Arts

DocTalk | peter Keough

Doc Talk: Prison reform, computer games, gay marriage, silent Super 8

A scene from “American Jail”
CNN
A scene from “American Jail”

A passionate, thought-provoking complement to Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary “13th” (2016), “American Jail” by Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) takes a look at the title subject from a personal point of view. As a young kid growing up in a depressed African-American neighborhood in Easton, Pa., Williams ran with drug dealers and thieves. He was also bullied for being gay, which might have saved his life, because he left town for New York and eventually became an award-winning filmmaker and journalist.

His friend Tommy wasn’t so lucky. He ran afoul of the law, sank into alcoholism, was repeatedly incarcerated, and never treated for his addictions and depression. He committed suicide on his 52d birthday.

Williams returns to his old community, which is shadowed by a fortress-like jail on a hill, to learn about how the penal system oppresses African-Americans and the poor. He interviews police officers, prosecutors, activists, policy makers, researchers, public defenders, and advocates for and against a status quo that has incarcerated 2.2 million people — a disproportionate number of them black and brown. He outlines a “prison pipeline” from arrest, to prosecution, to imprisonment that has ruined lives and broken up families.

Advertisement

Who benefits when taxpayers pay $30,000 a year to house an inmate who once released will likely return? Some of those interviewed claim that the penal system is a way to keep poor people in place and enrich other people — like the company selling correction facilities plastic armchairs that cost $1,200. 

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

And what can be done? Adam Foss, an African-American former Suffolk County assistant district attorney, thinks educating people can help. He gives TED talks in which he patiently explains white privilege to white audiences and offers advice to prosecutors on how to achieve empathy. But Williams argues that we need a rethinking of our notions of law enforcement and justice, and his hopes of that happening under the current White House administration are dim.  

“American Jail” can be seen on July 1 on CNN at 8 p.m.

Go to www.cnn.com/shows/american-jail-film.

Keyboard conquerors

Tired of the World Cup? Perhaps esports are more to your taste, in which case check out John Keating’s “Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon®,” which follows two superstar Korean players of the computer game “StarCraft® II” as they compete in the 2014 Global Finals at the titular gaming convention. The winner gets $100,000 along with the title of world champion and the adulation of thousands of fans who cheer as they watch each keystroke and simulated explosion on a Jumbotron.

Gaming culture is especially popular in Korea, but has grown into a worldwide phenomenon that is projected to be raking in $90 billion by 2020.

Advertisement

“Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon®” is available on Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu.

Go to www.gamechangersdocumentary.com.

‘Union’ due

A good way to acknowledge the last week of Gay Pride Month is to watch Donna Zaccaro’s brisk, straightforward, and concise documentary “To a More Perfect Union: US v. Windsor.” It is a kind of prequel to Eddie Rosenstein’s “The Freedom to Marry” (2016), about the 2015 Supreme Court decision “Obergefell v. Hodges,” which established that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. Zaccaro’s film focuses on the earlier 2013 Supreme Court decision US v. Windsor, which found unconstitutional the provision in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act limiting marriage only to opposite-sex unions.

Edie Windsor had been forced to pay a huge estate tax bill when her spouse, Thea Spyer, died and their union was not recognized because of this law. Outraged that a relationship that spanned over 50 years could be dismissed in this way, Windsor took on attorney Roberta Kaplan to seek justice. Zaccaro shows how the case evolved and Kaplan, against the odds, prevailed. 

Zaccaro also puts the case in the context of the history of the gay rights movement, and her film benefits from the presence of Windsor (who died last September, at 88), an elegant, charismatic, and tough woman who knew how to work a crowd and became the face of the same-sex marriage movement.

“To a More Perfect Union: US v. Windsor” screens through Thursday at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington.

Go to bit.ly/2tj8Duo. 

Body of work

Advertisement

David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 at 37 of AIDS, was one of the most prolific and influential artists in New York in the 1980s. In addition to his work in photography, painting, writing, and music, he also made several short films as part of the Cinema of Transgression movement, which was a response to the HIV crisis. A selection of these rarely screened works can be seen at the Harvard Art Museums, including the poetic and provocative quasi-documentary “A Fire in My Belly (Film in Progress) (1986–87).

In silent Super 8, it intercuts seemingly random images from Mexico, including masked wrestlers, tabloid headlines of grisly murders, a firebreather on a street corner, a cockfight, a bullfight, a marionette with a sombrero and a tiny pistol, Mayan ruins, grotesque mummies — all vaguely sinister and suggestive of cruelty and violence. The editing pace quickens and thematic elements emerge in a repeating montage that includes Wojnarowicz sewing his mouth shut and a crucifix spattered with blood and crawling with ants. 

What does it mean? According to Wojnarowicz’s artist statement, “The film deals with ancient myth and it’s [sic] modern counterpart. It explores structures of power and control. There are symbols of rage and the need for release.”

According to then-Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), in a denunciation of the film’s inclusion in a gallery exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2010 echoing the sentiments of William Donohue of the Catholic League, it was “an obvious attempt to offend Christians.” He threatened to cut the museum’s funding if it wasn’t removed from the show. It was.

Who is right? See for yourself, but also take a look at Stephen Colbert’s hilarious analysis of the controversy at www
.youtube.com/watch?v=ftgtrvXaFHs
.

“A Fire in My Belly (Film in Progress)” screens on Wednesday at 6 p.m. as the last in a program of shorts in Menschel Hall, Lower Level, at the Harvard Art Museums. A discussion with artist A.K. Burns follows.

Go to bit.ly/2JWKi83.

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