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Doc Talk

Will, Sammy, roller skates, skateboards, swamp

A scene from “United Stakes.” Christopher Vanderwal/HBO/HBO

In his fictional feature “Anonymous” (2011), the disaster movie maestro Roland Emmerich expounded on the literary conspiracy theory that the plays of William Shakespeare were in fact penned by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The resulting film was predictably far-fetched, over-produced, and ridiculous. In her documentary “Nothing Is Truer than Truth,” Cheryl Eagan-Donovan takes a more level-headed approach in exploring the facts behind the controversy. Her investigation led her to Venice, Verona, Mantua, Padua, and Brenta, Italy, which are settings for “The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” They’re also cities visited by de Vere in his lifetime of louche pursuits. And could the name “Shake-spear” be a ribald, punning allusion to de Vere’s bisexuality? Interviews with actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, and stage directors Diane Paulus and Tina Packer, add credibility to the theory. If nothing else, the film provides a profile of a colorful Elizabethan bon vivant and his world of pleasures. 

“Nothing Is Truer than Truth” is available on DVD ($14.99) and Blu-ray ($16.99) from Gravitas Ventures and on iTunes and many other platforms.

What makes Sammy run 

As the Oscar-nominated “Green Book” makes clear, professional fame and excellence did not necessarily make life any easier for African-Americans in the pre-civil rights era and even long afterward. In Samuel D. Pollard’s comprehensive, revelatory documentary “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” his subject (who died in 1990 at age 64) recalls the beatings he received from fellow soldiers when he was in the Army during World War II, the ostracism he suffered when he married a white woman in 1960, the racial jokes he endured from fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in the ’60s, and his bitterly ironic rejection by members of his own African-American community when he supported the candidacy of Richard Nixon for president in 1972. Despite these obstacles Davis put in a tireless 61-year career that started when he was a 3-year-old dancing on the vaudeville stage. Packed with interviews, archival footage, and film clips of his electrifying performances, “I’ve Gotta Be Me” is both a celebration of an American entertainment legend and a painful look at the racism that still poisons our country. 

“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” will be available on DVD ($24.99) and can be accessed digitally on Feb. 19 .

Go to bit.ly/2BqhhvV .

Roll model 1

Roller-skating would seem a relic of a bygone era, but for generations it has provided African-American communities all over the country with a bonding and empowering subculture. Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s exhilarating documentary “United Skates” visits rinks from Los Angeles to North Carolina, where skaters perform astonishingly athletic and balletically graceful maneuvers with names like the Texas Slow Walk, the Ohio Bounce, the Atlantic Jackknife, and the Nutcracker (it is exactly what you would imagine it to be) to music ranging from Queen to Queen Latifah. For up to five generations skaters have been finding release and empowerment in these so-called Adult Nights at the local rink, but gentrification and thinly disguised racism threatens to shut them all down. Winkler and Brown profile skaters and rink owners, young and old, in their immersion into a little known phenomenon that is also a microcosm of recent social and economic history. 

“United Skates” debuts on HBO on Feb. 18.

Roll Model 2

Spotty though their selections might have been in general, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences definitely got it right with the nomination of Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” for best documentary. On one level the film succeeds brilliantly as an inside look at working-class youths in a Rust Belt town enduring unemployment, drug addiction, alcoholism, and domestic violence and finding relief and companionship through skateboarding. But it also questions the medium of documentary filmmaking itself, as Bing calls attention to the artifice with references to it slipped in pointedly if unobtrusively. But it is an artifice he is clearly skilled at as he relates the intimate lives of several subjects, himself included, with empathy, detachment, and the insouciant finesse of an expert, freestyling skateboarder.

“Minding the Gap” can be seen on the PBS series “POV” on Feb. 18 at 9 p.m.

A still image from “The Swamp,” shows a Seminole woman poling past a billboard, advertising the sale of reclaimed Everglades land, circa 1920.HistoryMiami Museum

Draining experience

There hasn’t been much rhetoric from the White House about draining the swamp these days, but you can learn about the real thing in Randall MacLowry’s documentary “The Swamp.” It relates the cautionary tale of the environmentally destructive and economically disastrous exploitation and despoliation of Florida’s Everglades. It started in 1881, when the entrepreneur Hamilton Diston began a project to drain the vast waterlands to develop real estate properties and farmland. This endeavor did not go well for him, but that did not stop other ambitious entrepreneurs, con men, and politicians from trying, which not only ruined wildlife habitats but also resulted in such unexpected consequences as catastrophic floods and droughts. There were some beneficial outcomes, however, such as the pioneering activism of Ernest Coe, whose determined efforts to preserve the swamplands resulted in the establishment of Everglades National Park, in 1934. MacLowry tells this twisted tale with clarity and a little mordant humor; and the film should instill hope in those fighting to protect the environment today. 

“The Swamp” is available on DVD ($24.99) and digital platforms.

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