Two ’80s documentaries streaming on the Criterion Channel — Alonzo Speight’s “The People United” (1985) and Hugh King and Lamar Williams’s “Black and Blue” (1987) — show how little progress has been made in race relations in the past four decades in the United States, especially when it comes to the police.
Speight’s film serves as a vital artifact of a period many Bostonians would like to forget — the turmoil of the ’70s during court-ordered desegregation, when scenes not unlike Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 were splashed on newspaper front pages and the police used a heavy hand in subduing the Black population of the city. That community suffered not just from police abuse but police neglect. Speight focuses much of the film on the murders of 11 Black women (and one white woman) that took place in the city in the first five months of 1979. Investigating these crimes seemed a low priority for the police, and the local and national media largely ignored the murders (except for that of the one white woman).
Speight puts together archival footage, interviews, newspaper clips, and other material in a collage backed by a deceptively blithe jazz score. He confronts the ugly realities but is ultimately hopeful, seeing in community organizing and activism the beginnings of change.
It seems a hope yet to be fulfilled. The film opens with an apparent triumph for this movement, Mel King emerging as one of the two finalists from the 1983 mayoral primary, the first Black candidate to do so. But celebrations were short-lived, as City Councilor Ray Flynn of South Boston defeated King in the final election by a vote of two to one.
As seen in King and Williams’s “Black and Blue” the racial situation in Philadelphia in the ’70s and ’80s was arguably worse than that in Boston. Frank Rizzo, who served as police commissioner (1968-1971), then mayor (1972-1980), should take much of the credit. Openly racist (one of his campaign slogans was “Vote White”), he ruled over a system in which police beat, shot, and killed Black and Latino citizens often without cause and always with impunity.
The film begins with a series of such cases, one of the most powerful being the shooting of Andre Carter. In a re-enactment, a stand-in for Carter walks unarmed down an alley where the police shoot him twice. A cut is made to the real Carter in the same alley in a wheelchair, paralyzed for life.
In 1983 W. Wilson Goode defeated Rizzo in the primary and was elected mayor. He was the first Black man to hold that office. Those who saw this as a change for the better would be disappointed.
In 1985 Goode declared MOVE — an outspoken, disruptive communal group pushing Black power, a return to nature, and animal rights — a terrorist organization. He sent in 500 heavily armed police officers to dislodge them from their compound and serve arrest warrants. A gun battle broke out in which the police fired 10,000 rounds. Finally, a helicopter dropped an explosive device that set the building ablaze, spreading to 65 homes. Police and firefighters watched it burn and six adults and five children died in the fire.
“The People United” and “Black and Blue” can be streamed on the Criterion Channel. Go to www.criterionchannel.com/the-people-united-and-black-and-blue.
Sinking into sludge
If the reality wasn’t so tragic, Anabel Rodríguez Ríos’s “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” could serve as an elegant metaphor for how a democracy dies.
On the geographic, economic, and political periphery of Venezuela, the citizens of Congo Mirador, a town on stilts in the midst of Lake Maracaibo, are facing hard times. Sludge keeps accumulating on the lake bottom, threatening to swallow up their homes, and the government keeps putting off their requests for dredging. Fish are dying, and their drinking water is polluted by the oil wells that ring the coast. An election is coming up, and no one expects it to change anything. Only Tamara, a shrewd businesswoman and a zealous fan of the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, has any enthusiasm, and as the local representative of the Chavist party and she must drum up support from her neighbors and get them to re-elect the party’s candidate for president, Nicolás Maduro.
The town’s schoolteacher, Natalie, opposes the ruling party because of its corruption, ineffectuality, and despotism. The shack she teaches in is falling apart, and any school supplies she must produce for herself. She asks for help from the government, and it sends a representative who blames her for the school’s conditions. Tamara also harasses her, because of her political loyalties and hopes to get her fired.
The film doesn’t take sides. Though Tamara would be easy to villainize, she comes across as more hapless and well-intended than malicious. In one scene she is excited to visit a government bigwig to plead for help and tell him that without aid the town will die. She is dismayed when he ignores her and talks on his phone minutes into their meeting. When the election takes place she can’t come up with enough money to bribe the townspeople for their votes.
Instead of a dramatic confrontation between the two women events unfold at a meditative pace (the film was shot over seven years) and the camera follows the townspeople as they go about their diminishing lives with good humor and resignation. Children row in boats from house to house amid rusty barrels and dismal pelicans. In one disturbing sequence, a boy finds a turtle and wants to kill it for food. He spares its life when told that it would be toxic from the pollution. In another foreboding scene little girls dress up in gowns and put on make-up for a beauty contest, eager to grow up and face an uncertain future.
Ríos has an eye for beauty in the squalor — bright-colored wash hanging from clotheslines, the local phenomenon of silent lightning flashing in the night sky. The result seems like a melding of two disparate movies — Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Bacurau” (2020) and Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012). Setting the tone of melancholy and loss, an ancient troubadour keeps playing the same sad love song with the lyrics, “And for that I will never forget you/ Because my hope is to see you again.”
The film is Venezuela’s official submission to the 2021 Oscars.
“Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” can be seen on the Topic streaming service beginning Dec. 31. Go to topic.com.
Peter Keough can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.