There is nothing so tough as writing about controversial documentaries in an open, public forum. Especially when you've got to put your real name right there at the top of the piece. This week I was handed two such documentaries, each a special edition reissue put out by Docurama Films. So take these as they are -- the opinions of a man on the films and their subjects as presented there. I do not pretend to be an expert on either of these cases. Both films are small-c classics of the genre from the '90s, when documentaries began to be taken seriously by American audiences and cinema found the ability to shine a light into the darkest areas of injustice. While other films would gain more notoriety -- either through subject matter, flashiness of the filmmaker or by simply quality alone -- these films stand the test of time as some of the strongly notable films of the day. But at the same time, both are very biased looks at their subjects that clearly throw most objectivity out the window in order to make their points. And each has their own set of flaws that keep them from being time-honored examples of fair, balanced reporting.
The first is The Brandon Teena Story, a documentary most of you will know as the source material and inspiration for the Academy Award-winning Boys Don't Cry. And it's a hard documentary to watch. Finding someone, anyone, to like in this film is tough. The subject herself, Teena Brandon, is a hard woman to like. Not only did she deceive sexual partners and girlfriends about her gender, but she frequently stole from them, committed forgery and wrote bad checks. She ended up in a backwards, nowhere town like Falls City, Nebraska due to her practically being run out of her hometown for her various crimes and antics. And as it turns out, as bad an apple as she was, she was nothing compared to the monsters she fell in with. Her story is a tragic one.
The documentary really wants you to like Teena and focus on the issues she was facing, while turning a blind eye to the tragedy of the two other people murdered simply because they happened to be in the same house with her for the night. But the film's biggest flaw is in its presentation of details. It tells the story like someone poorly telling a joke, alerting us to incredibly important details at the last minute and without warning or even alluding to their gravity. When, in the last 15 minutes or so, you find out that both of the guys who ultimately raped and murdered Teena had been in prison for other crimes and were themselves known to be violent, it comes as a shock. But not an intended one.
You cock your head with a dumbfounded expression and say, "Huh? Did I miss something?" Nope. They just forgot to tell you. Brandon was hanging around and pulling her scams on convicts. As the pieces begin to fall together like that, it becomes increasingly harder to keep your eye on the ball. Many important details are treated as afterthoughts, while the focus is squarely on Brandon's sexual confusion. It's safe to say that this one doesn't quite hold up, but does serve as a terrifying reminder of just how ugly, brutal and intolerant life in America's innocent breadbasket-Midwest can actually be.
The other DVD, Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case of Reasonable Doubt?, has a better told and more riveting tale, if also a very slanted one. Mumia Abu-Jamal was a political activist (Black Panther), writer and cab driver who was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in 1981. The film includes an interview with Mumia, as well as interviews and news footage from the time of the original case and from 14 years later when the film was made. The filmmakers seem convinced of Mumia's innocence and present their case for it. Regardless of what you think about him, Mumia's case is fascinating.
While they never quite prove Mumia's innocence (they can't as there is no rock solid evidence either way), two facts surface as to why Mumia was convicted. First and foremost, Mumia's own stubbornness. His political beliefs combined with his disregard for the court of law after a few key rulings led him to act out and, most importantly, lead to his refusal to ever tell his own account of the evening in question ... even to the cameras trying to save his life 14 years later.
So, lacking an alibi and seeing his behavior in court, there is zero question as to how he found himself scheduled for lethal injection. The second reason is that even if Mumia were guilty and if the very worst that has been said about him is true, the Philadelphia police and their fraternal order at the time were incredibly corrupt, tainting the case with manufactured evidence, and intimidated witnesses. In one of the most despicable acts perpetrated by a public official I've ever seen on camera, they even arrested a woman testifying for the Mumia case ... for a six-year-old bad check charge from another state. While she was on the witness stand. The sheer audacity of the cops alone will boil your blood and make you root for Mumia's release -- guilty or innocent. And that's before you get to the blatant bias and corruption within the court itself.
The problem here is that despite the special edition reissue (complete with the entire 22-minute unedited interview with Mumia) there are ZERO special features updating you on the case. I had to Wiki him just to catch up on 12 years of even more outlandish revelations. That no one thought to drop a couple thousand dollars on hiring an EPK crew to do some update interviews astounds me. A court, just months ago, threw out the sentencing and the court stenographer came forward with allegations of the judge's racist comments during the case. And that's just a piece of the craziness that has transpired. As interesting a documentary it is, it is only the first half of the story and I'm surprised to see no attempts to bring us up to date.
But no matter how you slice, I will say this: both cases in these two documentaries are interesting and both are tragic. And no doubt, at some point (of watching them), they'll make you angry at somebody. I'm glad Docurama Films is shining a light on these old docs and giving them a new life. Now if only they'd gives us a little more meat in the special features' sections...