Welcome to Leith (2015)

In “Welcome to Leith,” a documentary about a tiny North Dakota town with a population of 24 (“including children,” the residents boast), the residents explain how they usually bent over backwards to welcome new neighbors to the area. Then they discovered that the new guy in the neighborhood, who was buying up property and inviting others to join him there, was a nationally-recognized white supremacist leader who planned to take over little Leith, North Dakota, drive out the existing residents, and create a white nationalist mecca.

The award-winning documentary, streaming on Netflix, follows white supremacist Craig Cobb‘s attempt to take over the town, and how the township organizes in resistance. Local residents and anti-racist organizations organize a protest in Leith against Cobb and his allies, and strategize a mixture of legal and municipal methods to force the case against Cobb.

There are several things that make the movie so compelling, not the least of which is the tension of first and second amendment rights in the conflict between the townspeople and the white supremacists. But of note to me personally, and to the people I’ve shared the movie with to date, is how the rural townspeople rise up — contrary to stereotype — against racism. I live in Indiana, the birthplace of several white nationalist movements, where folks feel comfortable tagging inclusive churches with pro-Nazi and anti-semitic graffiti and talking to the paper about how they organized in favor of Dylann Roof, the young man who staged a massacre on black church-goers in the name of white nationalism. Here, conversations about white nationalist movements in our midst are frequently met with patriotic proclamations along the lines of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” which is honorable, and certainly in the spirit of first amendment freedoms, but is a frustratingly passive argument in the face of movements that openly attempt to extinguish racial and ethnic minorities from our community. 

First amendment and social justice tensions are real, and this movie skates over them to declare victory for the townspeople, which is understandable given the content. There is no first amendment exception for “hate speech” — Americans are free to criticize and say any hateful thing they wish about others, in just the same way you may criticize capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans. The arguments for and against the creation of a “hate speech” category are rich and nuanced (and way over my head), but however you land on the issue, the first amendment doesn’t protect provocateurs and demagogues from criticism or disapproval. A high-minded civil libertarian argument becomes more difficult when you have a heavily armed white nationalist patrolling the boundaries of your neighborhood and threatening to turn your town into a hotbed for white nationalist movements from around the world. Which begs the question of the viewership: what will you do when you see Leith in your own communities?

Review: Bastards of the Party

As the New York Times puts it, Bastards of the Party is the “genealogy for the institution of the gang. This feature-length documentary “traces the origin of black American gang history, from the great migration of African-Americans from the South to northern and western industrial cities, to the rise and demise of the Black Panther Party and the Organization Us of the mid- 1960s, ultimately to the formation of the 1990s and 2000s gang culture in Los Angeles. Through the eyes of former gang member and co-producer Cle “Bone” Sloan, Bastards focuses on LA gang culture as a micro-community reflective of bad social policies all through the U.S.

We misunderstand the gangs when we assume that they have no history or purpose apart from brute violence, but we romanticize them when we imagine that they’re bands of brave vigilantes.

Clear-eyed history — shot through with archival film — begins to set the record straight. Mr. Sloan begins with a myth: that gangs like the Bloods and the Crips started in 1972, when they formed in response to a dispute over a leather jacket. That’s rubbish. The film shows that gang animosity in Los Angeles dates to the 1940s and ’50s, when the police had set up an extortion racket on Central Avenue to bilk the black music clubs.

Then Bastards points an abject finger at the role of the Los Angeles Police Department, and explores how Chief William H. Parker bolstered the ranks of the LAPD with white recruits from the south during his tenure from 1950 to 1966, who brought their racist attitudes with them into the police force and police work processes. Parker’s racist sympathies helped to lay the groundwork for the volatile relationship between the black community and the LAPD that persists today, and led to the rise of gang culture. The “bastards of the party” are gangs who are, according to Sloan, the “bastard children of” revolutionary black political movements. This is what happens, he says, in a pressure cooker of no jobs, no social safety net, and a militarized police presence, and when the hopes of the prior generation turn into the resentments of the present. He ultimately lays responsibility for the allure of LA gang life at the feet of law enforcement and their complicity with and promotion of generations of racist policy.

This is an intensely political documentary that would be appropriate for all audiences interested in social justice, urban American politics, solutions to poverty, maladaptive youth cultures, discussions of gang violence, underground economies, Black American history, and Los Angeles history.

Review: The Great Gatsby

“Shot through the heart /
and you’re to blame /
You give love a bad name”

I dragged the big kid to see The Great Gatsby a few weeks back. I didn’t say much about it because there was so little to say. Like the rest of the Luhrman catalog, it was big on visuals and light on substance.

(Like Daisy! Ha.)

In all seriousness, this was the movie’s weakness. It stripped the story of the novel’s heavy social commentary about money, social class, the allure of wealth and the dangers of greed, and turned it into a cautionary tale of love lost. This Great Gatsby was all about Leo’s broken heart.

But for some reason my dissatisfaction with the movie has been stuck in my craw. Finally, I realized: It’s frustrating for me that major moments in women’s history always seem to be filtered through the lens of fashion and style, love stories, and decorative trends. The thing about the Daisies of the flapper era is that flappers were a full-blown, grassroots, feminist revolution. It was a trend that defied social class and race and elevated youth culture in a way that wasn’t seen again for forty years in American culture. Fitzgerald seemed to understand this even if he wasn’t able to write an authentic female character, but Luhrman somehow stripped Fitzgerald’s Daisy of any intrigue. In his hands, Daisy was a video vixen, not a wealthy ingenue, and her seduction was not her independence, enthusiasm and sexual freedom, but her weakness and fragility.

See the 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford (yow) and Mia Farrow instead, which was similarly panned but nevertheless has so much more substance than this one.

Best Movie Trailer of All Time: The Shining

We’ve been having a Stephen King revival at my house lately. My oldest child is an avid reader who recently discovered Stephen King’s short horror stories from the 1970s, and then devoured The Shining within a couple of days. His enthusiasm was contagious, so as we did for Harry Potter, the Hunger Games series, and several other book series, he and I have been reading in parallel. Right now he’s on Night Shift and I restarted The Shining for the umpteenth time.

I also found the edited-for-TV version of The Shining for us to watch together. This is one of those “I will always watch this movie when it’s on” movies for me, and it continues to get better as I learn more about the film and the people behind it: themes of alcoholism and bad parenting, King’s battle with addiction through the 70s and 80s, Kubrick’s techniques of long, uninterrupted shots filmed from behind the actor so we see as they see and move as they move, and the terrifying musical and sound score.

What makes the trailer so brilliant is the severe minimalism of the long shot, drawn out over almost two minutes. It’s almost perfectly symmetrical, representative of the mise-en-scene of the Overlook Hotel’s long halls and empty room. Like the Overlook, it is quite claustrophobic to experience. The tension is built with the unwavering shot, the cacophonic strings, and the continuous scroll of credits. Then. Then! The credits end, the strings come to crescendo, and the elevators overflow with blood, splashing a decadent, evil amount of blood across the floors and up the walls, filling the shot at an alarming rate. As a viewer, my reactions went from minor shock and amusement to, well, horror. I mean, that’s a lot of blood. If you’ve seen the movie, you know this scene is in the movie at the apex of madness, during the murder of Halloran. It deftly symbolizes the narrative purge of the Overlook Hotel’s supernatural forces with remarkable restraint.

I get while Kubrick is one of the greats, but I’ve never been a huge fan of his work as a total — misogynist and pretentious. The Shining is no exception to this, but it’s still thrilling to watch some thirty years later. Maybe the pretension is balanced by the low art of being a horror flick.

My mom says that she can never look down a hotel hallway without seeing scenes from this movie, particularly the two little girls in the title photo. I’m going to show her this trailer and see what she thinks about elevators.

Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

4mo3weeks2daysWhile everyone else coos over the pregnancy romances of “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” I urge you to take a look at “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” a movie that makes pregnancy chic feel so gauche.

There is some speculation that despite rave reviews from critics, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was overlooked for an Oscar nomination because of it’s immediate subject, abortion. If this is true, Oscar missed the point. As director Christian Mungiu has said in multiple interviews, the film isn’t only about abortion — it’s about totalitarianism. Yes, the movie centers around one of the primary character’s need for an abortion, but the bulk of the film is about the humiliating negotiations and transactions that the characters must endure, and the fear, bitterness, and self-interest that becomes a part of the average person’s landscape in a totalitarian state.

The film is set in Communist Romania in 1987, among the final years of the Nicolae Ceauşescu era dubbed “The Golden Age” in propaganda. The “golden age” moniker was part of the inspiration for the film, according to Mungiu, because of the gap between the reality and the propaganda — in addition to hearing the story from “someone he knows” but whose identity he won’t reveal. History tells us that as his dictatorship went on, Ceauşescu became more and more disconnected from reality — the longer the lines at the food stores, the more likely he was to get on tv and proclaim the “high living standard” achieved under his rule. Mungiu capitalizes on this by showing the dark rooms and cramped spaces, and the long negotiations the main characters must go through in order to get one cigarette, board a bus, or get a hotel room.


The two main characters are young students, Otilia and Gabita. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a beautiful young woman who is timid and lies to herself and others in order to avoid the fact that she is pregnant and terminate the pregnancy as quickly and clulessly as possible. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is her competent roommate who has agreed to help Gabita secure the illegal abortion. Otilia, as the chief protagonist of the film, acts the part superbly. If this film were done by an American director there would be great swells of music, and keening and crying by the main actors, yet a great part of the horror in the film are the stone faces of the actresses acting stoicly in unimaginable circumstances. With no score, no fancy sets, no clever editing, no close up shots of delicately weeping heroines, there isn’t a hint of the melodrama that American audiences expect with dark subject matter. In fact, most of the scenes are long, uncut shots, some as long as ten minutes without a cut, allowing the viewer to internalize the bleak environment and the characters’ desperation.

The illegal abortionist (a term I dislike, but for lack of a better term) is a new kind of cinematic monster. Rather than painting him as a merely misogynist abuser he comes off like every other authority in the film, hopelessly self-interested to the point where he harms those he is supposed to help. His cruelty is somewhere between an understandable defensiveness — considering the penalites as an abortion doctor in a 1980s communist dictatorship — and an outright supremacist, wielding power over the women because, like everyone else in the dictatorship, he has none otherwise. Without giving spoilers, this leads to what would usually be the horrific apex of the film, but because of the subject’s bleakness, is just another gross part of doing business on the black market.

For American viewers, this offers more than a snapshot of life in Romania during some of its darker days, it also paints a clear picture why the global mistreatment of women is such a terrible injustice. Parallels can be drawn to American history pre-Roe, and professed ideals of the American evangelical right wing, but not without spoilers.

Highly recommended.

Originally posted on FAUXREALTHO on 2.1.2008.

Review: Dirty Driving

HBO usually has a variety of great documentaries every month, and this month the one that caught my eye just happened to take place in Anderson, Indiana, a very blue collar area within an hour of my home. Anderson, like many manufacturing towns in the Midwest, is steadily heading towards the likes of Flint, Michigan: struggling, dying, devastated, hanging on. But like many Midwestern areas, if you ask Anderson’s residents, they’re struggling but on the up-and-up, aiming to be positive despite the loss of jobs, staying afloat by focusing on family and other interests.

“Dirty Driving: Thundercars of Indiana” is about the struggling Midwestern middle class and the hobbies that take the place of work and career when industry dies, in this case the individual innovation that is a forefront in Indiana’s racing culture. When the auto manufacturing plants that pumped small towns full of money up and left, they also left behind the driving culture that so infects the workers that once populated their lines. In “Dirty Driving,” laid-off workers and their car-fanatic families remove all their ambitions from job and career and put all their knowledge and passion for the industry into their junk cars to race at the Anderson Speedway, talking shit and fighting over their victories and losses as the cameras roll.

This is a slice of a particular regional class culture.  If you read audience commentary on the film, a lot of locals do what they can to separate themselves from the documentary. To your average white-collar folks, these are some rough people that in many ways amp up the Larry the Cable Guy stereotype. There’s no shame in it, I know it and in some ways am of it, and it is what it is. Some of the quotes I might take from the movie are outright ridiculous, yet the director doesn’t take on the mocking eye of, say, Michael Moore. He genuinely respects the subjects’ need for escapist entertainment, and moreover, respects the kind of time and innovation the subjects put into their cars.

dirty driving newsFamily overwhelmingly takes the forefront in this picture, even before the problematic economic and industrial issues presented. Each hero in the film is part of a larger familial unit that stands behind and supports them. From Alice Riall, the “oldest grandmother in the Thundercar division” who has a chance at winning first place this season, to Wild Willie Coffman, whose arm was mangled in a motorcycle accident and drives one-handed in vehicles modified for him to maximize the use of his mobile arm, the backdrop is the family unit whose time and economic resources are fully invested in the dream of the Winner’s Circle.

…which is exactly what struck me as a lifelong resident with a love-hate relationship with Indiana. When people can’t make their success by paycheck, they make it elsewhere, sinking their wide array of trade knowledge into another avenue that is often exclusive to white, able, heterosexual men. But not always. The redneck pride, the sexism, the racism, exists alongside respect for women and people of color who are active within the subculture. The men in the documentary, for example, despite calling one another pussies who can’t drive, have no compunctions about their daughters, wives, and mothers learning the trade and actively encourage their participation. Sometimes it’s a mindfuck to participate in this kind of local subculture, to be accepted and reviled at the same time. But by God, they’re Family, people say, and where we come from these are big steps in small measures. We know this is small fries by metropolitan measures, but liberal progress in rural areas is measured by those on the racetrack, in the office, the kitchen, and the factory, who see people of whatever color, gender, and ability as people who have your back in the workplace, the bar, and the home.

On a personal note, the one social measure that hit home for me was one that hit the pocketbook. One of the major sponsors for the race cars featured on the Anderson Raceway was my employer, a small regional company that was taken over by a major national corporation earlier this year. Just this Friday, twenty of my fellow employees were laid off, people whose names were represented on the windshields of these cars as recent as 2007, when the movie was filmed. The new company that takes its place is unlikely to show the kind of regional pride that led to the sponsorship of these racers and contributed to their ability to stay on the racetrack.

This is a look at what happens when your opportunity fades and you’re left with what you know, even if that’s just a hobby, and a six-foot, plastic trophy takes the place of your medical insurance because that’s all you’ve got. So yes, this is a sports documentary without any direct link to mainstream feminist issues, but if you are interested in worker’s rights, micro-level examinations of the economy, or obviously NASCAR-style racing, this one’s for you.

[Dirty Driving, Official Site]

Originally posted on Feministe on 11.30.2008.