Beyond Belief

This emotional documentary tracks the lives of two white American women who both lose husbands on planes that crash in New York City on September 11th, 2001. The women eventually discover each other—both live relatively near-by in Massachusetts—and both happen to be pregnant at the time of their husbands’ deaths. The two women meet each other and find ways to deal with their grief.

Beyond Belief‘s main contribution is the focus upon how these women translate their victim-hood into a proactive cause for good in the world, as opposed to violent demands for revenge (like much of the US was snookered-into following 9/11 by the media). They form a non-profit organization that provides aid to women in Afghanistan who are also victims of the even longer war happening there. The process they pursue in dealing with loss—by channeling their energies into raising money for Afghani women—is both saddening and inspiring. The emptiness of their familial lives is matched only by the sadness they feel once they get the chance to meet Afghani women who have experienced comparable loss, although theirs is far more structural in nature.

Despite how moving Beyond Belief is, there were many things in it that were left unspoken and that may make viewers uncomfortable. First, the privilege these women have is irrefutable. Of course, they’ve experienced incredible tragedy, but the resources they possess make it manageable, compared to the most others who reside in poverty. From the houses they live in, the cars they drive, and the degree of freedom from want, it is clear they have ample financial resources (especially clear in light of their husbands’ occupations). But, the film never mentions the substantial monetary gift from the government to 9/11 widows (which is important to note, as no other widowed individuals receive such financial assistance, although many could use it). They do remark upon their economic privilege once they get to Afghanistan, but that trip alone is indicative of privilege—who has the financial resources to take weeks out of their lives, purchase expensive tickets, to travel across the world? They also have impressive family support: loved ones watch their kids while they raise money, have meetings, and travel to Afghanistan.

Initially, they are a bit naïve about what role they should have on the lives of Afghani women; they want to “do good”, but they possess political ignorance about what life is like in Afghanistan. In fact, the NGO they create appears to have little on-the-ground coordination or even consent from Afghan widows themselves, although another NGO named CARE does help out with this a bit. (In a dramatic plot-twist, an Italian aid worker that the women learn from early on is later captured in Afghanistan, which scares the women greatly and delays their trip to Afghanistan.) Although it is not emphasized, close attention to the documentary’s timeline shows that the women create their NGO after the Iraq War begins, not before it. This follows the pattern of people opposing US militarism only after the rabid, ultra-nationalism following 9/11 dies down and the far-less popular Iraq War begins.

Viewers who are knowledgeable of Orientalism, will notice some “othering” of Afghani women and the burqas, which was also common in the mainstream media at the time. There is some background given for why conditions in Afghanistan are so bad (and why there are so many widows), but like many American recountings of Afghanistan’s history, Beyond Belief also leaves out the crucial US participation. While it is a historically debatable as to whether the US coaxed the Soviet Union into a trap in Afghanistan (some US political leaders have claimed to do this), it is quite undebatable that the US funneled untold millions into efforts that helped to destroy the country, by funding Islamicist fighters to drive the USSR out of Afghanistan. These efforts—which, again, far too many Americans seek to gloss-over—contributed directly to the 9/11 attacks, as the mujahideen fighters eventually became the Taliban and the base support for al Qaeda. In other words, the US had an obligation to aid Afghani war widows many years before the 9/11 attacks and the [formal] US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

These criticisms of geopolitics, and liberal fund-raising and aid aside, Beyond Belief is a quite wonderful personal story about people overcoming great loss, finding purpose, and avoiding the easy trap of blaming “others” for bad things that happen. Over the course of the documentary, these two women reclaim their lives and contribute (on the whole) towards doing more good than bad for people in Afghanistan—something that few Americans can claim.

Topics: gender, family, terrorism, war, death/dying

How To Survive A Plague

In an era where HIV/AIDS seems like a “manageable” disease in the Global North, the not-so-distant-past looks not only foreign, but downright scary. How To Survive a Plague is an important reminder of just how deadly HIV/AIDS has been, particularly to gay communities. Some things are left out of the film—such as US President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to even use the word “AIDS” until 1987, after 20,000 Americans had died—but other even more crucial embarrassments are included, such as homophobe Senator Jesse Helms’s outspoken condemnation of gays and indifference to their suffering. In the interest of scoring ideological points against “the homosexual agenda”, Helms and many others, including New York City mayor Ed Koch dismissed demands for governmental intervention into the AIDS crisis (Koch goes so far as to allege that AIDS activists are involved in fascism). Curiously, Koch’s own ambiguous sexual identity is not called into question.

Not only did the AIDS-inflicted gay community suffer the ultimate losses with the death of loved ones, friends, neighbors, and others, but also the post-death indignities of hospitals not acknowledging patients’ partners or funeral parlors refusing to take the bodies of those who died of AIDS-related causes. In the face of these seemingly unsurmountable odds, activists form a broad movement to address not only the homophobic indifference of politicians and inaction of policy, but also the practical health needs of the inflicted. Underground pharmaceutical networks are created, underground drug trials are run, resource and skill-sharing communities facilitate the care of AIDS patients, and other crucial activities occur that were necessary in the absence of the action from the American medical establishment.

Most importantly, gay rights and AIDS activists form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP), which engages in direct action tactics to confront politicians, corporate executives, scientists, and other public officials over their inaction or slow response to the AIDS crisis. They protest at conferences, speaking engagements, and the headquarters of corporations and the Federal Drug Administration. Members educate themselves about AIDS, disease science, and how to conduct trial research. They create a glossary of AIDS-treatment terms that they distribute to people so the inflicted can be more informed about their disease. Non-gay supporters, including physicians like Dr. Barbara Starrett, join ACT-UP, some making it their life’s work to advocate for this cause. Chemists help ACT-UP get the skills to apply for grants and conduct research. At a large AIDS conference, ACT-UP introduces an sophisticated plan to design better AIDS studies to find drug cures.

How To Survive a Plague is also a wonderful case study in organizational politics. ACT-UP apparently had lots of video footage taken at its internal meetings, thus viewers can observe how “they arouse to anger” people to go out and challenge the powerful who have sidelined themselves during the AIDS crisis. Dramatic speeches are given, but also incredible, painful conflict is shown, as people not only struggle with the rapid loss of their own lives and fellow activists, but also struggle over power and the direction of the organization. Some come to believe a lack of progress was holding the organization back, others think that an internal elite had emerged, and still others differed in their opinions on which tactics to pursue. All the political strain and physical death wears down the organization—which eventually sees an organization (the Treatment Action Group, or TAG) splinter-off. Successive deaths occur each year, and while many of the activists interviewed during the 1980s and 1990s are still alive and interviewed in the current period, others die. The film provides a touching and tragic view of some of these men, while also retaining a macro-level focus, with each successive year of the crisis passes, a running clock of global AIDS deaths records the spreading devastation.

Some drugs are assumed to work early on and activists demand access to them. Other drags make people very sick (and are very expensive). Dozens of drugs fall into the “what the hell” category, where they are hoped to have some possible effect on the disease; desperate AIDS patients take these drugs, while activists push for more testing on them. Finally, years later, a three-drug cocktail is stumbled upon as a solution. People are, of course, very happy by this discovery, but it is still very expensive and people continue to die—even today. One of the few downsides of the How To Survive a Plague is clear here: the global AIDS death body count is the only nod towards the international nature of the crisis—today it is at epidemic levels in Africa where it is not confined to gay communities. The expensiveness of the current drug regime precludes the ability of poor Africans to treat their disease. Thus, the middle-class background and First World privilege of American gay men helped ACT-UP, but is not able to translate into victories for poorer folks elsewhere. All the same, the nature of the social treatment of the AIDS is very different than it likely would have been had it not have been for ACT-UP’s disruption of business-as-usual. There very likely would have been a far higher death-toll and much slower action from political and medical elites had it not have been for AIDS activism. That is itself something worth celebrating.

Topics: medical, sexuality, social movements

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The Media Education Foundation movies that analyze popular culture, like Reel Bad Arabs, introduce people to the important work of deconstructing the hegemonic assumptions that American culture presents about other peoples. This documentary specifically considers the meta-narratives about Arab peoples (as well as Muslims and those living in the Middle East generally), to determine how Hollywood has chosen for decades to depict such people. Unsurprisingly, offensive and racist themes have appeared since the earliest silent films. Reel Bad Arabs focuses on Jack Sheenan’s research (including a book of the same name) that considered over 1,000 Hollywood films and discovered repeated stereotypical representations that reflect what Edward Said described as “Orientalism”: the West’s inaccurate depiction of the Middle East, which helps to justify European domination and colonialism. Once these depictions are placed back-to-back in a focused documentary like this one, the patterns are hard to ignore, deny, or excuse.

Sheenan identifies one of the first themes as “Arab Land”. Movies regularly include gross generalizations of this region, including flying carpets, snake charmers, wealthy and ignorant sheiks, harems full of women (including white women held hostage), desolate desert, violent culture, castles with torture dungeons, and belly-dancers. The part here that surprise audiences the most (I have shown this in Race classes before) is how subliminal the lyrics are in the opening song of the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The lyrics are crude and offensive, but many people never think about how problematic they are until they are highlighted in Reel Bad Arabs. Also, Sheenan points out how Arabs are often inserted into films that have little to nothing to do with the Middle East, often for a cheap laugh or to provide random script direction (e.g. Back to the Future, Father of the Bride 2, Network).

Other themes center around the perceived violence and irrationality of Arab peoples, especially Palestinians. Thus, the shtick of PLO freedom fighter, airline hijacker, suicide bomber, barbaric mercenary, and murderer of innocent people appears regularly. Sheenan notes that the “packaging” of these characters has evolved beyond the typical stereotypes to include Western-looking Arabs and even Arab women, who are both are presented as violent and deadly as those older stereotypes. While the “threat” faced by Americans coming from Arab peoples is no more than anywhere else in the world, there is an over-representation of such imagery, and it seems intended to frighten audiences and to generalize these expectations to all Arab peoples. Films like Trues Lies, Delta Force, and Rules of Engagement all present these images.

Sheenan states that three key things seemed to exaggerate these depictions: the foundation of the state of Israel (and the subsequent Palestine-Israel conflict), the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, and the 1979 Iranian Revolution (and American hostage crisis). These events seemed to have further soured American culture to people from this region and has led to a proliferation of these stereotypes. It’s important to note that these hegemonic stereotypes about Arab peoples reinforce American political, economic, and military domination of the Middle East. It is not surprising that many “war movies” now get approval and cooperation from the US State Department.

A more modern extension of these themes has included Islamophobia (or the hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims). The prejudicial association of Islam with terrorism is key here. Even TV shows like Sleeper Cell or 24 involve stereotypes that center in on the incredibly narrow demographic of Islamic fundamentalists. Of course, skeptical viewers could claim that Muslims in general support the actions of such fundamentalists, but this is a red herring, since they do not support violence any more than the average American Christian supports violence—such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (although most such Americans do not fall into the category of politicized, Christian fundamentalists). In all of these depictions of violent Arabs and Muslims, film audiences are regularly treated to dead Arabs and Muslims who are killed, or as Sheenan puts it, “slaughtered”, but via “a righteous slaughter”.

A further contribution of Reel Bad Arabs is to contextualize what the real Middle East is like, asking film audiences to “get real”. Sheenan does a great job debunking stereotypical representations, by showing that much of the Middle East is educated, secular, family-oriented, and includes empowered women (who often constitute the majority of college students)—just like in the United States! Sheenan also points to new(ish) films that break the mold and provide better, more accurate, and complete representations of Arab peoples. He highlights A Perfect Murder and Hideous Kinky, in which Arabs and non-Arabs relate to each other peacefully and respectfully. Or Kingdom of Heaven, whose ending shows the Muslim ruler Saladin respect Christianity by placing a Cross back on a church alter. Finally, Syriana, Three Kings, and Paradise Now include very real, nuanced depictions of Arab peoples, who are not sugar-coated, but are shown to be real, three-dimensional people. These final films help audiences to understand that even when Arab peoples may do things that others dislike or disapprove of, that there are reasons for it and that the application of broad generalizations and stereotypes is a mistake.

It would be hard to not recommend Reel Bad Arabs to American audiences, since it targets some of the deeply-rooted prejudices that American culture has taught for generations. In deconstructing these stereotypes, the objectives of Hollywood (and its closely-tied interests with American state-power) are revealed. Additionally, the documentary points a way forward; as Sheenan states, stereotypes will change because young filmmakers and image-makers will make it change. Reel Bad Arabs provides those people and others with the analytical ammunition to understand how it can change and why it must change.

Topics: race, Orientalism, racism, mass media

The Weather Underground

After watching The Weather Underground for the fifth time, I realized that it is more sophisticated and balanced than I had remembered from the first four times. Those who oppose the actions of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) probably consider the film to be apologist, while those supportive likely think it to be too critical. But, I think it actually frames perfectly the group’s opposition to state and corporate violence, while also showing the moral ambiguity of their bombing actions. For younger generations of viewers, the Weather Underground was a radical spin-off of the broadly-based Students for a Democratic Society, which was the key student organization of the 1960s. The Weathermen (as they were called, patriarchally, before they went underground) played an infamous (and less than laudable) part of SDS’s disintegration.

One of the strange, but entertaining aspects of the documentary is how it portrays interviewees in ways that clash with expectations. For example, perhaps the most level-headed and rational person in the film is David Gilbert, the film’s only interviewee residing [still] in prison for his role in a botched armed robbery after the WUO disbanded. On the other hand, someone who would otherwise be considered the most legitimate and prestigious—Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin—literally froths at the mouth as he describes, scornfully, how the WUO engaged in “organizational piracy” and “ran-off with the student Left”. Then, there is maybe the most widely recognized person during this post-Obama-election era: the infamous Bill Ayers, who the right-wing laughably tried to associate with Obama, due to their mutual presence in the same circles in Chicago for years. Finally, a former FBI agent who helped to track the WUO appears, too, and even speaks admirably of how the group was “serious” and able to intelligently avoid capture (after the film was released, this ex-agent shared a stage with a former WUO member, to discuss this time period).

The WUO—and American Left radicals, generally—proposed an important question, that has tended to make many people very uncomfortable. Whose violence is worse: state violence or citizen violence against the state? Or, more specifically (as framed by Naomi Jaffe), is it better to accept the violence of the US as it murders millions in Vietnam, while doing nothing to resist it (which she frames as itself violence), or to fight back in order to stop the US’s violence (as the WUO argued)? The problem is, as Mark Rudd puts it, that Americans are encouraged to view all non-state violence (especially that done by groups like the WUO) as criminal and mentally-ill. (One can discard the fact that the bombing attacks harmed no one except property, so their “violence” is debatable.) But, it’s worth responding to this hegemonic argument, by asking what should movements do when their efforts to change society (progressively, for the better) are stymied at every turn? When movements invariably become more radical due to state resistance and do not seem to succeed at pulling more people toward revolution, then what? What do people really expect? JFK seemed to know, when he said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable”.

Mixed in with these serious questions about ethical action, there is ample comedy, goofiness, and absurdity. And, things that contemporaries audiences will just shake their heads at it in confusion and disbelief. A pro-drug organization/cult hires the WUO to break the incarcerated LSD-guru Timothy Leary out of prison—which they do. He is brought to Algeria where he makes wide-eyed statements about supporting revolution. Before going underground, the Weatherman branch-out across the US and move into working class neighborhoods. Their goal is to convince working class youth (who they suspect, often incorrectly, will be more radical than they are) that they are serious revolutionaries who those youth should join up with to fight the system. The Weatherman try to do this, incredulously, by picking street fights. And, something sure to raise the eyebrows of audiences is the Weathermen’s “smash monogamy” ideology. In the interests of creating stronger emotional bonds between comrades, people were discourages from “pairing up”, but to instead engage in wide, promiscuous sexual activity with each other, with either sex, including group sex. A diary is read (by the female narrator Lili Taylor, although the words of a male author) which describes a van driving on a highway while a dozen people lay on the floor of the van, naked, engaged in group sex. Of course, we don’t hear this male author critique the usual interpretation of the “sexual revolution” and how it offered far more to men (namely, easier access to sex with women) than it did to women (who were expected to “put out”, without the same mutual commitments as before).

A couple of notable oversights exist, for those familiar with Weather-history. The history of SDS is a bit brief and incomplete. While the Weather-faction—often called the Revolutionary Youth Movement—was sizable, so was Progressive Labor (more “old left” than New Left). And another faction, rarely discussed in most SDS histories was the Radical Decentralization Project (initiated by the radical ecologist Murray Bookchin) which was anarchist in orientation. Also missing in this incomplete picture is all the other things that radical Leftists were doing during this time period: founding cooperatives, initiating the anti-nuke movement, and the Movement for a New Society, to list a few. Even though the very end of the film hints at internal disagreements and power-sharing issues (including gendered inequalities), the dictatorial politics of the Maoism and Third World Marxism to which the WUO subscribed, is left unaddressed. Gitlin makes an early, flip comment that is actually fairly accurate: Weather had a vanguardist attitude, that thought that their isolated actions of property destruction could embolden resistance (as opposed to helping to bring the wrath of the state down upon the movement and to alienate marginally sympathetic individuals). As he puts it, the Weathermen told the rest of the student left: “Join us or fuck you”. This machismo seems a bit strange, considering how reflective (and often apologetic) many interviewed ex-Weathermen are in the documentary. Many came from middle-class or more privileged backgrounds (which most do not discuss), which helped provide access to money that allowed them to stay underground for so long.

The soundtrack is spooky and often atonal. Some of the original music is composed by band members of Garland of Hours and Fugazi, which is a treat for indie rock fans. The combination of present-day interviews, alongside old footage of the much younger activists spouting revolutionary rhetoric is quite compelling. The film provides an abbreviated list of WUO targeted property destruction, with the reasons for each bombing. These targets include the NYPD headquarters, California Department of Corrections, US Capitol building, the Harvard Center for International Affairs, the ITT headquarters, the Presidio Army Base, and others. An early incident that causes the WUO to engage in only property destruction and avoid taking human life, is an accidental explosion that kills three WUO members in New York (where we see a young Dustin Hoffman gawking at the smoldering townhouse). The bomb was intended for an officer’s ball and the explosion would likely have killed hundreds of people, including the wives of the officers (clearly “non-combatants” by any definition). Realizing how a desperate logic and a maddening war had driven them to that decision, the remaining WUO members re-direct their efforts to symbolic destruction that avoids harming human life (for which they succeed).

There are many lessons to draw from The Weather Underground, but just as many open questions for radical social movements. The shocking reality is that little has changed with the society that the WUO critiqued and fought against. The names of the countries attacked by the US have changed (and the death tolls are slightly lower), but the same dynamics remain. Police brutality and racial discrimination run rampant still. Corporations continue to call most of the shots and American culture is even more dominated by their propaganda. The documentary does not suggest that a new armed struggle, clandestine group is needed today, but it does demand that the left take a serious look at its past to try to figure out some way forward and through the modern day madness.

Topics: social movements, revolution, militarism, racism, morality, terrorism

Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North

There’s something alarming about the fact that Traces of the Trade wasn’t made sooner—decades sooner. But, now that it’s available, audiences should watch it. Especially Americans. People living in the US have a largely amnesiac view of their own society; even while people “know” that African slavery and Indian genocide occurred, most do not know details, understand why they happened, or realize what the continued significance of them are today.

Traces of the Trade is directed by a descendant of the DeWolf family (Katrina Browne), who were the largest slave traders in United States history. While many white people are fond of saying: “My family didn’t own slaves” (although most of those people have never actually looked, to find out!), few have asked if their family benefited in any way from slavery. And few have likely benefited as much of the institution of slavery—outside of owning slaves—than wealthy slave-traders and their financiers. Thus, the director gathered together as many sympathetic family members as she could find, to travel their family’s history along the infamous slave-trade triangle: from their base in Rhode Island, to the source of African slaves in Ghana, to where the family’s economic interests in Cuba were. She invites many of her relatives, but the majority never bother contacting her, while some caution her not to take this journey, as it would bring attention and shame to the family name.

Her trip ends up being transformative for her family, but it will also be illuminating for audiences, too. The documentary helps to adjust the common assumption that slavery was exclusively a Southern thing. Of course, slaves had lived in Northern colonies for a very long time, too. But, more pertinent, was that Northern slave-traders and their financial backers were often based in the North (thus the strong economic centers of capital, banks, and the like in the Northeast). In order for the Southern institution of slavery to exist and persist, someone had to help support it economically—and many Northerners did. The message is clear: don’t be so smug, white Northerners, about the South’s history of slavery. The blood and violence the institution wrought has tainted all of America.

In order to reconcile what white DeWolf family members knew of their own family history and what the institution of slavery was really about, their travels provided them with numerous opportunities for reflection. One DeWolf cousin experiences a transformative moment when the family is visiting a slave fortress in Ghana. They spend time in a slave holding cell, then later in the day he reflects with his cousins upon how all sorts of “experts” had been telling them along their journey that they had to understand slavery in the context of its time. Allegedly, slavery must be understood on the terms of those historical figures, not via a modern, reflexive lens. But, he remarks that this is “bullshit”, since “they knew what they were doing was wrong”. Due to these experiences, a small slice of the director’s DeWolf family becomes active to pressure for changes. The director herself pursues efforts to influence the Episcopal Church’s (her religious faith) official statements about slavery. As white parishioners, they work alongside Black parishioners to influence stronger language against slavery, including for reparations.

Unfortunately, the voice features no real prominent Black voices in support reparations, except for the Black woman the director uses to engineer her family’s travels and interviews. This woman sometimes travels in front of the camera to forcefully explain some of the historical realities of slavery and what it means for present-day race relations. The irony of the DeWolf family members’ connection to slavery is that while they can profess to be non-racist today, the benefits of white supremacy have been accumulated within the family already, thus providing a class privilege. Nearly all of the cousins have Ivy League backgrounds, yet often cannot see how their family’s slave-trader history contributed to that upward mobility. One claims that the DeWolfs lost their money at one point, as if to explain away any possibility of them gaining advantage in America.

Traces of the Trade raises an important, but likely scary question—one that needs answering, but that most whites will wish to fervently avoid. How many other white Americans can trace their family genealogy to slavery? How could the process of searching for this history—and possibly finding something that most whites assume their families have no connection to—transform their perceptions of white privilege? Would they think differently about the regular claims of white Americans that to be “color-blind” is the best approach to dealing with racial inequality? Given how incredible the institution of slavery has been—to say nothing of genocide against Native peoples—how can we not afford to come to clearer terms with the legacy of these phenomenon and try to rectify their devastating consequences in a way that transcends simplistic and cop-outs (like declaring discrimination to be illegal and thus irrelevant today)?

Topics: race, inequality, historical sociology, social change, economic sociology

After Innocence

The subject of After Innocence is the Innocent Project’s work to exonerate wrongfully-imprisoned people in the United States. Composed of mainly civil rights lawyers and others sensitive to how much wrong the “criminal justice” system can do, the Project tries to provide legal assistance to people in prison who they believe have been incarcerated based on faulty evidence. After a widely-broadcast Phil Donahue episode about a wrongfully-imprisoned man, many prisoners began writing letters professing their innocence to the Project. We are shown file cabinets full of letters that Innocent Project members have yet to even read due to the overload of requests. While audiences are not shown how these requests are filtered and vetted in order to determine which cases to pursue and support, it is clear that the Project does gets a lot of assistance from sympathetic law students (which is great, as it rescues them from a career path of working as corporate lawyers).

The Innocence Project estimates that many thousands of prisoners in the US are innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. DNA testing technology is the main tool used to help investigate the accuracy of these convictions. Unfortunately, DNA testing can only be done if physical evidence from a case still exists—if it has been destroyed or is missing (a pretty common occurrence), then it is impossible to verify if the convicted actually did what they were sentenced for, and thus to be exonerated. Audiences see a half-dozen examples of wrongfully-imprisoned men go through a long process of trying to prove their innocence, or see them interviewed after they have been released. These men are emotionally damaged by their experiences of imprisonment as well as their faith in the justice of “the system”. Interestingly, many of these men remark that they didn’t think the system could commit such injustices (prior to it happening to them). Thus, the more-appropriately-identified “deviance response system” (the label of “criminal justice system” does not seem to be accurate) is voracious and out-of-control. While the men are harmed by their experiences, it is unclear if the system itself is sorry for its actions: a judge and a prosecutor apologize (authentically, it seems) to those they wrongfully sentenced, but audiences don’t know if these powerful men plan to change their future behaviors.

Further struggles exist once people are released from prison. It is challenging for innocent “ex-convicts” to get their records expunged. Surprisingly, it is even difficult for a police officer who was wrongfully-imprisoned to get his benefits and job back. Suing for damages is even more difficult, as it would imply that there were mistakes made in the way that prosecutors aggressively pursued convictions at all costs. It would, obviously, require prosecutors to only prosecute where appropriate—this contradicts typical convention, as prosecutors work to create reputations as “tough on crime”, so they can climb the occupational ladder and eventually become judges. The arrogance of some prosecutors becomes pretty clear. One remarks that the system didn’t do anything wrong, even though it wrongfully imprisoned someone. Another prosecutor gets heated in the court room and condescendingly tries to dismiss and accuse the Innocence Project of being bias (too “pro-convict”), due the organization’s name. Of course, this prosecutor is unreflexive of the bias implicit in the title of his own occupation—“to prosecute”—and does not want to own up to the fact his position makes him automatically skeptical of every defendant.

Curiously, although After Innocence is a film about the wrongfully-imprisoned in America, so much of it could also apply to those who are guilty of the crimes they were convicted. The lives of non-exonerated ex-felons are very similar to the men featured here. They all have difficulty getting jobs, convincing others to trust them, and dealing with intensity of the outside world (one remarks that everything is so loud outside of prison).

There were a few things in After Innocence that made me uncomfortable, even though I am in complete support of the Innocence Project’s work to release wrongfully-imprisoned people (and even my belief in releasing supposedly “correctly”-imprisoned people). I have a feminist concern about the over-presentation of rape cases in the film. Perhaps DNA evidence lends itself most to this type of legal case and evidence, but I was unnerved by the conclusion that many might take away from the film. I’m concerned that over-skepticism of the testimony of rape victims may cause people to disbelieve women who are assaulted. During a hearing to release man wrongfully-convicted of rape, new evidence was offered that the female victim had four different men’s sperm in her vagina, as if to suggest that she was of questionable trustworthiness. Given the scary levels of women who experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, I am uncomfortable with anything that makes people less likely to believe women. There needs to be a way to discuss why wrongful identifications are made or why inaccurate evidence is used in court. I think even presenting statistics on rape (and the prosecution of rape) would help to contextualize this part of the film more.

Additionally, I would like to know why so few murder cases—which also involve physical evidence in which DNA testing is relevant—were included in After Innocence. Those cases are the ones that I had presumed were most common. As such, I wanted to hear more about how and why the Illinois governor halted all death row executions a number of years ago after it was shown that many death row inmates were innocent of the crimes they had been convicted of. The governor actually appears briefly in the film, but little is said about his role in this phenomenon.

One final element would have helped to strengthen After Innocence: all that research that shows jury prejudice (especially in regards to race inequality) and faulty eye-witness testimony (including police testimony based on memory). Given how much of such scholarly research has been done, this would have been a ideal way to bolster the DNA-based evidential claims of wrongful-imprisonment. By showing how “the system” gets it wrong so often would be valuable in fostering critical thinking, and healthy skepticism of how the legal system functions and is prone to convict regardless of evidence and reality. Some of these arguments were indirectly referenced in the film, but a few legal scholars would have helped drive the point home better. Still, After Innocence is a film that will illuminate the “mistakes” that the system can commit and will hopefully attune audiences to challenging it more in the future.

Topics: crime, law, justice

Gaza Strip

A desolate look at a people living occupation. The film is shocking in many ways. First, if there is a main character, it is a young, but “aged”, boy who talks as if any day will be his last and how he is willing to martyr himself if need be. Second, the lack of any identifiable “figureheads”—unlike many documentaries that have famous-y people in them, this one gets closest when characters discuss Israel politician Ariel Sharon. Third, the daily humiliations that Palestinians must put up with—such as the closing of a major road—are responded to moments of dignified resistance and determination: they walk and drive on the sandy coastline instead, they march in protests (in a land where demonstrations are illegal), and, yes, they throw rocks at heavily armored tanks. Gaza Strip is a clarion call aimed at Americans (one that surely affected me), demanding that we recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people and respect their demands for self-determination and an Israeli withdrawal from their lands. Since the US is Israel’s largest political and economic ally, we can all help them in this cause.

Topics: economic sociology, urban sociology, political sociology

The Punk Singer

Most music documentaries—especially biopic films—do little to inform a sociological analysis. There are scores of context-independent, apolitical, and boring music documentaries out there (and these are on musicians who are good)! Thankfully, The Punk Singer is not one of these. It focuses upon the life and ideas of Kathleen Hanna, whose musical and political resume would be one of envy for many. She was the lead singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill and co-founder of the riot grrrl movement, to name only two things of note (member of Le Tigre would be another). Hanna has been central to so many things of cultural significance in the United States in recent decades that The Punk Singer could serve as a historical primer of sorts for the ill-informed.

For those unfamiliar with Hanna and her cultural milieu, The Punk Singer defines and provides a brief overview of the first and second waves of feminism in the US. Then, without giving an overt definition of feminism’s third wave, the documentary offers nearly all the main elements that scholars and activists identify with the third wave. We see an emphasis on cultural reclamation of previously derogatory words (incl. “slut”, which Hanna had written on her belly once while performing and the word “girl”). Even the idea of girlhood is reworked here. There is the advocacy of taking control of one’s own sexual empowerment and pleasure (see Bikini Kill lyrics and numerous statements by Hanna). The DIY (do it yourself) ethos is replete throughout the documentary, as musicians, punk scene denizens, artists, and Hanna herself create their own subcultures, media, events, and social movement. The Punk Singer also inserts a brief nod to intersectional themes, as a member of the “queercore” band Tribe 8 reflects on needing to analyze other forms of domination and inequality. Finally, the third wave is represented by the post-modernism demonstrated by punk and Hanna herself—she remarks to the camera that not everyone has to care about feminism, but that others should have to stay out of her way.

For Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fans, there are numerous opportunities to see these bands perform, as well as old “how did it really happen” interviews. Even for those unfamiliar with these bands, many will have heard of others who were influenced by Bikini Kill and Hanna herself, or who crossed paths with her. Joan Jett and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon appear as friends and confidants, as does King Ad Rock (aka Adam Horowitz) of the Beastie Boys, who is Hanna’s husband. There is also an important reflection upon Hanna’s friendship with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (Hanna spray-painted the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his apartment wall, inspiring the band’s most famous song title); an interviewee remarks that a good Nirvana history will conclude that its legacy is not in the “hesher rock” scenes of the Pacific Northwest, but in feminist art punk.

Sociological audiences will be able to observe how social change occurs in subcultures, with people pushing the boundaries of acceptability and expression, creating the space for new groups of people and ideas. The Punk Singer shows how Hanna challenged both her male punk compatriots to treat women better (sexual violence and marginalization are central themes) as well as empower her female compatriots to seize control of their lives and their art. Bikini Kill challenged male thuggery at their concerts, asked women to stand-up front by the stage, and called-out sexual predators. Hanna’s influence on riot grrrl is just as significant: she and her fellow punks created fanzines that discussed the need for feminism in punk scenes in order to protect and encourage female participation, and other problems faced by women in the male-dominated punk environment. Not only was this an intellectual influence upon punk (felt by women as well as men), but it also manifested in real-world riot grrrl groups, who met—kind of like second wave consciousness-raising circles—to support each other, network, do art and music together, and push for change within the punk movement. It is impossible to deny the effect that riot grrrl has had upon punk. Of course, sexism, misogyny, and assault still exist, but they are far less tolerated by everyone and they are easier to challenge than in the early-1990s. The Punk Singer is a great window into a fascinating world and one of its most charismatic participants.

Topics: gender, feminism, music, culture, social movements

Inequality For All

It’s easy to see how people who are Leftists might expect Robert Reich to be anti-capitalist, just as easily as Rightwingers would expect the same. As it turns out, Inequality for All shows the economist to be a Keynesian, social welfare liberal who would like to reform the most extreme cruelties of capitalism, but is not interested in fundamentally ending inequality or capitalism, let alone creating a democratic economy. The film reminds me of Al Gore’s award-winning Inconvenient Truth, and not just because both are focused on similar, self-important white men who think they have figured out something that others haven’t, for which they need to spread The Good Word. The style of the two documentaries are equally similar: they feature fancy PowerPoint graphic presentations (that neither likely assembled themselves) and a self-laudatory biopic-style that focuses on the hard questions they have nobly confronted during their lifetimes.

As an individual, Reich is generally likable. He makes lots of self-deprecating “short person” jokes about himself. For those who are familiar with the free-market propertarian Milton Friedman’s height, the contrasts are ironic. He is personable and manages to insert himself into a variety of situations in which he can speak with “average” people, just as often as he speaks to elites. The film shows part of his privileged background, including his own flattering portrayal of his early friendship with a young Bill Clinton—who later taps Reich to be his Secretary of Labor.

The graphics of his presentations—which he gives in front of a standing-room-only auditorium at the University of California at Berkeley for a course about social inequality—are impressive. They show the long-term changes in inequality, worker productivity, union membership, and many other measures of note; all move in the wrong direct for those concerned with justice. The major trends are telling: the heights of inequality occur in the US in 1928 and 2007, right before the stock markets collapsed.

While he speaks of unions and even speaks to a group of workers considering unionization, the film does not explore labor unions in any philosophical depth. Neither the practical economic benefits of union membership are presented nor the traditional syndicalist demand of worker control.

Discerning viewers may notice some gaps in Reich’s logic and concerns. For example, he ignores key factors that enabled the incredible growth or an American middle-class following WW2. He tells others he does not idealize other country’s economies, but rather thinks the US did it right in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, Reich is thereby overlooking a wide array of unique qualities of that time period that are unlikely to return. Notably, post-war America was unchallenged economically by all of its prior competitors in Europe (and Japan). That economic dominance (which Wallerstein argues found confluence with dominant American political and military power) allowed the US to buy-off a large part of the American working-class and give them a slightly higher standard of living. Of course, the deeper factors that led to American productive potential are also something worthy of discussion—which Reich avoids: stolen Native land, African slave labor, and the exploitation of materials, labor, and markets abroad. In other words, America’s New Deal and Keynesian was based upon American hegemony and violence. (Of course, the same could be said for Europe’s.)

Related to these oversights, there is little intersectional analysis. Race is almost completely absent and the same is generally true for gender (although Reich does talk about the increase in female employment). The most significant consequence to these omissions and other problems is framed early in the film by Reich himself who notes that some inequality will always exist. While he seems honestly interested in reducing inequality—which is good—he also seems a bit too committed to capitalism (even stating very clearly his advocacy of it and his rejection of critical perspectives, including communism).

As with any documentary that focuses on the ideas of a single person, it is difficult to tell (without reading all their work) whether or not the film itself omitted the important details of contention, or if the film makers accurately presented the individual and their flaws. Since the film presents Reich favorably, it also seems to present as him as a messiah of sorts (see yet another similarity with An Inconvenient Truth). One gets the feeling that Reich alone has the answers and that he possesses a missionary zeal to inform others to these problems—in doing so, we have yet another case of an intellectual side-lining countless activists who have fought around the same issues Reich is advocating.

Criticisms aside, Inequality for All does an excellent job with making the case that inequality exists, is bad, and should be reduced. It stops short of a holistic critique of the systems that create that inequality, but it comes part way. For those who want to find better ways to critique American capitalism and its negative impacts, this film provides a decent starting point.

Topics: social class, inequality, unions, economic sociology

Whitewashed: Unmasking the World of Whiteness

A provocative film, that is also the perfect length to show in a class, Whitewashed flips the typical narratives about race upside-down. Instead of whites bemoaning “political correctness” or even asking people of color to articulate their experiences of inequality, this documentary approaches white Americans about their experiences as whites. Some interviewees are of the “people on the street” variety, often expressing the former sentiment above, of “what’s the big deal?”. But, most of the interviewees are reflexive whites, who have thought a good deal about their racial privileges—and many are even avowed anti-racist activists. The only “famous” interviewee is Tim Wise—whose inclusion seems to have provoked neo-Nazi rage in the comments section on the YouTube copy of the film, who seem to suspect am anti-white, “Zionist conspiracy” (an articulate person—even a white person—talking about racial inequality seems to be enough to piss-off Nazis). But, interestingly, the film is an all-white space in which whites dialogue about that which they rarely talk about: whiteness. The film includes a wide variety of perspectives, but is far more illuminating than the average conversation about race amongst whites.

Whitewashed addresses a variety of questions regarding whiteness. The first question—where’d white people come from?—seems unanswerable to the average person. The anti-racist interviewees, however, note the appearance of “whites” occurring alongside European immigrant assimilation to the US. Giving-up their ethnic heritage allowed these immigrants to acquire the benefits of “whiteness” in America. The most provocative questions—and the ones that garner the most interesting answers—pertain to what it means to be white, and white people’s experiences with racism and privilege. As it turns out, while most whites never reflect upon their race, while anti-racist whites acknowledge that their whiteness offers them an incredible array of privileges, especially vis-a-vis minorities.

There’s a lengthy series of interviewees reflecting upon their privileges; being able to avoid racial profiling (especially by the police) seems to be a key one. A viewer might attribute a certain level of bravery to the interviewees who reflect upon their experiences of privilege, the shabby treatment of people of color (sometime inadvertently at their own hands), and what that means for their lives today. Admitting to be a racist—as one older male does early on—is a powerful admittance. But, as a younger woman reflects later, understanding the consequences of being raised in a racist society and holding racist views, was something that was largely out of her hands—therefore, she focused on dealing with her latent racism and carrying on with her life trying to be a better anti-racist.

The film’s aesthetic is appealing: old photos of European immigrants entering the US is juxtaposed with all black-n-white interview footage (the political message to this “colorless” choice is clear). The transitional music is light and playful, which is unexpected given the heavy-handed, sinister music that often accompanies documentaries of this variety. The film’s director is a sociologist and organizer, as well as the director of the Mary Turner Project, which was established to commemorate the life of the lynched Black woman named Mary Turner, as well as the event and institution that facilitated her death in southern Georgia in 1918. As a racial education and reconciliation project, Whitewashed fits well within the mission of generating a deeper dialogue about the meaning and significance of race and racism, especially amongst whites, who seem oblivious to it and who are arguing even more avidly about its supposed irrelevance.

For the sake of transparency, I must admit to knowing the director. I even appear in the film and am shown as a relatively competent, reflective white person. That said, one of my favorite parts of watching Whitewashed was the venue I was able to first see it in. The premiere public showing included numerous other interviewees in the audience as well as many dozens of college students, roughly evenly split between white and Black. The discussion afterward was amazing and just what I assume the director desired. White students seemed impressed to hear other whites speak so candidly about race and their own privileges—something whites rarely do amongst each other. Black students were shocked by both how much privilege whites has in relation to them and that some whites were actually very aware of it (on both counts, the Black students didn’t know whites “got away with” so much, nor did they think any whites understood how much discrimination and inequality people of color experience). After the film, both white and Black students told personal stories that reflected upon things that interviewees had said (especially in respect to differential treatment by police), which helped to create a fascinating discussion around whiteness.

There’s a challenge or two, to viewing Whitewashed. Audiences will have to watch closely in order to distinguish between the “a-racial” person on the street and the anti-racist interviewees. Sometimes there’s overlap, but usually the consequences of what they say is starkly 180-degrees in difference. Generally, the a-racial people are actually outside, while most of the anti-racist are interviewed indoors (but this is not 100 percent the case). The ambiguity between these two poles of opinion might help people be as critical as possible about what is said.

The only other thing that a studious observer might note about the people included is that, while diverse in terms of gender (and maybe sexuality), the anti-racist whites seem much more middle-class, at least judging by how articulate they are (indicating their higher socio-economic status). The a-racial people on the street sound more working class and have much stronger Southern accents. While this may perpetuate stereotypes about racist “rednecks” and more “enlightened” middle-class whites, this is not universally the case, and Whitewashed avoids making easy caricatures for audiences to fall for.

The best contribution of Whitewashed—beyond getting people to talk about race and whiteness—is that is shows the part of the “race conversation” that seems to always be overlooked. The people with race privilege, often staffing the bureaucracies involved in institutionalized racist discrimination, and who decry raising issues of race (let alone admitting to its importance), are usually white. To ignore these patterns is tragic. Hearing whites—in some respects, modern-day John Brown, white-privilege-defectors—talk about these privileges and the resultant problems is an important experience for everyone. The film informs people of color that they do have some white allies and it puts other whites on-notice that not everyone sharing their skin color is of the same mind about what it means to be white in America.

Topics: race, inequality, whiteness, privilege