“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”: amateur sleuths delve into a possible homicide of a gay icon from Stonewall

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”, by David France (“How to Survive a Plague”, 2012), is a valuable account of a citizen investigation of the 1992 death of Marsha P. Johnson, a drag queen who had been on the scene of the first night of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1969.

Marsha had drowned in the Hudson River near one of the Christopher Street piers. Had she been fleeing an attacker, then the death would be a homicide, at least manslaughter.

In modern times, Victoria Cruz tries to do a gumshoe citizen investigation of the death, with the help of local activist organizations for poor people.  She is rebuffed by retired cops who say not to call again, and that she should leave her investigations to the professionals or she could get people killed.

There are scenes in the Village, especially Julius’s on W 10th Street, one of my own favorite gay bars, known for its burgers.  The way “Mafia” bars had worked in the 1970s, at the time of Abe Beeme, comes up, but I had thought that by even 1992 the Mafia was pretty much out of the gay bar area (Stonewall had given a big push).

There is a great scene of the 1973 CLSD in New York, in which I marched;  I may have spotted my younger self for  split second.

Sylvia Rivera gives a very radical speech in Washington Square Park, blaming middle class establishment “cis male” gays as part of the privilege problem, even back in the 1970s (before AIDS).

There is a sequence where homeless tents are broken up for a new high way, and one of the volunteers offers “radical hospitality” to a homeless person, taking the risk.

The film purports to address violence against transgender people, but Marsha herself was not regarded as trangender (cross-dressing alone is not).

There has been controversy over the Stonewall Inn as a national monument with a rainbow flag in the Trump administration, Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears.

This film is opening in Los Angeles Oct. 13.

Name:  “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”
Director, writer:  David France
Released:  2017
Format:  1.78:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2017/10/12
Length: 105
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  Facebook, Tribeca 

(Posted: Friday, October 13, 2017 at 12 noon EDT)

CNN’s “The Reagan Show” looks like an oldie

CNN Films offered the collage “The Reagan Show” on Labor Day evening, directed by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez.

The film, running 74 minutes (allowing commercials to fit into a 90 minute format), written with Francisco Bello and Josh Alexander) is placed in the old 4:3 aspect ratio of television in the 1980s, and comprises many of Reagan’s speeches and appearances, particularly in relation to relations with the Soviet Union.

A highlight is Reagan’s 1983 Star Wars speech, which attracted some degree of ridicule;  nevertheless, that idea (34 years later) seems to be the buttress strategy for handling North Korea’s grandiose and acceleration of development of missiles and now thermonuclear weapons.   You would think that in this many decades, NORAD ought to be good at this.  Yet, I recall the film “War Games” (1982) and the two “Red Dawn” films.  We all know about the exchanges with Gorbachev, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall after Reagan left office, and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union as we knew it.

There’s one spot where Reagan says “Make America Great Again”.

There’s also some footage from all of his old black and white movies from the 1940s…

There is some coverage of the Iran contra with Oliver North (who would later have his own radio talk show in the 1990s).  But there is no mention of the AIDS crisis, or even of the 1981 assassination attempt.

Name:  “The Reagan Show
Director, writer:  Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez, Francisco Bello Josh Alexander
Released:  2017
Format:  1.37:1 TV
When and how viewed:  2017/9/4 CNN
Length:  74
Rating: NA
Companies: Gravitas Venturas, CNN
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 2 PM EDT)

ELIAN: the controversy over returning a little boy to Castro’s Cuba in 2000

ELIAN” (2017), directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, tells the biographical story of Elian Gonzalez, now 23, who became the topic of an international controversy over immigration from Cuba late in the Clinton administration.

The film starts with the amateur boatlift in November 1999 of Elian’s mother and boyfriend, when the mother drowns (not being able to swim), and 5-year-old Elian is rescued (almost as if he were Moses) and brought to Miami.

The film gives a quick history of the rise of Fidel Castro and the expropriation of the wealthy, who fled to Florida in the late 50s.  It covers the Bay of Pigs but oddly omits mention of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the film covers the political effects of the anti-communist “right wing” in Miami on the Cuban issues, to the point that it sometimes could lead to political violence on both sides, with rather zombie-like behavior from crowds. It doesn’t directly mention the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which led for calls for people to host asylum seekers in some southern states.

The film returns to the narrative of Elian. Back in Cuba, Elian’s father starts the legal process to get Elian back, and soon a public legal battle erupts between the dad and the “extended family” in Miami.  Attorney General Janet Reno gets involved (the film mentions Reno’s role in Waco in 1993) with her determination to apply the law literatlly.   In a rogue video, Elian gives some evidence of wanting to go back. But later he records an indoor video saying he wants to stay in the U.S.

Eventually the courts decide to return Elian to Cuba and considerable controversy happens, with demonstrations, after the “shock force” INS raid necessary for Elian’s repatriation. The scenes in the film get pretty violent.  I don’t recall this from the news accounts.

The film maintains that the Elian incident helped Florida go for Bush, after the recounts.  But the film also brings up the fiasco with the chads in Palm Beach County.

Elian, as a grown man, is dedicated “to the people” and to modern communism, not to differentiating himself from others for his own sake (however articulate and charismatic his personal manner seems). Yet he was made what he is today in Miami, the film says. At the end, he addresses Cuban youth. “The American dream” was not for him;  a future Cuban revolution may be so.

Name:  “ELIAN
Director, writer:  Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, much footage is cropped
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/8/24
Length:  107
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN, Gravitas Venturas
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

“Memories of a Penitent Heart”: a filmmaker looks into the life of an uncle who died of AIDS in the 1980s

Memories of an Penitent Heart” aired on Monday, July 31, 2017 on PBS Independent Cuts, slightly abridged from 69 minutes to about 55.

Filmmaker Cecilia Alarondo looks at the life story of her gay uncle Miguel, born in Puerto Rico, who would die of AIDS early in the 1980s.

Miguel would change his name to Michael and live a double life in New York City.  For a while he stayed with a priest, who was OK with his being gay but who didn’t want to allow guests.

Miguel developed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, apparently conspicuously. Some doctors were afraid to treat him. The documentary does cover the attitudes during the early days of AIDS, where it was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID) and even Wrath of God syndrome. Some people wanted all infected people or even all gay men quarantined.  I remember those days of panic.

The film could be compared to the much larger film, “The Normal Heart”, from HBO, of Larry Kramer’s play, aired in 2014.

Puerto Rico scene.

Toward the end Cecilia travels on a riverboat through canals in what looks like Louisiana.

Name: Memories of a Penitent Heart
Director, writer:  Cecilia Alarondo
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS Independent Cuts, 2017/7/31
Length:  69/55
Rating:  NA
Companies: PBS
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, August 1, 2017 at 2:15 PM EDT)

“Whose Streets” presents the Ferguson, MO protests from the view of the people

A month after the death of Michael Brown when shot by Darren Wilson in Ferguson MO around noon on  Saturday, August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO,  filmmaker Sabaah Folayan left her medical studies in New York to work with the people and document their unrest, along with Damon Davis and photography director Lucas Alvarado-Farrar.  The result is the docudrama “Whose Streets?”  In fact, Farrar hosted the QA at a showing at the Maryland Film Festival today in Baltimore, which is ironic given Baltimore’s own police-related unrest in April 2015.

The film focuses particularly on seven individuals: Brittany Ferrell, a nurse; David Whitt, who recruits for Cop Watch, Tory Russell, founded of Hands Up United, which would synch with the founding of Black Lives Matter (which had actually started with the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida).

The film, using a lot of raw cell phone video in early sections and later more professionally shot, chronicles the unrest for the rest of the year, giving the spectator-viewer a front row seat to the anger. “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”

Indeed, this is a film about activism, and it does not go out of its way to analyze the fact pattern.  One police officer is quoted as saying that Wilson stopped Brown just because he was walking in the center of the street.  That contradicts accounts as below which maintain Wilson had been radioed about theft at a convenience store.  The film shows a little of the interview of Wilson by George Stephanopoulos, a part that would sound prejudicial.  The film shows the prosecutor’s reporting that the grand jury did not return an indictment against Wilson, who would wind up living in hiding against vigilantism, according to many reports.

There is also some investigation as to whether Brown had been doing barter in the convenience store, not covered in the film. This refers to Jason Pollock, whose film “Stranger Fruit” I have not seen yet (CNN).

The audience, during the QA,seemed quite tuned in to the activism, with one woman questioning whether the government would treat Black Lives Matters the way it had the Black Panthers.  The audience liked the presentation of the children, including one child who makes an activist statement at the end.

The film also shows the blockage of I-70 near St. Louis by protestors, and the arrest of a woman for trying to run over some.   The film also maintains that police in the St. Louis area use police profiling as an excuse to collect fines to enrich themselves.  Activists note that the tear gas or riot gas (which I got to know in Army Basic with the gas chamber in 1968 at Fort Jackson) causes skin burning after the fact, even when water is poured on it.

The world of activism tends to move toward resistance, coercion, and sometimes combativeness, insisting that others who are privileged by the system, even if they didn’t directly cause oppression, are going to have their lives knocked to make things right – call it expropriation.  This is not about questioning every little fact to rationalize someone’s actions.  Call it revolution if you will.  The extra intrusions made by the special demands of “Black Lives Matter”  (relative to “all lives matter”) are supposed to make you uncomfortable.

Journalists seemed welcome to make this film, but sometimes journalists are resented as “spectators” without their own skin in the game, above demonstrating and carrying pickets like “the people”.  But then try combat journalism.

In the fall of 2014, actor-musician Reid Ewing (“Modern Family” and numerous films), going to college in Salt Lake City, wrote some tweets about police treatment of Darrien Hunt (story).

Wikipedia fact page for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

Picture: Mine, Washington DC demonstrations, Nov. 2014.

Full George Stephanopoulos interview with Darren Wilson

QA 1

QA 2 – answer to my question about fact finding

QA 3 – comment that police control where media can film

Extra photo from Baltimore (Trey Yingst, 2015).

On Sunday, May 7 W. Kamau Bell covered Chicago’s segregation, police bias, gang violence, and “reparations”, and “Black Lives Matter” on an episode of “United Shades of America: We (are all) The People” on CNN. They talked about “cyberbanging” and Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” (2015).

He also aired a basic episode about immigration in the second hour.

PBS Independent Lens has aired “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” (abdridged) by Brett Story on 2017/5/8; one of the landscapes is St. Louis County, surrounding Ferguson. The film covered the “garbage jail” problem where low-income residents are ticketed by small police departments and then threatened.  The film also covered a judge’s wall against the media.  See index for location on my legacy blogs.

Name: “Whose Streets?”
Director, writer:  Sabaah Foyolan, Damon Davis
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Baltimore Film Festival, MICA Brown auditorium, full, 2017/5/7
Length:  104
Rating:  NA
Companies: Magnolia Pictures, Chicken and Egg  (Theatrical release in 2017/8)
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, May 7, 2017, 11 PM EDT)

“Do Not Resist”: the militarization of civilian police


Name: Do Not Resist
Director, writer:  Craig Atkinson
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  AFI Silver, 2016/10/19
Length 72
Rating NA
Companies: Vanish, PBS-POV
Link: official

Do Not Resist”  (2016, by Craig Atkinson, “Detropia”) starts with the protests in Ferguson, MO as thunderstorm clouds gather in August 2014.

The film, however, does not stay on “Black Lives Matter”, as it moves quickly to explore the militarization of police, and particularly the way the US military sells its used vehicles and weapons to police departments.   A police department for a town in Wisconsin explains its interest.

The film shows military training of a sheriff’s department in South Carolina, and then a rural drug raid.

But then the film returns to Ferguson, to show the riots after the failure to indict the policeman who shot Michael Brown, and then provides a little coverage of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, before finally interviewing a Penn professor on using predictive profiling of people, which could extend to unborn children, based on mathematical algorithms.  Race could be a factor.  There is a flavor of “Minority Report” and pre-crime in the professor’s discussion. I thought there might be some coverage of the stop-and-frisk and “broken windows” police policy with Rudy Giuliani says were so effective in cleaning up crime in New York City in the 1990s before 9/11.


I think there is a need for a major documentary on the real facts behind Darren Wilson  and Michael Brown in Ferguson. I could imagine this director, or maybe Andrew Jenks, making that film. And maybe a sequel on Freddie Gray. The Truth matters.  The Darrien Hunt case in Utah could be interesting.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Ferguson Protest by LoavesofBread under CCSA 4.0

(Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Command and Control”: our close brush with a nuclear explosion in Arkansas after an accident in 1980


Name: Command and Control
Director, writer:  Robert Kenner
Released:  2016
Format:  HD video
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/9/23
Length 92
Rating NA
Companies: PBS, American Experience
Link: official 

Command and Control”, directed by Robert Kenner, for PBS and American Experience, gives a riveting account of the 1980 Damascus Titan Missile Explosion, near Little Rock, AK. It’s based on the book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” by Eric Schlosser.

The incident happened because the maintenance protocol changed, and a technician overlooked it and brought the wrong torque wrench, late in the day Sept. 18, 1980.  A rivet fell 80 feet to the bottom of the bay (which was not netted) and bounced against the missile, causing a fluid leak, leading to eventual explosion   The feared nuclear explosion did not happen, but the film maintains that it could have gone off.

The initial team evacuated, and another team came in but could not prevent the blast, which killed one airman and severely burned several others.

Several politicians in Little Rock, where a Democratic fundraiser was being held, were told by phone and feared nuclear explosion. Bill Clinton was the young governor at the time and acted naïve.

The Air Force tried to keep the ultimate danger quiet, and disciplined several airmen and ended the careers of a few officers.  The technician got an Article 15.

The documentary uses a lot of stock footage and some models. Many of the men are still alive today, and talk about how gung-ho they were when in their 20s.  The film recapitulates several accidents, especially the crash over Goldsboro, NC in January 1961.

The director points out that nuclear weapons technology is vulnerable to unanticipated human error that can have catastrophic results.  There have been many other near misses.  One or two of them could have started WWWIII with the Soviet Union.  It’s also appropriate to consider the dangers posed by loose nuclear waste (Yucca mountain was mentioned in the QA, but materials in former Soviet republics are a big risk, as demonstrated in the film “The Last Best Chance” (2005) produced with the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

QA Session






(Posted: Friday, September 23, 2016 at 11:50 PM EDT)

“Equity”: Wall Street soap opera indeed


Name: “Equity”
Director, writer:  Meera Menon, Amy Fox, et. a;
Released:  2016/8
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2016/8/21, late afternoon, light attendance
Length 100
Rating R
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Broad Street (no relation to Broad Green?)
Link: official 

Equity” (directed by Meera Menon, based on a story by Amy Fox, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner) is a nice little soap opera set in Wall Street, where women can have it all, and get into pretty much the same ethical and legal conflicts as the guy.

The boss lady is a macho Namoi Bishop, played by a burly Anna Gunn, as the somewhat defrocked head of a hedge fund.  She sees the chance to redeem herself by bringing a particular company, Cachet, to IPO.  The company claims to be a “privacy company that has set up a social network”.  There is some interesting jabber about NSA surveillance, Ed Snowden, secure socket layers, and defeating the “man in the middle attack”.

Other players are Naomi’s right hand (Sarah Megan Thomas), a probing and ambitious assistant district attorney Samanta (Alysia Reiner, whose mannerisms reminds me of the character “Kate” in the NBC soap “Days of our Lives”, mixed with an extinct character, Sami), a middle-aged boyfriend Michael (James Purefoy), and the whizbang programmer who built Cachet, a red-haired and hairy chested kid Ed (Samuel Roukin), who shows he knows how to be mean when a programmer has to be.

Needless to say, sexual politics and affairs ensue, and a bedroom is the best place to get by the best smartphone security.

The film happens largely indoors (a lot of it shot in Philadelphia), with some effective outdoor shots of Manhattan and Brooklyn, San Francisco, and, I think, Shanghai.

At the end, Samantha gets the last line, which says there is nothing wrong with women liking to make money for its own sake.

There is something complacent about all this, people who believe that this special sheltered financial world will be there forever.

The oblique reference to doing business in China is interesting.  In 2013, I got persistent emails about whether I intended to try to “brand” my “do ask do tell” site and books in China, and it’s very curiosu that I would get an inquiry like this.  And it wasn’t spam; it was legitimate when I checked it out.  How would they get past China’s firewalls and censors?

The pre-show included a 4-minute short “Waveform” by Stefan Nadelman, abstract and animated, about surfing (like “The Endless Summer” in 1966).

(Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2016 at 9:15 PM EDT)

“Jackrabbit”: a dystopian world centered around Texas after the “Reset”



Name: Jackrabbit
Director, writer:  Carleton Raney
Released:  2015
Format:  digital video 16:9
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play 2016-7-26
Length 100
Rating NA (PG-13?)
Companies: Vopo, Gravitas Ventures:
Link: official site

Jackrabbit” (2015), by Carleton Raney, depicts another account of what could happen to “us” if our technology fails us, because of solar storm or EMP.

Sometime a couple decades from now, after “The Reset”., people in “City” of Section 6 believe they are the only people on the planet left with technology, but they stay in an enclave and are told to stay indoors most of the time to avoid pollution.


When Eric (Ryan Dailey) is found dead in a bathtub, Simon (Josh Caras) a nerdy computer technician from the one remaining tech company, Vopo,  and his rebellious friend Max (Ian Christopher Noel) hack the hard drive and circuit board he left behind to figure out what is going on in the “outside” world. It’s a world of 80s-looking CRT’s and keyboards, and ancient computer games.  It’s hard to explain how a “reset” would have taken them back three decades.  The duo visits a compound in the desert that seems like a Maoist reeducation colony.

Caras was the super-attractive and naive teen kid “Ben” in the cult horror classic “Bugcrush” (2006). (That film could be remade as feature-length, or maybe have a sequel to tell us what really “happened” to Ben!)  He may have gained a little weight and looks just a little flush here. There’s a great line where his boss and mentor (Reed Birney) asks him “Did you lose anything during the Reset?”  He may be too young to know. Yes, you need to have something to lose to care.

The film was shot around Austin, TX, as well as in the Hill Country and possibly the Big Bend country farther west.  It’s dry, and barren, with mesquite, all rather November-like.


The video has a technical issue with the miking of the voices, which are often very low volume and hard to hear at any distance from the speakers, compared to music and sound effects.

(Posted: Tuesday, July 26, 2016 at 10 PM EDT)

“Web Junkie”: In China, teen boys are sent to boot camp for Internet and game addiction



Name: Web Junkie” (from “Storyville“)
Director, writer:  Hilla Medalia, Shosh Shlam
Released:  2015
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 75 min
Rating N/a (PG-13?)   In Chinese, subtitles
Companies: Shlam, Chicken and Egg, Kino Lorber, Tribeca, PBS
Link: PBS site; imdb

Web Junkie” (2015), in a brisk 75 minutes, documents the life of teenage boys sent to a boot camp near Beijing for Internet addiction, particularly playing games in Internet cafes.

The film seems to have been conceived as an episode in a  1999 television series called “Storyville”. The film seems to have been shot in 2013.

The school offers military style living with pushups, and 10-day solitary confinement for disciplinary infractions, as when one kid leads an “escape” to a café.  The school calls the Internet “electronic heroin” and addiction an “abyss”.

The school also pressures parents to come an live nearby on campus and participate in the “therapy”.

The film documents how authoritarian Chinese society treats introversion as a personal luxury of decadence, creating a situation where the privileged kid mooches off the social relations forged by others   A society like this sees social solidarity as a virtue unto itself, regardless of whether the bigger ideas of the group are right.  Therapy goes along with conformity to the group’s (“Communist”) values.

There’s a scene where a mother pleads with her son, saying she had “suffered” with his addiction. The film brings up the subject that many of the boys are only children (as a vestige of China’s one child policy), so their excessive self-absorbance can threaten the family line.

The kids say that “reality is too fake”

At the end, in an epilogue, a father hires a “hit man” programmer to kill the avatar in his unemployed son’s video game world.

The film is rather claustrophobic, and rarely goes outside into the “real world”.  A closed “mental hospital” or military camp does not provide “real life”.

South Korea is also reported to have camps for Internet addiction.

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA space shot of Beijing (p.d.)

(Published: Saturday, July 2, 2016 at 12 noon EDT)