Doc Talk: Soft power, viral threat, roads not taken

Boniface Mwangi in "Softie."
Boniface Mwangi in "Softie."JACKY NAEGELEN

Boniface Mwangi, the Kenyan activist who is the subject of Sam Soko’s rousing and sobering documentary “Softie,” got the title nickname as a kid when he was considered too sensitive and weak to amount to anything.

Not anymore. At the beginning of the film he leads a demonstration against corruption in parliament, splashing the entrance with blood and setting loose a herd of swine painted with the word “MPig.” The police arrive and beat the peaceful protesters. For Mwangi, a typical day.

He was originally a photojournalist. In 2007 he took pictures of horrendous tribal violence, showing how the despotic government of President Mwai Kibaki, imitating the strategy that the British once employed to control their colony, sets tribe against tribe to maintain power and stifle resistance. But no one in Kenya would publish the photos. So he printed them himself and laid them on the pavement in Nairobi for people to see.

Frustrated by publications refusing to accept his stories about government corruption, misinformation, and oppression, Mwangi decided to become an activist, and when that failed to bring change to run for parliament himself. As Soko shows in this intense, intimate five-year account, his candidacy brought death threats to himself and his family. The danger grew so dire that he sent his wife, Njeri, a stalwart asset in his efforts, and their three children to the United States.


The campaign didn’t just jeopardize their lives, but their marriage. With inexhaustible energy and optimism Mwangi pursued his quixotic quest, neglecting his family in exile. On the phone with her husband back in Kenya, Njeri silently listens as he talks with his campaign organizers in the background, ignoring her. “He forgot he called me,” she says with resignation, and hangs up.

Nonetheless, Mwangi persisted, refusing to resort to such expected campaign tactics as bribing voters (when one disappointed constituent learns that there are no free Mwangi T-shirts he says, “Then he can’t be an honest candidate”), and Soko captures every suspenseful twist and turn in the struggle as it happens.


“Softie” will inspire those who feel that resistance to power is futile and serve as a warning to those who think such a degradation of democracy as is happening in Kenya can’t happen here.

“Softie” can be seen on PBS’s “POV” Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. and is available to stream for free at pov.org until Nov. 12.

Go to www.pbs.org/pov/schedule.

David Sanger in "The Perfect Weapon."
David Sanger in "The Perfect Weapon."HBO

Pandora’s box

Stories of how foreign actors have been using the Internet to infiltrate and subvert our elections and other vital systems and networks have been told in a few recent documentaries. But John Maggio’s “The Perfect Weapon,” based on the book of the same title by David Sanger, briskly and alarmingly ties all these reports together, and then some.

As with the atomic bomb, the United States was the first to employ cyber weapons, and in both cases the long-term result was international proliferation.

Previously detailed in Alex Gibney’s 2016 documentary, “Zero Days,” the Bush administration in 2007 decided to employ a virus called Stuxnet to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. The mission was accomplished, but the blowback was considerable. As Sanger, who is interviewed in the film, points out, the attack “legitimized the use of cyber as a weapon against another country against whom you had not declared war.” It set a precedent that other countries would follow.


In 2013 Iran got some indirect payback for the Stuxnet attack. After billionaire political donor Sheldon Adelson suggested in an interview that the United States nuke their country, the Iranians targeted his casinos with a virus, destroying the computer systems and inflicting $40 million in damage.

In 2014 North Korea got in on the act after Sony released “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen satire in which Kim Jong-un is assassinated. Outraged, the North Koreans broke into Sony’s computer system and not only razed it but released a trove of damaging and embarrassing files.

All this, of course, was a prelude to Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election, the subject of another Gibney documentary, the, two-part “Agents of Chaos.”

What the future of cyberwar has in store for us, warn the many experts in Maggio’s film, may be far worse. There may be interference in the November election, not just by the manipulation of social media but by hacks into the voting infrastructure itself. Power grids, airports, pipelines, and many other vital systems are vulnerable. It remains to be seen if our leaders have the means — or the will — to protect us.

“The Perfect Weapon” debuts Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-perfect-weapon.

Members of a crowd protesting school integration attack a car in which Black people are riding, in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America.”
Members of a crowd protesting school integration attack a car in which Black people are riding, in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America.”Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Travel ban

According to Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns’s illuminating and provocative documentary,“Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,” the course of civil rights in the United States has been a history of constraints on movement. From slave ships to today’s race-based traffic stops and police shootings, the American aspiration to travel freely about the country has been denied to Black people, often in the most brutal ways.


The motive for travel has frequently been escape. The Underground Railroad conveyed fugitive slaves to refuge beyond the Mason-Dixon line and the Great Migration of Blacks during the Jim Crow era saw the relocation of millions to the relative safety of northern states. But the age of the automobile offered not just escape but opportunities for advancement and change. Generations of families nudged their way into the middle class working in automotive assembly lines. And civil rights activists took buses and cars to gain rapid access to demonstrations and other political events in the 1950s and ’60s.

But the independence and freedom embodied by the automobile, which is taken for granted by most white people, has for Blacks always been shadowed by the threat of persecution and violence. In that way the all-American pastime of driving a car has served as a reflection of the racial climate of the country. Sorin and Burns explore this theme with ingenuity and thoroughness and provide an invaluable insight into the racism that continues to blight our society.

“Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” will air on PBS Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. and will be available for streaming at PBS.org.

Go to www.pbs.org/show/driving-while-black.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.