13th (2016) Review

13th_filmScore: 5/5

“We may have lost the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan, but cleary when you see black kids being shot down… we didn’t clear this cancer.” – Charles Rangel

Slavery was abolished when the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The 2012 film “Lincoln” focused on how Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts got the amendment passed by Congress in 1864. Director Steven Spielberg portrayed it as a major step towards full equality for all Americans, and there is no doubt it was.

But Constitutional amendments have consequences. The First protects all forms of speech including hate speech while the Second could not keep up with the rapid evolution of firearms. In Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” the consequences of the Thirteenth Amendment are explored.

The first section of the amendment reads (emphasis the film’s):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Today, one out every four Americans – a statistic from the film – is incarcerated; roughly 2.3 million people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of those 2.3 million are African American even though they only make up 16 percent of the population. DuVernay uses “13th” to argue that because of 14 words, the United States became prison happy.

DuVernay demonstrated her filmmaking mastery in “Selma” but this documentary proves that she is one of the most articulate and informed filmmakers working today. Any filmmaker would have focused on the broader theme of mass incarceration without exploring the elements that contribute. DuVernay not only explores these elements, but she lingers on them just long enough for the rage to boil over.

With the slaves free there was a lack of available labor to rebuild the economy of the south. In addition to share cropping, white southerners also began arresting blacks for minor crimes so that they could be used as free labor. These arrests of black men created the myth that they were uncontrollable criminals, barely human.

But the fear doesn’t stop at that stereotype. “13th” contributes the massive prison population to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign which planted the seeds for Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. These are not new facts. Students of politics and history as well as the average stoner know that the war on drugs targets people of color more than whites.

But the film brings a larger context to this. The masterminds behind these campaigns knew exactly what they were doing – I will not specify because the anger needs to be experienced. These were not crusades for security and morality, they were diabolical strategies to consolidate the white vote for the Republican Party.

But politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, have to be tough on crime. Democrats like Charles Rangel and the Clintons supported harsh crime legislation because it became the new norm. Some even went as far as coining the term “super predators” – people who were beyond rehabilitation.

With an issue as heavy as mass incarceration it’s easy to end with resolution or at least hope. In “The Hunting Grounds” which tackles campus sexual assault, it ends with the growing support that victims have. There’s already outrage over the justice system and how it treats people of color. Institutions that were staunch opponents of these reforms are now becoming more flexible as the mood changes.

But DuVernay is too smart to let them slide. A professor from UC Santa Cruz makes it clear that history shows that when the establishment takes the lead in reforms, it usually leads to more repression. It leads me to think of Lyndon Johnson.

In addition to passing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson also initiated a war on poverty. He crafted his strategy with the help of both experts and the poor. This plan and the legislation that came from it came to be fittingly known as “The Great Society.”

“13th” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Everything is Copy (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 2, 2016

everything_is_copyScore: 5/5

If writer Nora Ephron could be described with only three words, they would be “everything is copy.” Writers most likely know what this means, but for those outside of the bubble, Ephron explains the phrase perfectly:

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke.”

“Everything Is Copy” is a documentary paying homage to the late Nora Ephron–the writer, filmmaker and journalist who brought freshness and charm to romantic comedies that hasn’t been seen since her passing in 2012. If you don’t believe me, watch “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Ephron’s body of work went beyond her films. In the early ’70s, she was a reporter for the New York Post and a columnist for Esquire. In her life she wrote eight books, most of them collections of essays.

For most writers, their work persona is the version the world knows. Ernest Hemingway was not the macho man of his books, but a man who yearned to be like his characters.

However, to Ephron, everything was copy. Her life experiences are what fueled her writing, her sense of self, and her perspective on love and relationships.

“Everything is Copy” is directed by Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein (Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story along with Bob Woodward, is Jacob’s father). He breaks with the objectivity of journalism to discover that his mother actually believed the mantra that she stole from her own mother.

As the documentary progresses, he discovers that the phrase “everything is copy” is not just witty advice from one writer to another. It was the key to her success.

In the documentary, former Sony Studios executive Amy Pascal described Ephron as being smart, insightful, witty, sexy and ambitious. The same can be said about Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” or Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia.”

Yet when Ephron said everything is copy, she also meant the bad things that happen in life. Her novel “Heartburn” was based on her marriage and eventual divorce with Carl Bernstein after his affair with a mutual friend. The documentary describes the process of the divorce and the emotional effect it had on Ephron as Bernstein continued to threaten suing her for the book. But what it proved was that even during a time of emotional strain, Ephron put the experience into her work.

Terrible days are part of the human experience. Everyone has them, some more often than others, and they make it feel for a moment like the world is crumbling into the bottom of the space-time continuum.

If you’re a human being, bad things will happen. You’ll be late for trains, you won’t get into your dream school, somebody will say no.

Now for a personal reflection: Recently I was informed that I was not accepted into the school I wanted to attend since I was 13–my dream school. For three days straight, I moped, cried, yelled at the dog and ate Oreos. After three days, however, I watched this documentary and it reminded me that “everything is copy.”

Now I eat Oreos for fun instead.

“Everything is Copy” is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.