Ken Burns Celebrates Patriot Benjamin Franklin on PBS

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, circa 1777. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, circa 1777.  Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State.

Writer, printer, newspaper publisher, humorist, pundit, educator, scientist, inventor, postmaster, politician, diplomat, abolitionist, patriot.

The list of Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments and aphorisms is long, storied and impossible to condense effectively in one short film, book or review. But Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has successfully managed to corral and explore many facets of this extraordinary American in his new, two-part, four hour PBS documentary, Benjamin Franklin.

Part 1, Benjamin Franklin: Join or Die (1706-1774), premieres tonight, Monday, April 4, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  Part 2, Benjamin Franklin: An American (1775-1790), debuts tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 5, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air dates in your region and below for complete details.)

Benjamin Franklin’s distinguished literary, scientific and political career spanned almost the entire 18th century.  His journey from Puritan youth to Enlightened adult and international celebrity was rich with color, humor and life experience that he relished and shared in his many published tomes.

“There are three things extremely hard–steel, a diamond, and to know thyself.”–Benjamin Franklin.

Ben Franklin's Bookshop in Philadelphia, circa 1745. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ryder.

Ben Franklin’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, circa 1745. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ryder.

From beginning to end, his life was a work-in-progress.  He never lost his drive to master new skills, satisfy his intellectual and scientific curiosity and his quest to improve the daily lives of others.  He launched the public library and a voluntary fire company, founded a college that would become the University of Pennsylvania, invented the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses and an ingenious musical instrument called the armonica.  He harnessed lightening and defined its electrical properties… and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Franklin was also a man of many contradictions.  He was a slave owner who came late to Abolition.  His beloved wife, children and brother bore the emotional scars of his wanderlust, spurred by his insatiable entrepreneurial spirit, thirst for educational and scientific pursuits, and seduction by the old world charm and the ladies of London and Paris.

“He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.”–Benjamin Franklin.

By the time he reached old age, he had studied, written, invented and absorbed enough to change the face of the American colonies for the better.  And when he realized that colonial life under the thumb of the English monarchy was untenable, Franklin was reborn an American patriot.

A view of the town of Concord, Mass., by Amos Doolittle, 1775. Photo courtesy The New York Public Library.

A view of the town of Concord, Mass., by Amos Doolittle, 1775. Photo courtesy The New York Public Library.

His shrewd diplomatic skills turned the tide during our war for independence,  assuring the success of our troops–who were outnumbered, lacked sufficient uniforms and weaponry–by successfully negotiating French intervention and monetary support.  He laid the groundwork for our final break from the British Empire, helped draft and sign off on the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, thereby solidifying “our more perfect union” and our democracy.

Director Ken Burns and screenwriter Dayton Duncan pull familiar tools from Burns’ toolbox to bring Franklin’s complex history to life.  Trademark voice-over narration by actor Peter Coyote sets the tone.  Actor Mandy (“Homeland”) Patinkin voices Ben Franklin from young adulthood to old age; and actors Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas and Liam Neeson, among others, voice key political figures and Franklin family members.  Buddy Squires‘ camerawork smartly zeroes in on period woodcuts, maps, paintings and prints, and Philadelphia and Boston neighborhoods pivotal to Franklin’s back story.  A line-up of astute historians and biographers provide critical context for Franklin’s every move.

Some of Franklin's drawings from his "Experiments and Observations on Electricity," circa 1751. Photo courtesy the John Carter Brown Library.

Some of Franklin’s drawings from his “Experiments and Observations on Electricity,” circa 1751. Photo courtesy the John Carter Brown Library.

On the surface, Benjamin Franklin fits the bill as a content rich Ken Burns documentary about an extraordinary American from a bygone era whose writings, inventions, scientific discoveries and visionary talent as a nation builder played a major role in the creation of life as we now know it in the USA.  But it is much more than that.

Burns has never made lazy choices.  Now, more than ever, they are driven by his passion to illuminate and inspire the better angels of our nature and nation.  It is time to revisit the American Revolution, and how clever to do it from the perspective of a key player. 

In the current national and international political climate, clouded by Trump and Putin, the film reminds us that the freedoms we take for granted were not easily won and the Constitution that defines our democracy was not easily sealed. The parallels with the brave Ukrainian patriots’ fight to save their independence and democracy are crystal clear.

During an interlude following the U.S. Constitution’s adoption, Franklin’s neighbor Elizabeth Willing Powel reportedly asked, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic,” Franklin responded. “If you can keep it.”

Let Ben Franklin then and the Ukrainians now inspire us to continue to defend and protect our most valuable asset: our U.S. Constitution.

Part 1, Benjamin Franklin: Join or Die (1706-1774), premieres tonight, Monday, April 4, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  Part 2, Benjamin Franklin: An American (1775-1790), debuts on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.   Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The two-part film will also be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection of Ken Burns’ films.–Judith Trojan

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Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin Debuts on PBS

“They will not break us.”–Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kviv, Ukraine, reaches out to the President of the European Council on 2/25/22.  Photo: Ukrainian President's Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service/Shutterstock.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kviv, Ukraine, reaches out to the President of the European Council on 2/25/22.  Photo: Ukrainian President’s Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service/Shutterstock.

If, like me, you’ve been anxious to find out more about the courageous Ukrainian president who, in just a few short weeks, has touched the hearts and minds of freedom lovers the world over, Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin is a great place to start.  The new half-hour documentary debuting on PBS tonight, March 18, 2022, 10:30 – 11:00 p.m./ET is just the ticket. (Check local listings for air dates in your region and below for complete details.)

Produced and directed by Daniel Smith and Laura Stevens for ITN Productions, Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin charts Zelenskyy’s meteoric rise from zany comic and sitcom star to bold wartime leader.  Born into a Jewish Russian-speaking family whose relatives survived the Holocaust, Zelenskyy completed a law degree but was drawn instead to showbiz.

From improv comedy star, winner of Dancing with the Stars and voice of Paddington Bear to his prescient sitcom starring role in Servant of the People (he played a history teacher who became the unlikely president of Ukraine!), Zelenskyy went on to tackle a more impressive role on the largest stage of all.  He ran for that office in real life.

The film explores Zelenskyy’s game-changing use of social media and television to win the election in a landslide and captivate the freedom-loving world with his country’s determination to fight the good fight.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets soldiers in frontline positions. Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets soldiers in frontline positions.  Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock.

As we watch the horrific war crimes unfolding daily in Ukraine and relish the defiant response of a country under siege, it’s especially inspiring and even  comforting to witness the rise of a remarkable and unlikely leader at a time when his countrymen and women need him most.  Like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill before him, Zelenskky seems destined to change the course of history for the better.

What motivates Zelenskyy?  And how did he transform from a TV personality to become a major figure on the international stage?  No doubt, longer documentaries will be filmed and books will be written to answer those questions more fully.  But Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin, with its concise biographic and geopolitical introduction to Zelenskyy and Ukraine, respectively, ably contextualized by a handful of articulate historians and scholars, provides a worthy starting point to begin the discussion.

Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin premieres on PBS tonight, Friday, March 18, 2022, 10:30-11:00 p.m./ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and its availability on PBS.org and streaming via the PBS Video App.  Episodes of Servant of the People are, at this writing, streaming on Netflix. –Judith Trojan

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Actress Evan Rachel Wood Outs Her Abuser in HBO’s Phoenix Rising

“What is this feeling?  It’s the feeling of being believed!”— actress Evan Rachel Wood.

It’s clear that even as a young teen, actress Evan Rachel Wood had affinity for edgy dramas.  But, as it turns out, her film roles were tame compared to the drama that played out in her real life.

A victim of shocking domestic violence and sexual assault, Wood was lucky to survive.  In the new two-part HBO documentary, Phoenix Rising, Wood counters the massive misinformation campaign surrounding her much publicized relationship and break-up with Brian Warner, aka shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

Phoenix Rising: Don’t Fall debuts at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO tonight, Tuesday, March 15, 2022.  Part 2, Phoenix Rising: Stand Up, debuts on HBO, Wednesday, March 16, 2022, 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. Both stream on HBO Max. (See below for complete details.)

A successful child actress raised in a family of actors fractured by parental discord and divorce, Evan Rachel Wood garnered serious attention and a Golden Globe nomination for her breakout role at 12 in Thirteen (2003).  She played a young teenage honor student whose relationship with her single mom (Holly Hunter) is frayed when she follows a new girlfriend down a rabbit hole littered with drugs, sex and petty theft.  The powers that be in Hollywood took notice, and Wood’s bold performance in the role led to a spate of film offers that exploited her youth in suggestive adult dramas.

At 18, Wood was approached by Brian Warner, ostensibly to assist him with a screenplay in a strictly mentoring capacity.  Married and twice Wood’s age, the 37-year-old who performed as Marilyn Manson began what would become a calculated process of grooming the young film star:  earning her trust, exposing her vulnerabilities and exploiting them in an abusive four-year May-December love affair.  It was, as she later found out, an M.O. that he had perfected and would continue with other vulnerable young women.

Phoenix Rising, produced and directed by Amy Berg, provides Wood with a credible platform from which to explore her youthful susceptibility to her abuser’s allure, the pathology that drove her abuser, and the long-term ramifications of her victimization.

Aptly titled Phoenix Rising, the two-part documentary is a warts and all #metoo exposé… and it isn’t pretty.  Wood addresses the horrors she faced at the hands of her abuser and his soul crushing ritualistic behavior that derailed her self esteem and core values, leading to an abortion, suicide attempt, substance abuse, and a starring role in a “music video” that took a shocking turn.  She details her abuser’s cavalier use of gaslighting, sleep deprivation, drugs, branding, rape, physical restraint and beatings to disable her, isolate her from her family and friends, and fuel his escalating physical and sexual brutality.

Actress Evan Rachel Wood and her mom, Sara, repaired their mother-daughter bond that had been shattered during her abusive relationship with Brian Warner/Marilyn Manson.  Photo courtesy HBO.

Actress Evan Rachel Wood and her mom, Sara, repaired their mother-daughter bond that had been shattered during her abusive relationship with Brian Warner/Marilyn Manson.  Photo courtesy HBO.

“I really thought I was the only one.”

Wood faced many psychological roadblocks and threats of reprisal as she tried to extricate herself from a man who had the power and resources to destroy her if she fought back.  Perhaps one of the most difficult chapters in Wood’s recovery was the realization that she was not her abuser’s only victim.  After the relationship ended, a handful of Warner/Manson’s other young female victims and staffers finally admitted to witnessing or personally experiencing his depravity.

In 2019, after being stymied by the short window of time allotted to domestic violence and sexual assault victims to report their abuse, Wood co-authored and successfully lobbied for passage of The Phoenix Act, legislation that extends the statute of limitations for domestic violence cases in California from three to five years.  The win for fellow survivors going forward is documented here and is an emotionally charged highlight of the film.

Evan Rachel Wood (seated) and Kate Winslet were nominated for Emmys for their performances as Veda and Mildred Pierce, respectively, in Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries, MILDRED PIERCE (2011). Kate won.

Evan Rachel Wood (seated) and Kate Winslet were nominated for Emmys for their performances as Veda and Mildred Pierce, respectively, in Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, MILDRED PIERCE (2011). Kate won.

Evan Rachel Wood’s transition from silent victim to vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault reached a tipping point on February 1, 2021, when she publicly named Brian Warner aka Marilyn Manson as her abuser.  However, with lawsuit in hand, he has denied the accusations against him, claiming they were consensual.  His longtime manager quit him, but he has yet to be prosecuted.  This is troubling.

Hopefully, Evan Rachel Wood’s case will gain momentum with this film.  HBO plans to utilize the film to build “a robust national impact campaign to amplify key issues that are central to the commentary” by partnering with like-minded nonprofits.

Phoenix Rising and the pattern of victimization that it details (grooming, gaslighting, shame, isolation, etc.) will have evergreen potential as a discussion catalyst, an educational tool and therapeutic asset with victims’ groups and in one-on-one counseling and trauma therapy (female and male) in high school, college or community venues.

The two-part documentary will premiere on back-to-back nights.  Phoenix Rising: Don’t Fall debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, March 15, 2022, 9:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT.  Phoenix Rising: Stand Up follows on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.  The films will stream via HBO Max beginning March 15, 2022.  Check for repeat HBO air dates in the weeks ahead and HBO On Demand for continued availability. –Judith Trojan

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Director Anna Lee Strachan Unzips the History of Jeans in Riveted on PBS

“You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?  Nothing!”–actress Brooke Shields.

Ms. Shields’ seductive pose and vampish delivery in that controversial 1980 TV commercial shocked the nation.  She was only 15 at the time, but her fetching gaze most assuredly earned Calvin Klein a boatload of cash.

Where would we be without our jeans, and how did they become the iconic garment that none of us, no matter what our age, race, socio-economic level, sexual orientation or BMI, can do without?

To answer those questions, filmmakers Anna Lee Strachan and Michael Bicks crafted a solidly researched script, recorded articulate commentary from notable cultural historians and fashion pros, and unearthed a fascinating collection of vintage photos, film footage and artifacts for their latest film project, Riveted: The History of Jeans.  To say that you are almost certain to be riveted by Riveted is an understatement.  At the very least, you will never look at a simple pair of blue jeans the same way again.

As it turns out, blue jeans played a surprising role in the history of race, work, gender equity, and class in America, from colonial era slavery through the Hip-Hop culture of the late 20th century.  Although fashionistas may not find exactly what they are looking for in the film, Riveted: The History of Jeans will have a long shelf life in high school and college classrooms and library and museum programs. The film makes its timely debut during Black History Month on the PBS American Experience series tonight, Monday, February 7, 2021, 9:00 pm/ET; 8:00 pm/C.  Check local listings in your region.  It will also stream simultaneously with broadcast (see below for details).

Anna Lee Strachan wrote, directed and produced RIVETED: THE HISTORY OF JEANS with Michael Bicks for the PBS series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Anna Lee Strachan wrote, directed and produced RIVETED: THE HISTORY OF JEANS with Michael Bicks for the PBS series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

In my Q&A with Riveted writer, director, producer Anna Lee Strachan that follows (conducted via email), we explore how and why the provenance of a single garment, a staple in our 21st century lives, unlocks pivotal, untold narratives in American history.

Judith Trojan:  You have an impressive background in science… a degree in Neuroscience from Harvard, a M.S. in science writing from MIT, and a career writing and producing science-related projects for NASA, NPR and the PBS NOVA series.  Yet, with your production partner Michael Bicks, you wrote, produced and directed Riveted, a film about the history of jeans for American Experience!  That’s quite a stretch!  How did that theme spark your interest and gel with your background in science?

Anna Lee Strachan:  Why in the world is a science producer making a film about fashion history?  What can I say… the pandemic brought out a new angle in all of us!  I suspect the root motivation behind this film and my career producing science are the same—to provide people with tools to deal with an increasingly complex world.

Hollywood's romanticized version of the American cowboy in blue jeans began in silent films with Tom Mix, here seen hamming it up during a photo shoot, circa 1919.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Hollywood’s romanticized version of the American cowboy in blue jeans began in silent films with Tom Mix, here seen hamming it up during a photo shoot, circa 1919.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Growing up, I was deeply frustrated by racism, prejudice and ignorance.  I became convinced that one way to fight it was by revealing the beauty of science and evidence-based thinking.  If I could only get people to be curious enough to consider the evidence for their beliefs, perhaps we can stand a chance against human nature’s worst impulses.

So, for me, a documentary about an iconic object we hold dear is not that different from a documentary about artificial intelligence.  We all bring preconceived notions of such things to the table, and both history and science are evidence-based quests for truth.

What I hope viewers take away from this film is that even a humble pair of pants might force us to reconsider the ways we tell stories and build our identities.  If we can take a more inclusive view of history, it builds a far richer picture to better engage with each other.

Trojan:  Riveted is quite a revelation!  Most viewers will tune in expecting a film about cowboys, hippies and the fashion industry.  Instead, you not only touch on jeans fashion and pop culture through the decades but, more importantly, connect the dots to little known but pivotal aspects of race, gender equity and class in America.  Of the three, which do you feel was the most transformative in the history of jeans?

Strachan:  That’s a tough one.  All three were certainly pivotal.  If I had to pick one for simplicity’s sake, I’d go with gender equity.  How denim went from work wear to fashion is nothing short of transformational.  Women really took the lead here….for how, check out the film!!

Denim-clad women welders en route to their job to help the war effort, circa 1943.  Photo: Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.

Denim-clad women welders en route to their job to help the war effort, circa 1943.  Photo: Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.

Trojan:  The history of race in America permeates the entire history of jeans, from colonial era slavery through the Hip-Hop culture of the late 20th century.  It’s clear from the film that blue jeans predated Levi Strauss because print announcements tracking runaway slaves described their garments, which included ‘blue jeans.’  Were you aware from the outset how important African Americans were to the history of blue jeans in America?

Strachan:  Not nearly to the extent that we discovered.  From the outset we knew two missing pieces of the story were cotton and Indigo, the two key ingredients for making denim.  What we didn’t know was just how much these stories owed to enslaved peoples, not to mention the discovery of ‘slave cloth’ or ‘negro cloth,’ a precursor to denim used to clothe the same captive people who grew the raw material and shared their generational expertise about how to dye cloth this amazing shade of blue.

Trojan:  The history of Indigo growing, processing and dyeing demanded a special skillset that West Africans carried with them to American shores where they were enslaved.  Can you explain why that particular dye, given how complicated it was to produce, became the definitive color of garments worn by hard laborers in the fields, forests, factories, coal mines and building trades?  Why blue?  Why Indigo?

Strachan:  We never found a single answer for that in our research, but experts led us to suspect two possible reasons: 1) Indigo was just an amazing dye stuff for centuries—it was fast (meaning it didn’t fade over time like most dyes did), affordable, and it was incredibly good at hiding dirt.  2) People just like the color blue!  It’s hard to find a culture on Earth that doesn’t associate blue with the heavens and goodness.

The history of race in America, from colonial era slavery through the Hip Hop culture of the late 20th century, permeated the entire history of blue jeans.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The history of race in America, from colonial era slavery through the Hip-Hop culture of the late 20th century, permeated the entire history of blue jeans.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Trojan:   Eliza Lucas is relevant not only as a trailblazing female entrepreneur, but also as an example of how class and race played a key role in the success of the Indigo trade.  How did she, a woman and a colonial governor’s daughter, manage to spearhead the successful planting and production of Indigo and tap into and exploit the acumen of West African slaves?  How important was her reach and for how long?

Strachan:  The story of Eliza Lucas is a good one.  Here we have a story of a female entrepreneur credited for starting the Indigo economy in colonial America.  It’s a story told in textbooks and commemorated in museums.  Indeed she was a botanist in her own right, distributed Indigo seed across South Carolina, and figured out how to make the crop profitable in the region.  But what is left out of the narrative is the intellectual contribution of her West African enslaved people, who almost certainly shared their generational expertise of growing Indigo, making the dye (an extremely difficult process that at the time took years of apprenticeship), and then dyeing the cloth.

Trojan:  Nevada tailor Jacob Davis and California dry goods salesman Levi Strauss joined forces to create a better jean.  Why is it that we know the name Levi Strauss and not Jacob Davis, when Davis brought a crucial new element–the seam strengthening copper rivet–to the partnership and the garment?

Loggers needed heavy, reinforced work pants and, once they were riveted, blue jeans fit the bill.  Photo: Dorothea Lange.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Loggers needed heavy, reinforced work pants and, once they were riveted, blue jeans fit the bill.  Photo: Dorothea Lange.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Strachan:  Davis went to Levi Strauss because he did not have the resources to afford the patent, let alone mass produce the garment.  Since Davis later went to work for Strauss as his factory manager, it would seem he accepted from the start that Levi Strauss’s name would be out front.  (As a side note, we learned that it’s often the case with invention that the name that gets associated with it is the one with funds and wherewithal to support its production, if it’s not the inventor himself or herself.)

Trojan:  Throughout the film, you incorporate wonderful archival photos and film footage, vintage period illustrations and newspaper clips.  Where did you do your research?  Any roadblocks?

Strachan:  A project like this is a huge collaborative endeavor, and I certainly couldn’t have done it without my longtime producing partner, Michael Bicks, or our brilliant editor, Brian Funck.  This was our first historical film. We were very lucky to have worked with Melissa Pollard, a seasoned Archival Producer who found all of the images used in the film.  There were roadblocks, in particular, finding the rights holders let alone getting their permission for many of the images and especially the music.

Trojan:  How long did this project take you to complete?

Strachan:  About 10 months, not counting the month to develop the pitch. We are freelancers after all, so it’s hard not to work for free at least part of the time!

He's got jeans!   President Obama practices throwing out the first pitch before the MLB All-Star Game. Photo: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.

He’s got jeans!   President Obama practices throwing out the first pitch before the MLB All-Star Game. Photo: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.

Trojan:  Who or what period would you say was the most transformative in the history of jeans in America and their transition from quintessential workers’ garments to garments worn 24/7 by all races, ages, sexes and cultures in America?

Strachan:  I would say the real democratization of fashion—in part led by jeans—really took off in the 1970s.  This is really the decade where, for the first time, you could find any man, woman or child wearing denim at nearly any time or place.

Trojan:  Is there a timely take-away from Riveted?

Strachan:  Certainly!  I can’t put it better than one of our participants, fashion historian Emma McClendon:  ‘Denim and its history is a perfect metaphor for where we find ourselves as a culture right now.  Becoming much more aware of the silences, of those groups that have been pushed to the side.  Exposing and celebrating these narratives that haven’t made it into that typical telling of jeans is part of the work to change our understanding of American history.’ Ω

Riveted: The History of Jeans debuts on the PBS American Experience series tonight, Monday, February 7, 2021, 9:00 pm/ET; 8:00 pm/C.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ , the PBS Video App and, for members, on PBS Passport. –Judith Trojan

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Octopus Is People Pleaser on PBS Nature and in Oscar-winning Documentary

They may have been miscast in the movies, but, in real life, they're smart, social and sassy! See why in OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT on PBS NATURE and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER on Netflix. Photo ©Minden Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo.

They may have been miscast in the movies, but, in real life, they’re smart, social and sassy! See why in OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT on PBS NATURE and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER on Netflix. Photo ©Minden Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo.

“What would I find out if I invited an octopus into my home?”Professor David Scheel, Alaska Pacific University.

Dr. David Scheel asked himself that question after spending more than two decades studying rare octopus species in remote regions around the world.  So the marine biologist decided that the time was right to move his work to a more hospitable environment closer to home… his living room.

Dr. Scheel’s unorthodox plan to observe an octopus up close and personal is documented in Octopus: Making Contact, a fascinating 2019 film set for rebroadcast on PBS NATURE tonight, Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.

If, like me, you’ve been known to grimace or cringe at the sight of an octopus and its eight suckered tentacles in aquariums or at fine dining establishments, I encourage you to give the creature a second chance.  I guarantee that after viewing Octopus: Making Contact and the Academy Award®-winning feature-length documentary, My Octopus Teacher, also covered in this review, you’ll never regard octopuses with a cringe or a grimace again… or, it turns out, you may hurt their feelings!

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observes Heidi, the day octopus, in his living room aquarium in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observes Heidi, the day octopus, in his living room aquarium in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Octopus: Making Contact, directed by Emmy® Award-winner Anna Fitch, has a lot to say about the sea animal’s built-in wow factor.  With the blessing of his 16-year-old daughter, Laurel, Dr. Scheel introduced a female day octopus into a large salt water tank situated in their Anchorage, Alaska, living room.  The Scheels named their new “pet,” Heidi, because she, like all octopuses, was a talented escape artist that could disappear into the tiniest cracks and crevices or creative camouflage at whim.

Heidi proved to be a quick study and a surprisingly social addition to the Scheel household.  Heidi engaged physically and emotionally with the Scheels as they fed and played with her.  She was clearly excited to see them come through the front door, which was visible from the tank as was the family’s TV, which Heidi watched over Laurel’s shoulder.

Laurel Scheel and Heidi, the octopus, bonding in her family living room in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Laurel Scheel and Heidi, the octopus, bonding in her family living room in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

There was little that Heidi didn’t miss or respond to.  Heidi’s curiosity and lack of shyness when it came to interacting with the Scheels enabled them to experience her transformative physical beauty and agility, extraordinary intelligence and problem-solving and social skills firsthand from a front row seat in their living room.

“Octopuses followed a different evolutionary path than other intelligent animals on this planet,” said Dr. Scheel in retrospect. “I’m less intrigued by the differences and more interested in our similarities.  It’s been a privilege to have a relationship with such a strange and wonderful creature.”

Once you’ve been charmed by the film’s offbeat premise and outstanding cinematography, the latter a refreshing trademark of films produced for the PBS NATURE series, I highly recommend that you follow Octopus: Making Contact with a screening of the 2021 Oscar®-winning Best Feature Documentary, My Octopus Teacher, now available for streaming via its co-producer Netflix.  But be forewarned:  Keep a box of Kleenex handy!

My Octopus Teacher

With its breathtaking cinematography, evocative music and insightful narration by the film’s human protagonist, filmmaker Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher is worth every film award, critical accolade and audience huzzah it generated during its original theatrical release in late 2020.  It’s an exploration of one man’s remarkable relationship with a young octopus in her own turf… a mystical kelp forest along the Cape Town coastline in South Africa.

The 85-minute chronicle of Craig Foster’s life-altering return to the kelp forest that he enjoyed exploring as a youngster was stunningly filmed by avid divers Pippa Ehrlich, Roger Horrocks and Foster himself.  Numbed by career burnout and malaise, his restorative daily dives would soon center on one solitary female octopus whose life story literally played out in front of his eyes, ears and camera lens.

“Unknowingly, I had met the greatest teacher of my life, a young female common octopus, Octopus vulgaris,” recalled Craig Foster. “I visited her den every day for weeks.  After a few months, she gradually realized that I posed no threat, and she began to trust me.  I was allowed into her wild inner world and felt as though an ancient door to nature had been opened to me.”

As Foster’s year-long journey to enlightenment unfolds in the Great African Seaforest, we are witness to the blossoming bond that develops between Foster and his resilient, brave, inquisitive, tender and, above all, super intelligent octopus pal. The film documents her savvy ability to trap her prey, dodge predators, cope with fear and physical trauma, mate, and creatively contort and camouflage her boneless body and change the color and texture of her skin to match her surroundings.

Craig Foster’s octopus pal shows him around her neighborhood in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. Photo courtesy Netflix.

Craig Foster’s octopus pal shows him around her neighborhood in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. Photo courtesy Netflix.

“I started to wonder how octopuses experience time,” said Foster.  “Their time is not like ours; one of her months is equivalent to almost five years of my life.  Each moment spent with her as she guided me around our forest was deeply precious to me.”

My Octopus Teacher is chockablock with awe-inspiring beauty, drama, suspense and heart-tugging emotion.  I can’t imagine anyone not being moved when the octopus reaches out to connect with Foster, at first with a tentative tentacle, then a playful snatch of his camera, and finally with a full body hug.  Her magnificence changed Foster’s life forever.

“She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other, especially wild creatures,” reflected Foster.  “That connection with an animal is absolutely mind blowing.  The boundaries seemed to dissolve.”

My Octopus Teacher is a must-see film about one of my favorite topics… our connection to every living being on this planet, and our responsibility to respect and treasure their singular attributes and protect their habitats, even if they live and look differently than we do.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER was filmed in the Great African Seaforest, a giant underwater forest that fringes the shores of Cape Town. Photo courtesy The Sea Change Project.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER was filmed in the Great African Seaforest, a giant underwater forest that fringes the shores of Cape Town. Photo courtesy The Sea Change Project.

“I think what’s powerful about the film is that there’s this big South African guy who is telling a deeply intimate story about an animal that is essentially a modified snail,” said co-director Pippa Ehrlich. “He takes us into this fragile creature’s world, and she transforms from an underwater alien into a protagonist that we can really relate to and care about.”

My Octopus Teacher is available for streaming from Netflix, which also offers subscribers the opportunity to host educational community screenings free-of-cost.  Check out the the Sea Change Project Website @ http://www.seachangeproject.com to find out more about the Netflix offer and the film’s supplemental discussion guide. The Sea Change Project was co-founded by the team responsible for My Octopus Teacher and is a collective of filmmakers, journalists, and scientists working to protect the Great African Seaforest and study and film the lives of kelp forest animals. –Judith Trojan

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Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street Bows on HBO

“We don’t play down to kids.  We just have a very short audience.”Joe Raposo, Sesame Street composer.

There are few more pleasurable strolls than the one kids take every day down Sesame Street.  Since its debut on public TV on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street immediately put a new face on preschool education. Under the auspices of the nonprofit educational organization, Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), its staff of visionary educators, programmers, writers, performers, puppeteers, filmmakers, designers and composers were encouraged from the start to experiment and redefine the scope of educational TV.

Thanks to director Marilyn Agrelo’s delightful new feature-length documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, we get a chance to travel back in time to witness the show’s seminal first two decades, meet its tireless creative team (flesh and felt) and bask in the sheer joy of their journey.

On the heels of its popular festival and theatrical release earlier this year, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT. (See below for complete screening and streaming info.)

Joan Ganz Cooney and her SESAME STREET pals. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Joan Ganz Cooney and her SESAME STREET pals. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Inspired by Michael Davis’s New York Times best seller, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, the film deftly incorporates vintage behind-the-scenes clips, interviews filmed specifically for this project and those culled from archival footage to introduce the players who tackled major roles in this wildly innovative experiment, from concept development through production.

Key to this story are Children’s Television Workshop co-founders: documentary film producer Joan Ganz Cooney and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett.  Ms. Ganz Cooney quickly became the public face and driving force behind the project.

Joan Ganz Cooney recalls the early skepticism she encountered as she challenged tired, old-school perceptions of children’s TV.  As a woman dodging sexism in the male-dominated field of broadcasting in the late 1960’s, she jokes that she couldn’t be sidelined because she carried the project’s entire concept in her head.  She’s featured here at length, as are the pivotal contributions of the show’s dedicated producer/director Jon Stone and Muppets’ creator/puppeteer Jim Henson.

Others instrumental in originating the cast of characters and ambiance on the street were the actors and actresses, who discuss the importance of their racially and culturally diverse roles, as well as such prominent creatives as composer Joe Raposo, writer/composer Christopher Cerf, and puppeteer Caroll (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch) Spinney.

“We all felt lucky to be a part of the exciting new adventure,” recalled Bob McGrath, the multi-talented performer who originated the beloved character of Bob on the show.

Master puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a ball with best buds Ernie and Bert on SESAME STREET.  Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Master puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a ball with best buds Ernie and Bert on SESAME STREET.  Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Originally earmarked for inner city preschoolers, ages 3-5, most especially children of color, Sesame Street had immediate cross-over appeal.  Through the artful use of puppets, animation and live-action sequences, the show blurred ethnic, racial, gender and income barriers to encourage all children, no matter what their backgrounds, to develop the skills and attitudes they needed to live happy, productive lives.

Far exceeding anyone’s expectations, Sesame Street quickly set a new standard for children’s TV programming.  Three months into its first season, studies determined that regular viewers were already testing higher than non-viewers, especially those who watched the show with their parents.  Apparently, preschoolers were learning their letters and numbers and, consequently, how to read at younger ages due, in large part, to the innovative programming they enjoyed on Sesame Street.

According to master puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who originated the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the show and played them for 49 years until his retirement in 2018, Sesame Street‘s appeal to parents was also key to its success from the start.

“I think that part of the genius of the creation of the show was that it was important that grown-ups enjoy it, too,” said Spinney.  “Because if they liked it, it was more apt that the show was going to be turned on and not tuned to some other station.”

Oscar the Grouch and his right hand man, master puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO.

Oscar the Grouch and his right hand man, master puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO.

If you’re as big a fan of Kermit and the Muppets as I am, you’ll relish the chronicle of Kermit’s evolution and you’ll enjoy the hilarious repartee, on and off script, between Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s dynamic duo, Bert and Ernie.  Sweet interludes between nonpro kids and the Muppets will touch your heart, as will Joe Raposo’s charming recollection of composing Kermit’s signature song, “Being Green.”

And you might want to keep a box of Kleenex handy as the film revisits “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” the 1983 Thanksgiving Day episode when Big Bird, age 6, learned of Mr. Hooper’s death, and seven years later when Big Bird sang a poignant rendition of “Being Green” during Jim Henson’s funeral.

From its initial broadcast on some 170 stations, Sesame Street has expanded its reach worldwide, now airing in more than 150 countries and embracing an ever-growing line of ancillary curriculum-based materials produced to educate, entertain and support the content of the show.  Sesame Street‘s Website http://www.sesamestreet.org  provides child and parent friendly activities, videos and games that extend the show’s shelf-life by engaging kids interactively.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.  I encourage you not to miss it! –Judith Trojan

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My Life as a Turkey Makes Timely Return to PBS Nature

The year-long parenting experiment of wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in 1991 has been dramatically recreated in the marvelous PBS film, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY, starring Jeff Palmer.  Photo © David Allen.

The year-long parenting experiment of wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in 1991 has been dramatically recreated in the marvelous PBS film, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY, starring Jeff Palmer.  Photo © David Allen.

“I realized that this was going to be a very personal, emotional ride for me, and not just a science experiment.”Joe Hutto, wildlife artist & naturalist.

What better way to usher in the Thanksgiving holiday than with a film about one man’s remarkable relationship with a clutch of young turkeys…the wild kind that is, not their farm-raised cousins served up on a platter for Thanksgiving dinner.

I’ve always loved films featuring the work of Jane Goodall and others who share her passion to protect, rehabilitate and bond with endangered wildlife.  My Life as a Turkey takes a more unorthodox dive into that milieu…one that began with a gamble and ended as a touching family saga.  As fresh and timely as it was when it debuted on PBS in 2011, the film returns to PBS NATURE tonight, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.

Based on the true story documented by wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto in a journal that subsequently became a book, the film recreates the year (1991) that Joe spent “parenting” more than a dozen wild turkey hatchlings in the terrain surrounding his isolated cabin in the Florida Panhandle.  As portrayed in the film by Jeff Palmer, Joe Hutto is a sensitive loner who parlayed his fascination with imprinting and the wild turkeys that populated the region into a transformative life experience.

Jeff Palmer (Joe Hutto) and a fellow performer during the filming of Joe Hutto's real life saga, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY. Photo © David Allen.

Jeff Palmer (Joe Hutto) and a fellow performer during the filming of Joe Hutto’s real life saga, MY LIFE AS A TURKEY. Photo © David Allen.

A bowl full of abandoned turkey eggs, an incubator, and Joe’s knack for “talking turkey” to the eggs and, Voila!, more than 20 baby chicks emerged from their shells, made eye contact and instantly bonded with their new “mom” and protector, Joe Hutto!   Joe was hooked, but he had no idea what it would take to single parent this brood of dependent chicks through the most difficult transitions of their first year.

“I’m ignorant about being a turkey mother,” Hutto lamented.  But his learning curve was swift.

The imprinted chicks were relentlessly needy.  They wanted to cuddle.  They followed him over hill and dale to explore the terrain and hunt for food.  He followed them into their pen every night and sat with them until they fell asleep.  He worried about predators and strange diseases that struck when he least expected it.

It was a grueling parenting gig, but one that enlightened him about the birds’ surprising intelligence, innate survival instincts, emotional attachments and distinctive personalities.  Joe even named a few.  The tiniest of the lot, Sweet Pea, loved to be petted when she snuggled with him; and the boldest, Turkey Boy, briefly bonded with Joe like a brother.  But first feathers led to first flights.  Male-female shenanigans spurred fights for sexual dominance. And finally, like all cute kids, Joe’s turkeys grew up and flew the coop.  Off they went, for better or worse, leaving Joe with an empty nest and a broken heart.

On set in Central Florida during the filming of MY LIFE AS A TURKEY for the PBS NATURE series.  Photo © David Allen.

On set in Central Florida during the filming of MY LIFE AS A TURKEY for the PBS NATURE series.  Photo © David Allen.

Jeff Palmer’s understated performance as Joe Hutto, seasoned with Joe’s sensitive original journal musings and drawings, and highlighted by extraordinary nature footage all mesh marvelously to turn My Life as a Turkey into a touching evergreen family film that underscores not only how much we have to learn about species of wildlife that seem foreign to us but also the common threads that bind us as co-inhabitants of this planet.

Produced by David Allen and narrated by Joe Hutto, My Life as a Turkey is a production of Passion Pictures, THIRTEEN and the BBC in association with WNET New York Public Media.

The hour-long film will be rebroadcast on PBS tonight, Wednesday, November 24, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info, concurrent with broadcast; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.

And if you’re interested in finding out more about Joe Hutto’s backstory and his turkeys, check out his book, Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey (Lyons Press).  Happy Thanksgiving!–Judith Trojan

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My Garden of a Thousand Bees Makes Buzzworthy Debut on PBS Nature

Gathering pollen from a dandelion, this Ashy Mining Bee is one of more than 60 species of wild bees found in Brit wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn's urban backyard garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

Gathering pollen from a dandelion, this Ashy Mining Bee is one of more than 60 species of wild bees found in Brit wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn’s urban backyard garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”–renowned landscape architect Elizabeth Lawrence.

As a kid, family gardens were my playground. What happy memories my cousins, friends and I forged among those beautiful flowers and that tasty vegetation. But frankly, we took it all for granted. I had no idea how much work it took for my grandparents to maintain their robust crop of vegetables, flowers, fruit trees and vines, or my mom to plant, weed and water her lovely flowers year after year.

The only downside?  Bees!  They were not to be messed with. We had no idea that those stinging pests were not pests at all. They worked as hard or harder than my grandparents and parents to preserve the gardens we loved.

Now, I’m an avid gardener and am proud that my garden is buzzworthy.  I weed and prune surrounded by bees that used to terrify me.  On any given day in my garden, bees outnumber birds, butterflies, bunnies and groundhog Bob and his buddies, all of whom seem to enjoy snacking there.  Sadly, as an adult living in the 21st century, I have to face the fact that the worldwide honey bee population is dwindling due to parasitic and toxic chemical overload; and that without bees, our gardens, crops and planet would be toast.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that “Honey bees pollinate 80% of the U.S. insect crops–over $20 billion worth of crops each year.”  Albert Einstein once predicted, “No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Martin Dohrn filming bees in his garden in Bristol, UK. Photo courtesy Hugh Campbell/©Passion Planet.

Martin Dohrn filming bees in his garden in Bristol, UK. Photo courtesy Hugh Campbell/©Passion Planet.

British photographer Martin Dohrn was accustomed to travelling the world, capturing the comings and goings of a wide array of wildlife on film.  But when COVID-19 deemed his canvas off-limits, he was confined to his home in Bristol, England.  Like many of us…me included…he turned to his backyard garden for solace.  It worked for me, and it sure worked for him.

His tiny, wildly unmanicured urban garden not only served as a much needed oasis for Dohrn and his family, but also provided a fascinating new focus for his work.  His garden was home to more than 60 species of wild bees, and Dohrn decided to tell their story.

Martin Dohrn’s breathtaking bee footage and charming narrative grace the Season 40 opener of the PBS Nature series.  My Garden of a Thousand Bees premieres tonight, Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check  local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.

A Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) enjoys a forget-me-not in Martin Dohrn's garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

A Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) enjoys a forget-me-not in Martin Dohrn’s garden. Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

During the Spring 2020 COVID lockdown, Martin Dohrn unapologetically became enamoured with bees, perhaps the most difficult critters in any landscape to film. Their size and speed initially stymied Dohrn, but his determination to get up close and personal with his wild backyard bee buddies (more than 60 species!) paid off.  Dohrn literally rebuilt his extensive camera equipment on his kitchen table to meet the challenge.

Thanks to Dohrn’s patience and enhanced equipment, he was not only able to close in on the common bumblebee, eyeball to eyeball, but individuals of other unique bee species as well.  At first, Dohrn’s amazing close-ups may conjure up memories of those huge, scary faux Hollywood insects popular on screen in the 1950s.  But soon, you’ll marvel at the amount of detail Dohrn was able to record, including the sight and sound of bee wings flapping (they sound like helicopters!).

Dohrn misses nothing in Bee City, as he calls it.  From tunnel scouting and nest building, mating and egg laying, pollen collecting and tackling marauding bee opportunists and arch enemies like wasps and spiders, it’s clear that the short life of a bee is filled with high drama.  And much of it occurs in crevices, holes and tunnels.  In fact, Dohrn became so entranced with his backyard bee community that he embellished their habitats with additional holes, and soon began to identify and follow specific individuals.  One bee, whom he called Nicky for her nicked wing, even seemed to recognize him and allow him to film her without buzzing off.

British wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn comes face-to-face with his backyard obsession, bees! Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

British wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn comes face-to-face with his backyard obsession, bees! Photo ©Martin Dohrn.

“My hope is that Martin Dohrn’s emotional connection with the bees in his garden will resonate and lead to a new appreciation for these vital insects,” said Fred Kaufman, executive producer for #NaturePBS.

Thanks to Martin Dohrn and his determination to shine a light on bees’ complex lives and importance to our  ultimate well-being, I guarantee that after watching Nature: My Garden of a Thousand Bees, you’ll never take them for granted again.

Directed by David Allen, Nature: My Garden of a Thousand Bees is a production of Passion Planet, The WNET group and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios in association with Ammonite Films.  The film premieres on PBS tonight, Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info, concurrent with broadcast; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability. –Judith Trojan

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Rita Moreno Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It Debuts on PBS

Legendary actress, singer, dancer RITA MORENO. Photo courtesy Austin Hargrave.

“I always wanted to be a movie star.”–Rita Moreno.

Rita Moreno’s dreams of movie stardom did come true, and then some. A boatload of prestigious awards and honors continues to replenish her trophy shelf and cap her amazing 70-year career, including an EGOT–she is the rare performer and the first Latina to have won an Emmy (2!), Grammy, Oscar and Tony. But it sure wasn’t easy.

Rita Moreno, feisty and fabulous at 87, recounts the highs and lows of her personal life and remarkable career in Mariem Pérez Riera’s delightful new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It.  Following its successful theatrical run earlier this year, the 90-minute film debuts on the Award-winning PBS American Masters series tonight, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET (Check local listings and below for streaming info).

Culture shock best describes five-year-old Rita Moreno’s transition from her humble Puerto Rican farming community to Manhattan’s racially and ethnically insular neighborhoods.  After immigrating to NYC with her seamstress mom, Moreno studied dance and soon performed in clubs as a young teen to pay the rent.  A Hollywood talent agent spotted her at one of her dance recitals and arranged a meeting with powerful MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. With contract in hand, the young Hollywood hopeful headed West, determined to become a star like her idol, Elizabeth Taylor.

Rita Moreno during her grueling rehearsals for WEST SIDE STORY (1961). Photo courtesy MGM Media Licensing.

Rita Moreno during her grueling rehearsals for WEST SIDE STORY (1961). Photo courtesy MGM Media Licensing.

Mayer took one look at the 16-year-old Latina Liz Taylor wannabe and rubber-stamped her casting in an endless stream of sexy generic ethnic minority roles.  Like many young women in the industry, then and now, she was also targeted by the lascivious white, male film titans and flacks who ran the show in mid-century Hollywood.  Yes, she was propositioned by Hollywood heavyweights, tragically assaulted by her agent and pigeonholed into stereotypic ethnic and indigenous character roles dumbed down with muddy make-up, obscure accents and dire fates; but Rita Moreno persevered.

“Rita is an incredible inspiration … hers is a success story for all women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves with courage and bravery against heavy odds,” said director Mariem Pérez Riera.

A night to remember! April 9, 1962. Winners of the 1961 Academy Awards® for Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno) and Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) for their performances in WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of Everett Collection.

Moreno built her career in small roles on the big screen, culminating with her breakthrough performance and historic 1961 Oscar® win for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story.  When the substantial film roles she coveted still passed her by, she segued to PBS, cable, Broadway and Netflix, where she continues to thrive.

Pérez Riera jampacks Moreno’s profile with an impressive line-up of notable film pros, cultural historians and celebrated Latinx performers who speak to the star’s barrier-breaking influence across the board in the entertainment industry and beyond.

But fasten your seatbelts!   Rita Moreno is by far the liveliest on-camera participant here, there and everywhere as she revisits the good, the bad and the ugly influences and influencers that shaped her life and career. In the mix are her beloved daughter and grandsons; the husband who adored her; the toxic relationship with Marlon Brando; the racist discrimination; the rape, suicide attempt and botched abortion.  Also noteworthy is her decades long, off-screen role as an outspoken Civil Rights and Women’s Rights’ activist.

Rita Moreno’s co-stars in Norman Lear’s Latinx reboot of ONE DAY AT A TIME. From lower left: Justina Machado, Isabella Gomez, Rita Moreno and Marcel Ruiz. Photo courtesy Everett Collection Inc/Alamy.

Glorious clips from Moreno’s feature film, TV and cable performances remind us of the wide range of iconic characters she originated, including Anita in West Side Story, Sister Pete on HBO’s Oz, and family matriarch Lydia in Norman Lear’s 2017-2020 Latinx reboot of One Day at a Time (Netflix/Pop TV). Especially dear to her heart is her character work with Jim Henson and The Muppets and five-year stint on The Electric Company.

Rita Moreno travels full circle and returns to the big screen as Valentina, a character reimagined just for her in Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated remake of West Side Story.  She also serves as Executive Producer. The film opens on December 10, 2021.

“I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever met in the business who lived the American dream more than Rita Moreno,” said Norman Lear.

And I can’t think of a better, more spirit boosting film than Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go for It. Going forward, it will definitely fit the bill in college and university classrooms and library and community programs focusing on Latinx culture and film history, systemic racism, and women’s issues, especially those related to the #MeToo movement.

RITA MORENO always knew where she was going. Right to the top! Photo courtesy of Thirteen.

A production of American Masters Pictures and Act III in association with Maramara Films and Artemis Rising Foundation, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It debuts on the PBS American Masters series tonight, Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air dates and repeat broadcasts in your region. It will be available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org/ritamoreno, the PBS Video App and PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan 

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New PBS Doc Profiles 7 Young Adults Who Lost Dads on 9/11

Photo courtesy Arrow International Media.

Photo courtesy Arrow International Media.

“My father was a firefighter on 9/11.  I never met him.”Megan Fehling, born October 2001.

September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Sadly, the number of casualties continues to grow.  9/11 First Responders have faced chronic illness and many have succumbed to cancer. And those who lost loved ones continue to carry the debilitating burden of grief.

Generation 9/11, directed by documentarian Liz Mermin and produced for PBS by a Brit-based team helmed by Emmy®-winner John Smithson, zeroes in on a unique population tragically affected by the 9/11 debacle. Among the victims of the terrorist attacks were 105 expectant fathers. The two-hour film introduces us to six of their children, born after the death of their dads.  The seventh was a toddler who had yet to meet his dad at the time of his death.

Generation 9/11 debuts on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for streaming info.)

Young Nick Gorki at the 9/11 Memorial site in NYC honoring his dad, Sebasian Gorki. Photo courtesy of the Gorki family.

I was anxious to meet the seven young people profiled in this film. Born at the dawn of the 21st century, these culturally diverse young men and women, now 20-year olds and counting, don’t disappoint. Their stories contribute much needed  perspective to post 9/11 media coverage.

Megan Fehling’s firefighter dad was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, leaving a pregnant wife behind. Nick Gorki’s mother, Paula, worked in the South Tower. On 9/11, her morning sickness made her late to work; but her partner, Nick’s expectant dad Sebastian, had an unexpected meeting in the South Tower and did not survive. Fares Malahi was three in September 2001, living in Yemen with his older brother and mother while awaiting their U.S. visas. Fares never met his father, Abdu, who was working as an AV engineer at the Marriott in downtown Manhattan and died helping guests evacuate the hotel.

Ronald Milam, Jr., modeling as a youngster. Photo courtesy of the Milam family.

Ronald Milam, Jr.’s parents both served in the military and were working at the Pentagon on 9/11 on opposite sides of the building. After Ronald Sr. was killed, Ronald’s mother left the Army and moved the family to Texas. Dina Retik’s father was a venture capitalist and a passenger on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11. Claudia Szurkowski’s father worked for the union of painters and wallpaper hangers in the North Tower on 9/11. Luke Taylor’s father, Lt. Colonel Kip Taylor, died in the Pentagon attack.  Luke’s mom passed away of cancer two years later.

Their lives may have begun on a horrific note, but their reflections, in retrospect, are surprisingly stoic.  As babies and toddlers, they were oblivious to why and how they lost their dads.  Some of their moms remarried, had more babies and, overall, the youngsters welcomed their new siblings and stepdads.  How do you miss someone you never met?  They adapted, and lived the hand they were dealt.

Their insights and those of their moms, stepparents and siblings are embellished with extensive period photos, home movies and media footage spotlighting various family, sports, and educational milestones, as well as the trajectory of 9/11 and the anniversaries that have commemorated it.

Claudia Szurkowski has family in Poland. Photo courtesy of the Szurkowski family.

That these young people grew up to be seemingly healthy, well-adjusted young adults during a 20-year period when our political, cultural, racial, environmental and global climate was anything but healthy and stable is pretty amazing.  Of course, as a young black man, Ronald, and his mom fear the ever-present threat of racist policing.  And Fares, who did know his dad, at least from afar, faces discrimination due to his ethnicity and sadly seems to have struggled to gain a footing in America.

Generation 9/11 is engaging when it focuses directly on the seven young people and their personal journeys. Clips of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are clearly relevant to their stories. But attempts to broaden the film’s reach by piggybacking such topical hot button issues as Black Lives Matter, school shootings, the Capitol riot, the pandemic, climate change and Trump vs. Biden are clumbsy and distracting.

Fares Malahi spent his first three years in Yemen, never meeting his dad who worked and died in NYC on 9/11. Photo courtesy of the Malahi Family.

It’s at times like this that I remember how much I miss the late, great British filmmaker, Michael Apted (the brilliant director of the 7 Up documentary series).  How wonderful to imagine Apted’s take on the seven young people profiled in Generation 9/11. He would have followed them every seven years, in successive films, focusing squarely on their personal hopes, dreams, loves and loss, and the psycho-social issues that impacted them individually at those specific ages. Parameters matter!!

Instead, Generation 9/11 is an overlong film that covers 20 years in their lives… and frankly, ours too (via the inclusion of ongoing national and international issues facing all of us).  It bites off more than it can chew. Hopefully, the press screener that I viewed has been fine-tuned before broadcast.

Generation 9/11 will have potential in high school, university and college classrooms and counseling programs dealing with grief recovery, family trauma, single parenting, and, of course, post-9/11 studies.

Generation 9/11 premieres on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including www.pbs.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan

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