Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning Rebroadcast on PBS

As we nervously anticipate the Federal cuts in funding for women’s and low-income services, health care, the arts, public TV production and programming, I salute tonight’s timely PBS rebroadcast of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.  This powerful documentary debuted on American Masters on August 29, 2014.  I have updated and reprinted my original review below to encourage you to watch the film again…or for the first time…not only as a reminder of the fine work being produced and funded for and by public television, respectively; but also as a cautionary tale of what poverty and racial profiling in America looked like not so long ago, as well as how far we’ve come as women, mothers and artists.

Dorothea Lange circa 1937. Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

If you’ve ever doubted the important role played by artists as catalysts for social change, I suggest you tune in to American Masters on PBS tonight, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET, and catch the rebroadcast of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

This powerful and intimate look back at the life’s work of legendary documentary photographer Dorothea Lange will, by turns, enlighten you and break your heart.  Directed and narrated by Dyanna Taylor, the granddaughter of Dorothea Lange and social scientist/economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Grab a Hunk of Lightning is the realization of Dyanna’s extensive research and lifelong dream to tell her grandparents’ story.

Dorothea Lange’s haunting portrait of a Depression-era “Migrant Mother,” is just one of many Lange photographs that powerfully capture the desperation of poverty in America. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1936.

Many of us are familiar with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photos documenting the bread lines and weary unemployed during the Great Depression and the migration of destitute farm families fleeing the Dust Bowl. Yet, there are other photos of consequence to take into account, including her beautifully serene early Bay Area society portraiture, her Hopi Indian studies in the Southwest, and her heart-wrenching post-Pearl Harbor photos of Japanese-Americans stoically facing relocation to internment camps on the West Coast.

To see Lange’s photos reproduced beautifully in the telling of her life story will certainly be a revelation for students of her oeuvre.  But, for the rest of us, her work serves as a reminder of the struggles, resilience and hope that drove Americans to survive the worst of times and the Federal programs that helped turn the tide. It puts many of our current Recession-era woes and ongoing economic challenges into perspective and will hopefully incite viewers to fight to save and preserve the hard-won rights, programs and services that our current, ill-informed administration seeks to obliterate.

Born in 1895, Dorothea Lange grew up in Hoboken, NJ; but she found her destiny on the West Coast. Abandoned by her father and crippled by polio at age seven, she nevertheless dreamt of a career as a photographer even before she owned a camera.  A resourceful young woman, she eventually turned a trip to San Francisco that left her penniless thanks to a pickpocket into a mission to build her own business in the Bay Area as a portrait photographer.

Through the influence of the two men she subsequently married–the noted painter/illustrator of  Native Americans and cowboys of the Southwest, Maynard Dixon, and social scientist/economist Paul Taylor–she realized her best focus as a photographer.  While her journey to this end was fulfilling, her children and step-children often became collateral damage as she juggled the responsibilities of motherhood with her gruelling photographic journeys with her husbands and assignments for F.D.R.’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Dorothea Lange's granddaughter, Dyanna, grew up to become an award-winning cinematographer and the chronicler of her grandmother's life story. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1961.

Dorothea Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna, grew up to become an award-winning cinematographer and the chronicler of her grandmother’s life story. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1961.

Filmmaker and granddaughter Dyanna Taylor brings a lifetime of never-before-seen family footage and audio to this project, as well as the exquisite reproduction and incorporation of Lange’s photos and accompanying journal entries.

A highlight here is the wonderfully intimate black-and-white footage of Lange as she prepared for her groundbreaking, 1966 one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Despite suffering with a debilitating illness that would soon take her life, she meticulously sifted through her massive stash of negatives and conferred with her young assistant and with MoMA Photography Curator John Szarkowski. Her anecdotes and analysis of her work during that process are priceless and will insure the film’s evergreen status in all future studies of Lange’s photographs.

Japanese-Americans were tagged en route to internment camps in 1942. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1942.

Japanese-Americans were uprooted and shamefully tagged en route to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1942.

Additional commentary comes throughout from that young (now white-haired) assistant, Richard Conrad, as well as former colleagues and friends, historians, her middle-aged children and step-children and, most especially, from Dyanna, who remembers how her grandmother challenged and changed her childhood perception of the world around her. That Dyanna grew up to be a Peabody and five-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer is no accident.

This is a long film; but it is rich with images and recollections of life in early and mid-20th century America that, thanks to the resilience and talent of Dorothea Lange, we will never be allowed to forget.

Relevant also are her challenges as a woman plying her craft in a man’s world, as an artist whose childhood bout with polio made her adept at becoming an invisible and sensitive chronicler of the down-and-out, and as a working mother who so lost herself in her work that she alienated her children, yet won them back in the end.

While her catalytic first marriage to Maynard Dixon pointed her photography in a new direction, it was her longtime marriage to Paul Taylor that gave purpose to her artistic vision.  Dorothea Lange was of her time (May 26, 1895-October 11, 1965), yet her drive, her images and her values remain relevant today.

Dorothea Lange in her San Francisco Bay area home studio in 1964. Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

Dorothea Lange in her San Francisco Bay area home studio in 1964. Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, American Masters rebroadcasts Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning tonight, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, on PBS (8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET). Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your area and for DVD availability. Its companion book, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (Chronicle Books) by Elizabeth Partridge, is currently available.  –Judith Trojan

 

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble Debuts on HBO

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma as seen in THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma reminds us of the universal ties that bind us in THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE. Photo courtesy HBO.

“We don’t speak perfect English, but we speak perfect music.” That refrain drives Morgan Neville’s powerful feature-length documentary, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, debuting on HBO tonight, Monday, March 6, 2017, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT.  (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

It’s refreshing to find a documentary filmmaker these days who’s capable of nudging the boundaries of nonfiction storytelling into the emotional terrain of dramatic fiction without compromising credibility. Neville has that gift, as previously witnessed in his 2013 Academy Award-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, where he explores the craft and solo aspirations of successful back-up singers. (You can read my review at  https://judithtrojan.com/2014/04/04

Neville shines a light on another unheralded corner of the music industry in The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Yo-Yo Ma has been showered with praise ever since he shared the stage as a child prodigy with the likes of Leonard Bernstein. But, in The Music of Strangers, the renowned cellist admits to struggling as an adult with his relevance as a musician. “I never committed to being a musician, I just fell into it, ” he says.

Iranian kamancheh player and composer Kayhan Kalhor (on left) is featured in THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

Why did he gravitate to the cello in the first place and stick with it? Was he actually making a positive difference in the lives of his audience, and where would the next chapter of his storied life take him and why? Those questions seem to have been exacerbated by his unrelenting travel schedule and coincided with the arrival of the new millennium.

Yo-Yo Ma’s search for purpose led him to pilot the Silk Road Ensemble project in the summer of 2000. He invited a “family” of musicians, singers, composers, storytellers and artists from around the world to meet and meld their talents and unique instruments at Tanglewood in the bucolic Berkshires.  There they would introduce both a collective and individual repertoire, incorporating new and traditional music rooted in their unique cultures.

“We started as a group of musicians getting together and seeing what might happen when strangers meet,” recalls Ma.

Despite their language and cultural barriers, they clicked. Like the ancient traders who once traversed the “silk road” connecting  Asia, Africa and Europe to sell their wares, members of the Silk Road Ensemble would soon travel the world together, revisiting and sharing their traditional musical and cultural roots. To date, their “bridge building” has not only positively impacted the lives of their fellow musicians and artists, but audiences totaling some two million people in 33 countries.  The Silk Road Ensemble has also celebrated the universal power of music on six albums, one of which…this film’s companion album, Sing Me Home…won a Grammy in 2017 for Best World Music Album.

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Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato is a lively member of the Silk Road Ensemble. Photo courtesy HBO.

Although Yo-Yo Ma plays a central role in The Music of Strangers, he shares the spotlight with several key members of the Ensemble: Syrian clarinet player and composer Kinan Azmeh; Chinese pipa player and composer Wu Man; Iranian kamancheh player and composer Kayhan Kalhor; and Spanish bagpiper, pianist and composer Cristina Pato.

Their back stories, as musicians and artists born and raised in countries and regions upended by war, poverty, political revolution and cultural repression, are painful reminders of the dangers many individuals face on a daily basis as they lose loved ones in senseless bombing raids; dodge threats of being silenced, jailed or worse; and leave loved ones behind to seek asylum and assimilate in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Syrian clarinet player and composer Kinan Azmeh visited Jordan to teach music to Syrian children in a refugee camp. Photo courtesy HBO.

Evocative archival and recent film footage tracks Yo-Yo Ma and his collective colleagues from youthful promise through middle age in performance with the Ensemble. We are also privy to their return to homelands, in some cases warm and welcoming, and others decimated and dotted with grim refugee camps.

The remarkable healing power of music is especially underscored for me in a vintage clip from Mister Rogers Neighborhood in which Fred Rogers asked a young Yo-Yo Ma if music brought him joy. Ma began playing a refrain from “Swan Lake,” as a broad smile stretched across Fred’s face.  The film then cuts to a breathtaking contemporary performance of the same piece, featuring Ma and a dancer who has a soulful new take on the classic ballet.

I urge you not to miss The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. I guarantee that the fascinating, culturally diverse performers and their unique musical instruments will not only entertain and enrich you, but will remind you to cherish diversity and inclusion and the rich cultural heritage we often take for granted in the States.

“This is not just a story about what each of the musicians has done,” stresses Yo-Yo Ma. “It’s also about the meaning behind what they do. It’s about our responsibility to one another.”

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, March 6, 2017, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT.  (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.) –Judith Trojan

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Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise Debuts on PBS

Dr. Maya Angelou on the set of OPRAH'S MASTER CLASS, circa January 2011. Photo courtesy OWN.

Dr. Maya Angelou on the set of OPRAH’S MASTER CLASS, in January 2011. Photo courtesy OWN.

I think it would be virtually impossible to make a lackluster film about writer, singer, dancer, actress, poet, director and social activist Maya Angelou. An electrifying presence in every medium she mastered, Dr. Angelou passed away in 2014. She was revered especially in age not only for her eclectic body of work in the arts, but for her ability to reach the most hardened of hearts. Dr. Angelou’s voice of inclusion, resilience and rebirth was a source of conscience and inspiration throughout her lifetime and is sorely needed in America right now. Thankfully that voice can still be heard via her work on the page and in films and via clips from various TV and cable shows and lectures.

These are the tools that filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack use to marvelous effect in their ambitious feature-length documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Following its theatrical run and clean sweep of film festivals nationwide in 2016, the film makes its U.S. broadcast debut on the PBS series, American Masters tonight, Tuesday, February 21, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) It’s a welcome centerpiece on the PBS Black History Month roster.

I can still remember listening intently to Dr. Angelou as she read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.  I was mesmerized by her mellifluous voice and impressed with President-Elect Clinton’s decision to invite her participation. I had no idea that President Clinton and Dr. Angelou were bonded by their shared Arkansas roots. In 2010, President Barack Obama would similarly single her out with our nation’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dr. Maya Angelou with the film crew at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., January 2014. From left, standing: co-directors and producers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack with D.P. Keith Walker. Photo: The People's Media Group, LLC.

Dr. Maya Angelou with the film crew at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., January 2014. From left, standing: co-directors and producers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack with D.P. Keith Walker. Photo: The People’s Media Group, LLC.

Heartfelt and revelatory reminiscences from Bill and Hillary Clinton, Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, and such friends and colleagues as Random House editor Bob Loomis, and actors and performers Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Lou Gossett, Jr., Alfre Woodard and Valerie Simpson thread throughout Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. The filmmakers also incorporate profuse archival clips and photos highlighting Dr. Angelou’s various film, TV and stage performances as a dancer, singer, actress and director, as well as her talk show appearances, lectures and readings. Interviews with Dr. Angelou culled from various stages in her life are a special treat, especially those recorded by the filmmakers just prior to her death.

“It was a unique privilege to be the first filmmakers to tell Dr. Angelou’s full story and exciting to uncover stories that most people hadn’t heard,” said co-director and co-producer Bob Hercules.

As evidenced in her poetry and books, especially her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1969), which she linked to the “slave diaries” of the past, Dr. Angelou was her own best biographer.  Her words shed light on her psyche, roots and the resilience that enabled her to survive constant upheaval, abandonment and prejudice in her formative years as a child in Depression-era America and her life as a young performer on the road as a single mom.

Maya Angelou, circa 1971, was hired to write the script and music, as well as direct the film version of her best-selling 1969 autobiography, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. Photo: © WF/AP/Corbis

Maya Angelou, circa 1971, was hired to write the script and music, as well as direct the film version of her best-selling 1969 autobiography, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. Photo: © WF/AP/Corbis.

Her parents, grandparents, protective older brother Bailey, writer James Baldwin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were formative players in her creative journey and inclusive worldview. Despite five years of self-imposed silence as a child (following her rape at seven), she used that time productively to read, digest and memorize great books of literature and poetry. And when she “decided to speak,” she recalled emphatically, “I had a lot to say.”

Dr. Angelou’s life story, from start to finish, is a powerful one. Her death in 2014 was a loss for us all, but thankfully her voice can still be heard at a time when hard-won Constitutional rights and freedoms are being threatened. In Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, recalls the challenges and re-locations they faced during his road-weary, single mom’s early performance career. But he singles out her poem, written for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, as his mother’s most “monumental achievement.” A powerful reflection of American inclusiveness, the poem became, acknowledges President Clinton, her “eternal gift to America.” 

In addition to its importance as a tribute to Dr. Angelou’s life and legacy, the film and its title (taken from her poem of the same name) are welcome reminders of the reverence once accorded U.S. Presidential inaugurations in the past and how far we had come–as a nation celebrating its diversity–circa 1993. “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated,” cautions Dr. Angelou during the opening moments of the film. These are empowering words for us to remember in 2017.

Dr. Maya Angelou at home in Sonoma, Calif., in the late 1970s/early '80s. Photo: Magnum.

Dr. Maya Angelou at home in Sonoma, Calif., in the late 1970s/early ’80s. Photo: Magnum.

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise premieres on the PBS series, American Masters, tonight, Tuesday, February 21, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The DVD with additional bonus features is available now from PBS Distribution at  http://shopPBS.org  and on Digital HD as of February 22, 2017.–Judith Trojan

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Tower Debuts on PBS and Revisits Austin Massacre

Eighteen-year-old college freshman Claire Wilson was eight months pregnant when she became the first victim of a sniper on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin, on August 1, 1966. Her ordeal is documented in TOWER. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Eighteen-year-old college freshman Claire Wilson was eight months pregnant when she became the first victim of a sniper on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin, on August 1, 1966. Her ordeal is documented in TOWER. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

“If I could see the top of the tower, then the sniper could see me,” says Ray Martinez, former Austin, Texas, patrolman, as he recalls the chain of events that thrust him into the line of fire during America’s first mass school shooting.

On August 1, 1966, surrounded by an arsenal of guns and ammunition, a former Marine hunkered down on the observation deck of the iconic clock tower at the University of Texas, Austin. During his 96-minute siege of the campus in the heat of the midday sun, the sniper shot university students, staffers and passersby at random below, including a pregnant young student, her unborn child, and a paperboy making his daily deliveries. The sniper’s bullets ricocheted off campus statues and pillars, and his victims fell on the scorching campus mall pavement, where most remained until the siege ended. Sixteen people lost their lives that day, and more than 30 were wounded.

Claire Wilson and Tom Eckman were the first two victims of a sniper perched on the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower in 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Claire Wilson and Tom Eckman were the first two victims of a sniper perched on the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower in 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Fifty years later, filmmaker Keith Maitland revisits this shocking tragedy in his new feature-length documentary, Tower. Following its critically acclaimed film festival and theatrical run, Tower makes its broadcast debut on the PBS series, Independent Lens, tonight, Tuesday, February 14, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Director/producer/editor Keith Maitland brings a fresh eye and unique blend of storytelling to Tower, relying heavily on animation to replay the massacre’s harrowing time frame from the point of view of its victims. You will be hard put to find a more gripping, beautifully scored and emotionally involving documentary that utilizes animation to such an extensive degree.

A stranger named Rita dodged a barrage of bullets to lay beside wounded, pregnant Claire on the pavement during the entire ordeal. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

A stranger named Rita dodged a barrage of bullets to lay beside wounded, pregnant Claire on the pavement during the entire ordeal. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Maitland seamlessly blends black and white and color rotoscopic animation with grainy black and white period news footage and on-camera interviews with survivors and witnesses. The first person narratives are largely rendered with rotoscoped images and dramatically voiced by young actors.

Seven individuals (who began that day with a significant other, family member, friend or colleague by their side) are the film’s prime focus:  a pregnant student and the male student who ultimately pulled her out of harm’s way; a young paperboy shot off his bicycle while on delivery; two police officers who, with a civilian University staff member, heroically ended the siege; and a radio reporter who kept locals and the nation at large in-the-loop.

“Keith’s approach–weaving extraordinary animation with previously unseen archival footage–offers a new way for audiences to look at the immediate and long-term impact on survivors,” said Lois Vossen, Executive Producer, Independent Lens.

Local news director Neal Spelce reported on the shooting as the action unfolded. His radio reports gripped the nation. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Local news director Neal Spelce reported on the shooting as the action unfolded. His radio reports gripped the nation. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Fifty years have passed since that fateful day, a day that obliterated forever our innocent belief that American schools and college campuses were safe oases. This mass school shooting was not only the first of its kind on U.S. soil, but it remains one of the worst statistically, in number of victims and duration. At the time, reports of the tragedy flooded news outlets around the country and the sniper and his victims landed a Life Magazine cover story.  Esteemed CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite even expressed his personal reflections on-air.

The filmmaker shares a portion of Walter Cronkite’s moving and prophetic editorial in Tower, and also gives us actual face time with several surviving victims who reflect on how they have processed the suffering and losses they endured that day and how this film project has helped them find closure.

“Four years ago when Keith approached Independent Lens with this project, the topic of gun violence was preeminent,” added Vossen. “Unfortunately, that has become even more true in the years since we funded Tower.”

Paperboy Aleck Hernandez was shot off his bike while delivering newspapers on August 1, 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

Paperboy Aleck Hernandez was shot off his bike while delivering newspapers on August 1, 1966. Photo courtesy TOWER Documentary LLC.

In the end, Maitland’s film is not so much a story about a madman in a tower (the sniper’s name is never prominently mentioned), but rather the better angels in the mix that day whose selfless, courageous and forgiving gestures (as victims and life-savers) infuse this film with inspiration.  Tower stands as a timely reminder that guns in the hands of unstable individuals remain the number one killer of Americans on U.S. soil, and it sends a clear message that stricter gun control laws should be our priority.

I encourage you not to miss the PBS premiere of Tower on Independent Lens tonight, Tuesday, February 14, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and its availability, beginning February 15, 2017, via online streaming  @ http://www.pbs.org/independentlens –Judith Trojan

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John Lewis Inspires Us to Get in the Way

Civil Rights activist and Congressional leader John Lewis at his polling station in Atlanta, GA. Photo courtesy Early Light Productions.

Civil Rights activist and Congressional leader John Lewis at his polling station in Atlanta, GA. Photo courtesy Early Light Productions.

“I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate President,” said Civil Rights icon and longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”

After the U.S. Representative (D-GA, 1987-present) clarified his reasons (to “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd) for boycotting President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, Rep. Lewis immediately felt the heat of Trump’s Twitter fire. Trump aimed his snarky Tweets at the Congressman’s credibility and memory (yes, Lewis had also sidestepped the first inauguration of President-elect George W. Bush), character and jurisdiction. But Trump’s Tweets backfired. They revealed the President-elect’s shocking ignorance of Lewis’s respected tenure in Congress, his courageous role and stature in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and the status of Lewis’s congressional district and constituency.

If you need convincing on that score, I suggest that you watch Kathleen Dowdey’s timely new documentary, John Lewis–Get in the Way, debuting tonight on PBS, Friday, February 10, 2017, 10:30 – 11:30 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) There’s certainly no better time than Black History Month to acknowledge and celebrate the actual accomplishments and true character of Rep. John Lewis.

John Lewis has served as a U.S. Representative (D-GA) since 1987, but he made his mark in the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement as a young man alongside of his friend and mentor, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Producer/director Kathleen Dowdey revisits Lewis’s roots in rural Alabama. The son of poor sharecroppers, he journeyed north to study for the ministry at American Baptist College in Tennessee, a mission inspired by a Martin Luther King, Jr. radio broadcast that Lewis heard at 15 in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Metro policemen grabbed John Lewis, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights demonstrators, at Morrison's Cafeteria in Nashville on April 29, 1964. Lewis was the first of many to be arrested by the police. Photo courtesy The Tennessean.

Metro policemen grabbed John Lewis, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights demonstrators, at Morrison’s Cafeteria in Nashville on April 29, 1964. Lewis was the first of many to be arrested by the police. Photo courtesy The Tennessean.

John Lewis–Get in the Way reminds us of the challenges faced by King, Lewis and others committed to desegregation via nonviolent protest throughout the Jim Crow South at lunch counters, on buses, in bus terminals, hotels and schools, as well as during black voter registration drives.

An overview of Lewis’s commitment to nonviolence during this period, despite the risks of severe bodily harm, is proof positive that he not only “talked the talk” but “walked the walk” as well.  Lewis was arrested and jailed for the first time during the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. During the 1961 Freedom Rides, he was repeatedly assaulted by angry mobs. As the Chairman of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), he was the youngest speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. In March 1965, he led the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Alabama, where state troopers attacked peaceful protesters with clubs, bullwhips and tear gas.

John Lewis–Get in the Way replays these encounters via graphic archival photos and news footage, as well as through thoughtful recollections from Rep. Lewis, family members, Congressional colleagues and notable Civil Rights’ activists, who underscore the political and racial dynamic that led to violent physical assaults, incarceration and even death for peaceful protesters. The positive roles played in John Lewis’s life by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., U.S. Attorney General and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson (who signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965) are moving reminders of inspirational leadership in this country.

John Lewis at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo courtesy Early Light Productions.

John Lewis at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo courtesy Early Light Productions.

On February 21, 2017, John Lewis will turn 77 years old. He will have served in Congress for 30 years. He has been beaten, jailed and now Trump-Tweeted for standing up for human rights, voter rights, and our democracy as defined in the U.S. Constitution.  There are no “alternative facts” in John Lewis–Get in the Way.

Although the film is a much too brief overview of a complex, divisive era in U.S. history and introduction to the heroes of the day, John Lewis–Get in the Way should inspire all of us, including current inhabitants of the White House, to take a refresher course in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to John Lewis, an essential launching pad for film programs in schools, libraries and colleges should definitely be Henry Hampton’s landmark documentary film series Eyes on the Prize–America’s Civil Rights years, 1954-1965.

John Lewis–Get in the Way debuts tonight on PBS, Friday, February 10, 2017, 10:30 – 11:30 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will be available for online streaming, beginning February 11, 2017, via the PBS apps for iOS and Android devices and station-branded digital platforms, including Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. The DVD from PBS Distribution can be purchased at http://ShopPBS.org –Judith Trojan

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The Witness Takes the Stand on PBS

Did 38 neighbors witness Kitty Genovese's attack and murder in 1964 and do nothing as reported? THE WITNESS attempts to set the record straight. Photo courtesy The Witnesses Film, LLC.

Did 38 neighbors witness Kitty Genovese’s attack and murder in 1964 and do nothing as reported? THE WITNESS attempts to set the record straight. Photo courtesy The Witnesses Film, LLC.

“I was 16 when my sister, Kitty, was murdered in New York City, ” says William Genovese in the gripping, feature-length documentary The Witness. “In an instant she was gone. No one understood me like Kitty.”

Following its well-received theatrical release in 2016, The Witness makes its broadcast debut on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, Monday, January 23, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.

Twenty-eight-year old Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed during a rape attempt across the street from her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. Without the aid or intervention of neighbors, police or passersby, she managed to stumble to the vestibule of her apartment building where her attacker dealt his final blows.

The crime was shocking and captured the media’s attention, generating glaring headlines beyond NYC newsrooms. But Kitty’s own back story and the details of her brutal murder soon took a back seat to the crime’s  shocking moral implications. Did 38 Kew Gardens’ neighbors actually “witness” her attack and do nothing as initially reported in The New York Times?  The Times’ breaking crime coverage became the nut for other news outlets around the city and world, fueling political rhetoric, the story lines of socially relevant TV programming and the syllabuses for criminal justice confabs and college sociology courses for more than half a century.

The Genovese family, circa early 1950s, from left: Kitty, Bill, Frank, Rachel, Vincent, Susan and Vinnie. Photo courtesy of The Witnesses Film, LLC.

The Genovese family, circa early 1950s, from left: Kitty, Bill, Frank, Rachel, Vincent, Susan & Vinnie. Photo courtesy The Witnesses Film, LLC.

In death, Kitty Genovese would forever be remembered as the “poster child for urban apathy.”  But on the 40th anniversary of her murder in 2004, this landmark crime story took another turn. The New York Times published an article by journalist Jim Rasenberger examining the accuracy of his original coverage.  Meanwhile, filmmaker James Solomon’s research for a dramatic screenplay about the murder led to his meeting with Kitty’s brother William “Bill” Genovese, who had yet to resolve the pain of his sister’s death.

“I was originally attracted to the story as a morality play and wanted to explore what happened in those apartments,” recalls producer/director James Solomon. “I had no reason to doubt the popular narrative of the 38 witnesses who watched.”  Solomon finally determined that a documentary, not a fictionalized drama, “would bring us closer to the truth.”

Solomon’s film, The Witness, follows Bill Genovese on his 11-year odyssey to set the record straight by separating fact from fiction and upending the veracity of the word “witness” as it was applied to his sister’s case. Spurred by inconclusive and redacted police reports and helpful research originally collected for an “ABC 20/20” news story about the crime, Bill revisits the crime scene, re-stages Kitty’s screams for help, connects with surviving “witnesses,” reporters and criminal justice professionals and even attempts to arrange a meeting with his sister’s incarcerated murderer  (Winston Moseley died in prison in April 2016) and one of Moseley’s sons.

A Vietnam veteran and double amputee, Bill is a gentle if obsessed protagonist. His relentless mission ultimately affords him and his siblings a measure of comfort and closure when several of Kitty’s former friends and neighbors debunk the original police report and news coverage. He also creates a vivid portrait of his sister, as a loving sibling, free-spirited friend and gutsy maverick, who turns out to have been a surprising trailblazer for her time.

THE WITNESS explores Kitty Genovese's life story, as well as the collateral damage of her brutal murder. Photo courtesy of June Murley and The Witnesses Film, LLC.

THE WITNESS explores Kitty Genovese’s life story, as well as the collateral damage of her brutal murder. Photo courtesy June Murley and The Witnesses Film, LLC.

Like any well-orchestrated crime drama, The Witness grabs you by the throat and never lets you go.  It should serve as a marvelous discussion catalyst in counseling settings with individuals who have lost family and friends to senseless crimes. It will also be a fitting choice for schools, libraries and universities in criminal justice, ethics and journalism classes dealing with the consequences and collateral damage of inaccurate and sensational media coverage.

“At a time when there is a renewed focus on responsibility of the press and public institutions to ask tough questions to distinguish myth from truth, The Witness … reminds us how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives to fit our collective and individual needs in the absence of the whole truth,” says Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer.

I encourage you not to miss the U.S. broadcast premiere of The Witness on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, Monday, January 23, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and its availability on Video On Demand and, beginning January 24, 2017, via online streaming  @ http://www.pbs.org/independentlens –Judith Trojan

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HBO Debuts Bright Lights…Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Everlasting love. Mother and daughter bond at the dawn of their life together. From BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS. Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy HBO.

Everlasting love. Mother and daughter bond at the dawn of their life together. From BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS. Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy HBO.

“She’s me, and I’m her,” says actress/writer Carrie Fisher in the delicious new feature-length documentary Bright Lights. Fisher’s remark caps one of her grueling gigs at a Star Wars fan convention and refers to her breakout film role as Princess Leia. But she might as well be talking about her mom, Hollywood superstar Debbie Reynolds.     

A master of hilarious one-liners  and off-the-charts repartee, Carrie Fisher died suddenly at age 60 on December 27, 2016, followed by her mom’s passing a day later. If you were shocked by the timing of this heartbreaking loss, do yourself a favor and watch Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be grateful you tuned in to share the grand finale of the Carrie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds experience.

Bright Lights made a splash earlier last year in happier times at the 2016 Cannes, Telluride and New York Film Festivals. It debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, January 7, 2017, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

Filmmakers Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, an accomplished actor in his own right, no doubt originally conceived Bright Lights as a wildly entertaining cinema véritè portrait of Hollywood royalty as Debbie, Carrie, her brother Todd Fisher, his wife actress Catherine Hickland, and their devoted staff recall the family’s lifetime in the limelight and the challenges that threatened to derail them.   In light of the recent unexpected back-to-back deaths of Reynolds and Fisher, Bright Lights takes on new and poignant resonance.

Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Todd Fisher in one of many lovely family photos featured in BRIGHT LIGHTS. Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy of HBO.

Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Todd Fisher in one of many lovely family photos featured in BRIGHT LIGHTS. Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy HBO.

Jam-packed with wonderful clips from Debbie and Carrie’s films and TV appearances, myriad home movies and lovely family photos, the film paints a portrait of a complicated, intense and loving mother-daughter bond that transcends show business and the demands of their accomplishments as artists.

With reflections from Carrie’s brother, Todd Fisher, and their significant others, the family’s tumultuous past quickly falls into place. Mother-daughter-son survived setbacks that would have crushed many mortals (substance abuse, mental illness, feckless fathers, dissolute husbands, bankruptcy); but they seemed to have patched themselves together with stronger glue in the end.

Carrie’s early fall from grace began around age 13 when her erratic behavior (undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder) and her lapse into drug abuse took root. She replayed the fallout to comic effect in her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge (Simon & Schuster, 1987), and her adapted screenplay for the 1990 film directed by Mike Nichols. Those episodes were painful to Debbie who tearfully puts them into perspective… and clearly in the past tense.

Superstar Debbie Reynolds loved the spotlight but never let her children go (with Todd and Carrie Fisher). Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy of HBO.

Superstar Debbie Reynolds loved the spotlight but never let her children go (with Todd and Carrie Fisher). Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy HBO.

As they met the needs of their sassy, aging mom who was not content to retire from show business and wait to die, Carrie and Todd faced new hurdles that many daughters and sons can easily relate to. Carrie’s efforts to get Debbie prepped and on-stage for her periodic gigs in Las Vegas and the burbs and, most especially, for the love-fest awaiting her acceptance of the 2016 Screen Actors’ Guild Life Achievement Award are especially touching.

A hill separated Carrie and Debbie’s houses on the Reynolds’ family “compound”; but the invisible ties that bound them more closely as mother and daughter clearly meant that Debbie could not live without Carrie by her side, and vice versa.  Bright Lights sits comfortably alongside of Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper (see my April 9, 2016 review ), as one of the best documentaries in recent memory to depict the mother-child bond respectfully, warts and all, no matter how lofty the subjects and how hard the fall.

Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, share the stage. As seen in BRIGHT LIGHTS. Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy HBO.

Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, share the stage. As seen in BRIGHT LIGHTS. Photo: Fisher Family Archives. Courtesy HBO.

On its most elemental level, Bright Lights works as an entertaining profile of Hollywood royalty and as an unusually upbeat addition to programs featuring films about mothers and daughters (Grey Gardens, Terms of EndearmentMildred Pierce, GypsyImitation of Life, Stella Dallas, etc.). But it is also an evergreen choice for adult family programs in libraries and counseling centers dealing with aging parents, the challenges faced by family care-givers and grief.

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, January 7, 2017, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)–Judith Trojan

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