In the wake of the recent DOC NYC 2002 is heating up with some amazing documentaries. Whether available on demand on one of the major players or otherwise, these docs do what the best of the genre do: observe and uncover truth.
“Life of Crime 1984-2020”
Director: Jon Alpert
Jon Alpert has made the most extraordinary documentary of the year, which is only fitting considering he worked at it for thirty-six years. The outstanding result is “Life of Crime 1984-2020,” which starts out as a dark journey with three small-time hoods from Newark, New Jersey, and ends up a searing portrait of the cycle of addiction, the hollowing out of America’s inner cities and an overall indictment of the criminal justice system.
As his film promises, Alpert starts out in 1984, with Freddie and Rob making a name for themselves stealing store merchandise and then selling it on Newark’s streets at a discount. We learn little of their backgrounds but get the sense that chaos perpetuates itself: In an early scene another of their fellow thieves, Mike, is seen physically abusing his girlfriend in front of the couple’s poor child.
It seems these guys can’t help themselves, and even at this early juncture have given themselves up to the notion they will be both caught and jailed. This proves prophetic as, a few years later, all three are arrested. Mike ceases to cooperate with the filmmaker at that point, but Alpert has another ready subject in Deliris, Rob’s erstwhile girlfriend and a chronic heroin addict. Deliris has young children, who are left to fend for themselves night after night as Deliris turns tricks to finance her habit.
Over the decades, Freddie, Rob and Deliris are in and out of prison, as well as rehab. Freddie learns he is HIV positive, but even that doesn’t keep him away from the heroin needle. Rob ostensibly makes a stab at both sobriety and going straight, and things seem to go well—for a while anyway. All the while parole officers do their best to help the three break the cycle, while maintaining a visage that betrays their knowledge of the statistics surrounding recidivism.
The ultimate fates of Freddie, Rob and Deliris are all tragic but sadly not surprising. As late as 2019, we rejoice to learn that Deliris has apparently found her way, having found Jesus and now coaching others through sobriety and spending quality time with her now-adult children, whom we have seen grow over many years. The covid-19 pandemic will force Deliris into an unexpected turn, and as we watch the film’s final scene, with the gathered all together in masks, we can’t help but realize that the pandemic has stolen so much—even from those whom the virus did not directly infect.
This is incredible filmmaking, and Alpert seems poised for a bevy of awards for his efforts.
Now available on HBO Max.
Directors: Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry
It’s been a half-century since prisoners took over the infamous Attica Correctional Facility in western New York in 1971, and “Attica” has a great deal to say about the relations between law enforcement and those they police—both then and now. The co-directors speak to formerly incarcerated members of the prison, who relate that the riot was, if not directly caused by, then certainly stoked by guards withholding basic provisions and treating prisoners of color severely worse than Whites. Over the days of the riot, we learn that several prisoners, who had been to Vietnam, dug outdoor latrines and essentially put their military training to practice in a most unorthodox way.
Negotiations were being held, but then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, echoing Richard Nixon’s get-tough approach, approved an armed incursion into the prison, resulting in over 40 deaths, both inmate and correctional workers alike. Among the film’s most awful footage is of National Guardsmen and other members of law enforcement cheering that they had killed Black prisoners—using slurs that left their proclivities ill-hidden.
A fascinating trip through hell, and “Attica” makes us continue to ask questions about policing and incarceration that continue to fester fifty years later, and after the covid-19 virus spread so briskly through prisons in its early waves.
Now available on Showtime.
“Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are?)”
Director: Rachel Boynton
It’s said that some Southerners never stopped fighting the Civil War. Director Rachel Boynton goes much further, digging deep into how Americans both remember and are taught about that conflict. Boynton’s camera goes everywhere, including to an aging group of White men who maintain that the war be taught the “correct” way—i.e., it was a small conflict over taxes that spilled into armed conflict, with slavery all but ancillary.
At a time when “critical race theory” has become the latest (largely nonexistent) boogeyman, this is indeed a conversation worth having, especially as we see not a few young White students in the film who get upset and feel that they are being “targeted” for what their ancestors may or may not have done. Boynton is less interested in pointing fingers than in asking questions, not the least of which is why should it matter what anyone’s ancestors did or didn’t do? The only thing that should be important is how we relate to one another now—and moving forward.
“The Forever Prisoner”
Director: Alex Gibney
Documentarian Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”) has never shied away from controversy, and with “The Forever Prisoner” he reopens wounds many would rather stay closed. Gibney tells the harrowing tale of Abu Zubaydah, who was picked up by the CIA early in the War on Terror and then tortured before the public knew about the White House’s secret program of “enhanced” interrogation. Much of what happened to Zubaydah was never filmed, so Gibney relies on shocking animation that lets us imagine, even for a moment, the torment illegally inflicted upon this man—who remains imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, having never been tried for a crime of any kind.
Now available on HBO Max.
“The Beauty President”
Director: Whitney Skauge
This short documentary introduces us to a little-known character called “Joan Jett Blakk,” a drag queen played by Terence Smith, who at the heights of the AIDS crisis embarked on a long-shot campaign for president and to plea for justice and help for the gay community suffering from the disease. Smith reflects back on this unlikely chapter of politics—long before a reality TV star became president—when it was difficult to be Black and gay, but nonetheless he took up the cause through his avatar.
Director: Camilla Nielsson
We’ve been warned that democracy is backsliding around the world. Case in point: In 2017, Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe was bounced from power. A young opposition candidate named Nelson Chamisa sought to lead the country in a new direction, but Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was installed after Mugabe’s resignation, has other ideas. Mnangagwa claimed victory in the 2018 election, but that result is widely disputed. “President” follows Chamisa and his network as they pursue all legal challenges to Mnangagwa’s almost certainly illegitimate victory. Their peaceful methods stand in contrast to the strongarm tactics Mnangagwa’s forces use to crack down on dissent—often with deadly results.
“President” was executive produced by Danny Glover and English actress Thandie Newton, who herself has Zimbabwean ancestry.
“Queen of Basketball”
Director: Ben Proudfoot
Shaquille O’Neal serves as executive producer of this fascinating short documentary from Oscar-nominated Ben Proudfoot, released through the New York Times platform. The “queen” of the title refers to Lusia “Lucy” Harris, a college athlete and Olympian who was considered so great at basketball that she was even drafted by the NBA. To say she overcame adversity is putting it mildly, and Harris, now in her dotage, recalls frankly the racial and sexual prejudices she faced, as well as her battles with mental illness.
All but certain to be an Oscar contender in the short documentary category.