During her time at the White House as First and Second Lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson recorded an audio diary chronicling all of the major events that happened. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to her husband President Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act and her own personal endeavours including her Beautification Campaign and environmental efforts. Lady Bird Johnson was a staunch supporter of her husband and LBJ often leaned on her for her wisdom and the recordings reflect their strong bond.
Directed by Dawn Porter, The Lady Bird Diaries is based on the ABC podcast In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson and Julia Sweig’s book Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding In Plain Sight. The approach to this documentary is very simple. There are no interviews or commentary, just Lady Bird’s audio recordings matched with archival footage and illustrations. There are a couple interjections, including some insight from a longtime personal assistant. But otherwise this is Lady Bird telling us her stories.
Porter do a great job crafting a collection of highlights which range from major historical events to Lady Bird’s personal triumphs and struggles. I quite enjoyed hearing stories and watching footage of the LBJ family personal life including Lucy and Lynda’s weddings and the births of their children. LBJ himself looked so happy being a grandfather. While the documentary is inherently biased because it is coming from just one perspective, I appreciate that it didn’t shy away from some heavy subject matter like the Vietnam War and a confrontation with Eartha Kitt at a White House luncheon.
The intention with this documentary is clear. Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy should be recognized and the person to bring her back into the spotlight is Lady Bird herself.
The Lady Bird Diaries had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival and will premiere on Hulu at a future date.
When cartoonist Matt Furie created Pepe the Frog, he had no clue that his seemingly benign humanoid frog character would take over the internet and evolve into a symbol of hate speech. Directed by Arthur Jones, the documentary Feels Good, Man chronicles the long journey that Furie’s creation took over the years and it offers revelations about fringe internet culture that are eye-opening and alarming.
Furie’s story is an extraordinary one. This mild-mannered artist is the opposite of who you might think would be behind an internet hate meme. He draws images of toys, creates children’s books which he reads to his daughter and drew Pepe the Frog as a vessel through which to make jokes about bodily functions. The problem with the image of Pepe is that it could easily be co-opted; anyone could draw him, his identity could easily be adapted to trending memes and Furie did not and could not take ownership of Pepe in a significant way in order to control how his creation was used online.
I won’t go into all the specifics of how Pepe morphed from hand drawn comic book character to a symbol of radicalization. The documentary does such a good job revealing each and every stage of Pepe’s evolution that it’s what makes this film so engrossing. Pepe went from a “Feels Good, Man” meme, to a mascot for outsiders, to a trolling personality then is now a symbol for dangerous radicals, white supremacists and the alt-right. Jones’s film does an exemplary job demonstrating how Pepe became a key element in Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. We also see Furie fighting back and disconnecting from the creation that became bigger than himself. The documentary features interviews with Furie, his family and friends, fellow cartoonists, psychologists and other experts.
Feels Good, Man is a riveting documentary that offers many insights into the dangers of internet culture.
“The vote is still the most powerful non-violent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and we must use it.”
We live in turbulent times and it’s difficult to stay optimistic when the future looks grim. One man in particular has been able to sustain a sense of hope and determination that things will change for the better. Over the course of nearly 60 years of public service, this man has paved the way forward with his philosophy for non-violent protest and his own indestructible resolve for doing good. That man is Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative for Georgia John Lewis. And he has one piece of advice for you: “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Directed by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble chronicles the life and political career of an extraordinary man. Something that is key to making a good documentary is access. In this film there is seemingly unfettered access to John Lewis himself. We also hear from his brothers and sisters, his staff and many big names in politics. Talking heads include Elijah Cummings (to whom the film is dedicated), Hillary and Bill Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder and others. The film conveys a sense of gratitude and appreciation for John Lewis’ work and we hear this through the words of politicians and every day people who approached Lewis to offer words of gratitude and appreciation. At the center of it all is Lewis who guides the viewer through his life’s journey.
Porter’s documentary covers the broad spectrum of Lewis’ career in civil service and politics. Lewis got an early start in the Civil Rights Movement when he wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of 17. Soon he was a member of the Freedom Riders and was one of the key figures protesting on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. He was arrested 45 times, often severely beaten by aggressors. Lewis’s transition to politics was a natural one. He studied non-violence as a philosophy and has been a staunch believer in that form of protest ever since. He’s been a member of Congress since 1987 and as the film so aptly demonstrates, Lewis is still as active in politics as when he first started.
“John Lewis has consistently delivered a message of doing your best, being honorable, and respecting others for the past 65+ years. I think it’s really needed at this particular moment in history.”
John Lewis: Good Trouble serves as a much needed call-to-action during troubling times.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is available in virtual cinemas and on demand today. Visit Magnolia Pictures’ website for more information.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
dir. Barry Avrich
99-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. At the tender age of 27 and at the very beginning of his career as a lawyer, Ferencz went head-to head with some of the most notorious Nazi criminals of WWII. Born in Romania to Hungarian Jews, Ferencz and his family fled Transylvania for asylum in the United States. Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teachers quickly took noticed of the gifted young Ferencz. He went on to study in the City College of New York and Harvard Law School and during WWII where he served abroad in an anti-aircraft artillery unit before he was transferred to Gen. Patton’s Third Army where he investigated war crimes and visited concentration camps to collect evidence. Horrified by what he saw, he made it his lifelong mission to give back to humanity by prosecuting international crimes.
Director Barry Avrich’s newest documentary Prosecuting Evil, covers the whole scope of Ferencz’s life and career through interviews with colleagues, Ferencz’s son and Ferencz himself. It also includes archival footage from the Nuremberg trials and disturbing images from the Holocaust. Ferencz has been a tireless champion for humankind and even at the age of 98, when this doc was filmed, there were no signs of stopping. Ferencz has an important message from the past to deliver to the future. This can and is happening again. We must fight for humanity.
Prosecuting Evil is a beautiful and poignant documentary about one of the most important living figures from WWII. My heart swelled with emotion and I left the theater very moved. Ferencz is fierce and fearless. He’s a sweet man but not someone you want to mess with. If you have any interest in the history of WWII or humanitarian efforts of if you’ve heard of Ferencz and want to learn more about him, this documentary is essential viewing.
I attended a press and industry screening of Prosecuting Evil at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Do Americans really understand Socialism? That question kicks off a new documentary about the early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Victor Debs. Born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up in a prosperous household but it wasn’t until he left school at an early age and entered the workforce that he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow working man. He fought tirelessly, sometimes at the cost of his own health, against the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the working class that began in post Civil War America. He was highly influenced by Karl Marx but also by everyday people. Debs was a gifted orator, traveled the country proselytizing for socialism and amassed millions of fervent supporters. He campaigned for president several times, starting in 1900 and ending in 1920 when he was arrested for radicalism. To this day Debs holds the title of being the only presidential candidate imprisoned for his campaign platform. He was released from prison after 6 months and archival footage of the day of his release is included in the documentary. He continued to fight for his cause until his health failed him and he passed away in 1926.
Directed by Yale Strom and released by First Run Features, American Socialist chronicles the life and times of this little known figure in American politics. Economists, professors, scholars and writers offer their insights into Debs and socialism. I was interested to learn that socialism peaked in 1912, that during the agricultural crisis of the early 20th century Oklahoma was the most progressive of the Southern states in contemplating socialist politics and about how capitalism inherently clashes with Christian beliefs. But the focus of this film is truly Eugene V. Debs. It offers a look at the socialist movement,the history of labor activism and the fight against income inequality through the lens of Debs’ life.
Debs Red Special Band in Front of Train 1908
Socialist Party campaign poster 1904
What drew me to this documentary was this line from the film’s marketing copy:
“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him?”
As someone whose politics align very closely to Sanders, I was curious to learn more about the man who influenced him. Bernie Sanders so admired Debs that he created his own documentary about Debs’ life and hung a portrait of Debs in his office. However I didn’t learn any of this from American Socialist . The film only showed a brief clip of a Bernie Sanders speech but offered no information about how the two political figures were connected. At 1 hour and 40 minutes I felt like a good 20 minutes could have been tacked on to explore Debs’ legacy, his influence on Sanders, and how democratic socialism is part of the political landscape today.