JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Driving While Black | The Planters | The Debt of Maximillian (Directors: Ric Burns, Gretchen Sorin, Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Saxon Moen) - October 15, 2020
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Driving While Black | The Planters | The Debt of Maximillian

4.5 4.5
112 min.

Variety is the spice of cinema (sort of)

Driving While Black
112 minutes, 2020
Ric Burns, Gretchen Sorin
Four and one half stars

Angry, tired and numb

How appropriate that this searing documentary about Black fear, humiliation, beatings and death should find its way to PBS with just three weeks left of the most pathetic, nonsensical presidency ever. It is miles away from Paul Sapiano’s 2015 dark comedy of the same name. Here, there is nothing to laugh about from any point of view.

The writing focuses on the development of the automobile. In the early days of driving, it became the method for disenfranchised, “you are worthless” Blacks to utilize four wheels especially (with the advent of mass production in 1913) rather than the Underground Railroad to head north, and most importantly west, escaping slave patrols (officially sanctified by the Fugitive Slave Act), lynchings, and no longer lining their “betters” pockets with the huge profits from dirt-cheap labour they provided in the cotton and tobacco fields of the South. The car became a symbol of power and privacy compared to systemic, frequently debilitating, segregation on trains and busses.

As new, large Black communities began to establish themselves—primarily in big cities such as Los Angeles—there was a modicum of hope. But it took the publication of the Green Book (first published in 1936, filled with extensive listings of safe lodgings, gas stations and restaurants for those who had the urge to explore their country without fear of discrimination, segregation and the KKK). The archival footage of such places as Lincoln Hill, Colorado’s famed Rossonian Hotel, Five Points and, most enduringly, Dooky Chase eatery (accompanied by marvellous interviews with long-time owner/chef Leah Case), manages to paint a relatively brighter picture for those who chose to venture out of their own bailiwicks.

But much of that relative calm and safety was turned on its head with the passage of the Federal Highway Act (1956). The bold plan was to connect the entire country with Interstates and expressways: stop sign free—similar to the coast-coast railways many years earlier. But, not coincidentally, the “great” leaders of the day simultaneously employed the federal program of slum clearance (almost all Black neighbourhoods) to be the roadmap for expropriation: after all, gobbling up less expensive land was both cost- and race-effective (in their minds). And so entire communities were cut off from each other by concrete and steel. The only saving grace, came from the many Black artists who turned the ugly pillars into memory-capturing, extraordinary works of art (one of those featuring the sign: “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work”).

The signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson, promised more hope than was ever delivered. Soon after, it was understood that only 3% of the Green Book safe havens remained: most being razed in the name of nation-building progress.

From then until the present day, the earlier slave patrols have been replaced by law enforcement, eager to pull over largely young Black men in fine-looking cars. The carnage has been virtually non-stop. Even with television capturing these bully-boys-with-a-badge-and-a-gun murders and beatings (more recently going viral with cellphone videos), saner minds have not prevailed. Prompting one articulate dad (whose son was shot by the “authorities” at just 17), expressed his view that root cause was the horrific results of “Driving While Afraid”. And making the telling point that if you are afraid of those who are bound to protect us, are you “a member of society?”

The closing quote from James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time), mightily reinforces the notion that, collectively, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is still a myth that shows no sign of being fulfilled in the foreseeable future.

As always, those who need to see this film—and understand its truths—never will. JWR


The Planters
78 minutes, 2020
Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder
Four stars

Treasure seekers of all types

From co-directors, co-writers, co-stars Kotcheff and Leder comes a screwball comedy that is the perfect antidote for COVID-19 stress.

Martha Plant (Kotcheff) buries “treasure” in the desert sand near Palm Springs, California, provides the GPS location on the town noticeboard then scoops up the return cash from grateful treasure seekers (but, really, who would re-bury the tin?).  Mentally challenged Sadie (doing double duty as personas Emma and Angie, Leder—once her protective helmet is removed…) assumes the role of Martha’s cheerleader in her other job as cold call air conditioner (get it?) salesperson.

A couple of equally oddball men (Phil Parolisi as the perpetually down-on-his luck Richard; church “caretaker” Jesús—I am not making this up!—is given a faithful characterization by Pepe Serna) keep the absurd plot going and the yucks continuing.

Deftly sensing the variety of scenes, situations and wonderful ridiculousness, Thomas Kotcheff’s original score is at one with the “action”. Subtlety, as Martha struggles with treachery and empty tin cans, it falls to Donizetti’s aria, “Una furtiva Lacrima (a furtive tear)”—key lyric = “M’ama” so switchable with “Martha!”) that becomes the artistic icing on this zany cake.

A cinematic treasure indeed. JWR


The Debt of Maximillian
93 minutes, 2020
Saxon Moen
Two stars

“I have it under control”

A promising premise (middle-aged family man tries to cope with his gambling addiction), never manages to lift off. Most viewers won’t really care about any of the characters, so there’s nothing or no one to cheer for.

Pass. JWR

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