Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 03, 2013 5:51 pm 
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Not sure what is Jewish about public defenders whose clients are mostly black or about Muhammad Ali, but these are two documentaries in the festival that seem worth seeing.

Gideon's Army (Dawn Porter 2012)


Soldiers for justice in the American South

The Gideon in the title of this Sundance award winning documentary refers to a landmark US Supreme Court decision, defendant Clarence Earl Gideon, who was arrested in 1961 for stealing soda and a few dollars from a pool hall in Panama City, Fla. His case was appealed to the Supreme court, which led to guaranteeing all defendants in criminal trials legal counsel whether or not they can afford it. The "army" are the roughly 15,000 US public defenders who now handle most of the 12 million criminal cases a year.The film focuses on three pubic defenders in the American South, Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander in Georgia and June Hardwick in Mississippi, as they struggle with lack of adequate funds and exhausting work loads defending a hundred clients at a time. Many of those clients are improperly charged and are pressured to enter a plea due to a lack of funds in the public defender's office to carry out a full exculpatory investigation. The minimum sentence for armed robbery is ten years, with a possibility of life. Even a charge and imprisonment can ruin a life. In one case a woman who's a certified mechanic has her possessions stripped while she is held before trial. Alexander did gain release for her, but she could not return to work. These three dedicated young lawyers love their work, but they barely have enough to live on; are paying off big student loans; have little time for recreation or for dating or family life. The film shows that June Hardwick leaves strict public defender work to earn enough to support her young son. This film can be hard to watch when it comes to seeing the obstacles and the outcomes the defendants are looking at, which make Les Miserables look quite up to date, and digging into the oppression of race and class these individual cases reveal, but it also inspires with the idealism of its three public defender subjects. The scenes are intense, the dialogue is to the point, and a final trial sequence is exciting. The filmmaking is simple, direct, and no-nonsense, the message powerful. No voiceover narration and none needed.

This debut by Dawn Porter us sure to be one of the most significant American documentaries of the year.

Gideon's Army, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2013, also shown at Ashland, Montclair, Nantucket; was shown in the San Francisco International Film Festival in April and then again will be screened as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it will be be screened at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland Sat., Aug. 10, 2013 at 3:55 pm. It opened theatrically in NYC June 28, 2013 at Quad Cinema. It is rated a 95 on Metacritic on the basis of four reviews and it obviously impresses. HBO release July 1, 2013.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (Bill Siegel 2013)


Muhammad Ali's moral commitments

Another good and powerful documentary film. This one focused on the defining moment for Muhammad Ali when on June 20, 1967 he was convicted of evading the United States draft by refusing to take part in the Vietnam Conflict. 46 years later, the political and cultural impact of that landmark court case comes to life in Bill Siegel’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Dave Zirin, the politically aware sports editor of The Nation, has called this "the best Muhammad Ali doc I've ever seen." That may be an exaggeration; there are some good ones, and this is not the finest celebration of the spirit and personality of the man. But The Trials of Muhammad Ali is film that focuses effectively on Ali's career in terms of his religious and political development, which led to his act of moral independence in refusing to serve in the white man's war against people of color in Vietnam, and before that, the way his taking the name Muhammad Ali instead of Cassius Clay he became an international figure. William C. Rhoden recently wrote an article in the New York Times about this moment in Ali's life as "a reminder that courage, honor and integrity are timeless." There are many Muhammad Ali docs, but this is still one worth seeing, and then some. It goes into considerable detail about Ali's fight to develop political awareness and to assume his new name and to be respected; the various opposing forces in the Nation of Islam and Sixties Black radicalism he had to contend with; the legal battle up to the Supreme Court over his conscientious objector status: these are all aspects of the life Siegel explores in more detail as essential to the complexity and status of Ali. Interesting to see a number of interviews with people not so much heard from before, including a Nation of Islam recruiter in Florida where Ali was training; the Rev. Louis Farrakhan; and Ali's second wife Khalilah Comancho Ali, formerly known as Belinda Boyd. To hear Khalilah Ali tell it, she was a major early influence on Ali's taking firm stands as a Muslim, and stood by him during his most difficult time of rejection and financial loss after his draft refusal. Produced by Kartemquin Films, this debuted at Tribeca in April, later was at AFI and Seattle as well as the SFJFF. Cinetic Media is to be the distributor. Viewed in a rough cut.

Length: 93 mins.

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