, meet fox.) There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t either already watched or will watch in future (when it comes to Encore) but I did manage to nab three documentaries that piqued my interest.
The Pulitzer at 100 (2016) – New York World publisher Joseph J. Pulitzer, having had his reputation bruised when he freely engaged in “yellow journalism” in order to compete for circulation with rival William Randolph Hearst, wanted to salvage his good name by establishing a school of journalism at Columbia University. This project would not be fulfilled until after Pulitzer’s passing in 1911, but a by-product of this was that the prestigious Pulitzer Prize was also established (beginning in 1917), recognizing excellence in the fields of newspaper and magazine (and later online) journalism, literature, and musical composition. The Pulitzer at 100 (2016) commemorates the centennial of what I jokingly call “the Academy Awards of journalism.”
Pulitzer isn’t a bad documentary…but it is a disappointing one. It attempts to cover too much ground in ninety minutes, and to be honest I think the history of the prize would have been better tackled in a kind of multi-part PBS documentary (I’d pitch this to Ken Burns, but he’s stopped taking my calls). The presentation is padded with recitations from prize-winning works by personalities like Helen Mirren, Yara Shahidi, and Natalie Portman, with the content of the documentary jumping around in a jumbled manner.
The Pulitzer at 100 is not without interest: I enjoyed the segments on John Filo (who snagged the Pulitzer for his 1970 Kent State photography) and Nick Ut (a Pulitzer winner for the unforgettable “Napalm Girl”), and an interview with Carl Bernstein made me curious to check out All the President’s Men (1976) again (I’ve got it on the DVR). However, you will have to endure reminiscences from the repellent Thomas Friedman…and I would have liked anecdotes on some of the controversies in the Prize’s history (like Janet Cooke’s forfeiture of her 1981 award when it was revealed she had fabricated much of the story that got her the win). All in all, there’s just too little time devoted to what is unquestionably a fascinating subject.
Stranger Fruit (2017) – With a titular nod to the Abel Meeropol poem (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit…”), Stranger Fruit documents the August 9, 2014 execution of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. I don’t use the term “execution” lightly; this probing film examines one of the gravest miscarriages of justice in the 21st century, written and directed by Jason Pollock…who gives no quarter when calling out the racists in law enforcement, the legal system, and the political arena that participated in what he believes to be a disgraceful cover-up.
Pollock makes no bones about which side he’s on in Stranger Fruit—so if you’re still convinced that the story circulated by law enforcement, etc. is the official one, you’re going to want to skip the movie. Personally, I believe Pollock makes a most convincing case (pointing out so many inconsistencies and lies in the investigation you’ll need a slide rule to accurately document the dishonesty) that a murder occurred and rather than own up to the tragedy that took place, the police and the legal system closed ranks to protect one of their own because it’s just what they do—it’s baked into their DNA. Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland…and too many more to count have all been crushed under the heel of an organization whose historical roots have been traced to the “slave patrols” of the 16th century.
When the documentary premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival in March of 2017, Fruit revealed previously unreleased video footage from the convenience store purportedly “robbed” by Brown moments before supercop Darren Wilson gunned him down. The director argues that Brown had bartered a bag of marijuana for two boxes of cigarillos the night before he was assassinated and that he left his cigarillos with the night shift to be picked up later…but that the day shift workers did not know about the transaction, which is why there was an altercation between the store worker and Brown in the video that was released. Both St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCullough—who took charge of the grand jury investigation of the Brown killing in what some claimed was mostly a defense of Wilson—and Jay Kanzler, an attorney for the convenience store, dispute this footage and charge that the video had been edited (Pollock points out the inconsistencies in their horseshit explanation, too). I like the claim over at Wikipedia that states “The store’s attorney said the video had been in the hands of Brown’s family and law enforcement since the initial investigation”—if that’s true…why didn’t Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson release both videos when he (falsely) claimed he was forced to release the footage due to a FOI request? (The answer is, of course, that it would conflict with the narrative the cops concocted to justify Mike’s killing.)
“The police are able to use the press to make the white public think…that ninety percent or ninety-nine percent of the Negroes in the Negro community are criminals,” thundered Malcolm X in a speech that remains disturbingly relevant today. What has remained with me after watching Stranger Fruit is the anguish and grief from Michael’s mother, Lezley McSpadden (who announced in April her intention to run for a city council seat in Ferguson), whose complete emotional devastation at the loss of her son is so profoundly moving I literally found myself clenching my fists in frustration at the family’s inability to get justice for Mike. Director Pollock, who conducts many of the interviews in Fruit, juxtaposes the senseless killings of individuals like Michael, Walter Scott, and Philando Castile with a brief story about how the owner of a dog shot by the police was awarded a million–dollar judgment in court. It’s an insane world in which we live, cartooners.
The Rape of Recy Wilson (2017) – I thought that Stranger Fruit was the best of the three documentaries I watched from Starz…until I unspooled this movie. Many people became acquainted with “Recy Wilson” when Oprah Winfrey name-dropped her during her stirring #MeToo speech at the Golden Globes this year as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille (lifetime achievement) Award. (The news that Taylor had left this world for a better one in December of 2017 at the age of 97 made the speech that much more poignant.) I didn’t become acquainted with the full details of her case until I read this article at The Root, and when I saw The Rape of Recy Wilson among the Starz On Demand documentary offerings I knew I’d have to check it out.
Taylor, a 24-year-old wife and mother who resided in Abbeville, AL, was kidnapped by a gang of seven young white men on her way home from church on September 3, 1944, and was raped by six of them (one of the youths insisted he took no part, telling authorities he was reluctant to do so because he knew Taylor). Recy reported the incident to the local authorities, whose investigation could charitably be called “cavalier,” and when the case went to trial in October an all-white, all-male jury exonerated the participants (who, technically, were never arrested—hence my use of “cavalier”).
The Recy Wilson case was taken up by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, who sent down one of their top investigators—Rosa Parks. Danielle L. McGuire (who appears in the documentary), the author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance documents that the sheriff manhandled Rosa during one visit to Recy’s father’s home, throwing her off the porch, an account reinforced by Robert Corbitt, Recy’s younger brother. Taylor refused to be silent, however, and with the help of Parks, the NAACP, and the northern black newspaper press of the time, pressure was put on then-Governor Chauncey Sparks to reconvene a grand jury to investigate the matter. (Sadly, that avenue of justice would eventually be roadblocked as well.)
The Rape of Recy Taylor was written and directed by Nancy Buirski, who did another first-rate documentary in The Loving Story (2011), about the criminal trial of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving that later led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling. (I saw this one during an HBO freeview, and I highly recommend it.) Buirski was fortunate in that she was able to use reminiscences from Taylor before her passing as well as brother Corbitt and Recy’s sister Alma Daniels (who died in 2016). There are also cogent insights from historian Crystal Feimster, who establishes how Recy’s story was just one of many that occurred in an era where the act of raping African-American females was a rite of passage among Southern white men, going back to the days of slavery. What really makes Rape so effective is its use of both home movies and clips from that era’s “race films,” where such movies as Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) and Spencer Williams’ The Blood of Jesus (1941) blend seamlessly with the haunting presentation.
Recy Wilson, though denied justice, years later wanted nothing more than an apology from the state of Alabama—which the state legislature gave her in 2011. In a disturbing way, Wilson’s story is not much different than Michael Brown’s; attempts were made to discredit her account of that horrible September 1944 night by calling her a “prostitute” and “whore” much as it was necessary to excuse the murder of Brown by painting a picture of him as a violent young man capable of robbery (and then when the new video footage crept out, the Flying Monkey Right dismissed him as a “drug dealer”—forgetting that the footage now revealed his executioner to be a liar). Wilson’s tale is a sad one (I wouldn’t blame you if you teared up when they discuss the later difficulties she had in life) yet it makes for a most compelling ninety minutes.