Reviews

DOC NYC 2012 – Critic's Choice

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw discusses critic’s choices from a sampling of DOC NYC’s 61 feature-length documentaries (plus five-day Doc-a-Thon of panels and classes) scheduled to take place at IFC Center and School of Visual Arts Theater, November 8-15, 2012.

David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure
(Beth Toni Kruvant. 2012. USA. 74 min.)

We watch the delicate, black-and-white, pen-and-ink animated title credits unfold on a gentle street busker who’s plying his trade with guitar and cup, and think, Oh, right, Bromberg, the Jewish folkie who had that Columbia album with the same kind of wispy cover art 40 years ago. Then we jump cut to footage of this robust barrel-chested dude belting out blistering blues with absolute no-nonsense authority and think, Wait, this can’t be the Bromberg we thought we knew. But that’s not right, either.

As Beth Toni Kruvant’s splendidly assembled and edited life of Bromberg develops, we begin to see the singer/songwriter, maybe for the first time, as the chameleon he’s always been—a shy, awkward kid with arch-conservative parents who developed a crowd sense doing magic shows, then grew into a genuine country picker who paid visits to blues legend Mississippi John Hurt and took $5 lessons from the Rev. Gary Davis, another blues master, to learn their guitar techniques.

That was just the beginning. Bromberg would become a reliable sideman and studio session player, backing a folk pantheon of Jerry Jeff Walker and John Hartford to Bob Dylan. Then he started fronting a big country bluegrass/blues/rock ensemble with a horn section and female vocal backup trio. The David Bromberg Big Band wasn’t exactly like the gypsy caravans Delaney & Bonnie or Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen once hauled around, but it had the same kind of fiery, unpredictable vibe.

Bromberg was a frontline rocker. He had and still has a gruff and growly demeanor (“I’ve been around longer than dirt”) that refutes a busker’s humility and those frail LP line drawings. He’s pals with Jorma Kaukonen, Keb’ Mo’ and Dr. John. Like Leon Russell, he seems to have always been blessed with this fast-talking, fast-playing, urgent and burning theatrical passion that could blow audiences away but was always held in check until he’d step out from the shadows of whoever he was supporting on stage or in a studio.

Whoa, hold on now, says Kruvant’s film, there’s yet another side to David Bromberg you’d never guess in a million years. After nearly a dozen albums, countless recording sessions as a sideman and 16 years of touring as well as running the Big Band that seems to have burned him out as a manager, Bromberg retired from the folk/rock scene around 1980. He moved to Chicago and enrolled for study at the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. Then, making his way to Wilmington, Delaware, with his wife Nancy Josephine (one of his original backup singers) and their children, he opened—are you ready for this?—David Bromberg Fine Violins. He’s become a buyer, appraiser, and seller of violins, violas, fiddles and bows. Holy moly. Here’s this old folkie, surrounded by 300 violins, chatting on tailpipes, bridges and saddles with the virtuoso violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet.

And there’s more—director Kruvant keeps unreeling surprise after surprise. Bromberg has been a pivotal supporter of restoring Wilmington’s Queen Theater, a mammoth 1915 showplace with Alaskan marble walls, to its original splendor, replete with movie theater and performance hall, restaurant and WSPN-FM radio studios. It reopened in 2011, and performance scenes featuring Bromberg and his reunited band are included.

In the final moments, we watch this husky musician strolling into a Wilmington park with his guitar, sitting on a bench and practicing his craft, smiling with a deep, hard-earned satisfaction. This time around he has no cup for chump change.

David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure will be shown Sunday, November 11th, at 4:45pm at the School of Visual Arts Theater.

Iceberg Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp
(Jorge Hinojosa. 2012. USA. 88 min.)

One version of how Robert Beck earned the moniker Iceberg Slim was by staring down a thug who drew a gun in a bar altercation and blasted a one-inch hole through Beck’s fedora, missing his skull by inches. Beck just stood there and finished his drink. In Jorge Hinojosa’s crisp, visually inventive and sensitively edited portrait of Slim’s life, it’s not surprising that the man raised near Cottage Grove and 63rd Street in Southside Chicago, who migrated to LA, would find the one West Coast publisher dedicated to giving voice to raw, marginalized writers. Holloway House Books was a tiny, fearless imprint that started a decade after its larger independent competitors in New York (Lion, Gold Medal, Beacon, Lancer, Midwood) began publishing 25-cent paperback originals with a pulse—sexual or criminal. Holloway published forgettable sleaze tales with titles like Freak Show Man and Honolulu Madam, but also added Louis Lomax’s To Kill a Black Man and Robert de Coy’s The Nigger Bible in 1967 as well as Donald Goines’ Whoreson: Story of a Ghetto Pimp in 1972. Far and away its most profitable author—seven titles including Pimp with estimated total sales of six million copies—seems to have been Iceberg Slim.

The best introduction to the writing of Beck/Slim (he was born Robert Maupin) is contained in his 1971 collection of essays, letters, musings, and lamentations, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim. This is what he writes about the years he was ‘street-poisoned’: “Trauma for trauma, a pimp’s life is perhaps the worst type of life anybody could live. He is feared, hated, despised and walks a greased wire with the penitentiary on one side and his death on the other from other pimps, his victims, or their parents or relatives…Then he will glut himself with alcohol or drugs to escape the painful realty of his booby-trapped life. Worst of all, when his youth is gone whores won’t give him a cigarette.”

First-time director Hinojosa divides Slim’s story roughly into two sections—the first is his impoverished childhood, a brief try at Tuskegee College in the 30s, then pimping in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit from age 18 to 42, including seven years served in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the Cook County House of Corrections (which he broke out of, remaining a fugitive for over a decade until his recapture), and Waupun State Prison. This half is narrated by distinguished academics (Dr. Judith Gifford, Dr. Seth Kadish) and boldface name entertainers (Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, jazz saxophonist Red Holloway, directors Bill Duke and Larry Yust, rocker Henry Rollins who re-released an LP of Slim reading poetry, plus actor/exec producer Ice-T, who Hinojosa has managed for nearly three decades).

The first half also includes other authors and several revealing and intimate interviews with Slim himself, prior to his death from liver failure in 1992. It precisely unfolds Slim’s life and times in a pre-war Chicago where expensive suits, Stacy Adams shoes, and a new Cadillac marked black men as gangsters, drug dealers, numbers operators, or pimps. Hinojosa decorates his narrative with rich, fanciful pulp illustrations (by Jason Boesch, Keron Grant, and Aaron Lamb) that work as literary markers, chapter headings, and semiotic signals into the culture. This initial section is a marvel to dig into, and you want more of it.

The second half is primarily anchored by Betty Mae Beck, a maverick Texan and his first (common-law) wife, who passed away three years ago. From the evidence in this documentary, Betty appears to have been Slim’s seminal link to recovery from heroin addiction as well as his soul-mate following the death of his mother; she credits herself as helping Robert Beck find a work ethic (selling insecticides for $70 a week, with a business card taglined “We Murder Bugs”) and eventually finding his voice as an author. She tells the camera, “We made Iceberg Slim together.”

Beck’s daughters and a son briefly weigh in, as does his second wife, Dianne Millman Beck. They echo Betty by movingly remembering this uncensored explorer of ghetto life who the publishing industry and most reviewers ignored as a cruel and vicious bully. Even the LA Black Panthers steered clear of Iceberg Slim, and Pimp was so foreign to most readers that it includes a detailed glossary of street terms. Slim built a vital, dynamic piece of the black experience, telling his readers he was “gratified to be alive in this time and place in the history of the black people’s struggle.”

Iceberg Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp will be shown Friday, November 9th at 9:30 pm at the SVA theater.

The Central Park Five
(Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon. 2012. USA. 119 min.)

NYC DOC’s closing night gala doc has an importance that may transcend its New York premiere, for it could well become an eventual piece of evidence in a long-running multi-million dollar law suit filed against the city of New York almost a decade ago. That suit grows out of the criminal prosecution of five New York teens, African-American and Latino, ages 14 to 16, who were arrested, tried, and convicted for a savage and horrendous attack they did not commit on a 28-year-old white female investment banker who was jogging alone in Central Park on an April night in 1989.

The teens were sentenced to 6 to 13 years in prison and served much of those sentences. And though a fellow inmate (and serial rapist serving time for a rape/murder) apparently in a moment of contrition and conscience confessed to the crime, the case was eventually reopened by the distinguished Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morganthau, and the inmate was indeed convicted for being the sole perpetrator of the attack.

The eventual question raised by the years of freedom given up by these five young men, still awaiting a court decision today, is this: How shall they be compensated for their wrongful arrest and imprisonment, their lost years, their vanished youth? For their defense, the city’s attorneys have demanded the directors’ notes and outtakes, claiming that Ken Burns’s work here has crossed a line from documentary into advocacy journalism, and thus could have a prejudicial effect on any eventual decision in a court of law. The Burns team has refused to cooperate, citing First Amendment protections.

It may be useful to have this scenario in mind as you begin watching this careful, moment-by-moment, step-by-step construction of the jogger attack and its aftermath, co-written and directed by the award-winning documentarian Burns (The Civil War, The War, Baseball), his daughter Sarah Burns (author of the 2010 book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle Of A City Wilding) and her husband, editor/producer David McMahon. The issue point is never whether the film is advocacy journalism; virtually every doc and doc filmmaker worth your attention advocates a viewpoint with vigor, relevance, and passion. The question you may wish to consider, here as with any doc, is whether it does all this with truthfulness, objectivity, and artistry.

The Burns team makes two creative decisions upfront that are crucial: the first is starting the film with the real criminal’s confession. (Significantly, the TIFF version of the trailer for the film opens the same way, so it’s clear, at least at one point, that the team wanted their film positioned in this way.) We see and hear the attacker’s confession, and thus the film’s agenda is clearly set. Whether you come to regard this decision as a spoiler of sorts becomes part of your judgmental process in observing how five innocent youths could have been found guilty. The key issue may come down to who you want to find guilty besides the guy who really did it.

Burns’s second creative decision is to use one person as the film’s primary narrator as well as one of its cultural consciences (along with Rev. Calvin Butts, former mayor David Dinkins and others). He’s New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, then as now a frontline journalist and columnist. Dwyer’s position throughout the narrative flow of events is that there’s more than enough blame to be ladled out to nearly everyone involved in the case—investigating detectives, the prosecutor, the head of the sex crimes unit of the DA’s office, the lead defense lawyer, the mayor, the press, plus a variety of talking heads on the sidelines ranging from Rev. Al Sharpton to real estate mogul Donald Trump. Little by little, Dwyer knits together a damming scenario that illuminates how five kids could be found guilty of a horrifying assault, in spite of these facts:

  • None of the five youths’ DNA matched anything on the victim or the crime scene
  • The confessions extracted by NYPD detectives from each young man differed in a host of expository and descriptive details
  • The lone convicted perpetrator was briefly stopped and questioned by a police officer as he left the park, but NYPD never followed up
  • The convicted perpetrator continued his attacks on New Yorkers following the night of April 19, which neither the press nor the police ever put together
  • No witnesses placed any of the five teens at or near the crime scene
  • The one juror who held out for acquittal for many of the above reasons says he was browbeaten by his fellow jurors into a guilty vote, eventually giving in from exhaustion

Dwyer’s reportorial voice builds the argument that it was a classic rush-to-judgment, a worst-of-crimes in a worst-of-times incident, that rapidly escalated into a media frenzy through a deadly combination of a city’s outrage, a sense that youth gang activity labeled “wilding” was out of control, an overzealous police and detective force, an inadequate defense team, an opportunistic prosecutor, a working press that presumed the innocent were guilty long before their trial, a mayor who did not question the process taking place, and a number of bold-face personalities (Sharpton, Trump) who in various ways may have hardened public attitudes and discouraged real inquiry.

None of the investigating detectives or police officers would go on camera for the Burns team, probably because of the ongoing lawsuit. Their strategies and tactics in exacting confessions are mostly described by the accused young men, who seem simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time (not as members of any marauding gang), and to have been worn down by exhaustive grilling and promises of clemency in the Central Park precinct station.

Because Burns has removed the suspense factor from the filmic process, you may feel more sadness than outrage as you watch the misery index climb higher and higher. That The Central Park Five has a happy ending of sorts (which we know will eventually occur in some form given that opening confession) is always going to conflict, emotionally, with the years behind bars and the lost youth of five innocent men. In a real sense, the one justice yet to be won—money paid for time served—is still awaiting a decision in the courts.

Maybe that’s the ending Burns will one day edit into a DVD.

The Central Park Five will show Thursday, November 15th at 7 pm at the SVA Theater.

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