Sundance Docs: From Nina Simone to Scientology

Sundance 2015 was full of worthy documentaries to screen.  I caught three of them, Listen to Me Marlon, The Black Panthers:  Vanguard of a Revolution and Larry Kramer:  In Anger & Love.  However, here is a brief synopsis of those and some others that had a lot of people buzzing while I was in Park City... nina simone poster

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

Directed by Liz Garbus and making its debut at Sundance before premiering later this year on Netflix was What Happened, Miss Simone.  Garbus sensitively explores the constant state of opposition that trapped and tortured Simone—as a classical pianist pigeonholed in jazz, as a professional boxed in by family life, as a black woman in racist America—and in so doing, reveals a towering figure transcending categorization and her times. The film stays true to Simone's subjectivity by mining never-before-heard tapes, rare archival footage, and interviews with close friends and family. Charting Simone’s musical inventiveness alongside the arc of her Jim Crow childhood, defining role in the Civil Rights Movement, arrival at Carnegie Hall, self-imposed exile in Liberia, and solitary life in France, this astonishingly intimate yet epic portrait becomes a non-fiction musical—lush tracks and riveting story resonating inextricably.

There were two prolific nights featuring the music of Miss Simone.  After the premiere screening, John Legend performed his version of "Please, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood".  Footage is courtesy of J. Adler.

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Later on in the week, Common, Erykah Badu, Aloe Blacc other stellar artists took the stage for yet another musical tribute.  Here are some of those highlights...

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LARRY KRAMER:  IN LOVE & ANGER

While at Howard University completing my degree in Broadcast Production, I decided to run for Miss America.  Of course, you have to win a local and then the state title in order to do so.  I called Atlantic City, got the info of where to compete in Maryland and ran for a local.  I won and was elated to have to opportunity to run for Miss Maryland and if I were lucky move on to Miss America.

During those days talent and interview made up more than 70% of your total judging score.  Rock Hudson had just died from A.I.D.S. and America was in a panic, as they associated this dreadful disease with only being related to the gay community.  Having lost two family members and a multitude of friends in the theatre community to this dreadful disease, my emotions were very raw when it came to this subject.  Remembering it like it was yesterday, my interview was all fun and games until one of the judges presented me with this question, "Do you think A.I.D.S testing should be voluntary or mandatory?'  I couldn't believe someone would even contemplate such a thing.

Needless to say, I responded, "AIDS does not discriminate.  It doesn't care if you are black, white, rich or poor.  It is a disease like any other and strikes at any given time...I don't recall anyone ever asking if there should be voluntary or mandatory testing for polio or cancer".  I'm pretty sure that answer did me in and I never made it to Atlantic City.  However, I stood up for what I believed and my opinion was based on the facts not rumors.  My Mom was a registered nurse and made sure that I was educated properly on this issue, because like I said...I had family members and friends taken out by full blown A.I.D.S or HIV.

Si, it suffices to say, when I read about a documentary being screened at Sundance on Larry Kramer, it was a necessity for me to attend.

Larry Kramer - In Love & Anger is the story of how one person said NO! Using that two letter word is how you start a movement and how you change the world.  Kramer, affectionately known as the worlds's "Angriest AIDS Activist" was Yale educated and started out with a job finding projects for Columbia Pictures to produce.  Some of those projects include such iconic films "Suddenly Last Summer".  It didn't take long for Kramer to catch on producing a film called "Women In Love", which is notoriously known for a naked wrestling scene in front of a fireplace that ironically earned him an Oscar nomination.

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Kramer had many accomplishments along his journey writing many books and plays.  The Normal Heart opened on Broadway in 1985 and was made into a television film for HBO that garnered nominations for its stars Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.

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His anger over gay rights and discrimination leading to the delay of the AIDS cocktail, that ultimately saved millions of lives led to the birth of organizations like The Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP!  His tenacity paid off when after year of berating the FDA the cocktail was made public and saved many lives including his own.

The film is set to be released on HBO in June just in time for Kramer's Birthday in June 2015.  I don't have a clip of the trailer yet, but here is speech Kramer gave in 1993 and it will give you the essence of this passionate, brave soul...

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THE BLACK PANTHERS:  Vanguard of the Revolution

imagesI don't know about you, but I wholeheartedly associated the The Black Panther Party with varying images of Huey P. Newton from eh 60's.  My knowledge about them, what they stood for, how they came into existence was limited at best until I attended a screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

What I learned is that 50 years later, there is very little progress in the civil rights movement for citizens of the U.S. With incidents happening in New York, LA and in  Ferguson (located in the suburbs of my hometown - St. Louis), it feels as though all the lives lost to make way for a better way of living have been for what?????

Director, Stanley Nelson declared that he had "always been interested in the Black Panther Party...I was 15 years old when they started and I thought they had swagger."  It is Nelson and producer Laurens Grant's wish that the film m will be used to educate young people when it premieres a year from now on PBS (although they are shooting for a limited theatrical release in fall of 2015).  Having just completed editing of the doc Monday, January 19th, it was seven years in the making and sheds the light on the reality vs the myth of the Black Panther Party, its members and its goals.

We were treated to a Q&A with the wife of BPP member Eldridge Cleaver - Kathleen Cleaver.  She's a tough cookie and still adheres to the code by which she and the BPP lived so many years ago, but is very clear about what that code is (I AM A REVOLUTIONARY) and why it was and still is important in the 21st century.

Even though many members like Elaine Brown, David Hilliard, Jamal Joseph, Jim Dunbar, Willian Calhoun, Roland Freeman, Kathleen Cleaver and others were interviewed, there was a noticeable absence of Bobby Seale (who is still living in the Bay Area).  It was understood that Seale may be holding out to tell his own version of the BPP story, how it unfolded and reached its demise.

To date, there are still 20 members of the Black Panther Party incarcerated.  The party met its untimely demise when Newton and Cleaver had differences of opinion on how the party should continue, meddling to tear the party apart from the inside out by Herbert Hoover and the CIA and the shift in responsibility from Newton from community to drugs.

Although there is no trailer available at this time, here is an interview with the Director Stanley Nelson

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FRESH DRESSED

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With funky, fat-laced Adidas, Kangol hats, and Cazal shades, a totally original look was born—Fresh—and it came from the black and brown side of town where another cultural force was revving up in the streets to take the world by storm. Hip-hop, and its aspirational relationship to fashion, would become such a force on the market that Tommy Hilfiger, in an effort to associate their brand with the cultural swell, would drive through the streets and hand out free clothing to kids on the corner.

Fresh Dressed is a fascinating, fun-to-watch chronicle of hip-hop, urban fashion, and the hustle that brought oversized pants and graffiti-drenched jackets from Orchard Street to high fashion's catwalks and Middle America shopping malls. Reaching deep to Southern plantation culture, the black church, and Little Richard, director Sacha Jenkins' music-drenched history draws from a rich mix of archival materials and in-depth interviews with rappers, designers, and other industry insiders, such as Pharrell Williams, Damon Dash, Karl Kani, Kanye West, Nas Jones, and Andre Leon Talley. The result is a passionate telling of how the reach for freedom of expression and a better life by a culture that refused to be squashed, would, through sheer originality and swagger, take over the mainstream. (this description of the film comes from www.Sundance.org)

Check out this interview with Deadline Now...

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GOING CLEAR:  Scientology and the Prison of Belief

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When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had my own little up-close brush with the Church of Scientology.  It was not a pleasant nor positive experience and that is all I will say about it in public.  Having said that, this doc was the talk of the festival for one reason - Tom Cruise.

In Going Clear - Director Alex Gibney profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, including  A-list Hollywood celebrities.  Shining a light on how the church cultivates true believers, including their experiences and what they are willing to do in the name of religion, the film covers a broad range of material from the church's origins—punctuated by an intimate portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard—to present-day practices and alleged abuses as reported in the media.

Check out this interview done by the Associated Press with Gibney and other key players associated with Going Clear...

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LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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LISTEN TO ME MARLON

There is no doubt Marlon Brando was one of the most brilliant acting talent of our time!  Director/Screenwriter Stevan Riley gives us the greatest gift of all by allowing us to witness a master class in humanity and acting with The Godfather himself - Marlon Brando.

Listen to Me Marlon sheds light on the artist and the man. Charting Brando's exceptional career and extraordinary personal life with the actor himself as guide, the film explores his complexities, telling the story entirely in his own voice. No talking heads, no interviewees: just Brando on Brando.

Like most celebrities, we feel as though we know their whole story, but we only have the opportunity to scratch the surface.  Marlon Brando was an activist against those whose voices were muffled in American and abroad, Black Americans, Indians and Tahitians.  He used his status to shed light on these injustices at the risk of placing his own mortality in jeopardy.

His goodwill would soon be eclipsed by his womanizing, family tragedies and eccentric behavior as he became older in a business that doesn't embrace age or loss of good looks.

About 30 minutes too long, it was enjoyable and I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything in the world.  Listening to Brando lit a fire under my behind creatively and I will forever be grateful for that master class in the dark.

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