Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki
A strong contingent of political documentaries focusing on LGBTQ and racial issues stole the show at the 2016 LA Film Festival, which ran from June 1 through 9. No film was more impressive than the pro gay rights Political Animals, which world-premiered at the festival, winning both its Documentary Award and Audience Award for Documentary Feature Film.
Political Animals chronicles the legislative careers and struggles of California’s first four openly gay state representatives: Sheila Kuehl (who depicted TV’s zany Zelda Gilroy from 1959-1963 in the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Jackie Goldberg, Christine Kehoe and Carole Migden. Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares’ film makes the point that California’s initial out-of-the-closet members of the Golden State’s Assembly were lesbians, and not male homosexuals. That’s because America finds female gays to be less threatening and, more importantly, because the feminist movement prepared women to fight for their rights.
Using archival footage and contemporary original interviews, Political Animals follows the “queer” quartet starting in the 1990s, when these liberal Democrats strove to pass various pro-gay measures, including anti-bullying of homosexual students and same-sex civil union bills. The film shows how the four lawmakers were publicly vilified by their legislative colleagues, who likened homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia. But battle after battle, they fought on and won.
Another film festival offering, Jacqueline Gares’s Free CeCe!, moves the LGBTQ movement to the next level: confronting the epidemic of violence unleashed against trans people of color. The biopic’s title character, CeCe McDonald, is an African American trans woman imprisoned after killing an attacker in 2011 with a pair of scissors in what CeCe claims was self defense. The documentary follows CeCe behind bars, expanding to chronicle not only the prison industrial complex but the plight of trans people. The film features an appearance by Angela Davis, as well as trans actress/activist Laverne Cox, who executive produced the documentary and co-stars in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.
Other LGBTQ-themed films at the festival included the nonfiction Out of Iraq, about the romance between Iraqi men—one a soldier, the other a translator for U.S. forces—and the feature Chee and T, a wacky Harold and Kumar-type comedy, wherein homosexuality collides with South Asian immigrants’ conservative conventions at Palo Alto.
Racial and sexual politics erupt in Masie Crow’s Jackson, which documents efforts in Mississippi to circumvent abortion with subterfuges, from phony “pregnancy care centers” to onerous rules backed by Republican Governor Phil Bryant. The film focuses on the fight to shut down the Magnolia State’s last abortion clinic. Interestingly, the doctor and staffers inside working to ensure a woman’s right to choose are overwhelmingly black, while the majority of protesters outside of the facility are white.
Deborah Riley Draper’s Olympic Pride, American Prejudice blends archival footage and original interviews to document, in painstaking detail, the U.S. black contingent to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Jesse Owens is well-known, but the film also gives seventeen other African American Olympiads, including silver medal winner Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s older brother, their long overdue due. Narrated by actor Blair Underwood, who also executive produced the film, Olympic Pride shows how these athletes had to contend not only with fascist notions of Aryan superiority, but also American white supremacy.
Margaret Brown’s The Black Belt also uses historical footage—of the Civil Rights Movement—to tell a tale about voter suppression in modern-day Alabama. The closing of thirty-one motor vehicle registration centers makes it tougher, especially for blacks, to get the photo IDs required for voting in the Deep South state. The film was executive produced by Laura Poitras, Oscar winner for the 2014 Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour.
Company Town, an expose of the Koch Brothers, was executive produced by David Brock, CEO and founder of Media Matters for America, and Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to President Clinton who also exec produced 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, about torture in Afghanistan, which won the Oscar for best documentary. The film, co-directed by Erica Sardarian and Natalie Kottke, focuses on massive pollution from Koch Industries’ Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Crossett, Arkansas, which has been linked to widespread cancer in that community. It shows grassroots resistance to the billionaire brothers, while local, state and federal officials, including EPA, do little or nothing to protect the people. Not surprisingly, neither Koch brother agreed to be interviewed on camera.
The LA Film Festival is produced annually, by Film Independent, which “champion[s] creative independence in visual storytelling and support[s] a community of artists who embody, diversity, innovation and uniqueness,” according to the nonprofit’s mission statement. This year, most screenings took place at Culver City’s ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles. In addition to Political Animals, this year’s other festival award winners include:
The U.S. Fiction Award: Remy Auberjonois for Blood Stripe; World Fiction Award: Anaïs Volpé for HEIS (chronicles); LA Muse Award: Heidi Saman for Namour; Nightfall Award: Jackson Stewart for Beyond The Gates; Audience Award for Fiction Feature Film: GREEN / is / GOLD, directed by Ryon Baxter; Award for Short Fiction: The Beast (Zvjerka), directed by Daina Oniunas Pusić; Award for Short Documentary: The Gatekeeper, directed by Yung Chang; Audience Award for Short Film: Into Darkness directed by Rachida El Garani; Audience Award for Web Series: Instababy, directed by Rosie Haber.
Ava DuVernay, director of the 2014 Civil Rights drama Selma, co-won the Spirit of Independence Award, while actor/director Nate Parker was “in conversation” about his forthcoming feature The Birth of a Nation, about the 1831 Nat Turner slave uprising in Virginia.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s “Man in Hollywood” and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.