Considering how the format has exploded in popularity over the last few years, it's perhaps not surprising to discover that documentaries made up a significant chunk of the lineup at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. One of them, “Halftime,” even landed the coveted opening night slot (though the fact that the subject of the film, Jennifer Lopez, would be in attendance probably helped a little bit in regards to that decision). Over the course of the festival, there were films on subjects that included: New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel (Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt’s “Dreaming Walls,” an affecting look at some of the current residents as they meditate on the locale’s storied past and their uncertain place in its future after an extended renovation); the contemporary nudist colony experience (Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’ “Naked Gardens,” a fly-on-the-wall observation of the residents of a Florida colony going about their daily lives); and ecologically-minded fashion (Becky Hutner’s “Fashion Reimagined,” which offers an eye-opening look at rising British designer Amy Powney’s efforts to create a clothing line in which every aspect of the process is done in a sustainable manner). Hell, one documentary, Camilla Hall and Jennifer Tiexiera’s “Subject,” goes so far as to focus on people who have been the subjects of previous documentaries (including “Hoop Dreams,” “The Wolfpack,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” and, perhaps inevitably, “The Staircase”) in an occasionally provocative meditation on how ordinary lives can be affected once their personal stories have been presented to the world for consumption.
Not surprisingly, a number of films focused on various elements of popular culture. On the musical end of things, Ethan Silverman’s “Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex” offered up a standard but entertaining look at the life and legacy of the glam rock legend via archival clips, talking head interviews with contemporaries of the late singer, and in-studio footage of artists ranging from U2 to Nick Cave to Maria McKee as they record a number of his songs for a 2020 tribute album of the same name. Ben Chace’s “Music Pictures: New Orleans” is the latest of a recent string of films focusing on the history of the city’s musical legacy and its attempts to return to its former glory in the face of both Hurricane Katrina and COVID, this time focusing on local legends Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and the Marsalis family through performance footage. Although not necessarily about music per se, “The Lost Weekend: A Love Story” does prominently feature an iconic musician John Lennon, by recounting the story of his 18-month-long romantic relationship with assistant May Pang (supposedly at the insistence of Yoko Ono), a much-discussed, if little-understood episode in his life that is, for once, told from the perspective of Pang herself. Although Pang does make for an engaging guide, the story never quite adds up to the grand romance it positions itself to be, though Beatlemaniacs will no doubt find it intriguing.
Professional sports were represented by such films as “Unfinished Business,” Alison Klayman’s often-fascinating look at the legacy of the WNBA by studying both its past and its present, the latter via a look at the 2021 season of the New York Liberty; “McEnroe,” Barney Douglas’ surprisingly listless film featuring tennis legend John McEnroe offering up his side to the story of his often-controversial career; and “Kaepernick & America,” a stirring portrait from Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker about quarterback Colin Kaepernick and how his public decision to take a knee during the National Anthem as a way of protesting police brutality short-circuited his career but made him an icon of the contemporary social justice movement. Outside of the sports arena, children of the Eighties could enjoy the likes of “All Man: The International Male Story,” “Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids,” and “Butterfly in the Sky,” straightforward nostalgia bath treatments of their respective subjects: the “International Male” catalogue, the groundbreaking Cabbage Patch Kids toy fad and the PBS series “Reading Rainbow.”
On the literary side of things, Lizzie Gottlieb’s “Turn Every Page” examines the long working relationship between legendary author Robert Caro and the equally esteemed editor Robert Gottlieb (the filmmaker’s father) from their first collaboration, the groundbreaking work The Power Broker to their most celebrated work, a multi-volume biography on the life of Lyndon Johnson whose final volume is still being worked on. The film is a fascinating look at two literary giants, and is an absolute must for anyone remotely interested in the writing process, though some viewers may find themselves wishing that the two would stop talking to the cameras and get back to work.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a film festival without a few entries about the world of film itself. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s “Body Parts” is a somewhat scattershot look at how women in Hollywood on both sides of the camera have been historically exploited, objectified, and mistreated. The film tries to cover too much material in too little time (this is a subject crying out for a multi-part treatment) that only really comes alive when it looks at the ways in which the industry has attempted—or at least seems to have attempted—to change its past attitudes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, such as the development of so-called intimacy coordinators to help stage sex scenes in a less exploitative manner. “Lynch/Oz,” the latest cinematic essay from Alexandre Philippe, brings in a number of filmmakers and critics to examine the myriad ways in which David Lynch’s entire screen career has been touched by the influence of the all-time classic “The Wizard of Oz”—the most incisive commentary comes from Karyn Kusama, who offers up insightful observations about the ways in which the specter of “Oz” makes itself known in “Mulholland Drive.” Tessa-Louise Salome’s “The Wild One” presents viewers with a concise and fascinating look at the life and work of Jack Garfein, who managed to survive the Holocaust as a child and made his way to America. There, he became one of the founders of the influential Actor’s Studio and the director of plays and two feature films, including 1961’s “Something Wild,” a film that dealt with the then-taboo subject of sexual assault in a bold and forthright manner that remains as startling today as it must have been to the few who saw it back in the day.
Crime stories were another popular subject for docs this year. Colin Barnicle’s “Carol & Johnny” recounts the alternately creepy and compelling story of Johnny and Carol Marie Willians, a married couple who racked up an enormous number of bank robberies until they were finally nabbed, via interviews with the two, who are still legally married but who have not actually seen one another for several decades, and the FBI agent who eventually brought them down. Now playing on Hulu, Irene Taylor’s “Leave No Trace” is an almost unbearably sad and angry film about how the Boy Scouts of America unwillingness to deal with sexual abusers in their midst led to countless numbers of victims among their ranks and the organization’s 2020 bankruptcy filing in the wake of $2.7 billion dollar settlement against them on the behalf of over 82,000 claimants.
Although the story that it tells is almost as devastating in terms of its ultimate impact, Darren Foster’s “American Pain” employs a breezier tone to recount its stranger-than-fiction saga of two brothers in Florida (surprise) who took advantage of lax laws to open up a franchise of pain clinics that doled out opioids like candy with predictably disastrous results. The film has many strange twists and bizarre characters that it feels at times like a real-life Carl Hiassen novel. And while it is not technically a crime story per say, Cynthia Lowen’s “Battleground” is a dramatically restrained but ultimately enraging look at how abortion rights in America are being inexorably eroded by showing the various ways in which anti-choice activists have been playing a long and patient game in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade while pro-choice types seem too willing to rely on ideas of negotiation and bipartisanship that the other side rejected long ago. At the end, pro-choice activist Sam Blakely states that “We have to stop playing defense and start playing offense,” but as this film shows in painstaking and sometime horrifying detail, it may already be too late for that.
The ongoing quest for social justice in the African-American community, past, present and future, was the focus of a number of films, including some of the stronger works in the entire festival. “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” from Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir, takes a look at the attempts to organize Black voters in a rural Alabama town in 1965 (a location that at the time was 80% Black but had no registered Black voters) through archival footage and interviews with members of the community back then. The film feels unfortunately timely and relevant nowadays in the face of current attempts to disenfranchise Black voters. “Katrina Babies” is a sometimes angry and sometimes hopeful work that looks at the lives of a number of children who survived the horror of Hurricane Katrina and the ways in which they have tried to process their experiences in the aftermath. Director Edward Buckles Jr. was himself a Katrina baby and he demonstrates a genuine empathy towards his subjects that simply could not have been accomplished in the hands of an outsider, resulting in a moving, intimate, and humane work that deserves to be put on the same shelf as Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” Whitney Dow’s “The Big Payback” tackles the still-thorny topic of offering reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans by looking at how the town of Evanston, IL became the first major place to offer reparations—earmarking $10 million earned via a marijuana tax—and the unexpected difficulties and controversies that the seemingly straightforward gesture ends up inspiring amongst the townspeople.
Astoundingly, Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen’s “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” is only the first comprehensive documentary on the icon of the Civil Rights movement. That is sad but the film proves to have been more than worth the wait as it takes a woman who is a part of our cultural memory for one particular act and reveals her often-fascinating life in fuller detail, especially in regards to her long history with the movement. The doc also focuses on her belief in the need to disrupt a racist and corrupt system by any and all means, and the ways in which she found herself too often marginalized by the civil rights movement on the basis of her age and gender, even as they would trot her out for symbolic value when it suited them.
Josh Alexander’s “Loudmouth” offers a similarly detailed look at the life and legacy of another often-misunderstood icon of the movement, Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist who has gone from being a magnet for controversy (especially among those who dismissed him as little more than a huckster) into one of the more respected voices in the movement today without changing his singular approach. Although the film maybe pulls its punches a bit in certain aspects (especially in its handling of the still-controversial saga of Tawana Brawley, whose case he took up in 1988 when the then-15-year-old claimed that she had been held captive and raped for four days), it still gives a fuller and more nuanced look at a man who, for all his flaws, has proven to be one willing to fight the good fight for longer than most.
Although less well known than Parks or Sharpton, Nadia Hallgren’s “CIVIL: Ben Crump” (now playing on Netflix) looks at someone also dedicating their life to social change—in Crump’s case, by serving as the civil attorney for the families of Black men and women (including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor) whose approach to trying to protect the civil rights of African-Americans involves filing massive civil suits against police departments in the hopes of making such violations financially untenable. Of course, there are critics who suggest that he is only in it for the money and the publicity. But, as the film shows, those same critics seems less concerned about the actual victims as they are about the idea that someone might actually be held responsible for what happened to them in the first place.
In the end, my favorite of this year’s crop of documentaries was “Liquor Store Dreams” from So Yun Um, making her feature debut with an expansion of her 2018 short “Liquor Store Babies.” The film follows So and her friend, Danny Park, both of whom are the children of Korean parents who came to America in order to make a better life and ended up running liquor stores in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities in Los Angeles. "Liquor Store Dreams" covers everything from tensions between the Black and Korean communities that stretch back as far as the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins in a Korean convenience store (which helped spark the looting of Korean businesses during the riots surrounding the Rodney King verdict a year later), to the ways that both they and their parents grapple with the legacies of their stores—Danny ends up leaving his dream job in order to help his mother make their store survive while So’s father, although bemused and worried by her choice of a career in the arts, shows himself willing to go to great lengths to ensure she follows her own dream. Melding the personal and the anthropological in ways both entertaining and unexpectedly moving, "Liquor Store Dreams" is one of those quietly powerful films that may appear on the surface to be little more than an extended home movie, but should prove to have a devastating and emotional impact on all who are lucky to see it.