Movie Review: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution’ Is Insightful, Timely

Movie Review: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution’ Is Insightful, Timely

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver are dead, Bobby Seale is 78, Kathleen Cleaver is 70, the events that turned all of them into national figures are decades in the past. So how is it that The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution comes off as the most relevant and contemporary of documentaries?

Part of the answer is that the social crisis that helped to create the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s is still very much with us. You only have to hear a network TV newscaster say nearly half a century ago that “relations between police and Negroes throughout the country are getting worse” to feel a frisson of despair at how up to the minute that sounds.

Also a factor is the skill with which writer-director Stanley Nelson has told this story. A veteran documentarian, eight of whose films (including Freedom Summer and The Murder of Emmett Till) have premiered at Sundance, Nelson expertly combines archival footage, photographs, music and his own interviews to assemble the pieces of what is a complicated story.

Nelson understands the play of outsized personalities and unexpected events, and he’s helped that enough time has passed for former Panthers to feel comfortable telling their stories, especially to someone of Nelson’s stature in the documentary world.

Still, none of this was easy, and the Panthers even today remain nothing if not a controversial organization. As former member Ericka Huggins says at the film’s start, “We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.”

As if to prove her point, Seale, one of the organization’s founders, did not agree to be interviewed by Nelson, and former party chairwoman Elaine Brown, who did speak, slammed the finished film and asked unsuccessfully to have her interview segments removed.

Despite this brouhaha, the thoughtful approach Nelson takes to the material feels right. He does not look into every skeleton in the organization’s closet, but he doesn’t hesitate to deal with problem areas, including the group’s chauvinism. Though The Black Panthers empathizes with the outrage that brought the party into existence and the pride individual members continue to take in their work, his tone is measured, not incendiary.

Though they evolved into an organization with wide-ranging goals, including decent housing, education, even the dismantling of the capitalist system, the Panthers were started by Newton and Seale as an Oakland self-defense organization dedicated to stopping police brutality. The black panther, Newton said, strikes only if aggression continues.

California gun laws made it legal for citizens to bear arms, and the Panthers got their first publicity break in 1967 when they went to Sacramento to protest a potential change in the statute. When they ended up on the floor of the Legislature (almost by accident, in one account) their black leather jacket and beret look blew people away. As one member recalls, “We had swagger.”

One factor The Black Panthers underscores is how much individual leaders influenced the organization’s actions. Newton was arrested in the shooting death of an Oakland police officer (“Free Huey” became a ’60s battle cry, and he ultimately was released after a hung jury). Writer Eldridge Cleaver, a literary star after writing Soul on Ice, became the face of the party, with mixed results.

As an articulate provocateur whose natural tendency was to escalate a situation, Cleaver’s oratory brought new converts but created other difficulties. “He was a Rottweiler,” says one former member, “an uncontrollable personality.”

While the Panthers worked hard to connect to poor black communities, creating a free breakfast program for schoolchildren that served 20,000 meals a week in 19 communities, their violent rhetoric had made an unswerving, unscrupulous enemy of J. Edgar Hoover, the omnipotent head of the FBI.

Convinced that the Panthers were the biggest threat to national security, Hoover expanded the scope of COINTELPRO, the bureau’s secret counterintelligence division, to include the Panthers and determined to use any means necessary to undermine and destroy the group.

Of all the stories told in Black Panthers, perhaps the saddest is the 1969 death of Fred Hampton, the charismatic 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was gunned down by the Chicago police under circumstances so suspicious that a lawsuit brought by the family led to a $1.85 million settlement.

An organization that stubbornly resists being pigeonholed, the Black Panther Party emerges from this documentary with its significance enhanced but some of its tactics questioned. Seeming to speak for the film is Stanford history professor Clayborne Carson. “The leaders,” he says sadly, “were not worthy of the dedication of the followers.”

No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In limited release

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Revelatory ‘Listen to Me Marlon’ Makes Excellent Use Of Previously Unheard Tapes Of Actor Speaking Candidly

Revelatory ‘Listen to Me Marlon’ Makes Excellent Use Of Previously Unheard Tapes Of Actor Speaking Candidly

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Even in a summer that’s focused on creativity, with the exceptional documentaries Amy on Amy Winehouse and What Happened, Miss Simone? on Nina Simone, Listen to Me Marlon stands out. Autobiographical in nature, unconventional in structure, this is the story of Marlon Brando not as the world saw him but as he saw himself.

Written, directed and edited by Stevan Riley, Listen to Me Marlon wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for hundreds of hours of audio recordings that the actor made over the course of his lifetime, tapes that have never been heard publicly until now.

Varying from expansive ruminations on acting and life to thoughts on specific roles and even including attempts at self-hypnosis (one of which gives the film its title), Listen to Me Marlon reveals Brando to be almost painfully sensitive and self-aware, a man with a questioning intelligence who could be piercingly candid about his life and work.

Added into the mix, in addition to a wide selection of clips from more than a dozen of the actor’s films, is a carefully curated collage of home movies, newsreels and TV interviews.

We get to see color footage of Brando touching up his own makeup on the set of On the Waterfront and an excruciating 1955 appearance with his father on the Edward R. Murrow-hosted Person to Person.

And because Brando had his face digitized in the 1980s, we get to see a digitized version of the actor reciting the “sound and fury signifying nothing” soliloquy from Macbeth. “You watch,” he says impishly to his fellow performers. “Maybe this is the swan song for all of us.”

A revelatory, strikingly emotional look at a complex, troubled, enormously gifted man, Listen to Me Marlon is not told in strict chronological order, beginning with perhaps the most devastating event in the actor’s life, the killing of his daughter Cheyenne’s boyfriend by Brando’s son, Christian.

“Misery has come to my house,” Brando says in a startling public statement. “It’s been a struggle to try to preserve sanity and a sense of reality that’s been taken away from you by success.”

Listen to Me Marlon offers proof, despite occasional outbursts to the contrary, of how much Brando cared about acting, how seriously he took it, how consumed he was by the mechanics of getting it right.

Brando speaks messianically of wanting to “change the motion picture to something nearer the truth,” describes living with paralyzed war veterans for three weeks to nail down the nuances of his performance in The Men and talks admiringly of ballerina Galina Ulanova, who said, “If I could dance for one minute perfectly, that is all I’d ever ask.”

Yet the actor’s ambivalence and cynicism about his profession, especially as time went on, also gets its due. He says acting is lying for a living, proclaims he could have been a con man and insists “there are no artists, there is no art. It’s money, money, money. If you think it’s about something else you’re going to be bruised.”

Again and again, he returns to his miserable childhood, to his brutish father and the alcoholic mother who died when he was young.

“If you’ve never been loved, you don’t know what it is,” he says, and when one of his children is born he swears, “My father is never going to come near that child because of the damage he did to me.”

Specific films that Brando deals with include Mutiny on the Bounty, a horrible experience despite his lifelong love of Tahiti, and Last Tango in Paris, where he felt betrayed because director Bernardo Bertolucci made use of elements from his own life.

Attention is also paid to Brando’s passion for the civil rights movement and the plight of Native Americans. “I’ve always hated people trampling on other people,” he says, and he clearly meant it.

Toward the end, the actor came to see himself as “someone who’s taken too many punches. I don’t want to be hit anymore.” And yet he did seem to find a kind of peace about his profession. “Acting is just making things up,” he says, “But that’s OK.”

Especially if you’re Marlon Brando.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Image: Marlon Brando starred as Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/TNS)

‘The Look Of Silence,’ Which Revisits Suharto’s Brutality, Is Sure To Shock

‘The Look Of Silence,’ Which Revisits Suharto’s Brutality, Is Sure To Shock

By Kenneth Turan,n Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — The Look of Silence is a shocking and significant film, a further illumination of one of recent history’s great horrors, a documentary that will make a difference in the world. It is also an exceptionally difficult film to actually watch.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Silence is a companion piece to his earlier, Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, the first film to bring into focus for Western audiences the nightmare that had overtaken Indonesia starting in 1965.

Within a year after a military coup had put Suharto in power, more than a million people the regime didn’t like, including writers, intellectuals, and union members, were labeled as communists and executed.

Though Suharto was driven from office in 1998, his establishment remained in control, and, as the director told Cineaste magazine, when he arrived in Indonesia in 2001, “I had the feeling that I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power.”

Oppenheimer spent nearly eight years investigating and filming that world-turned-upside-down situation. Curious about how the perpetrators lived with their acts, he encouraged them to re-create on camera the killings they committed, a surreal endeavor that gave The Act of Killing its singularly unsettling dimension.

With Look of Silence, Oppenheimer wanted to flip the lens, to look at these events from the point of view of the victims who had to live with the pain of those killings in a country where speaking out was still unheard of. He carefully scheduled his filming to take place after he had edited the first film but before it was released, so his contacts within the establishment would still be viable.

Oppenheimer focused on a massacre of 10,500 near the Snake River in Northern Sumatra and specifically on the family of Ramli Rukun, a man whose death was more public than was usual for the military-run executions.

The film spends time with Ramli’s parents, mother Rohani and father Rokun, both over 100 years old and still coping with the pain of their eldest son’s death. “They destroyed so many people,” Rohani says, shaking her head, “but now they enjoy life.”

The protagonist of Silence is Adi Rukun, a quiet, dignified optometrist who is Ramli’s younger brother, born after his sibling was killed. As detailed in press notes and interviews (but, frustratingly, not in the film), Oppenheimer has been closely involved with Adi and his family for years, and that closeness is key to the film’s structure.

The Look of Silence begins with Adi examining long passages of footage Oppenheimer shot between 2003 and 2005 in which death squad members talk in detail about how they killed not only Ramli but whoever else they could get their hands on.

The graphic, horrific, excruciatingly detailed stories these killers tell take up a major chunk of this film, as they did with The Act of Killing, but without the mediating influence of that film’s bizarre re-creations, they are deeply disturbing to sit through.

At a certain point, Adi decides he wants to be in effect a one-man equivalent of the truth and reconciliation commissions that functioned in Rwanda and South Africa, and quietly confront the people who killed his brother.

As Oppenheimer explains in that Cineaste interview, Adi “wanted to know if the perpetrators could acknowledge that what they did was wrong. If they could, and if they could apologize, he could forgive them.”

Those meetings with the perpetrators, made possible by a combination of Oppenheimer’s contacts and Adi’s work as an optometrist (he ends up testing these people’s eyes as a kind of entree), are the most gripping parts of this film, and they do not necessarily end up the way Adi anticipated.

Almost as a rule, the killers tell Adi he is asking too many questions, with the most ominous response a terse “if you make an issue of the past, it will happen again.” Grueling and exhausting though The Look of Silence feels at times, this deeply troubling documentary exists because its creators (including numerous Indonesians who worked on it anonymously out of fear) felt no risk was too great to prevent just that from happening.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In limited release

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Devastating ‘Hunting Ground’ Documents Shocking Prevalence Of Campus Rape

Devastating ‘Hunting Ground’ Documents Shocking Prevalence Of Campus Rape

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Documentary director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering can often be found in the eye of a hurricane. Three years ago, they teamed up on The Invisible War, and now they are back with the equally devastating The Hunting Ground.

The former film, an Emmy winner that was also Oscar nominated, was such a shocking look at rape in the military that it led to Pentagon policy changes and congressional reforms.
Now, with Hunting Ground, the team is exploring another hot-button issue that is both similar and different, an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.

Like its predecessor, Hunting Ground bristles with unnerving statistics: for instance, that one in five college women, and one in 33 college men, will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus, adding up to an estimated 100,000 assaults for the coming year. But only 5 percent of these get reported.

Skeptics have challenged those statistics, but Hunting Ground also features heartbreaking first-person interviews, often conducted by producer Ziering off camera, about the specifics of the attacks and their aftermath. Given that the colleges and universities mentioned are geographically and culturally diverse, including Berkeley, Tufts, Yale, Swarthmore and the University of Southern California, it’s striking how similar the situations, as well as the official responses, turn out to be.

These are not, the filmmakers emphasize, he-said she-said situations. Rather, these assaults are often the work of calculated predators who target victims and wait for opportunities. (In an especially chilling moment, one convicted predator goes on camera to describe how it’s done.) One statistic cited by Hunting Ground is that serial predators are responsible for 91 percent of all sexual assaults on campus, with each predator committing an average of six assaults.

As in the military, most survivors of assault at college feel that the often-hostile, disbelieving, blame-the-victim response of the institution they believed in was as difficult to deal with as the attack itself. A case at James Madison University in Virginia, where perpetrators were expelled after they graduated, is shown provoking outrage on the part of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

It was bitter dissatisfaction with how the University of North Carolina treated them that led UNC students Annie Clark and Andrea Pino to become friends and then take a more activist route.

Hunting Ground had considerable access to these two women as they first came up with the idea of filing a Title IX anti-gender discrimination complaint against their school and then traveled the country putting together an organization called End Rape on Campus to help women at other schools do the same. The positive energy this campaign evokes is a much-needed bright spot in a story that doesn’t have a lot of them.

For, as Hunting Ground thoroughly details, powerful factors are arrayed against students who report being assaulted, starting with what writer Caitlin Flanagan calls “the American fraternity industry.”

With frat houses being what one interviewee describes as “unregulated bars,” sometimes serving doctored alcohol, Hunting Ground reports that fraternity men are three times more likely than other men to commit rape. But a confluence of financial factors apparently makes these institutions all but untouchable.

Statistics provided by the film also indicate that athletes are involved in a higher-than-average number of assaults, but because big-time sports are such moneymakers, little is done by colleges in this area as well.

Some of the film’s most wrenching first-person stories involve accusations against athletes, including the story of St. Mary’s College of Indiana student Lizzy Seeberg, related by her father, Tom, of how his daughter committed suicide.

An athlete is also involved in the best-known incident that The Hunting Ground deals with, as Erica Kinsman goes public for the first time to tell in detail her side of the story involving Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback she accuses of sexual assault. (No charges were filed against Winston, and he was cleared of violating the school’s student code.)

The Hunting Ground posits that money keeps these centers of higher learning from doing more about these complaints. Colleges and universities are determined to protect their reputations, fearing that willingness to acknowledge a problem would be bad for business. Fear of retaliation often keeps faculty and administration from speaking up for students or talking at all, and six university presidents declined to be interviewed here. If it does nothing else, The Hunting Ground should make that kind of evasion more difficult in the future.

© 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: YouTube