Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Ignites PBS

Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) captivated movie-goers with her exotic beauty during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. But she was most proud of her unheralded contributions to the war effort as an inventor. Photo ©Diltz/RDA/Everett Collection.

“Any girl can look glamorous…all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”–Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Screen queen Hedy Lamarr (Algiers, Boom Town, Samson and Delilah, White Cargo) learned quickly how far a pretty face could take her in the male dominated Hollywood film industry of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.  She also knew that her fascination with science and technology and her talent as an inventor, encouraged by her beloved dad from a young age, were best kept under wraps from the fans and Hollywood suits who would make her a star.

Today, when women are still fighting to be taken at more than face value as artists, scientists, politicians and industry leaders, director Alexandra Dean’s fascinating feature-length documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, couldn’t be more timely. The 2017 film festival favorite debuts tonight, Friday, May 18, 2018, on the PBS American Masters series, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing immediately after its broadcast premiere.

Hedy Lamarr shared the screen with Spencer Tracey in I TAKE THIS WOMAN (1940).

Ms. Dean and her team (including Ken Burns’ master cinematographer Buddy Squires) utilize a lavish array of period and personal photos and vintage film clips to introduce the cultural and political landscape that defined Hedy (Kiesler) Lamarr’s milieu as an upper class Austrian Jew, before and during the Nazi occupation.

The teenage Viennese beauty first made a splash in the 1933 Czech film, Ecstasy. Her sensual nude scenes in that film gave her acting career a boost internationally and secured the film’s long shelf life as a sexually explicit groundbreaker ( I saw it in film school in the early 1970s).  It wasn’t too long before she married a much older wealthy munitions tycoon (the first of her six husbands), surreptitiously freed herself from his jealous grasp, and snagged a contract from M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer on board a ship en route to the States.

Telling reminiscences from her son, daughter and granddaughter, as well as friends, colleagues and film historians, footnote Hedy Lamarr’s creative endeavors, personal foibles, feature film and TV appearances. She was one of the few major stars who challenged the binding contract system that shackled actors and actresses to individual studios for seven years and the rare actress who attempted to produce her own films.

But it is Ms. Lamaar’s thoughtful, intelligent voice over commentary that ignites Bombshell. Her audio reflections were pulled from interviews recorded in 1990 on four audiotapes by Forbes magazine contributor Fleming Meeks.  Threaded throughout the film, the audio bytes provide a rich first person narrative in which she recalls her roles as an actress, mother, daughter, clandestine inventor and, most challenging of all, a great beauty whose face inspired the look of Snow White and Catwoman.

Hedy Lamarr broke into Hollywood films starring with Charles Boyer in ALGIERS, 1938.

We learn the genesis of her WWII-driven invention (with avant-garde composer George Antheil) of a “frequency hopping communications system,” which they created to stymy German submarines from detecting radio-guided torpedoes headed their way. Instead of being honored at the time for this life-saving contribution to the WWII effort, Lamarr was instructed to entertain the troops and sell kisses for war bonds.

She and Antheil were awarded a patent but never saw a penny for their invention.  The patent expired and their communications system was ultimately employed successfully during WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis and has served decades later as the basis for secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies.

My only gripe with Bombshell?   It’s chock-a-block with so many tantalizing plotlines that I came away from it with questions galore. I’d love to know more about Hedy Lamarr’s early life with her parents as a young Jew living in Vienna, circa the 1920s and 1930s; how she managed to meet, marry and shed all six of her husbands, and why her picture perfect memories of being a mom contradicted her children’s recollections.

Hedy Lamarr’s beauty was never more evident than in ZIEGFELD GIRL, circa 1941.

In the end, her obsession with plastic surgery tragically seemed to disfigure her beautiful face, and she was one of notorious Dr. Feelgood’s unfortunate victims (she admits to thinking he was injecting her with special B-12 shots not meth).  She even claims to have dated another client of Dr. Feelgood’s…JFK.

While you may find, as I did, that Hedy Lamarr’s life story has more than enough substance and drama for three or four films, the best place to begin navigating the Lamarr minefield is Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story debuts tonight, Friday, May 18, 2018, on the PBS American Masters series, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing immediately after its broadcast premiere, as well as its availability via such services as Amazon, iTunes and FandangoNow. –Judith Trojan

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Untested Rape Kits Exposed in HBO’s I Am Evidence

“You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.” —Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

The late poet, activist Maya Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  She was seven years old, and the “trauma of telling” stole her voice. She literally stopped talking for five years, believing that she was responsible for her rapist’s murder because she told on him.

As boldface names like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey continue to capture worldwide attention, for reasons that no longer have to do with their craft as film producers and performers, the airing of old and new wounds inflicted by sexual harassers, abusers and rapists have emboldened more and more women and men from all walks of life to speak out about their experiences via the #metoo movement.

If you’re a fan of NBC-TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and especially admire the advocacy role played by its star, Mariska (Olivia Benson) Hargitay, on and off camera, I encourage you to watch producer Hargitay’s powerful film exposé, I Am Evidence, debuting on HBO tonight, Monday, April 16, 2018, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

A rape kit being processed in I AM EVIDENCE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ms. Hargitay’s 90-minute documentary, directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta  Gandbhir, shines an uncompromising light on the stockpiling of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the country. Although assault survivors often face victim shaming and blaming trauma when they report their attacks, they are assured that their rape kits contain crucial DNA evidence that will pinpoint their rapists’ identities.

However, rape kits stored untested in dusty police storage rooms or remote warehouses provide no closure for these victims.  As time passes, untested rape kits have also been unceremoniously discarded, sometimes before their statute of limitations expires.  Survivors live with the knowledge that no one in the criminal justice system cares, and they grapple with the PTSD fear that their rapists, still at large, will strike them or others again.

I AM EVIDENCE exposes the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits stockpiled across the country, which stymies the use of critical DNA evidence to identify and convict rapists, and bring closure to their victims. Photo courtesy HBO.

I AM EVIDENCE exposes the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits stockpiled across the country, which stymies the use of critical DNA evidence to identify and convict rapists, and bring closure to their victims. Photo courtesy HBO.

I Am Evidence explores the back story of the rape kit debacle as it has played out for decades in Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles.  We meet individual sexual assault survivors in those cities who had all but given up waiting for justice to be served, as well as their legal advocates and family members who address the deeply rooted racist and sexist attitudes that have traditionally fueled law enforcement’s dismissive handling of rape cases in general.

The filmmakers give ample time to law enforcement professionals who are attempting to turn the tide.  “These rape kits are the best bargain in the history of law enforcement,” confirms Tim McGinty, former Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland. “One in four results in an indictment. One in four of the four is a serial rapist.”

When DNA results from tested rape kits are linked to CODIS, the national criminal database, law enforcement officers can identify serial offenders.  I Am Evidence follows the trail of one serial perpetrator, a long distance truck driver who victimized women across state lines for decades (including his wife and two of the women profiled in this film living, respectively, in Los Angeles and Ohio). Had rape kits from these women (and potentially many other victims along his truck route) not been allowed to languish on the shelf for years, an untold number of women would have been saved from rape and, it is believed, probable murder.

Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy and actress/ producer/advocate Mariska Hargitay confer during filming of I AM EVIDENCE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy and actress/ producer/advocate Mariska Hargitay confer during filming of I AM EVIDENCE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Aside from her long tenure as Lt. Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, Ms. Hargitay recalls the additional fuel that continues to fire her advocacy:  the flood of letters she receives from sexual assault victims. She went on to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, which not only aims to end the backlog of untested rape kits in the U.S. via its “End the Backlog” initiative, but also strives to change the dialogue surrounding sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

I Am Evidence has been a fire starter on the film festival circuit and will serve as an important discussion catalyst going forward. The film is a timely program choice for audiences of criminal justice students and professionals focusing on women’s issues, racism and sexism, as well as counseling sessions for assault survivors and their families.   

I Am Evidence debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 16, 2018, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) — Judith Trojan

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Sex, Lies and Butterflies Soars on PBS Nature

A Postman Butterfly gathers pollen in Deerfield, Mass., one of the many extraordinary images featured in SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES debuting on PBS NATURE. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

A Postman Butterfly gathers pollen in Deerfield, Mass., one of the many extraordinary images featured in SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES debuting on PBS NATURE. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

When was the last time you came face to face with an actual butterfly?  And I don’t mean a computer generated knock-off! (If  you’re currently watching the quirky Alan Ball series, Here and Now, on HBO, you’ve seen more than your share of those phony baloney impostors lately.)

I’m an avid gardener and can’t imagine settling for anything but the real thing.  As the seasons stretch from spring into summer then fall, there is nothing more magical than watching the arrival of these glorious creatures in my garden, whether they flit past my porch windows en masse (as they did last year, in what seemed like an endless, mind-blowing parade) or they dart around me in the garden en route to feast on the flowers and flowering shrubs that I planted … just for them.  I can’t think of anything better than sharing my garden with these colorful little souls.

This butterfly in Tambopata, Peru, is ready for its close-up in NATURE: SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES on PBS. Photo courtesy Mark Carroll/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

This butterfly in Tambopata, Peru, is ready for its close-up in NATURE: SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES on PBS. Photo courtesy Mark Carroll/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

If you’re as obsessed with butterflies as I am or if you’ve taken them for granted, I urge you not to miss the latest episode of the PBS series NATURE, which makes the most of sophisticated eye-popping macro-cinematography to time-line the extraordinary 50-million year metamorphosis of one small brown moth into some 20,000 species of butterflies.

Sex, Lies and Butterflies debuts on PBS tonight, April 4, 2018, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature for immediate online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

This fascinating documentary was produced and directed by Emmy® Award-winner Ann Johnson Prum and written by Janet Hess, who seem to share an affinity for the tiniest creatures … you can read my FrontRowCenter review of their 2016 film for PBS NATURE, Super Hummingbirds, at https://judithtrojan.com/2016/10/12/  

Sex, Lies and Butterflies takes viewers on a similarly remarkable journey as it positions us eyeball-to-eyeball with such species of butterflies as Painted Ladies, Monarchs and Swallowtails and introduces us to those lucky biologists and ecologists in the U.S. and abroad who study the life cycles, migratory patterns and survival techniques of butterflies.

Birdwing Butterflies mating in Deerfield, Mass., a process that can take hours. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

Birdwing Butterflies mating in Deerfield, Mass., a process that can take hours. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

I guarantee that as you watch the extraordinary footage of these beauties as they mate, lay their jewel-like eggs, hatch and dodge predators via a funky array of caterpillar “attire” and break free of their chrysalises as full-fledged butterflies, the only word that will come to mind is “Wow!”

In fact, the film’s “wow factor” never waivers as Ms. Prum and her team explore unique butterfly species and their broad-based habitats; the marvels of their incredible eyes, proboscis, wings and vocalizations; their natural enemies and surprising “frenemies”; the logistics and challenges of their extraordinary migratory journeys and pivotal role as pollinators.

A beautiful Heliconia Butterfly photographed in Mindo Ecuador. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

Serenely narrated by actor Paul (John Adams) GiamattiNATURE: Sex, Lies and Butterflies is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.  It debuts on PBS tonight, April 4, 2018, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature for immediate online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) Be sure not to miss it!– Judith Trojan

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Playwright Arthur Miller Profiled by Daughter Rebecca on HBO

Playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2006). Photo: Robert Miller/Arthur Miller Archive. Courtesy HBO.

“The parent is always a mythological figure,” muses playwright Arthur Miller in his daughter Rebecca’s captivating new feature film profile of her dad, Arthur Miller: Writer. “It’s the basis of all mythology, after all,” he continues. “What’s Zeus? He’s the father. He’s the guy that throws thunderbolts–kills you. Or raises you up into glory.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright may have made his mark on the American stage with gut-wrenching plays about fathers and sons (All My Sons; Death of a Salesman); but, for his daughter, Rebecca, there was another side to her dad’s story and she aimed to tell it. It took her 20 years to complete the project, and it was well worth the wait.

Rebecca Miller’s interviews with her dad, playwright Arthur Miller, filmed over several years, are highlights of ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER. Photo: Inge Morath ©The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos. Courtesy HBO.

Rebecca Miller’s beautifully conceived and respectful portrait of her “pop,” Arthur Miller: Writer, premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, March 19, 2018, 8:00 – 9:45 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

Ms. Miller’s 20-year-odyssey to capture the man behind the myth must have been daunting.  She succeeds admirably by incorporating exquisite vintage photos, film and TV footage and home movies; excerpts from her dad’s personal journals and autobiography, Timebends: A Life (Grove Press, 1987); intimate fragments from love letters to his wives; and reminiscences from Rebecca’s mom, siblings, aunts and uncle. Best of all, however, are the charming one-on-one, father-daughter chats filmed over many years.

Arthur Miller’s strong presence in the film–on camera and in voice over reading from his autobiography and journals–shines a fresh light on the legendary playwright’s oeuvre. His participation also provided Ms. Miller with the added opportunity to fashion a captivating film about fathers and daughters. Traditionally, mother-daughter relationships tend to drive family focused documentaries filmed by women.  In contrast, Arthur Miller: Writer is a refreshing look at the other side of the coin.

Ms. Miller (who is married to another legend, actor Daniel Day-Lewis) breaks her dad’s profile into six chapters, beginning with his dad’s  journey alone to America as a seven-year-old child and ends with her dad’s lonely days following her mother Inge’s death in 2002.

Arthur Miller and third wife Inge Morath. Photo: Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos. Courtesy HBO.

Anecdotes from immediate family members flesh out the portrait as father and daughter revisit his early years as a lackluster student, his turnaround in college, the evolution of his pivotal plays and the three wives who loved him:  his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, and her successors, for better (internationally renowned photographer Inge Morath), and for worse (actress Marilyn Monroe).

Especially enlightening are his reflections on his tortured relationship with second wife Marilyn Monroe; his stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the mid-1950s; his collaborative friendship with director Elia Kazan; and, most surprisingly, Miller’s proficiency as a carpenter and furniture maker.

Director John Huston, actress Marilyn Monroe and screenwriter Arthur Miller confer on the troubled set of THE MISFITS (1961). In ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER, the playwright vividly recalls the difficulties faced by cast and crew due to Monroe’s crippling insecurities.

Professional and personal sidelights from playwright Tony Kushner and director Mike Nichols thread throughout the film; but, thankfully, they are the only two prominent talking heads from the theater world who have a presence here.

Rebecca Miller’s honest and humanizing portrait, Arthur Miller: Writer, will serve her dad’s memory well in theater and film appreciation programs, as well as acting and playwriting classes in high school, college, museum and library settings. The film will also be a unique addition to women’s studies, most especially, programs focusing on the dynamics of father-daughter relationships.

Arthur Miller: Writer, premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, March 19, 2018, 8:00 – 9:45 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.) –Judith Trojan

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Celebrating Black History Month on HBO and PBS

Students at Atlanta University, circa 1900s. As seen in Stanley Nelson’s TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES debuting on PBS. Photo courtesy Atlanta University Center.

As Black History Month draws to a close, what better day than Presidents’ Day 2018 to shine a light on African-Americans who’ve defied cultural, economic, sexist and, most especially, racist roadblocks in pursuit of higher education.

Tonight, Monday, February 19, 2018, HBO and PBS roll out three thought-provoking documentaries that examine the vagaries of higher education in the African-American community.  I urge you to catch the films tonight beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT, on HBO, and ending at 11:59 p.m. ET, on PBS (or during repeat screenings, on affiliate portals and DVD/Blu-ray, or via streaming as indicated individually below).

Despite its 35-minute running time, Traffic Stop packs a wallop.  Peabody Award-winning producer/directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner turned their cameras on African-American teacher Breaion King.

TRAFFIC STOP recalls how school teacher Breaion King suffered horrific treatment at the hands of a racist traffic cop in Austin, Texas. Photo: Tom Bergmann. Courtesy HBO.

TRAFFIC STOP recalls how school teacher Breaion King suffered horrific treatment at the hands of a racist traffic cop in Austin, Texas. Photo: Tom Bergmann. Courtesy HBO.

Brief vignettes capture the vibrant 26-year-old in her Austin, Texas, classroom enthusiastically sparring with her young math students (“I want them to think for themselves!”) and, off the clock, during her modern dance classes and while pursuing her other creative endeavors (singing and modeling). She’s a charmer who relishes the fact that she’s the first in her single parent family to graduate from college, earn a Masters’ Degree and buy her own home.  She hopes to go on for her Doctorate; but sadly, the hard-won education credentials and modeling photos that once gave her a positive presence on the Web are now overshadowed by her mug shot.

Ms. King was pulled over for speeding on June 15, 2015.  Footage from her encounter with white police officer Bryan Richter was recorded on his dashcam and plays out in this film.  As her pleas for a simple traffic ticket are ignored and her horrifying physical abuse at the hands of Officer Richter unfolds, you may, as I did, be unable to stifle your own vocal outcry.  The 100-pound, highly educated young teacher was brutally thrown to the pavement and hogtied by the over-sized white, male cop.

Currently nominated for an Academy Award® in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, Traffic Stop vividly documents the shameful, ongoing legacy of racism and, also in Ms. King’s case, sexism that African-Americans continue to face. The opportunities and respect due this dedicated, articulate educator, so proud of her higher education credentials and artistic talent, were nullified in an instant by a racist cop who couldn’t see past the color of her skin.

Traffic Stop debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, February 19, 2018, 8:00 – 8:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the weeks ahead, as well as the film’s current availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

A Spelman College class, circa 1898. From TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. Photo courtesy Spelman College.

A Spelman College class, circa 1898. From TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. Photo courtesy Spelman College.

In counterpoint to Traffic Stop, the feature-length documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities traces the history of racial empowerment through education.

“For generations, there was no other place our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents could go to school,” recalls the film’s Emmy® and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson. “I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and–in their resistance–created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come.”

In Tell Them We Are Rising, filmmaker Stanley Nelson (A Place of Our Own, Freedom Summer, The Murder of Emmett Till )  traces the impact of education, or lack of it, on the lives of African-Americans, from slavery through post-Civil and WWI and WWII America.  Strong focus is on the roots and evolution of black colleges and universities as seedbeds for Civil Rights activism.  Striking vintage photos and film footage and reflections from period letters (unfortunately undated), newspaper clippings and articulate historians and elderly college graduates are assets.

A group of freed slaves with books, from TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. Photo courtesy Cook Collection/The Valentine.

A group of freed slaves with books, from TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. Photo courtesy Cook Collection/The Valentine.

In addition to the broadcast, the film serves as the second film in Stanley Nelson’s “America Revisited” trilogy and the centerpiece of the yearlong multi-platform HBCU Rising project that explores the legacy of “America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities” (HBCUs) and features national partnerships, exclusive events, StoryCorps audio stories, video shorts, a HBCU campus tour and HBCU Digital Yearbook. For more info, check out http://HBCURising.com

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities premieres tonight, Monday, February 19, 2018, on the PBS series Independent Lens, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for premiere and repeat screenings in your region and its availability on DVD/Blu-Ray.  Online streaming begins on Tuesday, February 20, 2018, at http://www.pbs.org/independent lens/

Chicago teenager Robert Henderson’s determination to graduate from high school and college despite the roadblocks that threaten to derail him is a journey worth sharing in ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Photo courtesy Tod Lending.

Chicago teenager Robert Henderson’s determination to graduate from high school and college despite the roadblocks that threaten to derail him is a journey worth sharing in ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Photo courtesy Tod Lending.

“It isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish,” says Robert Henderson, one of two African-American teenage boys whose hard-won journey from the South Side of Chicago through high school graduation and four years of college drive the five-year timeline in All the Difference.  All the Difference originally debuted on the PBS series POV in September 2016.

You can read my original, full-length review of All the Difference, published in FrontRowCenter on September 12, 2016, at  https://judithtrojan.com/2016/09/12/

The powerful 90-minute documentary, filmed by Emmy® Award-winning producer/director/cinematographer Tod Lending, repeats on the PBS series POV tonight, Monday, February 19, 2018, 10:30 – 11:59 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region.) –Judith Trojan 

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1920 Bombing of Wall Street Revisited on American Experience

A horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded at the start of noontime lunch hour in front of the Morgan Bank on Wall Street, NYC, on September 16, 1920. From AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE BOMBING OF WALL STREET. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The parallels are unsettling.  Immigrant profiling and deportation.  American workers embittered by a profiteering moneyed class. Homegrown terrorists schooled in bomb-making and rhetoric by foreign-born anarchists. Russia vs. the F.B.I.

As revisited in the fascinating new documentary, The Bombing of Wall Street, debuting on the PBS series American Experience tonight, Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET (online February 14 @ www.pbs.org ), it’s clear that the “hot topics” currently inciting angry debate and stalemate in D.C. are hardly new.  In the years following World War I, wealthy American capitalists grew their coffers on the backs of those who fought and returned home from The Great War in Europe only to face grueling conditions and low wages in factories and coal mines.

Anarchists (reportedly in dark hats) gathered in Union Square, New York City, May 1, 1914. Note Baker and Taylor Company Booksellers in the background. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution (November 1917) in Russia inspired workers of the world to challenge capitalism, unite and strike.  Some took more violent means to get their message across.

In April and May of 1919, 30 bombs targeting U.S. bankers and government officials were mailed to arrive on May Day.  Attorney General and Presidential hopeful A. Mitchell Palmer ordered the Bureau of Investigation to draw up a list of possible suspects.  Shortly thereafter, a bomb was delivered and exploded prematurely on Palmer’s front doorstep, scattering the bomb and the bomber’s remains hither and yon and generating fear for Palmer’s future well-being.  Similar attacks occurred in six other cities.

J. Edgar Hoover. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Palmer retaliated by targeting anyone purportedly connected to revolutionary groups. He created “The Radical Division” of the Bureau and appointed a 24-year-old lawyer to manage it. Thus began the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, whose affinity for files had been fine-tuned during an early stint at the Library of Congress.

With Hoover on board at the Bureau, more than 200,000 files on radical activities were swiftly compiled and, on the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (November 7, 1919), Palmer ordered a raid that led to the deportation of 249 Russian immigrants, a group that included anarchist Emma Goldman. More “Palmer Raids” were staged nationwide and suspected radicals were locked up en masse in deplorable makeshift detention centers. Many detainees were innocent, law-abiding hyphenate-American citizens.

The culmination of this tragic period in U.S. history came on September 16, 1920, when a horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded on Wall Street during lunch hour in front of the Morgan Bank–the world’s most powerful, family run banking institution.  Thirty-eight innocent Wall Street employees and passersby were killed and hundreds more were injured. The bombs during that period were not unsophisticated: They ejected deadly shrapnel that shattered human organs. Other financial institutions across the country rightfully feared similar retaliation.

A blown out car and dead horse are collateral damage as the police hold back curious post-bombing crowds in lower Manhattan, on September 16, 1920. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“During this period, America was grappling with some of the same difficult quandaries in which we find ourselves now,” said PBS American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels.”How do we protect ourselves from violent extremists who wish to  harm us without violating the civil liberties of those who may have different political beliefs? There was no easy answer in 1920 and no easy answer now.”

Writer/director  Susan Bellows managed to acquire and weave a remarkable collection of period film footage throughout her 52-minute documentary.  The century-old footage is riveting as it captures and contrasts life on Wall Street before and after the September 16, 1920 bombing and documents the nationwide workers’ strikes and immigrant raids, roundups and deportations that preceded the bombing.  The scope of the terrorist threats on American soil and the challenges to capitalism, immigration and the U.S. Constitution almost 100 years ago are eye-opening and chilling in light of similar debilitating challenges facing our country today.

The September 16, 1920 Wall Street "bomb wagon" as reconstructed from recovered fragments. No suspected perpetrators were ever tried and convicted. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The September 16, 1920 Wall Street “bomb wagon” as reconstructed from recovered fragments. No suspected perpetrators were ever tried and convicted. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The Bombing of Wall Street, based in part on Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror (Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009), should serve as timely re-education and a wake-up call for all Americans. It’s a must-see for those who need “reminding” in the highest echelons of all three branches of the U.S. government.

The Bombing of Wall Street debuts on the PBS series American Experience tonight, Tuesday, February 13, 2018, at 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, its availability on DVD and   http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ for online viewing beginning on February 14, 2018.–Judith Trojan

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A Time for Burning Revisited at the Film Forum in NYC

Bill Jersey

Just a quick heads-up…encouraging my FrontRowCenter readers living in the New York metropolitan area to attend a highly anticipated screening and Q&A at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, in New York City tonight, Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

The landmark documentary, A Time for Burning–filmed in 1965 by my friend, mega-Award-winning documentarian, Bill Jersey–will be screened beginning at 6:20 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Bill.

Now 91 and still thriving as a filmmaker and painter in the bucolic Delaware River town of Lambertville, NJ, Bill has been the focus of several of my filmmaker interviews and FrontRowCenter profiles in the past.

If you are at all interested in learning about the roots of the cinema vérité movement and revisiting the then incendiary 1965 Civil Rights’ film, A Time for Burning, with one of the movement’s masters, do yourself a favor and head over to the Film Forum.

Bill Jersey shared the back story of A Time for Burning with me for FrontRowCenter: 

Bill Jersey: “In 1965 an unusual event occurred in the history of documentary filmmaking. A film was made that criticized its funder. The Lutheran Church hired me to make a film for them on the church’s response to racial tension.  The church fathers had hoped to show their organization responding effectively to the tension embroiling the country over this issue, but it was not turning out that way.

A TIME FOR BURNING explores a Lutheran minister's (right) attempt to integrate his congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Bill Jersey.

A TIME FOR BURNING explores a Lutheran minister’s (right) failed attempt to integrate his congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Bill Jersey.

A Time for Burning tells the story of a white Lutheran minister forced to resign over his commitment to Civil Rights as he attempted to integrate his all-white congregation in Omaha, Nebraska.

“One Omaha church member said of the potential African-American congregants: ‘I want God to bless them as much as he blesses me… I just can’t be in the same room with them.’ Another said, ‘I don’t see the problem… I had a Negro in my gym class.’ An African-American barber commented on the white churchgoers:  ‘Your Jesus is contaminated–just like everything else you do!’

“I realized the film I was making was not what the Lutheran Church had in mind, so I offered them the chance to terminate my contract and the project. But the church bravely said: ‘Finish it and offer it for broadcast.’

“All three networks turned it down because–as an early example of the cinema vérité style–it had no host, no narrator and no identifying subtitles. But the film received rave reviews from TV critics and magazine and newspaper reviewers in every major city. Fred Friendly, then President of CBS News, said it was the finest Civil Rights’ film ever made.

A Time for Burning subsequently received an Oscar nomination, was selected by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection and, in 2012, was blown up to 35mm from the original 16mm film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”Ω

Although it was filmed in 1965, A Time for Burning continues to resonate and spark heated discussion, given the racially divisive climate being ignited nationwide by POTUS. A featured selection of Film Forum’s “60’s VÉRITÉ Special Events” series, A Time for Burning begins screening at 6:20 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Bill Jersey, at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10014. –Judith Trojan

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