Here’s a snapshot of some new documentary DVDs, recently received at the Dallas Public Library.
On August 1, 1966, I was 12 and living in Brooklyn, NY. Charles Whitman’s noon hour mass shooting that day from the University of Texas/Austin’s Tower – a way-foreign locale to me back then – was something probably beyond all our comprehension at the time. I would always remember Whitman’s name, though little did America know that his rampage was only the beginning of a decades-long siege of carnage for this nation.
This unique documentary combines animated recreations of that day’s event – yes, animated – with authentic footage and personal interviews of campus survivors. That animation may seem jarring at first, but it is so skillfully done, and the words of witnesses and victims (both real and cartoonish) so compelling that I soon grew accustomed to the film’s “gimmick”.
What viewers will take away from this memorable work are instances of amazing heroism from that day. Before the era of campus-wide Twitter warnings, SWAT teams, and “shelter in place,” Whitman was finally stopped by two Austin policemen and a deputized private citizen, using only standard-issue firearms along with adrenaline, keen ears, and courage.
During the 90-minute rampage, Claire, a wounded eight-months-pregnant student, was completely alone on the 100-degree pavement – until Rita, a fellow student and total stranger, willingly lay next to her on the concrete. They could only wait and hope for rescue as they chatted, but Rita helped save Claire’s life by keeping her conscious, until other brave young people risked death by breaking cover and carrying Claire to safety, in full view of the sniper. (She would survive; her baby would not.)
Stories like these make Tower quite amazing. It’s both a testament to the human spirit in moments of senseless crisis, and a powerful portrayal of America’s baptism by fire that day, in arguably the first instance of what would become an all-too-familiar national ritual.
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, African-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals, disproving Adolf Hitler’s assumptions about Aryan superiority. However, as this fascinating film shows, Owens was not the only black member of America’s team that year: there were 18 such athletes, in track & field, and boxing. Some of Owens’s teammates would also win medals, while others failed to reach their event finals, but all represented this nation with dignity – which they often failed to find upon their return home.
While they were treated well in Germany, Jim Crow America would largely stymie the athletes’ lives and careers after the Games. Among several powerful post-Berlin stories: one runner worked as a street sweeper, and always wore his official U.S. team jacket while on duty. Anyone interested in sports/Olympic history will find this documentary enlightening and moving.
This Oscar-nominated biography of outspoken jazz singer/civil rights activist Nina Simone includes extensive performance footage, plus interviews with Simone and her family, associates and contemporaries, in a close look at the career and private life of one of the 20th century’s most compelling artists. Trained as a classical pianist hoping to perform Bach at Carnegie Hall someday, Simone fell into jazz by chance, and became enmeshed in the civil rights movement after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, after which she wrote and performed hard-hitting, sometimes banned, songs like “Mississippi Goddam”.
Unfortunately, Simone’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder eventually led to unpredictable behavior both onstage and off. Her final years were spent abroad in scattershot “comeback” attempts, isolated from family and the audiences who had revered her for decades. This film offers an engrossing portrait of a fascinating woman who was both somewhat a product of her time, and ahead of the curve. (The DVD set also includes a CD of Simone recordings.)
The legend of “FFJ” was resurrected in 2016, thanks in part to the feature biopic starring Meryl Streep. But in this film, Fort Worth native Collup blends archival photographs, 1936excerpts from memoirs and personal reminiscences, plus, of course, copious samples of Jenkins’s vocal prowess (??) to illustrate, with tongue lightly in cheek, the life of this unique woman.
Born in 1868, Jenkins was both moneyed and passionate about music. As a New York society “club woman,” she oversaw much musical entertainment for that city’s elite masses over several decades. Yet she herself always longed to be a singer and took lessons to that end. Though it had to have been apparent to her brave teachers that the talent was simply not there, nary a negative word was evidently tossed her way and thus she soldiered on, making recordings that actually sold well, and achieving a dream by renting out Carnegie Hall for a sold-out concert in October 1944 – an event at which thousands cheered and also laughed in disbelief. When a few courageous music critics dared offer scathing opinions of the event in print, the shock to Jenkins’s system precipitated a heart attack, from which she died a month later.
Just how bad a singer was she? This film’s soundtrack confirms that she was astonishingly awful. But its largely straightforward narrative takes a “just the facts” approach to her story, reminding us that while Jenkins may have been seriously delusional, she sincerely desired to bring pleasure to one and all. To paraphrase her most famous remark: “People may have said I couldn’t sing, but no one could say that I didn’t sing.” And so she did. (For an additional view of her life and times, look for the book Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! by Darryl Bullock.)