movies: When They See Us (2019) and The Central Park Five (2012)

I was keyed up for the release of When They See Us as a Netflix original miniseries at the beginning of June. (I’m treating it here as a movie, especially because “limited series” seems like such a downplay for a serious work of art and social commentary.) I viewed the four episodes in three evenings, rushing through, feeling both addicted and horrified, unable to look away. I thought I was prepared for the subject matter, but I was shocked beyond expectations.

The show handles events from 1989, when five boys (four Black, one Puerto Rican and Black) were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Their names are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Although there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and although their confessions were full of holes and inconsistencies and signs of police coercion, they were found guilty. The four younger boys, ages fourteen to fifteen, were sentenced to between five and ten years. Korey Wise was sixteen, and received ten to fifteen, entering adult prison directly. In 2002, another man in prison for a series of rapes, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and Korey (still incarcerated) was released, and all five men’s convictions were vacated.

It’s a terribly painful story to see unfold. On the April night in 1989, we see a large group of boys running through Central Park and acting out. They push at and harass bicyclists. They beat up a man. It’s easy to see how things escalate: boys roughhousing, and then some of them take it a step too far; imagine yourself one of those boys. You’re not responsible for the actions of those you’re with; you don’t even know all of them. It turns out that the jogger was raped in the same park on the same night, beaten within an inch of her life. Three of the boys who would become known as the Central Park Five were arrested that night. The next day, police came looking for Yusef Salaam. His friend Korey was with him when they take him in, and agreed to come along, just for moral support. In an ugly-ironic twist, Korey would serve the longest sentence for this crime in which none of the Five had any involvement.

It’s unsurprising that When They See Us knocks it out of the park with Ava DuVernay as creator, co-writer and director. Under her guidance, we see the boys running through Central Park. We see them picked up by police, and interrogated without parents present for hours and hours, without bathroom breaks or food; we see them pushed around, threatened, and coached through their false confessions. We see them in court and then in prison; we see them get out and hug their families and try to put their lives back together. We see Reyes confess to the rape. I am deeply impressed by the acting performances given by both the young actors (portraying the teenaged boys) and adults. I am horrified, over and over again.

I’m glad (well, that’s a weird word) to see the story of Korey Wise’s sister given air time, too: Marci was a trans woman murdered while he was incarcerated, who we meet only through flashbacks, as he weathers solitary confinement by living in a dream world largely starring this much-loved older sister. The story of a murdered Black trans woman is unfortunately common still today, and Marci deserved this coverage. She is beautifully played by Isis King.

I was also intrigued to meet the very sympathetic (in both senses) character of Roberts, a white prison guard who goes out of his way to be kind and generous to Korey, even holding him in an embrace when he finds out about Marci’s death. Roberts does not appear to come from real life (go figure). He was a sweet departure, but his totally fiction existence feels like a final driving-home of the horror of this true story.

I find the title interesting, too. I can think of several ways to follow this phrase, from ‘when they see us, they only see one thing/they think they know us,’ to ‘when they see us, then, finally, we’ll get justice,’ in the sense that we mean when we say it feels good to be seen. The story is so clearly about racism, about the way in which these boys, these children, were handled as proxy for everything that the world feared about Black men in 1980s New York. A white woman was raped, and they came for the Central Park Five just like they came for Emmett Till. And they were just babies: that’s one of the advantages of seeing and not just reading about this story, seeing the faces of these boys and realizing how very young they were.

I think this was everything it needed to be. As a crime drama, it’s gripping and moving. As social commentary, it’s thorough in its criticisms: the cops and prosecutors demonize themselves through their actions. I wept more than once. It’s also a visually impressive piece of art – this is where I’d normally call it visually pleasing, but of course that’s the wrong adjective – it’s full of expressive images, from the wide-angle view of boys in the park to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, and expansiveness of the outdoors to a man freed. I am still recovering emotionally from this story. Well done, DuVernay and full cast.

After feeling so affected by this show, I went looking for more, which led me to the documentary covering the same events from seven years earlier. The Central Park Five did much of the same job as the Netflix series, but with original footage and the perspectives of the men looking back from years later. Necessarily, it offered a less complete view of past events, because it stuck to the footage available; we don’t see police hit or threaten or coach the boys’ confessions, obviously, but we see the taped confessions, and we see the faces of the five boys and, later, men themselves. (Antron McCray allowed the use of his voice and not his image, as an adult.)

There was not much more of the story to be gained here, then, but an advantage in seeing it come from the people actually involved. I appreciated seeing what each character looked like, in comparison to the actor(s) who played them. I enjoyed seeing period footage of New York in general, too. I think it’s probably a good documentary, but it suffers some by comparison to When They See Us, which has the obvious advantage of being able to show more – whatever DuVernay wants to depict – and more dramatically. Having the two together feels like the right final call, of course, for the viewer wanting to explore this subject matter. I’m very impressed with both.

As a final remark, I want to say that I have a friend who has come into personal contact with Linda Fairstein, the evil, racist prosecutor in this story. This friend had her own horrible experience, which upholds what we learn about Fairstein here. Friend, I am sorry again for what happened to you. We’re decades late, but I’m glad everybody’s now talking about her and holding her responsible for some of her actions. Fairstein has enjoyed a career as a crime novelist until just recently: following a social media campaign, her publisher, Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint, has ended the relationship. Small progress.


Rating: an average 8.5 years for these two fine films.

movie: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.

movie: Hillbilly (2019)

Disclosure: I am a degree or two removed, socially, from some of the folks involved with the making of this film.


I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.

–Jason Howard

I found Hillbilly deeply moving, beautiful, and appreciated the diversity of people it put in front of the camera.

I heard about this film from several sources at once, all of them sympathetic, and some of them personally connected; the above quotation (which you know resonated with me so strongly) comes from Jason Howard, who’s been guest faculty at WVWC during my tenure as a student there. His husband Silas House is an executive producer. So I came in with a positive preconception, and it was rewarded. I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t have been) to see the negative reviews on Amazon; the “top reviews” were all critical of its political stance (“this is a liberal agenda documentary be forewarned”). Well, fair. I think the film’s perspective was clear from the start. As I watched, I kept thinking of confirmation bias and where we all start out from when we enter a project like this, either as creator or viewer/consumer. My politics align with those of Ashley York, co-director and narrator/”face” of the film, in many or most ways. I appreciated what she’s done here. Those with different politics are likely to appreciate the film less. As much as I loved watching it, I was left kind of sad, too, that we can’t do more real listening to each other.

Not for lack of trying on Ashley’s part. Within the narrative of the film, she introduces herself as an Appalachian native from Kentucky who now lives in Los Angeles. As the 2016 presidential election draws near, she realizes how far apart her pro-Hillary politics are from those of her pro-Trump relations, chiefly her Granny Shelby. So she travels home to talk to Shelby and others, hear their side. I am so glad somebody’s trying to do that work; little enough of it seems to be happening. Ashley is respectful and listens quietly as her family explains why they support Trump. There was not the dialog here that one might wish for, but maybe Ashley was shooting for some level of journalistic neutrality? A separate issue… Speaking of issues, there wasn’t really any discussion of issues or stances, or the gap between Trump’s talk (coal! jobs! economy!) and his concrete plans for action. In the end, this film is less about politics than it is about culture.

I empathize with Ashley’s experience some, especially when she points out how difficult it is to hear a majority-progressive community throw Trump supporters out in one homogeneous basket, in their thinking. This is especially difficult when you come from a place where you’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the people in that basket, and know them as individuals. “They” are no more homogeneous than “we” are. Her uncle tells the story of serving in the military and being ridiculed and rejected by his fellow service members – it was worst in California, he tells her, “no offense” – and he chokes up, saying that he never found the brotherhood he’d sought. I don’t care if you hate his politics, that’s a sad moment. I don’t think “we” liberals gain anything by making fun of people we don’t agree with.

A good chunk of the movie deals with media portrayals of Appalachians. Deliverance makes an appearance, of course. Ashley visits with Billy Redden, who played Lonnie, the younger, hillbilly half of the “Dueling Banjos” scene. He works at Wal-Mart; he got paid $500 for his part in the movie; he hopes to make it to California one day. That Appalachians or hillbillies have gotten a bum deal with Hollywood, there is no question. The rest of us, somebody in the film suggested (I’m sorry I can’t say who), get to feel better about ourselves by making fun of “them.” There’s also some treatment of the history of the region, including the fact that when big business saw how much money there was to be made by extractive industries (coal, for one), it was convenient to evolve from treating hillbillies with gentle contempt, to viewing them as sinister and depraved: people from whom we should definitely take things away.

As a summing-up of a region, its history, its culture(s), and its current contradictions, Hillbilly does a neat job; it is necessarily incomplete, but what do you want from an 85-minute film? I’m so glad that it put people of color and queer people at center, too (and discussed the strange portrayal of Appalachia as white when in fact it’s quite diverse, skin-tone-wise). Any time we sum up any place, we’re going to resort to generalizations that can range from inadequate to damaging. Considering these truths, I think this movie does as good a job as it could have. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it that way. I’m just trying to acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of the form, and of any attempt to portray a place with more than, I don’t know, a couple dozen people in it.

Hillbilly gives us Election Night 2016 again, “live,” as it were, and I found it painful all over again. Silas House and Jason Howard speak with some emotion about their feelings – Silas seems to feel betrayed – he has spent his life defending his people (I paraphrase) and (he implies) they have failed to defend him with their votes. He turns to Jason: “You always say you love Appalachia. You don’t feel it loves you.” Jason replies with the line at the top of this review: “I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.”

I just wanted to repeat that because I find it so true. Thank you, Jason, and everyone involved with this film.


Rating: 8 questions.

movie: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Recommended by the fabulously talented Jessie van Eerden. Writing my thesis with her this semester is a dream.

However, first thoughts on this movie were “wow, this is weird, why am I watching this?” and then I got into the groove. For one thing, it’s an interesting work of narrative nonfiction. Ostensibly, director Agn├Ęs Varda is concerned with an external subject: the longstanding tradition of gleaning, or collecting the leftovers of a harvest. She enters this subject via art – the paintings of Millet and Breton – but among and in between this external material, Varda looks back at herself. The moments that become personal make the whole thing work, for me. Which is not to say that I wish the whole thing had been personal, or I spent the rest of the movie waiting to learn more about our narrator, you understand. I’m just voicing again my preference for a present narrator. I appreciate external material that is commented upon by a personal voice. In fact, I pretty much require it, as a personal preference. Perhaps this is on my mind now because I’m working on my thesis, that book-length project “of publishable quality”… and I am appreciating that Jessie shares my feeling of being an essayist, of commenting on outside material from a personal perspective, rather than simply airing all my own thoughts and feelings. Personal essay, not memoir, if you will.

And that is what I’m getting out of this movie: the narrative stance. As well as the subject matter: not gleaning in particular, but the entry through art into a larger subject (I am writing about the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, and Dominique de Menil, among others), as well as its metaphoric possibility. I really lit up when Varda noted the new, metaphoric uses of ‘gleaning’:

On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been. From Japan, I brought back in my case souvenirs I had gleaned.

She does a lot of using one hand to film the other hand, which is an interesting statement about art, right? (All that commentary about the memoir as navel-gazing!)

The Gleaners and I is a piece of art, concerned in part with art – the original paintings as inspiration; the artists Varda meets who create out of the refuse they scavenge – as well as several meanings of gleaning. The people in the French countryside consider gleaning in its old sense, bending down to pick up leftover crops lying on the ground after a harvest. Some see a difference between this act and picking, which is picking fruit or nuts or whatever off of trees, vs. bending to take off the ground. Then there is urban scavenging, dumpster diving and combing through curb leavings. And finally that metaphoric sense, in which I watch this movie and take with me – figuratively – the parts that are of most value to me.

Varda interviews a “painter and retriever” who picks up other people’s discards from the curbs to make art, not unlike a dear friend of mine: he says, “what’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” (I also love that he points out that the city council puts out maps of where this not-junk is going to be, and Varda responds that really, aren’t the maps so that the people can put out their junk? And he sort of chuckles and says yes, well, I read the maps in my own way.)

I’m really fascinated though at the assumption throughout – never challenged! – that this food is all “wasted” if people don’t eat it. One guy did say about unharvested grapes that otherwise “the wild boars and the birds will get them.” So… how is that a waste? No human got it, but it didn’t go to waste. Even the fruit that rots on the ground contributes to a system. Even if we’re compelled to make it about us: dirt is necessary for people to live, for everything to live, and rotting grapes help make dirt. I wrote to my artist-scavenger friend about this movie, and he responded: “There is an edict in the Old Testament about leaving behind a percent of crops for the animals. Old wisdom makes sense sometimes.” This seemed like a gaping hole to me. After all, we didn’t invent grapes. They grew on their own, for their own purposes: the purpose of the grape, and the bird and the wild boar. Shades of Amy Leach here…

The film is in French, with subtitles, and it’s dated. (It was released in 2000, but the narrative voice is very much “what is this new millennium nonsense” – filmed in the 90s, of course.) It’s also arty, a little slow-paced and introspective, which could contribute to its being a little less than accessible – it worked that way for me, early on. It had a little bit of the tone of Sherman’s March, but not nearly so off-putting for this viewer!

All in all, I was a touch slow to get involved but Varda’s Gleaners ended up being fascinating, thought-provoking, and memorable. It’s been haunting my thoughts. There’s a lot going on here, and I do recommend it, if you’re at all interested in… trash, food, the end of the world, reuse, art, or narrative perspectives. So, good for all thinking souls.


Rating: 8 cages interesting like boats, like violins.

movie: Milk (2008)

While I recognize it’s risky to learn history from a biopic, I really appreciated all I learned about Harvey Milk and his fine work in this movie, which was visually pleasing and well-done–through heart-wrenching–as well as educational. I do recommend it.

Milk begins with Harvey Milk’s fortieth birthday in New York, then quickly follows him to San Francisco, where he gets involved with politics, and through to his end by assassination. Sean Penn plays a beautiful Milk, and his partners played by James Franco and Diego Luna make striking, attractive characters as well. I found the acting all-around admirable. I loved the characters of Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg; and I appreciated the way Dan White was handled. He comes off not as a straight villain, but as a flawed, a troubled human being. His actions are hard to stomach. But I appreciate the nuance with which he was handled in this film.

San Francisco and the Castro feel real to me (and what do I know about how authentic they are here; but I bought it). The styles felt right for the time (same caveat). In other words, I was convinced and in fact spellbound by the whole thing; and that’s before saying that obviously I find Harvey Milk’s life and work inspirational, and his demise saddening. I would watch this movie again. You should watch it, too.


Rating: 8 votes.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

movie: The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period, beginning today with travel. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


Sorry to follow last week’s negative review with another.

I’ve heard about The Wild and Wonderful Whites for years now, and I know a lot of people who appreciate it. When I started school in West Virginia, folks from other places mention this movie as a way to know the place. As I was watching all those other Appalachia/Southern movies for school, a friend borrowed it for me, as an optional add-on to my education, I guess.

I think it’s a shame that this movie represents the state. This documentary of the apparently legendary White family records their lifestyle: petty crime and violence, drug and alcohol abuse, no great contribution to society–excepting of course the cultural value of the tap dancing. I don’t know. The film itself presents (we assume) reality, with little or no editorializing. But the response to the film feels to me like glorifying or celebrating a lifestyle that includes a certain amount of tragedy. I’m not a prude; I appreciate partying, and I don’t judge making babies out of wedlock, or anything like that. But the matriarch crying at the drug use at her birthday party, and the pillhead whose baby is taken from her in the maternity ward, are sad stories. Why are we laughing and joking about this? Also, West Virginia doesn’t deserve this as its theme song.


Rating: 4 Xan-bars for filmography, I guess.
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