The 2019 Montclair Film Festival screened dozens of documentaries. I only saw a small fraction of them, so this is in no way a “best of” post. But it is about some really good films that I saw at the festival.
Harlem’s Apollo has long been the temple of black music in America. Whether it is jazz or R&B or hip-hop, its history has unfolded here. In this documentary we get brief glimpses of why: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and lots, lots more. The history of the Apollo is the history of music that came out of African-American communities and that history is fundamental to the story of music in America. Whether it’s the jazz bands of the 20’s and 30’s or the rock and roll pioneers of the 50’s, this music changed what America looked like, its trends and styles, its culture and its teenagers. In a substantially segregated society it was often an oasis of integration.
And thus a documentary about the history of the Apollo is more than the story of one theater on 125th street. It becomes the story of Harlem, the story of 20th century American cities and the story of blacks in America. The movie juxtaposes footage from Apollo performances with a group preparing a dramatic presentation of Ta-Nhisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” Coates has written about what it is like to be black in America and there is probably no better place for a reading. The movie reminds us of a time in the 30’s when black music was accepted by white America and black performers played in some legendary clubs, but they were clubs were blacks were not welcome in the audience. The Apollo’s doors were open for everyone.
I found two scenes especially poignant. One was James Brown singing “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Isn’t that maybe what every night at the Apollo was about? The comment was made (don’t remember by whom) that Brown’s song put an immediate and everlasting end to the use of the word Negro. The other moment was Barack Obama’s appearance. In 30 seconds or so, the movie captured the meaning of his election. Thus we can recall a proud moment in U.S. election history, something we haven’t had since.
This is an HBO movie that is due to be available on HBO in the fall. Definitely worth seeing. My only disappointment was that we just didn’t hear enough of the music or see enough of the legendary performers on the Apollo stage. Likely doc filmmakers can’t afford the bills for the rights.
One school year in a town near the Everglades in Florida. It is an economically poor community and its residents are primarily black.
Pahokee is about teenagers. We meet the girl was finishes as runner up in the two-person Miss Pahokee High election. We meet the marching band drummer who spends all of his free time with his one-year-old daughter. And we meet the daughter of the Mexican couple that runs the local taco shack, a girl who becomes class salutatorian and who is headed to the University of Florida after graduation.
This is a slice-of-life sort of film. There is no narration and no score. The film was made by a married couple who moved to Pahokee for the duration of the school year that they filmed. We see the football season, the Christmas parade, the Easter egg hunt, an especially brilliant prom and in the end, graduation day.
I thought there were two takeaways from this movie. The fact that this is a poor and a segregated town doesn’t make the high schoolers any different than teenagers in towns across America. They’ve got the same kind of insecurities and ambitions and dreams. Secondly the kids at Pahokee High, kids whose parents work in the fields or in sugar cane processing plants, give meaning to high school graduation and college acceptance. It is not a shrug-of-the-shoulders move from one school to another to them, it is a step toward a new life and better future and they’re so aware of that.
Mike Wallace is Here
Barbra Streisand called him a “son of a bitch.” Bill O’Reilly called him a “dinosaur.” But the word most often used to describe Mike Wallace is prick.
All of those comments were meant for Wallace as an interviewer. He is blunt, dogged, unrelenting and confrontational. He asked Vladimir Putin if Russia is a democracy. He asked Panamanian strongman Manuel Noreiga how much he makes. He asked Richard Nixon what he thinks of the fact that he is considered to have no charisma. He asked Larry King about his “woman” problem. (King was married five times. Wallace was married four times. I guess the fifth one signals a problem.)
I’m not quite old enough to know this but in the documentary Wallace is credited with changing the face of television news. Before his probing and controversial interviews on the show “Night Beat,” TV interviews were mostly small talk and fluff.
There is some truly historic footage in this film. In additional to all those I mentioned already you see snippets of Wallace’s interviews with Ayatollah Khomeini, General William Westmoreland (who unsuccessfully sued Wallace and CBS for libel), Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Miller and a young Donald Trump. We also get a look at some of Wallace’s vulnerabilities, his battle with depression and his regrets about not being a better father.
While the footage may be historic, this is a movie for our time, a time when we have a president and a cadre of his cohorts who deflect questions about their integrity by trying to destroy the credibility of the mainstream media. Wallace is seen at a much younger age commenting that the path to authoritarianism always involves the elimination of the free press. Guess that makes him a prophetic prick.