“Marshall”: courtroom drama from early in Thurgood Marshall’s career

Marshall”, directed by Reginald Hudlin, centers itself on courtroom drama for its own sake, a presentation technique for many social and political issues in independent film (as I recall from one particular meeting with an actor in Boston in 2002).

Then, the film is also a partial biography of Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), who would become the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court in 1967.

This film focuses on a critical case early in Marshall’s career, as he established a reputation helping young black men otherwise wrongfully convicted. After moving to New York in 1940, he takes a case in Bridgeport, CT, where a young black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping his boss’s wife (Eleanor Strubing, played by Kate Hudson) and throwing her off a bridge.  As the defense starts to unravel in typical courtroom fashion, Thurman concludes that the sex was consensual and could have resulted in a mixed-race baby, and that Eleanor was trying to hide this from her autocratic husband.

Marshall teams up with a former insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who has to deal with his own stereotypes of the day as a Jew.

The film contains a backdrop of FDR’s radio broadcasts of the early days of World War II, when the country had to come together, despite its racially segregated military (which Truman would fix in 1948).

The conclusion also does some interesting stuff with the problem of plea bargaining for an innocent but prejudice-baited client.

The film was actually shot around Buffalo, NY.

The original premier by Open Road films was canceled because of coincidence with the Las Vegas shootings (story).

Wikipedia picture of Bridgeport bridge in 1850.

Wikipedia picture of Buffalo, WWII era.

Name:  “Marshall
Director, writer:  Reginald Hudlin
Released:  2017/10
Format:  2.20:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Potomac Yards, 2017/12/3, evening, small audience
Length:  118
Rating:  R
Companies:  Open Road
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, December 3, 2017. At 11 PM EST)

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”: the hypocrisy of the world of a left-wing lawyer comes to a head (like it can for a blogger)

Roman J. Israel, Esq.” may not sound like the name of a black activist lawyer (played by Denzel Washington), but the new film by Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) starts in a most non-visual fashion, with an image of the legal complaint where Roman sues himself for hypocrisy (or perhaps gratuitous speech).

Yes, I’ve made little videos comprising images of paperwork. The opening image may explain why the film, long at 125 minutes, was shot in the conventional 1.85:1 aspect.

As the mains story line starts, we find out that the owner of the LA law film Roman works for is in a permanent vegetative state after a stroke, and that the law firm will close.  Enter George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who makes no bones about the fact that left-leaning law firms that help destitute underclass clients still have to make money.

That sets up the trap, where Roman has to play the system against itself.  I know that idea as a blogger. Roman needs money for his own life, fast.  Screenwriting 101.  Even so, he has floated the idea of a class action lawsuit to stop all plea bargains which deny poor defendants a chance at exoneration (and this brings up the idea of the Innocence Project and films about wrongful convictions, like “Dream / Killer” by Andrew Jenks about Ryan Ferguson).  He also mentions the privatization of prisons, and describes the hole system as one that keeps blacks in their place (as in the film “13th”.Nov 14, 206)

The firm gets a case involving a convenience store murder, where the guy who pulled the trigger disappears   Roman is first assigned to help the other know-nothing defendant, and even tries to cap a plea bargain with the butch female prosecutor . The Armenian community puts up reward money, and in time Roman takes the bait, literally pulling $100,000 in cash out of a trash barrel.

The film makes a lot of the pressure trial lawyers work under (much like the John Grisham novel movies like “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief”, oh, and even “The Rainmaker”).  They have to think and talk on their feet for a client’s interests.  As a blogger/journalist, I don’t have to do that.  I feel like I’m not supposed to take sides.

There is a scene late in the film, as Roman contemplates his own end, as he drives alone out into the desert, and he thinks a sports car is following him.  He brakes and runs off the road. The teenagers (Kevin Balmore, who looks Hispanic, and Miles Heizer, who looks white) come back and actually want to help.

The music score, by James Newton Howard, is schmaltzy, with a touch of jazz.

I wasn’t sure if the technology was supposed to be current.  Some of the cell phones look modern, others were flips.  The computers looked more like late 90s.

There are scenes at the Los Angeles County Courthouse and later the federal district court in LA.  I kept thinking of Reid Ewing’s wonderful little short film “I’m Free” filmed in the former.  Roman is not , in this lifetime.

Intellectual Takeout (Annie Holmquist) offered a perspective on Denzel Washington’s own perspective on the film and the causes of violent or self-destructive behavior among men of color:  fatherlessness. Here is more about Denzel’s comments in the New York Daily News.  Don’t blame private prisons.  A fair question to follow up with could concern the moral obligations of childless people.

Picture: Along I-10, May 2012, near Ontario CA, my trip.

Name: “Roman J. Israel, Esq”
Director, writer:  Dan Gilroy
Released:  2017/11
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2017/11/25, night, fair crowd
Length:  125
Rating:  R
Companies:  Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2017 at 4:45 PM EST)

“Long Shot”: How Major League Baseball and some silly reality TV prevent a wrongful conviction

Long Shot” (2017), a “long short” (39 min) by Jacob LaMendola, tells the story about how a wrongful conviction was prevented, using baseball and reality television, in 2003.

In August, 2003, Juan Catalan was suddenly arrested by LAPD for the drive-by shooting of a 16 year old girl not too far from Dodger Stadium. A witness identified him from a police sketch but could only have seen him in dim light. Yet witness ID-ing often creates probable cause and can sometimes support convictions.

But Juan maintained he was at a baseball game in Dodger Stadium, where the Atlanta Braves scored seven runs in the top of the ninth to win 11-4.  Because the visiting team was mounting the long tie-breaking rally, no walk-off win ending the game suddenly could occur. Some of the telecast is shown in the film. The length of the rally may have helped Juan, as it prolonged the footage of an HBO reality show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” gave defense attorneys a change to find him in the stands very shortly before the shooting.

The HBo episode involved a hooker’s stopping somone in the carpool lane of an LA Freeway when the ordinary lanes were blocked.

Prosecutors try hard to cling to their eyewitness theory until the end.

Wikipedia attribution link for Dodger Stadium picture.

I was an extra in a filming of a scene for WB’s “Major League 3” in November 1997, held at the Minneapolis Metrodome, now torn down and replaced by Target Field.  I got to hold up my “Do Ask Do Tell” book cover and a shot of it lasting ¼ second or so may have gotten into the film.  They fed us hotdog dinners.

The picture above is mine from a 2012 trip, actually in San Diego.

Name:  “Long Shot”
Director, writer:  Jacob LaMendola
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Netflix instant play, 2017/10/10
Length:  39
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  official (subscription)

(Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 at 7 PM EDT)

“The Case for Christ”: a journalist (Lee Strobel) becomes Christian after a rigorous “fact check” of the Resurrection

The Case for Christ”, directed by Jon Gunn, is based on journalist Lee Strobel’s own autobiographical book.

Lee (Mike Vogel), a graduate of the University of Missouri journalism school, in 1980 was working as a high profile crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  His wife Leslie (Erika Christiansen) congratulates him as a “published author” for “Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial”  (I had owned a Pinto myself in the mid 1970s in New Jersey).  Remember, this was in the days just before the PC (like the TRS80) as available, and writers still used typewriters. Self-proclaimed atheists, they seem to be doing a good job as parents of a young daughter.  Vogel is also working on a complicated story about a shooting of a policeman, with informants and other crooked cops and fall guys – which will turn into a major subplot worthy of the Innocence Project (or maybe of Andrew Jenks’s new series “Unlocking the Truth”, Oct. 29).

One evening at a restaurant, daughter Alison (Haley Rosenwasser) nearly chokes on a cookie in a restaurant. The movie doesn’t explain why the parents didn’t know the Heimlich maneuver (there’s an example of it in my first “Tribunal and Rapture” novel document where a Christ-like young man rescues a child at a Texas barbecue).  But a nurse Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell) appears and saves the child with the maneuver.  Leslie believes, with a little prodding from Alfie, that this is a miracle from God, and begins to attend church and is baptized.

Lee goes on a journalistic voyage to look at the real evidence for Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross and his Resurrection.  One of the most interest aspects of the evidence is the number of eyewitnesses (up to the time of Pentecost), and of the ability to track actual original handwritten documents almost to the time of Pentecost. (The movie points out that the Koran would not be written for another 500 years.)   He e travels to California to talk to a med school professor about the evidence that Christ really died.  In the meantime, his marriage almost falls apart. At times, the film takes on the adventurousness of an Irving Wallace novel (like “The Plot” or “The Prize”).

What he winds up is a journalistic “proof beyond reasonable doubt” based on witness testimony that Jesus rose from the dead.

Vogel would eventually become a pastor and major best-selling author of Christian books. ‘

Had I lived at the time of Christ and been one of the 500 witnesses, the experience would have defined my own intellectual world.  That still fits in to my modern idea of cosmology.

The movie seems to be more about whether faith must become personal.  But what I find difficult is the faith required to accept the vulnerability involved in really serving other people with their “real needs” and letting them be important.  That takes real hands on skill, not intellect.  It gets personal.  It’s more subtle than the collective faith you see in praise services.

But what I want to see is someone live up to the ideal that Christ created – whether another young Clark Kent (even “alien”) or a filmmaker like the second (reincarnated) Danny of “Judas Kiss”.

Name:  “The Case for Christ
Director, writer:  Joe Gunn, Lee Strobel
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Potomac Yards, Alexandria VA, fair crowd
Length:  111
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  PureFlix
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, April 14, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

 

“13th” traces US racism to use of prison slave labor

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Name: 13th
Director, writer:  Ava DuVernay
Released:  2016/9
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 100
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: Fortune

13th”, directed by Ava DuVernay for Netflix studios, is a powerful documentary that traces racism (particularly what we saw in Trump’s campaign this year) and racial profiling all the way back to the logical sequels of slavery.

The 13tn Amendment to the Constitution prohibits slavery except for convicted criminals.  (I could wonder immediately about involuntary conscription into the Armed Forces.)  So “Negros” were often convicted of small crimes so they could be “re-slaved” by prison labor.  The film traces the use of prison labor all the way into recent history with the privatization of prisons for profit with many of the laws drafted by a conservative pressure group, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), such as SB1070 (NPR story )

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The use of prison labor corresponds with many trends in race and criminal law since Reconstruction, leading to segregation and the whole “Jim Crow Law” legal establishment in the South. Then in the 1970, Richard Nixon developed a code of criminalization associating drug abuse and pot with war protesters and with blacks.  (The Army, however, gradually became a place where African Americans could advance, as it already was in 1968, when I was drafted.  That had been helped by Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948.) I recall a very draconian anti-drug law signed by Rockefeller for New York State in 1973.  The Reagan years continued the anti-drug campaign with Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign, and with particularly the explosion of crack.

This documentary maintains that the 1915 epic “The Birth of the Nation” helped foment the KKK,. The film covers the practice of lynching, with graphic autobiographical accounts and pictures (which the late Gode Davis has covered in his unfinished film “American Lynching”, of which I saw parts of, about 30 minutes, in his home in 2003).  The film mentions autobiographies of black people affected by segregation, and the gradual exposure of the evils of segregation with the media of the day – big magazines (as in “Loving”, yesterday), and television, which televised the Civil Rights movement in the south – Selma, and the death of Emmett Till.

The film does present several of the most corrosive and provocative rants by Donald Trump early in his 2016 campaign. (In fact, his pet saying has been rephrased as “Make America White Again.”) The film mentions Trump’s demand of the the death penalty (no longer possible) for “The Central Park Five” even though those men (from a late 80s case) were later exonerated by DNA evidence (and had been coerced to confess) – the wrongful conviction issue that has become a career for filmmaker Andrew Jenks.

The film looks at relative incarceration rates by race and notes that in many states, felons cannot vote again.  (An earlier film, May 10, covered te way sex offenders are kept away from society forever by the criminal justice system.)

At the end, the film summarizes several of the police shooting cases that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially Ferguson, and Fernando Castille in Minnesota.  Darrien Hunt in Utah would have been a good one to cover (Reid Ewing tweeted a lot about the incident).

(Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2016 at 9:45 PM EST)

“Unlocking the Truth”: Ryan Ferguson, wrongfully convicted himself, leads an MTV series on the issue

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I’m usually not as interested in whole (television) series for important content as films, because a viewer has to commit so much time to one topic.

Nevertheless, I see that Andrew Jenks, who has directed at least three of his own documentary films, including “Dream / Killer” about the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson  , has worked as executive producer  for the new Amazon series on the issue, “Unlocking the Truth”, with episodes directed by Adam Kassen.

In fact, the series stars Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao as journalists investigating other wrongful conviction cases.

I watched the first two episodes yesterday ($2.99 each on Amazon).

The pilot, “Gates of Hell”, starts with Ryan’s account of his own sudden arrest while driving from college in Kansas City in March 2004.  A high school companion had “dreamed” that he and Ryan had committed a murder while drunk in Columbia, MO.  The episode shows Ryan being interrogated by police, who have a political motivation to get a conviction even with no physical evidence.   The episode then breaking recounts his father’s and family’s efforts to get the conviction overturned.

Ferguson says, this can happen to anybody.  I recall that about 15 years ago ABC 20/20 presented another case in Illinois about murder during sleepwalking recalled by a dream.

The episode then moves to another case in Missouri, that of Michael Politte, convicted for murdering his mother when he was 14 in December 1998.

In reviewing a series like this, I probably don’t want to get into “speculation” as to other suspects myself (as no one else has been convicted), but MTV goes into an alternate theory here   which is covered in the video.

The second episode “Ain’t No Change in the House of Pain” continues the Politte case and introduces the 1995 beating of Jill Marker in Winston-Salem NC, leaving her in a coma, and severely disabled even today, with defendant Kalvin Michael Smith, as explained on MTV here.

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Many of the scenes show Ryan and Eva interviewing other witnesses.  It’s odd to see a “television’ series shot in 2.35:1.

It’s great to see Ryan (his fitness site, which should please “Blogtyrant”) become a journalist (like Clark Kent) after ten years in prison, years taken away from him by force.

Ryan’s story has also been covered on NBC Dateline.  The “Innocence Project” has produced some important films through CourtTV, such as “The Exonerated“.

Picture: Not on the Missouri side, but Lawrence Kansas and KU, where I went to graduate school in the 1960s. Second picture: Linville, NC.

(Posted: Oct. 29, 2016, 11:15 AM EDT)

“Amanda Knox”: Netflix documentary plays like a thriller, but we know the outcome already; wrongful convictions and double jeopardy

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Name: “Amanda Knox”
Director, writer:  Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 92
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: subject

Amanda Knox” (2016), directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, seems to be the first major documentary film about the young woman seemingly wrongfully convicted for a murder in Perugia, Italy in November 2007.

The film starts with Amanda Marie Knox speaking, saying either interpretation of her life is scary for some people.  She man be the “sheep in snake’s skin, or she may be “everywoman” and that what happened to her can happen to anyone.  The Netflix documentary appears intended for theatrical presentation, using a 2.35:1 aspect, effective for scenes of Italy and around Seattle, but unnecessary for interviews.

Know says she was naïve and immature and sheltered when she left her comfort zone in her Seattle upbringing and went to Italy to study.  She became venturesome, and soon had a part-time job in a local bar.  She also met a boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, who would, because of his connection to her, spend four years in prison himself, probably wrongfully convicted.  Today he runs a software company.

The details of the case are laid out in a Wikipedia article .  The outline of the history is that she was convicted once, then essentially acquitted.  She returned home to Seattle, but Italian law allows double jeopardy, so she was tried again in absentia – but finally an Italian appeals court (or supreme court) finally threw it all out because of the lack of biological evidence connecting her to the murder (of British roommate Meredith Kercher).  During that time, there was debate in the US as to whether she could be extradited, since double jeopardy is not allowed in the US.  Knox would also be acquitted finally of calumny and robbery charges.

The film telescopes the appeals (although it shows the family in Seattle not being interesting in making quick money from media deals after the final acquittal), and focuses on the early aggression by police and prosecutors, who seemed egged on my tabloid-style media coverage, presenting Knox as a femme fatale, and with political ambitions of a particular prosecutor.  Although a common thief, Rudy Guede, who would be convicted, appeared to have committed the murder in a robbery-gone-bad, prosecutors seemed disbelieve that interpretation from the evidence, saying Guede would not have faked a burglary; they interpreted Knox’s delay in calling police after returning to the apartment (she didn’t chek on her roommate at first) and certain other sequences of acts as suspicious, even though they could not find DNA evidence connecting her and Sollecito of the crimes.

Knox has appeared in several television and cable specials, including giving grueling interviews to CNN legal journalist Chris Cuomo, who appears in the film.

As with “Dream /Killer” by Andrew Jenks, the new film shows how easily people can misinterpret circumstantial evidence or biased or non-credible witnesses or theories, whenever one’s reported behavior is perceived as overly self-serving.  I lost a substitute teaching job in 2005 after a bizarre set of circumstances, with some improbable coincidences;  prosecution might actually have been conceivable.  I’ve embedded my own story in a screenplay (“Do Ask, Do Tell: Epiphany”) but I can almost imagine a Jenks-style film on my own incident.  Life has more improbable coincidence than we expect.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Perugia by Georges Jansoome under CCSA 3.0

(Published: Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 8:15 PM EDT)

“The Syndrome”: documentary on “abusive head trauma”, formerly “shaken baby” deaths and prosecutorial abuse

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Name: The Syndrome
Director, writer:  Meryl Goldsmith, Susan Goldsmith
Released:  2014
Format:  HD
When and how viewed:  Cato Institute showing, Washington DC, 2016/7/14
Length 90
Rating NA (PG-13?)
Companies: Freestyle Releasing
Link: official site

The Syndrome”, directed by Meryl Goldsmith, examines the history of the “shaken baby syndrome” prosecutions, which have only recently morphed into “abusive head trauma”  cases.  From the early 1990s, there has developed a wave of cases of ordinary parents, mostly mothers but sometimes babysitters or caregivers, prosecuted for killing children on what appears to be a pattern of opportunistic prosecution and questionable or even junk science.

The syndrome is identified by doctors by three or more specific diagnostic factors.  In most or all states, when doctors find a case, they are required to call law enforcement.  That reality alone could discourage parents from seeking proper medical treatment in situations where parents know they had done nothing wrong. The film traces the work particularly of Dr. John Plunkett, in Minnesota, and George Washington University Hospital surgeon Ayub Ommaya, which maintains that a small baby cannot sustain brain trauma without neck trauma, and that a baby’s neck is not strong enough to transmit the trauma of shaking.

The film covers a number of women and families who were prosecuted with convictions and prison terms, resulting in what seem like wrongful convictions (compare this to the Andrew Jenks film “Dream/Killer” listed in the Index).

The film also covered the “politics” of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and Abusive Head Trauma. The “politicians” resisted the efforts of Plunkett, to the point of trying to launch a fake prosecution from Oregon. Later the film captures a sing-song session from one of the meetings in Atlanta. The organization refused to be interviewed for the film or to appear at the Cato session where the film was screened tonight.

The film had difficulty getting into film festivals but eventually was picked up commercially.

QA clips:

1:  I had asked a question about whether ordinary parents face an existential danger by even having kids, something that discourages taking the risks of marriage and parenthood

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3   A doctor plays devil’s advocate

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(Published: Thursday, July 14, 2016 at 11:30 PM)