As President Biden considers his policies toward Iran he will probably bear in mind the subject of Jeff Kaufman’s “Nasrin,” one of the best documentaries of 2020.
Three years ago, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a fearless activist and lawyer for those unjustly persecuted by the Iranian legal system, was herself convicted on bogus charges. She was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. After a hunger strike and a bout with COVID-19, she was briefly released but soon returned to the notorious Evin Prison. Suffering from a heart ailment, she languishes there under harsh conditions.
Filmed in secret by Iranians who risked their freedom doing so, the documentary follows Sotoudeh as she takes up cases ranging from that of a minor facing the death penalty to women prosecuted for refusing to wear the hijab. Undaunted by the threat of persecution, she persists in her struggle as the forces of those opposing her inevitably close in.
Though her case has been championed by millions across the world, including President Biden, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Margaret Atwood, it remains unresolved. Among those interviewed in the film are the director Jafar Panahi, himself sentenced to six years of house arrest in 2010 for similar specious charges. You can see Sotoudeh in a poignant, prescient cameo in his 2015 film “Taxi.”
“Nasrin” can be streamed on Hulu. Go to www.hulu.com/movie/nasrin-0dc8f45d-9f85-4172-88c5-cd99470298d2.
Scales of justice
A highlight of Belmont World Film’s World Refugee Month film series (through June 21) is Emmanuelle Mayer’s “A Fish Tale” (2019), a documentary that explores an unusual situation with unexpected twists and surprising insights.
After having left Ghana for Israel with his wife, Thérèse, and two children, Johnny has been working at menial jobs. But he dreams of returning to his homeland, where he hopes to modernize the fishing industry with skills he has learned by taking free instruction from the manager of an Israeli fish farm. But when the couple’s visas expire they face a dilemma — Johnny still wants to return to Ghana while Thérèse wants to find a home in Europe.
Mayer spent 10 years with the family and deftly shows what unfolds from both the husband’s and wife’s point of view. In the end both fulfill their wishes, but at a price.
“A Fish Tale” can be streamed until June 21 and a Q&A with Mayer can be streamed on June 21 at 7:30 p.m. Go to watch.eventive.org/belmontworldfilmwram/play/6090782b1fc33f009fbe3243.
The fire that time
The celebration of Juneteenth, a commemoration of June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved people in the United States were freed, in Texas, is darkened by the centenary of the Tulsa riots that occurred on May 31-June 1, 1921.
Long suppressed by historians and covered up by government officials, the story of how white rioters looted, burned, and murdered their way through the Greenwood District, Tulsa’s prosperous Black community, has been the subject of recent documentaries. “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer,” from Dawn Porter (director of last year’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble”), puts the event in the context of numerous such massacres that swept the country, beginning in the summer of 1919. With chilling and infuriating detail she employs archival images, eyewitness accounts, and newspaper articles (some grotesquely racist and bloodthirsty) to recall that shameful past. A map of the country with flames erupting from the dozens of cities and towns where massacres occurred illustrates this reign of terror.
As in Tulsa, many of these atrocities have been forgotten, buried by history, or suppressed by the powers that be. “People are walking over these massacre sites and don’t even know massacres occurred there,” says Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown. These sites aren’t just in the South but are in Northern cities as well, including Omaha, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
The film analyzes the causes of this violence — the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (due in part to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 historically revisionist epic “A Birth of a Nation”), white envy of Black economic advancement, white resentment of the stature of returning Black World War I veterans, and the myth of Black men as predators of white women. They ignited the Tulsa conflagration and smolder to the present day.
Brown meanwhile observes how the city has finally begun to exhume the past, digging up the possible sites of mass graves of riot victims. As for reparations to the descendants of the thousands left homeless and bereft, that is another matter.
“Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” can be seen on the National Geographic Channel on June 18 at 9 p.m. and will be available for streaming on Hulu starting on Juneteenth, June 19. Go to films.nationalgeographic.com/riseagain.
Like the Tulsa riot and the Red Summer massacres the case of Gary Duncan is not well known but had a significant impact on the history of race relations in America.
As seen in Nancy Buirski’s “A Crime on the Bayou,” Duncan lived in Plaquemines Parish, a desolate swamp south of New Orleans ruled over by Leander Perez, a racist, anti-Semitic, petty despot. In 1966 Duncan saw a group of white teenagers hassling a couple of Black kids outside a newly desegregated school and defused the situation. But in the course of doing so he touched one of the white boys on the arm.
An innocent gesture, but in Perez’s world a crime. He had the police arrest Duncan for assault. When Duncan refused to plead guilty he was put on trial. A young Jewish attorney, Richard Sobol, who had left his tony D.C. law firm to represent Black defendants in Louisiana, took up Duncan’s case. He demanded a jury trial but that was denied; and the judge, a Perez crony, found Duncan guilty. After numerous appeals the case went to the Supreme Court and Duncan was acquitted. As a result of that decision the right to a jury trial, guaranteed by the Constitution but denied by some states, was affirmed.
Buirski follows the case with cogency and clarity, illuminating its implications and putting it in the perspective of Black and white alliances in the struggle for Civil Rights.
“A Crime on the Bayou” opens at the Kendall Square Cinema June 25. Go to landmarktheatres.com/boston/kendall-square-cinema.
Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough at gmail.com.