By Michael Miller.
Sporting a new name and new venues, AFI Docs presented by Audi (formerly Silverdocs) unspooled from June 19 – 23 in Washington DC and Silver Spring, Maryland. Dedicated fans of non-fiction film had much to enjoy in this the 11th edition of the festival. The work of acknowledged documentary masters like Barbara Kopple with Running from Crazy and promising newcomers such as Lofty Nathan with his debut 12 O’Clock Boys were screened to appreciative audiences.
Several features addressed issues of justice at this year’s fest. The Trials of Muhammad Ali (directed by Bill Siegel) follows the life and career challenges faced by the former heavyweight champion of the world. Rather than present a highlight reel, The Trials of Muhammad Ali focuses on his personal struggles outside the ring. In 1964 Cassius Clay returned home to Louisville, KY from the Olympic Games in Rome as a gold medalist who later wrested the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston. Despite this early success, the film shows the young fighter’s struggle with identity and the place of an African American man in a society largely controlled by the white majority. That he was named for the 19th Century white Kentucky politician and emancipationist further complicated his self-image. He soon challenges this by announcing that he is a Muslim, a member of the Nation of Islam, and that he has taken a new name, Muhammad Ali. The Trials of Muhammad Ali stands apart from other Ali films in that it is a personal exploration. Siegel chronicles how Muhammad Ali was drafted in 1966 to fight in the Vietnam War, and claimed a conscientious objector exemption based on his religion. In 1967 this claim was denied and Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to prison, and stripped of his heavyweight championship title. Siegel follows Ali’s case through the various trial[s] and the appeals process in detail and effectively conveys the disappointment as each appeal is denied. The film reaches its dramatic climax as it recounts the Ali’s case before the Supreme Court in 1971 as the initial vote to uphold the conviction 5-3 (Thurgood Marshall had recused himself due to his previous role as the US Solicitor General) plays out to the eventual unanimous vote to reverse the conviction. Throughout these setbacks, Siegel convincingly reveals Ali as a man of strength, character, faith and conviction.
Continuing the theme of justice, Gideon’s Army (directed by Dawn Porter) draws attention to the challenges and daunting work performed by the approximately 15,000 public defenders in the United States. The Gideon of the title refers to the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, decided in 1963, which founded a right to counsel for all criminal defendants charged with a felony. This decision resulted in the establishment of public defender offices in many states for defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own defense. The film follows public defenders from Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida as they struggle under crushing caseloads to provide adequate representation to their clients. To help draw attention to this valuable work and the issues these dedicated attorneys face, the June 21st public screening was introduced by US Attorney General Eric Holder to a full auditorium. Porter, an attorney herself, capably shows that the promise of a defense does not produce that reality for many who enter the criminal justice system. This is especially true in the Deep South where high bail and long minimum sentences [for specific crime(s)] result in high rates of incarceration. In one particularly wrenching scene, we listen in on a phone conversation as Brandy Alexander, one of the public defenders profiled in the film, explains to a client’s mother that he can qualify for a pretrial intervention program in lieu of a formal trial; but in order to enroll, he must make bail and be released from the county lock-up. The money is just not there and everyone’s despair, including Alexander’s, is palpable. The film is equally adept at portraying the high personal costs this career presents to young defenders. Many folks, including Travis Williams, a public defender from Georgia, are paying huge student loan debts while not earning much income from the county for their long hours. Porter illustrates how this financial stress contributes to the high turnover rate in the profession. Also introduced in the film is Jon Rapping, the founder and leader of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (now known as Gideon’s Promise), which provides mentoring and a curriculum program focused specifically on public defenders. Rapping, a former public defender himself, participated in the post screening Q&A with director Porter. While the young defendants–all the subjects profiled in the film are under 25–are hardly angels, neither are they the hardened criminals that mandatory minimum sentences were ostensibly intended to address. The defenders capably humanize their clients and the viewer cannot help but become invested in the outcome of their cases. The film makes painfully clear that the sheer volume of casework in practice forces the vast majority of people charged with a crime to plead guilty, if only to end the pretrial detention. The film posits that the judicial system is skewed to produce pleas and punishes those that do not comply. Porter’s film vividly makes us confront how justice is administered for these indigent defendants.
Justice in the form of marriage equality is the subject of The New Black (directed by Yoruba Richen), which explores the fight for same sex marriage in Maryland. The film, which deservedly won the Audience Award at AFI Docs, opens on November 4th 2008, a historic day on which Barack Obama was elected as the President of the United States. But the day was bittersweet as Californians approved Proposition 8, which outlawed same sex marriages in that state. For LGBT people of color, the sting was particularly acute as the post-election analysis simplistically pointed to support for Prop 8 in the African-American Church as instrumental to its passage. Richen effectively sets out to disprove the myth that the Black Church is a monolithic, homophobic entity. We meet activists, volunteers, clergy and ordinary people as the film documents Maryland’s path to marriage equality. In June 2012, opponents of marriage equality submitted signatures sufficient to place Referendum Question 6 on the ballot before the voters that November in an attempt to reverse the Civil Marriage Protection Act signed into law earlier that year. Richen’s engaging film focuses on the period between February and November. She demonstrates how, historically, the Black Church has been used by white religious conservatives to further that agenda driving a wedge between natural Democratic constituencies of African-Americans and the LGBT community; the cynicism on display is breathtaking. Yet, the film takes a balanced approach hearing from proponents on both sides of the question. Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a straight ally and Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, proposes the concept of dual oppression; that restriction of rights for some threatens rights for all. Alternately, Pastor Derek McCoy, Chairman of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, bases his opposition to marriage equality in religious belief and tradition and uses the power of the pulpit to motivate his side. Richen treats the on-screen subjects with respect and without judgment, giving each side ample screen time to make their argument. One of the most powerful scenes of the film takes place at Lettman-Hicks’ home, where she is hosting a family gathering; in it we hear one of the grandmothers recount the story of her granddaughter coming out to her—it is honest and heartfelt. There is also a conversation between Lettman-Hicks and family members who are uncomfortable with same-sex marriage who get to express their opinions. While agreeing to disagree, respect for each opinion is maintained. And while the filmmaker’s allegiance to the side of equality is never in doubt, this evenhanded technique emphasizes the strength of the pro-equality argument. Richen has created an important piece of advocacy, which no doubt can be used as a way for the African-American community to process the issue as the cause of marriage equality comes up across the nation.
AFI Docs, which screened other fine films that profiled Riot Grrl punk singer Kathleen Hanna and late-term abortion doctors, provided plenty of food for thought, but these films about justice resonated mostly, and showed the power of the documentary format to act as a tool of political and social change.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s Around the Circuit column.
For more on the festival, see Gary Kramer’s report here.