How the ’13th’ Amendment of United States perpetuated modern-day slavery

The 13th Amendment of the United States constitution was taught as a law of liberation: the one that freed slaves from servitude; however, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix-original documentary, “13th,” reminds us that the blade that protects us can also maim us.

Yes, the 13th Amendment proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States,” but the amendment also provided an exception — a clause that calls slavery by another name and makes it perfectly legal.

Inserted within the fine print of the 13th Amendment is the clause that explains how African Americans are still persecuted today. Convicted criminals don’t received the protection of the 13th Amendment. And so the 13th Amendment became a economic and political weapon that ensnared blacks through mass incarcerations.

DuVernay enlists the help of activists, historians and politicians to explain more than 150 years of American history. Interviews with figures like Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Angela Davis, James Kilgore, Newt Gingrich, Charles Rangel, Van Jones and Cory Booker explain how blacks continue to be criminalized.

“13th” is a disturbing and sometimes overwhelming portrait of how people of color have been wronged, but more frightening still, is how people of color continued to face persecution through legislation and the media. Stereotypes perpetuated in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” have been mirrored in modern political ads and news segments. However, like how a blade can simultaneously maim and protect, DuVernay also offers a weapon for the Eric Garners, Philando Castilles, Sandra Blands, Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants and Emmett Tills. 

Only media and technology can change the narrative.

“13th” was written by Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. DuVernay’s film “Selma” was nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards.  


The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

‘Hamilton’s America’: a non-stop roller coaster

It’s 2014 and Lin-Manuel Miranda describes his life as a roller coaster — as if he were strapped into the ride as it’s climbing up. At this point of his life, he’s waiting for rehearsals to begin while still composing the words to “Hamilton.”

At this point of his life, “Hamilton” hasn’t sold out in its off-Broadway production at the Public Theater.

“Hamilton” hasn’t been touted as “the greatest thing we’ve ever seen ever” on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

“Hamilton” hadn’t moved to its Broadway location at the Richard Rodgers’ Theatre.

“Hamilton” hasn’t won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. 

At this point of his life, Miranda’s just moved into a new apartment, waiting for the birth of his son and preparing for “Hamilton.”

“This is the part of the roller coaster’s that’s just going up,” he says.

And that’s what watching Alex Horwitz’s PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America” (2016) feels like — as if you, too, were on strapped into a roller coaster as it climbs the tracks. The pinnacle of this ride would have been seeing the musical in its entirety on the Broadway stage with its original cast members, but watching “Hamilton’s America’s” premiere on PBS Friday may have been the next best thing.

“Hamilton’s America” builds with momentum, taking you behind-the-scenes as Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton — America’s founding father who derived much of the modern banking system, penned most of the Federalist Papers and was shot by Aaron Burr.

You probably know more of his story — like how he was George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolutionary War or how he was was “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.”

Much of Hamilton’s modern fame is due to Miranda’s musical, which you’ve probably sampled on iTunes, Spotify or YouTube.

But while watching a complete run through of “Hamilton” would have been educational and entertaining enough, Horwitz’s documentary delivers both history and insight. Told by interviews from Miranda, Senator Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, President Barack Obama, composer Stephen Sondheim, rapper Nas and historian Ron Chernow, “Hamilton’s America” gives you an understanding of Hamilton’s accomplishments as well as Miranda’s creative process.

The inspiration behind “Hamilton” is Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton.” Miranda saw Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story and wrote and performed its title track as part of the White House’s Poetry, Music & Spoken Word Night in May 2009.

He spent the next seven years researching and writing the words to “Hamilton,” visiting historical sites such as Valley Forge National Historical Park, the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Mount Vernon.

The project gained speed with the help of Tony Award-winning musical director Alex Lacamoire and director Thomas Kail. But the real magic is in Miranda’s words — which translate history to music and brings lessons from the classroom to life.

“What it did was capture the fact that the Founding Fathers were to some degree flying by the seats of their pants and making it up as they went along,” said President Obama. “And the fact that the experiment worked was a testimony to their genius and you can draw a direct connection to what the founders were doing and what we’re doing today.”

That’s one of the remarkable things about “Hamilton’s America” — that his story is ours. But to hear “Hamilton” in our language of rap and R&B and hip hop makes it more real than reading it in a textbook.

Just like how the “Hamilton” musical made American history more accessible, Horwitz’s PBS documentary makes the musical “Hamilton” accessible to the America who’s heard the music, but haven’t been able to buy tickets to the show.

But while “Hamilton’s America” teases us with performances from the musical, it doesn’t satiate our thirst to watch and learn more.

Reliving ‘OXD: One Extraordinary Day’

It’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid to willingly fall flat on your face again and again, until the bridge of your nose is bleeding and taped up. The doctors warned you that this type of impact will harm your body. And you know too many friends and teachers who have broken limbs perfecting this craft. You’ve already ran through all the awful scenarios of everything that could go wrong. Yet you still climb the 40-feet of scaffolding and take that leap of faith, completely trusting the command of choreographer Elizabeth Streb.

Directed by Craig Lowy, his 100-minute documentary “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” captures what it’s like to be one of Streb’s PopAction dancers in the Brooklyn-based Streb Extreme Action Dance Company.

Filmed by Lucas Smith and Raul Santos and edited by Lucas Groth and Lowy, “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” invites us to be a part of Streb’s crew as they prepare and perform “One Extraordinary Day” — a seven-part series where Streb and her crew canvas the city of London landmarks as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiads.

Rather than focus on a fluid and seamless transition from one move to the next, these dancers work to defy what the human body’s capable of. Streb tells her dancers that she wants their bodies to behave exactly like a piece of plywood when they free fall off of 30 feet of scaffolding parallel to the mat. She tells her dancers to hide the transitions, so the human eye sees one move and another, but never how they get there. While bungee-jumping off the Millennium Bridge and dangling off of the London Eye, these dancers feel like superheroes, performing moves called “Superman,” “Spiderman,” “X-Man” and “Peter Pan.”

Although “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” shows us death-defying stunts, the special effects are surprisingly spare. In a few scenes, we see the camera rewind so that the falling dancers look like they’re flying in slow motion; these scenes are few and far in between. For the most part, we see their stunts in real time as Lowy spends much of the documentary building up that extraordinary day.

Four months of practice, preparations and performance are edited down to 100 minutes, but the documentary contains too much exposition, removing the suspense and magic of the actual performance itself.

The dancers tell us about how much adrenaline it takes to get through these performances, but the camera doesn’t show us what it looks like to hover more than 200 feet above any solid ground. Lowy’s camera is either too zoomed in or too zoomed out and we feel disconnected rather than in the moment.

As a result, the viewer feels safe and protected, harnessed and secure. And when that extraordinary day comes, the performances are disappointing.

It’s a shame, really. While Craig Lowy’s documentary captures such an intriguing world, its edits are poorly executed, splatting hard on the floor and failing to get up.

“OXD: One Extraordinary Day” was directed by Craig Lowy and had it’s Western New York premiere as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Tower’ sheds light into the Texas Tower massacre

Near the end of “Tower,” is a montage of news clips — too familiar scenes from Columbine and Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College. It puts Keith Maitland’s 93-minute documentary, “Tower,” into perspective — that “there are monsters and they walk around us.”

Directed by Maitland, “Tower” is a chilling recreation of the 96 minutes near the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966.

Maitland grew up hearing the first-person stories of the Texas Tower shooting when he was in seventh grade. After reading Pamela Colloff’s 2006 Texas Monthly article, Maitland was inspired to capture some of these narratives in a documentary. Over the course of six weeks, his project raised $70,000 on IndieGogo.

Maitland and producer Susan Thomson interviewed more than 100 eyewitnesses to research the film. The interviews are the basis of the film’s narrative, which began on the steps outside the campus tower. Tom Eckman (voiced by Cole Bee Wilson) and his heavily pregnant girlfriend Claire Wilson (voiced by Violet Beane) were heading to the parking meter near campus when they were shot. It was “like stepping on an live wire, like I’ve been electrocuted,” Wilson describes.

Alternating between animation, grainy archival footage, photos and more recent interviews, “Tower” lets us live through the events of August 1, 1966. Interviews are dubbed and animated to allow us to picture the younger shelves of Texas Tower shooting survivors. We don’t see actual interview footage of much older versions of cops Ramiro Martinez (voiced by Louie Arnette) and Houston McCoy (voiced by Blair Jackson), KTBC anchor Neal Spelce (voiced by Monty Muir) and others until the end of the film.

This technique allows the animators to recreate events and emotions from 50 years ago. We see hope in bright colors — like the vivid, orangey-red hair of Rita Starpattern (voiced by Josephine McAdam), a women who ran into the face of danger. And for the bleakest moments, they strip the animation of color so all we see are black and white. As we listen to the sound of gunfire, white silhouettes of people fall over a crimson red background.

“Tower” is emotionally draining documentary, yet it’s an important testimonial of the unfathomable events that plague our country. Rather than focus on the killer though (his name is only mentioned briefly at the end), Maitland makes sure the stories of the 13 people killed and the many more wounded are remembered forever.

“Tower” was directed by Keith Maitland and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Some Kind of Quest’ to maintain the largest model train set

“Some Kind of Quest” is about a man chasing windmills. Not literal windmills, of course, but the kind of thing that’s absurd or crazy.

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino’s windmill is Northlandz, the 52,000-square-foot miniature model train museum in Flemington, New Jersey. Track by track, he painstakingly designed and built this museum over 16-plus years.

Directed by Andrew Wilcox and filmed by Matt Clegg over half a year, their 11-minute documentary showcases Zaccagnino’s creation within Northlandz. More than 100 model trains run over 50,000 feet of rail road track over 400 bridges.

Zaccagnino’s quixotic quest began in the ’70s when he began building the model train set in his basement. Over the years, it grew and grew as Zaccagnino spent 17-hour days with his trains. Now, it takes about two and a half hours to walk through the mazes in Northlandz. Zaccagnino considers expanding.

Still, he’s erecting ephemeral monuments. Zaccagnino’s getting older and business is slow. There’s no plans for succession after he retires as the museum’s curator. And his hobby can easily put him in debt. His friends also think he’s an idiot for living with model trains as his companions.

Despite it all, Zaccagnino chases after that impossible dream — that quest to entertain somebody with his life’s work. For now, at least, if the windmills keep turning, Zaccagnino will keep running into them.

“Some Kind of Quest” was directed by Andrew Wilcox and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.

‘Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present’ documentary plays the record of his life

At a quick glance, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” doesn’t look like a polished documentary. The camera’s shaky. The lighting on the subject’s overblown at times. The wires of a Lavalier microphone dangle noticeably in an interview shot. And that grating and monotonous drone of a violin playing the same note is enough to give anyone a migraine.

Yet the 102-minute experimental documentary is a film that shows filmmaking at its seams. Filmed and edited in a way that breaks most of the conventional rules of filmmaking, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” abides by its iconoclastic subject’s avant garde and anti-authoritative values.

Tony Conrad, who passed away this past April at 76, taught so he could teach his students how not to do things — how not to follow the conventional rules where art, music, filmmaking and politics intersect.

As an artist, he pinned soiled granny panties to cork boards and filmed men dressed as women in jail cells. He fearlessly scored the controversial and pornographic Jack Smith film “Flaming Creatures” (1963) and encouraged reactions of disgust even from those who respected him in the art and music world.

It took Tyler Hubby 20 years to capture the footage for the film, initially meeting Conrad in 1994 when he toured with German Krautrock band Faust. Told in chapters marked by the record, play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons on a VCR player, Hubby’s documentary begins on Ludlow Street in New York City, outside the very apartment that housed the inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s name. (Conrad’s roommate John Cale got it off one of Conrad’s books in their apartment. And while Conrad wasn’t a part of the Velvet Underground, he toured with two of its founding members, Cale and Lou Reed, before they became the Velvet Underground).

The camera’s subject, a 62-year-old Conrad, holds a ring of five microphones connected by an interwoven bundle of cords. Walking across the street conducting New York City traffic, Conrad looks like a senile old man. A passerby even stops him to ask him if he’s OK.

Yet Conrad knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly how to get it done. It’s like watching a brilliant magician reveal the secret behind his tricks. Even though the scene looks absurd, he’s pointing us to the music of the ordinary — the harmonics of passing trucks, bicycles, and sounds we wouldn’t typically think as music. The music in the streets otherworldly when magnified over the hum of his violin. Yet Conrad could have just as easily coaxed music out of a weed whacker.

This was the type of music Conrad was famous for — a minimalist style that can described as “sound coming at you like a railroad train.” Conrad produces these eerily hypnotic sounds with out-of-tune violins. Standing in front of a light with a curtain draped in front of him, his shadow would fill up a room, swaying back and forth as he played the same precise note as long as humanly possible. He once took this sound and dubbed it over itself, creating the piece “Four Violins” (1964).

In the mid-1960s, Conrad, along with his colleagues La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus LacLise and Marian Zazeela, created this minimalist movement while The Beatles were at its height. But even as one of the founding members of The Dream Syndicate, Conrad’s music legacy was often overshadowed by La Monte Young, whose often credited as the first minimalist composer.

Conrad’s work, however, transcended his field. He was an artist, first and foremost, but the form it took spilled beyond its medium. His piece “Yellow Movie” (1973) is a film designed to spans over the course of 50 years. He figured that if he painted a black square over cheap white paint, the paint would eventually erode and yellow over time. Conrad also produced a series where he cooked strips of film — currying, pickling, roasting and deep frying these strips so its composition changed entirely.

One of his earliest films was “The Flicker” (1966), where he played 30 minutes of flickering black and while slides on a film projector. Audience members at its first screening reported having seizures and discovering that if you stared long enough, these black and white slides were like a Rorschach test, and you begin to see shapes and images that weren’t really there. 

Hubby’s mesmerizing film mimics techniques in Conrad’s work. Parts of the documentary flickers to a metronomic beat. And the credits are bright flickering white lights — where you begin to make out shapes of names.

The biggest name on the screen is Conrad’s. He’s invasive and larger-than-life, bleeding beyond the silver screen. Even hours after you leave that dark theatre, you hear the droning hum of Conrad’s violin as the soundtrack of his life fills your mind.

“Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” was written and directed by Tyler Hubby and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival.

Holocaust survivor’s sunny outlook saved lives

Alice Herz-Sommer is the star of “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” the 2014 Academy Award-winning short documentary.

The 38-minute biopic documentary directed by Malcolm Clarke, filmed by Kieran Crilly, edited by Carle Freed, and written by Clarke and Freed stars an 109-year-old Holocaust survivor that lives alone in a London flat.

“My world is music,” she says. “I’m not interested in anything else.”

That’s a good thing. As the film’s subtitle aptly says, music saved her life.

Born in 1903, Herz-Sommer, a Jew living in Prague, was the oldest known Holocaust survivor until she died last February at 110 years old. She survived because she was a musician, a classical pianist. When the German Nazis invaded Prague in 1939, music got her and others through the Holocaust.

“At any case, I played a lot at this time,” Sommer-Herz said. “And once, the woman who take care of our house said to me, ‘Mrs. Sommer, Mr. Herman,’ the name of this German man, ‘asked me, suddenly you didn’t play. He asked me why. He asked me whether you were already deported. He told me he loved your playing.'”

Because of her musical gifts, Herz-Sommer was stationed at Therensienstadt, a concentration camp used for German propaganda. There, she played more than 100 concerts, including all of Chopin’s “Etudes” from memory.

“I knew we could play,” said Herz-Sommer. “And when we can play, I thought it can’t be so terrible.”

Music became a conduit to a happier alternate lifetime.

“Even thinking about music makes me happy,” she says.

Herz-Sommer’s inspirational story gives us hope in horror.

“It depends on me whether life is good or not,” she says. “Not on life. On me. Everything is either good or bad. I look at the good side.”

She played piano until she died on February 23, 2014.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” was directed by Malcolm Clarke and won the 2014 Academy Award for documentary short. 

Another ‘Dirty War’

Rick Rowley’s “Dirty Wars” begins like a film noir piece. Journalist Jeremy Scahill’s (author of “Blackwater: the rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army”) driving around the pitch-black deserted streets of Kabul at 4 a.m.

“A city of three million. Barely a streetlight on,” Scahill says.

Scahill’s investigating a series of night raids throughout the Middle East. They all had a similar modus operandi: Americans with muscles and beards would swarm into poor villages, wounding and killing men, women and children — including pregnant women with children.

“We called them the American Taliban,” someone says.

Directed and filmed by Rowley, the Academy Award-nominated documentary gives insight on a frightening operation, which Scahill describes as a “global stop and frisk program.” Essentially, a secretive U.S. government organization called the Joint Special Operations Command is given free reign to enact a global “Project Oversight.”

One of the victims was Mohammed Daoud, an Afghanistan police commander who trained under the U.S. and fought against the Taliban. The Americans killed his wife, sister and niece.

“I didn’t want to live anymore,” Daoud says to Scahill after the incident. “I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and bomb the Americans, but my father and brother won’t let me. I wanted jihad against the Americans.”

American forces disguised some of these attacks. NATO claimed they were the result of Taliban “honor killings”; the women and children were just accidental casualties, they said.

This, says Scahill, is the secret war on terror — the “dirty war.” The war’s so dirty that in a WIN/Gallup International poll, the U.S. was declared the No. 1 threat to world peace.

This dirty war continues with today’s targeted airstrikes against ISIS groups in Iraq. It’s a formality that journalist Glenn Greenwald describes as “prettily packaged under humanitarianism.”

“It is simply mystifying how anyone can look at U.S. actions in the Middle East and still believe that the goal of its military deployments is humanitarianism,” Greenwald writes in The Intercept. “The U.S. government does not oppose tyranny and violent oppression in the Middle East. To the contrary, it is and long has been American policy to do everything possible to subjugate the populations of that region with brutal force – as conclusively demonstrated by stalwart U.S. support for the region’s worst oppressors.”

After all, America’s been funding war, supplying weapons to both sides of conflicts.

Rowley’s documentary raises disturbing questions about the U.S. military agenda. Questions that Scahill voices and broadcasts.

“As an investigative reporter, you rarely have people’s attention,” says Scahill. “More often than not, you work alone. And the stories you labor over fall on deaf years.”

But every once in a while, someone listens.

“Dirty Wars” was directed by Rick Rowley and written by Jeremy Scahill and David Riker. “Dirty Wars” was nominated for Best Documentary in the 2014 Academy Awards.

‘Cutie and the Boxer’: two artists sharing the same palette

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara seem younger than they are. When Zachary Heinzerling’s award-winning feature-length debut documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer,” begins, the couple’s celebrating Ushio’s 80th birthday.

Although they both sport grayish white hair (Noriko’s is pulled back into twin braids), they have a youthful quality about them. At dinner, they throw cherry tomatoes in the air and try to catch them with their mouths. And while their dinner has evolved from Ramen noodles and cheap beer, they’re still starving artists, struggling to pay the bills and fix the leaky ceiling to their New York City apartment.

Noriko’s semi-autobiographical cartoons are naked because like her, her protagonist, Cutie, is poor. The cartoons are a culmination of 30-plus years of marriage to Ushio, a well-known Japanese Neo-Dadaist. His claim to fame are his Jackson Pollack-esque “boxing painting”; exhibits have traveled across the U.S. and Japan.

For years Noriko has been overshadowed by Ushio, quietly assisting him and raising their child, Alex.

“We’re like two flowers in one pot,” says Noriko. “It’s difficult sometimes. We don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But then everything goes well and we become two beautiful flowers. It’s either heaven or hell.”

Her marriage was the inspiration for her artwork in her and her husband’s joint NYC exhibition, “Love Is… Roarrr!”

“My life with Ushio has been a constant struggle but that has made me who I am today,” Noriko says. “Now I think all that struggle was necessary for my art. So if I had to do it all over again… I would.”

Ushio, of course, isn’t without his own troubles.

“Art is a demon. A demon that drags you along,” says Ushio. “You throw yourself away to be an artist.”

He tries to stay fresh and relevant despite his early fame.

It’s difficult.

“You always say the first work is the best,” Noriko reminds her husband, “but you can say the same for artists, their first work is the best. It’s their later work that gets tough.”

Heinzerling’s documentary is colorful and poignant, but if the Shinoharas’ assessment is true, the director/cinematographer/writer will have a tough time topping his accolades. “Cutie and the Boxer” has already won awards in various indie festivals including Sundance, Tribeca and London. The documentary was also nominated in this year’s Academy Awards.

But that’s the beauty in art, isn’t it?

“Cutie and the Boxer” was filmed, directed and written by Zachary Heinzerling. It was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary.