With only days left until the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, LJ shares its reviews of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature. Two were already chosen as LJ’s Best DVDs of 2016 (ow.ly/7gCn309fnTb), but we are including all five films here, with race and race relations in this country featured prominently. Any way you look at it, we’ve got the winner. See if you agree.
Fire at Sea. 113 min. In Italian w/English subtitles. Gianfranco Rosi, dist. by Kino Lorber. Mar. 2017. DVD UPC 738329213688. $29.95; Blu-ray UPC 738329213695. $34.95. INT AFFAIRS
Director Rosi provides a unique perspective on the tragic journey of migrants from Africa to Italy through the Straits of Sicily. Eschewing experts, film clips, and an amassing of statistics, Rosi (Sacro GRA) wisely draws the story down to a human level by contrasting the plight of the refugees with the daily life of a little boy on the isle of Lampedusa. Bright, articulate Samuele spends time hunting and preparing to become a fisherman. His simple life stands in sharp contrast to the terrible conditions of the immigrants. Rosi documents efforts of the Italian navy to rescue and assist these desperate people; many make it ashore, many do not. The numerous close-ups of the refugees impose a stark face on this ongoing tragedy. This is not a mass movement; it is the story of individuals. VERDICT Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, this moving film should receive a wide audience.—Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Parkersburg Lib.
I Am Not Your Negro. 93 min. Raoul Peck, dist. by Magnolia Pictures. May 2017. DVD UPC 876964011891. $26.98; Blu-ray UPC 876964015493. $29.98. Rated: PG-13. HIST/SOC SCI
In 1979, author James Baldwin (1924–87) sent 30 pages of notes titled “Remember This House” to his editor with the hope they would be expanded into a manuscript delving into the issue of race in America. That never happened. I Am Not Your Negro combines those pages with interviews with Baldwin, photographs, and archival film clips of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to tell a powerful and thought-provoking story. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary makes a blunt acknowledgment that the issues that Baldwin ruminates upon are the same issues causing a new generation to take to the streets, protesting the same institutions. This film, incorporating the words of Baldwin, suggests that no matter how many years have passed, America’s long simmering twin albatrosses of race and racism remain. VERDICT I Am Not Your Negro is erudite, contemplative, and searingly direct. Baldwin’s ideas and opinions are as alive and relevant today as when he wrote of them nearly four decades ago. Highly recommended.—Joshua Peck, Palos Verdes Lib. Dist., Rolling Hills Estates, CA
Life, Animated. Roger Ross Williams, dist. by Sony. DVD UPC 043396481572. Rated: PG. BIOG
Diagnosed with autism at age three, Owen Suskind learns to communicate from watching animated Disney films—an inspirational story told through home movies, film clips, and animation of 25-year-old Owen’s amazing journey.—Jeff T. Dick, Davenport, IA
O.J: Made in America. 5 discs. b/w & color. Ezra Edelman, dist. by ESPN Films. DVD/Blu-ray UPC 825452521817. BIOG/LAW
The rise and fall of football superstar–cum–accused murderer Orenthal James Simpson gets the epic treatment its place in American culture deserves in this revealing look at L.A. race relations, celebrity, and the criminal justice system.—Jeff T. Dick, Davenport, IA
13th. color & b/w. 100 min. Ava DuVernay, Netflix streaming; DVD Jul. 2017. CRIMINOLOGY
Referring to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”—DuVernay’s (Selma) eye-opening documentary examines the history of mass incarceration in America. Kicking off with a startling statistic—the United States holds five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its (disproportionately black) prisoners—her film tracks the development of the “prison-industrial complex” and its reliance on forced labor. The 1970s-era “war on drugs” jump-started the arrest of drug offenders, especially for users of crack cocaine, while mandatory minimum sentencing and no-parole laws boosted the prison population. Archival footage, facts and figures, and interviews with politicians (including a contrite Newt Gingrich), ex-cons, historians, and others offer a powerful indictment of our criminal justice system. A plea for prison reform is the upshot of this persuasive advocacy. VERDICT On a subject that increasingly unites social liberals and fiscal conservatives, this lauded Netflix Original doc delivers.—Jeff T. Dick, Davenport, IA