For non–fiction film nerds like me, 2017 has already been a fantastically challenging year in documentary. In late February, Haitian director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro brought James Baldwin’s literary stylings to film. Then, Casting Jon Benet reminded me of the horrible unsolved murder of six–year–old Jon Benet (and it blurs what’s true and false! Woop?). And now that we’re discussing tragedies, Barak Goodman’s Oklahoma City exposed the deep strains of white nationalism that led to standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Waco and eventually the Oklahoma City bombing on the Alfred P. Murrah building.
Sigh, tough topics. But as you know, there’s always more to come. So, I’m going to take you through several more documentaries coming out this year.
City of Ghosts - July 7th, 2017
Of Cartel Land fame, director Matthew Heineman is coming at us again with another film meant to advance national conversations on global issues. City of Ghosts follows a group of citizen journalists called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” who is leading the effort to remove the Islamic State of al–Sham’s (ISIS) influence in Raqqa, Iraq. I expect City of Ghosts to challenge me to question how to pursue well–meaning activism against a seemingly insurmountable terrorist force. While I haven’t seen City of Ghosts yet, I did watch Cartel Land about Mexico’s drug cartels and I can tell you than Heineman has an amazing sense for powerful reveals and he handles tough subjects delicately.
Step - August 3rd, 2017
Okay, I’ve seen this one. I left the theatre beaming, with tears of joy welling in my eyes. Tony award–winning director Amanda Lipitz makes her directorial debut with Step, a story about three high school girls living in urban Baltimore. They dance for a step team called the “Lethal Ladies” while also applying to colleges, in some cases as first–generation students. The girls attend Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a school that guarantees all of its graduates attend college. Although Lipitz comes from a theatrical background, Step blurs boundaries of musical and documentary. She overlays captivating step scenes with the personal lives of the girls, who are beautiful dancers and people. However, most importantly with Step, the girls were shining with happiness despite adversity. And as a viewer, it was a happiness that was hard not to copy.
Whose Streets? - August, 11th, 2017
As a Kansas City, Missouri man, I felt the resounding impact of the Michael Brown shootings in my community, but I was removed from it. St. Louis, Missouri, after all, is on the other side of the state. Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan’s Whose Streets? is an unapologetic account of the shooting. It shows the deep resentment and distrust that Michael Brown’s death aroused in the St. Louis area. Taking a strong activist perspective, the film brushes avoids the Department of Justice reports and administrative angles. Instead, Whose Streets? zones in on neighborhood footage and first–hand accounts. Some would argue it doesn’t give a complete picture, but I say that the emotional fuel of this film fills your soul.
During my screening with a full theatre, one white man raised his hand and asked the director, “So, as a white man, what can I do to remedy these racial problems?” Damon Davis, laughing into his microphone, said, “It’s funny. White people are always asking black people what they need to do. Well, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to figure that out on your own.”