Back Row Thoughts – Doc’s Orders, Part 3

We’re about 48 hours away from Oscar nominations, just enough time to squeeze in one more “Back Row Thoughts” column tackling this year’s Documentary Feature shortlist (here are Part 1 and Part 2 if you want/need to catch up). Of the 15 films up for the prize, this set of reviews will bring us up to 11. I have seen two of the four remaining entries on the list, with the third coming up on January 30 and the fourth (A House Made of Splinters) still floating in the ether somewhere for me to track down. There will be one more column to come after this, which will hopefully wrap up the entire field before I cover the category for the upcoming Oscar Blitz. If I can’t find Splinters before a reasonable cutoff point, then I’ll just proceed with movies 12-14 and call it a day. I’ve come up just short before in this quest, it’s not the end of the world.

Still, that’s a problem for Future Bill to solve. For the time being, we have three more intriguing pieces of nonfiction to look at, and it’s something of a testament to the strength of this year’s slate of candidates that so far none have dropped below a “B” grade. Usually there are one or two that I just don’t care for each year, but this time around, everything is of surprisingly high quality.

Descendant

While slavery wasn’t abolished in the United States until 1865 (we fought a whole war over it, and some people are still pissed the Confederacy lost), the African Slave Trade was outlawed decades before, with the illegal transport of slaves from the continent being a capital offense. However, an Alabama businessman named Timothy Meaher dispatched one last slave ship, the Clotilda, which returned with more than 100 captured slaves in 1860, possibly on a dare if the legends are to be believed. The ship itself, which served as proof of the abduction, was scuttled shortly thereafter, burned and sunk into the Mobile River.

However, the living descendants of that last group of slaves maintained their story through scattershot written histories, generational lore, and their own regional dialect, which was preserved by one of the ship’s last survivors, Cudjoe Lewis, and collected into a book by the late Zora Neale Hurston (Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”) that was finally published in 2018, nearly 60 years after her death. The new generations carry on the tales of Lewis and others, headquartered in the small community of Africatown.

This is where Descendant lays its scene. Over the course of the film, director Margaret Brown takes the viewer through a tour of Africatown and its citizens, tells the history of the Clotilda and the quest to find the wreckage as a piece of reclaimed heritage, and sadly, illustrate how Timothy Meaher’s alleged arrogance and criminality has paid off, as he faced no justice during his lifetime and his familial successors continue to exploit and profit from the inherently unbalanced dynamic he helped create.

For about 75% of the film, I’m not only engaged, I’m fascinated. The search for the Clotilda, a mystery lasting over 150 years, is extremely compelling. Finding it vindicates those wrongfully sold into bondage, but it also proves how brazenly Meaher flouted the law, as documents later reveal a fairly high-level cover-up from people who knew for years where the ship was, but decided to feed historians false information to protect the Meaher family’s PR image.

Similarly, the fact that the offspring of Cudjoe Lewis and the other Clotilda slaves are still getting a royal screw job from a society that was supposed to make amends for America’s Original Sin gets you just the right amount of angry. Alabama’s governor sends a lackey to pay lip service to the people of Africatown and their cause, including building a historical visitor’s center, but it’s a relatively empty gesture all things considered. As the citizens point out, their land is surrounded by factories and power plants that pollute the air and water in the name of industry, with the vast majority of the property owned by Meaher’s descendants. This is a textbook example of history repeating itself when we don’t learn from it, only it comes from a part of the country where politicians are actively trying to prevent children from learning it because they have a vested monetary interest in the status quo.

Where the film loses me a little bit is in the way it jumps from these present-day issues to excerpts from Hurston’s book, where Cudjoe Lewis’ dialect is recreated for the film. In small doses it’s fine, and even a bit intriguing. But for my personal tastes, the movie leans on this a bit too much as a way to break up scenes, and at times it played like the narrations from Ken Burns’ Civil War mini-series. That’s not to say this information isn’t interesting or insightful, just that it doesn’t mesh as well with the other stuff as the filmmakers might think.

Still, I quite enjoyed this little treasure hunt. I love learning about history, and this is a story I’d never heard before, one that has relevant meaning in the here and now. For that alone it’s worthy of your consideration.

Grade: B

Bad Axe

If you’ve ever spent a good amount of time in a small town, especially if you’ve lived in one, then Bad Axe will speak to you in a way that few other documentaries can. In what I’d argue is the most purely “American” film of this year’s set, what begins as a love letter to director David Siev’s hometown quickly becomes an exposé of one of the darkest periods of recent history, which in itself is a continuation of that initial gesture of affection, because the blunt honesty of Siev’s story is about what it truly means to love this country, warts and all.

Set in and named for a small town at the top of Michigan’s “Thumb,” Bad Axe focuses on the Sievs’ family business, a bar and restaurant called “Rachel’s,” named after David’s mother. His father, Chun, fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. as a child, settling in rural Michigan and starting a donut shop. Before long, he had a wife and children – David, Jaclyn, and Raquel all feature heavily – and the store was successful enough to expand to a full restaurant.

However, the COVID pandemic took its toll, as it did for people all over the world. As Michigan locks down, the restaurant stays afloat by offering takeout service for the first time ever. The strong-willed Jaclyn and her husband Michael move back home from Ann Arbor to help run things so that Rachel and Chun, being older, don’t have to risk exposure as much. In addition to the takeout, “Rachel’s” expands its menu, and Michael begins making deliveries, along with Raquel’s boyfriend Austin. Even though everyone has something else going on (Jaclyn has a corporate job, Raquel is finishing up her studies at the University of Michigan, and David is making the film), they all pitch in to keep the restaurant, and their parents’ version of the “American Dream,” alive.

But as the year wears on, the situation becomes more tenuous. Not only is the takeout model not sustainable long-term, but as the pandemic rages and political tensions boil over, the Sievs find themselves at a crossroads, and possibly in the crosshairs. They’ve never made social waves before, as they know their town is deep in Trump country, and they’ve always checked their opinions at the door when they go to work, but more and more they feel the need to take a stand, and there’s always the dilemma of how assertive they should be if it means risking their livelihoods, or worse.

It starts with George Floyd’s murder, participation in a social media “blackout” (putting a black square as the restaurant’s Facebook photo), and the children marching at a Black Lives Matter rally. In the span of just a few days, “Rachel’s” goes from a go-to neighborhood spot to being a target for harassment and potential violence. Patrons send emails saying they’ll no longer eat there, randos post insults online, and after the restaurant partially reopens with a mask policy, instigators intentionally show up without masks to berate them and lob anti-Asian epithets. At the BLM rally, literal armed neo-Nazis threaten them, and later, after they’re identified by online sleuths, they stalk and tail Raquel home after her shift.

If you ever grew up and left a small town, this is something you’ve likely experienced, though hopefully not to the extremes that it’s gotten to in the last few years thanks to Donald Trump and his most ardent defenders. In tiny communities, everybody knows everybody, and most everyone is friendly and neighborly… until you disagree with them. There’s a social order to places like Bad Axe, an ethos that the majority of the small population has agreed to, likely for generations, and when someone comes along and challenges it, they become an undesirable, if not an outright enemy. Part of the reason that Trump’s “Big Lie” about election fraud has become the core principle for large sectors of the Republican Party is because by design, a lot of the areas where his voters live are places like this, where opinions are so insular and homogenous that they literally can’t conceive of the possibility of dissent or diversity of thought. We all have our echo chambers, but the more you expose yourself to other ideas, the more plausible it can be that people will think and vote a certain way. When you intentionally isolate yourself in a rural bubble, you create a willful ignorance to the rest of the world, so when things don’t go the way you want, it’s easy to convince yourself that the other guy cheated, because everyone you know voted for your guy.

And this is why, ultimately, Bad Axe really is a love letter to the town, and America writ large. The travails that the Siev family endure throughout 2020 are a testament to patriotism, because you really do have to love your country if you’re willing to keep pushing forward when things are this dire. What started as a chronicle of a family overcoming adversity through the pandemic ended up as an affirmation of what it means to suffer the slings and arrows of citizenship, as the Sievs appeal to your basic humanity while asserting that they’re just as much a part of “Real America” as those who would victimize them claim to be. It’s also worth noting that these are not dyed-in-the-wool liberals. Chun works his land and owns several guns (including shotguns and assault rifles), training his children in how to use them. Austin is a black man raised by adoptive white parents, and for the first time in his life he’s experiencing what it’s like to be black in the Heartland. Jaclyn and Michael work corporate jobs to start and take up management of the restaurant, so I’m sure there are some supply-side economic policies that might appeal to them. No matter how much tribalists in this country try to put people like the Sievs in a box, they can’t be pigeonholed, except to say that they’re American through and through. They love their town, they love their country, and no matter what ideological differences they have, they want to live peacefully with other people and be prosperous. That’s what makes this film such a triumph.

Grade: A

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

I confess that I was never that aware of Leonard Cohen’s music until after his death in 2016. In the years since I’ve grown to love his low, gravely voice, his poetic lyrics, and his amelodic performance style. But before he died, I like many others only knew one song of his, “Hallelujah.” And also like many others I’m sure, I didn’t know his original version. I grew up with the covers by John Cale and Jeff Buckley (both are beautiful, but I’ve always preferred Cale’s take), and my mother had Bob Dylan’s as her favorite.

Now, of course, the song is ubiquitous, a staple of TV shows (the film gives us a lengthy montage of performances on singing competitions), movies (Cale’s version was rearranged and edited for Shrek in 2001), and solemn ceremonies (it was used during Joe Biden’s COVID tribute in 2021, and we see k.d. lang give a beautiful rendition at a memorial service for Cohen). But how did it come about? Well, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song kind of answers that question through archive footage and interviews with contemporaries like producer John Lissauer (who arranged the original cut of the song) and former “Rolling Stone” writer Ratso Sloman (who had a longstanding rapport with Cohen). But mostly, this is a standard musical biography documentary framed around the song.

For the most part it works, because unless you’re a huge fan of Cohen’s music, you likely don’t know all that much about his lengthy career or personal life. So seeing his beginnings in Montreal, his early recordings, the bastardization of his work by Phil Spector, and his spiritual journey as a person (including several years living in a Buddhist monastery) is really eye-opening. You get a firm understanding of his personality and his artistry, and you almost certainly are going to learn things you didn’t know before, which is always a good thing.

But if you’re looking for a deep dive into the composition and conception of “Hallelujah,” you may find yourself disappointed. There’s some surface-level exploration into how and when Cohen wrote the song, including the shift from the original lyrics laden with religious references to a more secular version a few years later – in fact one of the film’s highlights is a bit of clever animation noting the changes as it evolves – but the real emphasis is on how the song itself grew into the phenomenon it is today. Going from being the best track on an album that Cohen’s record company wouldn’t even release because they thought it was terrible, to one of the most covered songs in pop music history is something extraordinary, to the point that I think the title of the movie is ordered incorrectly. This is a film about the “journey” of both Cohen and “Hallelujah,” so putting that word in the middle seems like it’s out of place.

I wish there was a little bit more about how Cohen came up with the song and the lyrics, mostly because a) they’re gorgeous, and b) ubiquity itself is a double-edged sword, as seeing multiple people perform it (Eric Church, Regina Spektor, and Rufus Wainwright among others) becomes a bit tired and repetitive after a while. By the time we hit the eighth or ninth cover, I was genuinely wondering why so much time was being devoted to this aspect of the song instead of its genesis. Surely the point had been well and truly made about how much its influence has expanded over the last 40 years.

I still really liked the film. I just felt like it spent a tad too much time on the tribute rather than the creation in what is, at its core, a fairly straightforward life story. That said, I do find it oddly comforting that both Cohen and David Bowie got documentaries about them in 2022, six years after their respective deaths. If there had been a Prince film, we would have hit the nostalgically tragic trifecta.

Grade: B

***

That concludes the pre-nomination analysis in this category. As I said, I’ll do one more block after I’ve seen (hopefully) the last two entries, but that won’t be until after the Academy makes its announcement on Tuesday. The same holds true for International Feature, as two of the remaining three films come out next week, with the third two weeks after that, and I’m still holding out hope that I can finish Animated Feature (saw one of the final three tonight). Fingers crossed!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which did you like best? Is “Hallelujah” going to be stuck in your head all day now? Let me know!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s