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Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival: MLK/FBI

In February 2027, the Martin Luther King Jr. surveillance tapes recorded by the FBI will be unsealed and made available to the public. These tapes are the result of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s extensive harassment of MLK. Hoover sought out sordid details of MLK’s extramarital affairs hoping that the information would ruin his public image and in turn weaken MLK’s leadership. What Hoover didn’t anticipate is that ultimately no one cared. The movement was full speed ahead and even one of the most powerful men in America couldn’t stop it.

Directed by Sam Pollard, MLK/FBI is both a compelling look into one of the darkest times in the history of the FBI and a brilliant portrait of a charismatic leader who was able to mobilize a community into peaceful action despite all the challenges that faced him. The documentary is comprised of photographs and archival footage as well as clips from newsreels and relevant classic movies. It was based on recently released documents made available by way of the Freedom of Information Act.

The talking heads narrate but are not seen until the end of the film. The narrators include Civil Rights leaders, historians and former FBI employees including former director James Comey. The greatest value of this documentary is the amount of quality archival footage of MLK himself. I have seen several documentaries about the Civil Rights movement but none  have included this much actual footage of MLK. The film is based on recently released documents made available by way of the Freedom of Information Act.

MLK/FBI is a priceless documentary that sheds light on the past and serves as a warning for the future.

MLK/FBI recently screened at the 2020 virtual Double Exposure Film Festival. It will be released by IFC in January 2021.

AFI Fest: The Lost Astronaut

Representation matters. When a young Edward Dwight Jr. saw a photo of an  African-American jet pilot in the newspaper, everything he dreamed about suddenly became a possibility. That one photo sparked something inside him and Dwight set out to achieve his dreams. He proved to be an excellent pilot and served as a captain in the Air Force. Dwight was selected as a NASA astronaut trainee by the Kennedy administration, the first African-American to be chosen. And while he was an exceptionally trained pilot, he never made it passed phase two of the training. It’s clear that the world wasn’t ready for a black astronaut. Dwight could have let this disappointment drag him down but instead he reinvented himself.

Directed by Ben Proudfoot, The Lost Astronaut is an intimate short documentary that profiles an extraordinary man. This 14 minute film is part of The New York Times series Almost Famous while profiles subjects in similar circumstances. The extreme close up on Dwight’s face as he recounts the story of his life makes the viewer feel like Dwight is an old friend that we care deeply about. What’s so exceptional about Captain Edward Dwight Jr.’s story is that his career happened during what the director refers to as “collision of the space race and the civil rights movement.” Had he been born a few decades earlier he may never have become a pilot. Had he been born a few decades later he might have become a NASA astronaut.

The Lost Astronaut was screened as part of the Meet the Press program for the 2020 virtual AFI Fest.

Union

During the American Civil War, over 400 women, disguised as men, served for both the Confederate and Union armies. Directed, written and starring Whitney Hamilton, Union is the fictional story of one of these women. Grace Kieler (Whitney Hamilton) takes on the identity of her dead brother Henry and goes to battle. Henry (who I will continue to identify as he) is injured in battle and under arrest. Henry’s brother helps him escape a death sentence and all Henry wants to do is get back to his love Virginia (Virginia Newcomb). Virginia doesn’t care that Henry is biologically a woman. With her brother pressuring her to marry an older man, Virginia and Henry secretly wed. The timeline moves back and forth from the present day, to the past as well as to the far future to tell Virginia and Henry’s love story. They will sacrifice everything to be together. Joined by the trauma of their past and their devotion to each other, can they stay together under the threat of the war and a society that doesn’t understand their love? Can Henry rescue Jesse (Carron Clark), the son of his old lover who was orphaned during the war?

“It took us 3 and half years to film the movie. We shot in historic homes and on various battlefields in Alabama and Pennsylvania. I had to become a Civil War reenactor and pass as a man in preparation for the role. I fought with the Alabama Division of Reenactors portraying both the North and the South at various events including the 150th anniversary battle of Gettysburg that appears in the opening of the film.”

Whitney Hamilton

While it took me a while to get into this film, about twenty minutes in I found myself completely captivated by Henry and Virginia. Hamilton and Newcomb have great chemistry and Newcomb in particular delivered a powerful performance. Civil War enthusiasts will be drawn to the level of detail that goes into the reenactments. And for people like me, they will be drawn to the unconventional love story.

Union takes great care to highlight a little known aspect of our country’s history and to show that love has always been and will always be love.

Union is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s also available on digital on HBO, itunes, VUDU, Fandango, Direct TV, Youtube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and elsewhere.

Rojo

“For a cop things are black or white. In the middle there’s nothing.”

The year is 1975. In a small province of Argentina, a group of people are quietly emptying a house of its most valuable possessions. It’s rumored that the family who lived there were the targets of a government raid and have since fled the country. This introduction tells us what we need to know about mid-1970s Argentina and the government corruption that endangers its own people.

Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) is a town counselor and lawyer. A tense confrontation with a stranger, later known as El Hippie (Diego Cremonesi), at a restaurant escalates and ends in tragedy. Claudio leaves this unfortunate event behind him and transitions back to his normal life with his wife Susana (Andrea Frigerio) and teenage daughter Paula (Laura Grandinetti). Corruption lurks around every corner as friends go missing. After arranging an underhanded deal with his friend Vivas (Claudio Martinez Bel) to buy the aforementioned house, Claudio discovers the true identity of El Hippie and that Vivas has hired former cop turned celebrity detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro) to investigate. It’s only a matter of time for things to unravel for Claudio as Sinclair zeroes in on what really happened.

Written and directed by Benjamin Naishtat, Rojo is a moody and atmospheric drama that explores how government corruption enables the worst in human behavior. I found this film deeply unsettling. Right from the very beginning I got a sense of dread. As though danger were lurking at every corner. Why is the camera so still? Why is it looking at this house for so long? Is the house going to explode? It didn’t but that was the palpable tension that made me so engrossed in the film. 

Rojo means red in Spanish and the film utilizes the color in many ways. The most interesting use of the color comes from the scene when a solar eclipse casts a red glow. This is a pivotal point in the film as detective Sinclair has just entered Claudio’s life, stirring the pot and making Claudio very uncomfortable. Claudio and his wife escape to the beach where they witness the eclipse and this moment the beginning of an end of sorts.

Naishtat was inspired to make Rojo from his fascination with the 1970s and “the symbolic burden” the political persecution and exile of the Argentine people had on future generations. The overall theme of a greater evil threatening the personal freedoms of citizens is compelling and universal but really gives the viewers a sense of one of the darkest times in Argentina’s history.

Rojo opens in New York City at Quad Cinema and the Film at Lincoln Center on Friday and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal on July 19th.

The Spy Behind Home Plate

“He was a man apart… different from the others.”

Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.

Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German. 

A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.

The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.

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