It Is Not Over Yet

Posted on April 29, 2021 at 5:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 30, 2021
Copyright First Hand Films 2021

One image I will remember best from “It Is Not Over Yet,” a documentary about an innovative care center for people with dementia, is the place settings. They reminded me of the good work of the Little Brothers of the Poor and Elderly, who always bring a flower and a cloth napkin when they deliver meals to people in need, because they know that those they help deserve these small touches of grace to feed their spirits as well as their bodies. At the Danish home for people with memory loss called Dagmarsminde the table settings are festive and pretty, not like the utilitarian hospital-like food trays in many facilities. Founder May Bjerre Eiby tells a group that her first job was in such a facility, all drab colors and bad smells. She became a nurse, determined to do better, but as she was saving money to create Dagmarsminde her own father became a resident of the facility where she first worked. They left his meals in his room, not understanding that he could not feed himself. He died there, she says, from neglect.

No one is neglected at Dagmarsminde, where their building principle is that “compassion is medicine.” While the average number of medications for residents in assisted living is ten per day, at Dagmarsminde it is one. Instead of medication to dull their perception, or, as in the case of one new resident, medication still being prescribed long after its ability to affect the patient was exceeded, leaving only the side effects, the residents at Dagmarsminde get cake. They get attention. Most of all, they are listened to. Just because memory is fading does not mean that a person wants to feel isolated.

Like all homes for the elderly, residents die. And when they do, the staff makes an announcement, the coffin, decorated with flowers, is brought into the area where the residents gather, and they sing a song to bid their comrade farewell. Later in the movie we see the deeply compassionate “death watching,” as the staff stays near a dying woman, making sure she is reassured and comfortable.

Copyright First Hand Films 2021

This is a Frederic Wiseman-style documentary, observation without talking head experts or statistics. We might wonder, for example, what happens when they decide to take a new resident off of the three different morphine-based medications she is on, or how (as they say) they are able to provide this staff-intensive level of care without extra cost. It is impossible not to be touched by the devoted couple knowing they are nearing the end, satisfied that their lives were good and past caring about old hurts.

Those of us who have visited our own family in memory care facilities or struggled to care for them at home will not wonder whether this is a better, more humane, more loving way to treat people with dementia. We will wonder only whether, when our time comes, we can find a place like Dagmarsminde.

Parents should know that this film deals with aging, memory loss, and death. There is some alcohol and a reference to adultery.

Family discussion: If you could build a facility for memory loss patients, what would it be like? What can we do to make more places like Dagmarsminde available?

If you like this, try: “Young at Heart” and “I Remember Better When I Paint”

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Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 6:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: References to lynching and abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021
Copyright Kino Lorber 2021

Outsider artist Bill Traylor was born into slavery. Traylor was the name of the white family that enslaved him and his family. They were more benevolent than some; the plantation owner’s will provided that Bill Traylor’s family should not be split up when they divided the estate. And so, even after emancipation, Traylor’s family stayed, working as field hands and then as tenant farmers. He lived his whole life within 40 miles in Alabama, farming until he was too old and infirm. And then he spent the rest of his life in a vibrant Black community in Montgomery, fed by a deli owner and sleeping on the floor of another business, drawing and painting all day out on the sidewalk, with whatever materials were available to him, including bright blue poster paint given to him by a teenage sign-painter and torn off pieces of cardboard signs.

“Outsider art” is work created by people who are untrained, self-taught, not a part of the art community, creating art for themselves, not for galleries or museums. We do not know what Traylor would think about the way his work is revered today. In this documentary, directed by Jeffrey Wolf and executive produced by artist Sam Pollard, we hear a story of the one time he did see his work on the walls of a gallery and, according to legend “did not recognize it.” But the commentary in the film suggests that it was not is work he did not recognize but the setting that displayed them. He would be even more amazed at the seriousness with which his work is discussed by artists, curators, and scholars in this film.

I attended the first major show of Traylor’s work, at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. As they pointed out, The paintings and drawings he made are visually striking and politically assertive; they include simple yet powerful distillations of tales and memories as well as spare, vibrantly colored abstractions. When Traylor died in 1949, he left behind more than one thousand works of art. The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork belie the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a segregated culture.” His is the only substantial art we have from someone born in to slavery, and it is important as art and artifact, giving us a vital chance to see the world the way he did.

Poster from the SAAM show, Copyright 2018 Smithsonian

This film wisely takes a multi-faceted approach to Traylor’s life and work, incorporating music, dance, poetry, and commentary from historians, critics, curators, scholars, other artists, and Traylor’s own descendants. Some of the historical material is as illuminating for what we do not know as for what we do; the records of the lives of Black Americans during this period are very limited. And some of the expert commentary is more heartfelt than insightful. The best art produces an emotional connection that cannot be reduced to language. Appropriately, inevitably, what is most eloquent here are Traylor’s images themselves.

Parents should know that this film includes discussion of enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and racism as well as Traylor’s multiple children by different women.

Family discussion: Which of Traylor’s paintings did you like the best? Why wasn’t he seen as an important artist in his lifetime? What pictures can you create about the world you remember?

If you like this, try: “The Realms of the Unreal” about another outsider artist, Henry Darger

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Ruth — Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
copyright 2021 Virgil Films

We’ve had a feature film about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early years (“On the Basis of Sex“) and an excellent documentary already (“RBG“). But if the late Justice Ginsburg were here today, she might prefer this documentary, featuring, as its title indicates, her own words, as she spoke them.

A few other people get to speak as well, including a colleague who worked with then-Professor Ginsburg on her ground-breaking briefs for her Supreme Court challenges to laws because they denied vital civil rights on the basis of gender. She says their goal was to see if they could get the briefs to “sing.” And “hers sang.” The elegance, grace, erudition, imperishable integrity, and inescapable logic of her legal writing was her superpower.

It almost seems laughable now that there was an Oklahoma statute allowing women to buy beer at age 18 but prohibiting men from buying it until age 21. Not only was there one, but Oklahoma felt so strongly about it they actually argued in support of it at the Supreme Court. The brilliance of Professor Ginsburg’s strategy was to bring cases that were unfair to men because of stereotypes about women. And so, she argued the case features in “On the Basis of Sex,” about a widower denied Social Security benefits because they were only given to single mothers, not fathers. And a case brought by a man who objected to the law making jury duty mandatory for men, but not for women, denying him a fully representative group. If the outcome of these cases seems obvious to us now, it is only because of Justice Ginsburg, who argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but one.

Most of her career was before the ubiquity of cameras, so the archival footage that this documentary draws from public appearances, most of them involving her being honored. One especially touching scene has her returning to the grade school she attended as a child. Her face is luminous as she visits the First Grade classroom where she learned to read and the library, now named for her, that she loved.

This familiar with her work will recognize but enjoy the segments about her devoted husband Marty, her amusement at her iconic status, and her love for opera, including an opera based on her improbable friendship with her ideological opposite, Justice Scalia. We also get a glimpse of some of today’s biggest names in their younger days, President Biden as Senator and as Vice President, for example, and a more collegial era in politics as Justice Ginsburg was nominated and confirmed. And we learn about the impact of Justice Ginsburg’s majority decision requiring the Virginia Military Institute to accept qualified women. Somehow she was not persuaded by the lawyer who argued that WMI teaches “manly values that only men can learn.” Her dissents had an important impact as well, as we learn from Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of landmark legislation tracking Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion. (Be sure to stay for the credits to see Ledbetter again.) Here’s hoping her blistering dissent in the Citizens United case has as meaningful a result.

Those who want to understand the importance of Justice Ginsburg’s words should read her decisions, which mean more than the interviews and interactions in this film. It is not so much the words that matter here as Justice Ginsburg’s intellect and her “consuming love” for the law, her character, her kindness, her empathy, and her purpose. She says she wants to be remembered as “someone who cares about people and does the best she can with the talents she has to make a contribution for a better world.” This movies shows she did all that and more.

Parents should know that this movie concerns gender discrimination. There is no bad language or violence but there are references to a sad death of a parent to injustice.

Family discussion: Why did Justice Ginsburg become such a well-known figure? Why are her dissents so significant?

If you like this, try: “On the Basis of Sex” and “RBG”

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Family Movies for Martin Luther King Day

Posted on January 15, 2021 at 10:40 am

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films and other resources for all ages.

New this week is “MLK/FBI” with newly released material about the government’s surveillance, of Dr. King, including informants and wiretaps.

I highly recommend the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King. And every family should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world.

It is humbling to remember that the boycotters never demanded complete desegregation of the public transit; that seemed too unrealistic a goal. This website has video interviews with the people who were there. This newspaper article describes Dr. King’s meeting with the bus line officials. And excellent teaching materials about the Montgomery bus boycott are available, including the modest and deeply moving reminder to the boycotters once segregation had been ruled unconstitutional that they should “demonstrate calm dignity,” “pray for guidance,” and refrain from boasting or bragging.

Families should also read They Walked To Freedom 1955-1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Paul Winfield has the lead in King, a brilliant and meticulously researched NBC miniseries co-starring Cecily Tyson that covers Dr. King’s entire career.

The brilliant film Selma tells the story of the fight for voting rights.

The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.

Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.

For children, Our Friend, Martin and Martin’s Big Words are a good introduction to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

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Best Documentaries 2020

Posted on December 30, 2020 at 10:28 pm

Copyright 2020 Jaywalker Films
We are living in the golden age of documentaries, each year better than the one before. While print and broadcast media are struggling to keep their audiences, too often by becoming shrill and blurring the line between news and commentary, documentaries are becoming a powerful force for journalism, vivid, revealing, and letting us see and hear the significant participants in the story. Many of them were about politics, some more directly than others. But like nearly all documentaries, they were about people who are passionate and dedicated to what they do, whether it is seeking justice or winning an athletic competition. The best of the year, in alphabetical order:

All In ties current voter suppression policies to the Jim Crow history of keeping the poor and people of color away from the voting booth.

Athlete A, named for the then-anonymous gymnast whose complaint led to the first public disclosure of decades of abuse by Larry Nassar, reveals that the toxic culture of USA Gymnastics was about protecting the brand, not the girls.

Boys State: The American Legion brings high school students together to run mock elections in separate gatherings for boys and girls. This documentary is a microcosm of our political system, as seen by and perpetuated by teenagers.

Crip Camp: As significant and has hard fought and as perpetual as the movements for racial and gender equality, but not nearly as well known is the fight for disability rights. And it turns out in large part it began at a summer camp for disabled teenagers in the 1970s. Archival footage of the camp days and the protests and interviews with the major players are moving and inspiring.

Dear Santa: Director Dana Nachman says she hopes her movies inspire tears, laughter, and chills, and “Dear Santa,” about the USPS staff and volunteers who make sure children’s letters to Santa get answered, has plenty of all three. This film’s message that it’s truly better to give than receive is especially timely, combined with the now-nostalgic images of maskless people crowding together and giving each other hugs.

Dick Johnson is Dead is a fantastical meditation on loss from director/cinematographer Kirsten Johnson as her father struggles (cheerfully) with memory loss.

Feels Good Man A gentle cartoonists finds to his horror that his drawing of a frog has been adopted as a symbol by white supremacists, with a fascinating, terrifying, and very creepy look at the way memes go viral.

The Fight follows lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union as they challenge four Trump administration initiatives that raise issues of inequality: separating families seeking legal immigration, the denial of abortion rights for an undocumented minor in custody, the prohibition of trans people in the military, and the insertion of a question about citizenship in the 2020 census.

Howard is not just the story of the life of the gifted writer/lyricist Howard Ashman (“The Little Mermaid,” “Little Shop of Horrors”), but the story of how stories come together, particularly in one monumental turning point at Disney animation.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is the story of one of the leading figures of the 20th century, the youngest speaker at Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the student protester whose skull was broken on the march to Selma, and the US Congressman who was an irrepressible force for good.

Nationtime William Greaves’ restoration of archival footage lets us see many of the luminaries at the 1972 meeting of the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana. Their stirring speeches are inspiring and illuminating as we consider how much has changed and how much has not.

Copyright Netflix 2020

Rising Phoenix The Paralympics, which take place just after the Olympics in the same location, is about more than who can be the fastest, the strongest, the best. It is about reclaiming the idea of wholeness, for the athletes themselves but, more importantly, for everyone, to show differently abled people as powerful, capable. The athletic feats are stunning. The stories are even moreso.

Slaying the Dragon is about the Republican funders’ decision to focus on getting candidates elected by gerrymandering (though both parties are guilty) following the first election of President Obama and the citizen-led initiatives to overturn it.

The Surge “The Surge” follows three idealistic Democratic women who were inspired by the election of Donald Trump to run for office.

The Way I See It White House photographer Pete Souza proves and exemplifies two perennial adages: If a picture is worth a thousand words, his photographs are as eloquent as a whole library. And if journalism is the first draft of history, Souza not only reminds us of how much of our sense of events is formed by images like his, and in his new documentary, “The Way I See It,” like the photographs he took, reward a deeper look.

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