Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The Sundance Film Festival has gone with the flow of the creative industry by introducing a program called Indie Episodic last year, which highlights great upcoming television. We haven’t spent a lot of time on that section of the festival as there are so many great movies to see that it seems like a shame to spend too much time watching television. But the times they are a-changin’ and the two best documentaries I saw this year in Park City were actually docu-series, one premiering on Showtime in May and the other dropping on Amazon in just a few weeks. Both take advantage of the structure of TV, working in hour-long episodes that total four hours in all, which allows their filmmakers more time to explore two fascinating subjects: Wu-Tang Clan and Lorena Bobbitt.
Sacha Jenkins’ “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” is a joyous document of the history of one of music’s most important bands. Avoiding the pitfalls of music bio-docs, which often just turn into talking head interviews about why you should like songs you already like, Jenkins doesn’t just hit the historical beats but provides his own accompanying rhythms. With hours of archival footage, Jenkins most often lets the Wu-Tang Clan tell their own story, with the occasional guest spot by the people who were there when it all went down.
One of Jenkins’ most brilliant ideas was to get the remaining Wu-Tang members – RZA, GZA, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon da Chef, and Masta Killa – into an old theater, where he shows them archival footage and then just records the guys riffing on what they see. It makes for something that feels more like a reunion of old friends than an assignment for a movie interview. It emphasizes one of the Wu’s biggest strengths – the way they bounce off each other, and the associated brotherhood that comes with that chemistry.
Jenkins has a brilliantly light touch when it comes to making his points in “Of Mics and Men.” He clearly adores the Wu-Tang Clan, but this isn’t pure hagiography, and he conveys their brilliance through anecdotes and live footage instead of just fan service. Fans of the band probably think RZA is a genius already, but “Of Mics and Men” adds another level to his importance in music history in terms of his business savvy – he was the one who insisted on a non-exclusive deal with whoever signed them and who create Wu-Tang Productions, to which all of the other guys signed. “Of Mics and Men” has great rap music in it – that’s a given – but it’s everything else that makes it so masterful from the way Jenkins gets the guys to open up about some of their dark pasts to how much the piece transports us to Staten Island and the environment that produced these master rappers. I was a big fan of the Wu-Tang Clan before “Of Mics and Men,” but Sacha Jenkins allowed my respect and love for them to deepen. That’s all you want from a music doc. Wu-Tang Forever.
Even more radically altering the way you view a major historical event, Amazon’s “Lorena” reclaims the story of Lorena Bobbitt from the tabloids and the jokes about what she did to her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt. Produced by Jordan Peele and directed by Joshua Rofé, “Lorena” reminds me of “O.J.: Made in America” in the way it reshapes a widely-known story into something that comments on issues greater than just what happened that night between an abused wife and her awful husband. “Lorena” points a finger at a media industry that paid more attention to John Wayne than the woman he regularly abused and raped. And it even goes as far as to do so through a #MeToo lens, subtly showing us footage of people like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer reporting on the story and reminding us that who is telling a story can often mean just as much as the story they’re telling.
Even if they weren’t proven to be predators later in their career, most journalists missed the story of Lorena Bobbitt. Obsessed with the sensational aspects of a severed penis, the opportunity to use this incident to shed light on the plight of the battered woman wasn’t taken back in the ‘90s. Even today, the name Bobbitt likely conjures up memories of talk show monologue jokes or, even worse, Geraldo Rivera. But this was really the story of a woman who was mentally and physically abused – for the record, John still denies all of this, but the documentary lays out the case in damning detail with numerous neighbors and others who witnessed or heard the abuse – and decided one day that she had had enough. What does it say about how news stories are reported in this country that simply because this case involved something as sensitive as the male member, the story of abuse became secondary?
“Lorena” features interviews with most of the major players in the case, including both Bobbitts. Rofé doesn’t directly confront John Wayne often but certainly edits his film in such a way that makes him look like an absolute monster. It’s one of the most damning portraits of a human being in a documentary in which that person is also interviewed that I’ve ever seen. The 4-hour structure allows the filmmaker to really define the abuse suffered by Lorena Bobbitt in ways that we haven’t seen before, including her long, heartbreaking testimony in her trial. John Wayne Bobbitt still denies it all, but the final hour includes some information about his background and cycles of abuse that even more fully reveal the lie (although it’s telling that Rofé waits so long to fill in those details in that doing so earlier might seem like an excuse for Bobbitt’s abusive behavior).
All in all, “Lorena” is a moving portrait of a woman who has reformed her life into a quest to protect abused women. What most people probably don’t know is the details of who the Bobbitts have become in the quarter-century since that fateful night, and the final hour of “Lorena” is its most powerful reminder that tabloid stories don’t just end when they’re no longer making headlines. In a real way, Lorena Bobbitt’s story is still being written, and this series is the latest major chapter.
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