Documentaries, Society

The Cyberweapons Race Has Begun

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary film covers the phenomenon surrounding the Stuxnet computer virus and the development of the malware software known as “Olympic Games“. The Stuxnet worm, a groundbreaking virus jointly created by the US and Israel, has the power to cripple nuclear plants and more.

Gibney’s film, Zero Days (2016), documents several aspects of this particular cyberweapon: from how the virus got into the relevant networks, to what it actually did when it got there, to how it was discovered (and whose fault that was) and the fact that no one in the United States or Israel has ever acknowledged its existence. Continue reading

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Documentaries, Society

Hollywood Caricatures

Hollywood films seem like the biggest advertisements for the United States of America. Action movies show muscled heroes saving cities like New York and Los Angeles from certain danger. Family dramas live in American suburbs, while romantic comedies maze through the downtown restaurants and bars. Westerns hearken back to frontier times and science fiction marvels at American space exploration.

In addition to the best aspects of Americana, films also showcase the worst prejudices within American society as explored in two documentaries: Reel Injun (2009) and Reel Bad Arabs (2006). Continue reading

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Documentaries, Society

Black Power and the Black Panthers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Robert Greene II discusses the lasting relevance of the Black Panthers and their anti-racist, anti-capitalist vision:

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.

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Documentaries, Society

The American Injustice System: Manufacturing Criminals

Earlier this year, Netflix released Making a Murderer, a 10-episode series that examines the life of Steven Avery. Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Avery was exonerated with the aid of the Innocence Project and the actual perpetrator was found. To date, the work of the Innocence Project has led to the freeing of 343 wrongfully convicted people based on DNA, including 20 who spent time on death row and the finding of 147 Making_a_Murderer_titlecardreal perpetrators. The TV series then goes on to follow the prosecution of Avery for a second major crime – murder. I would like to focus on this first arrest and later exoneration.

Making a Murderer follows a long line of documentaries that question the results of the criminal justice system in the United States. From The Thin Blue Line to The Central Park Five, American police and prosecutors have been shown to get things wrong. These are not isolated mistakes but, rather, a trend. A trend of innocent people – mainly young, impoverished, African American males – arrested for crimes they didn’t commit and send to prison for long lengths of time. This trend has a long history. It dates back to the American civil war through the Jim Crow era and into modern day drug policy. The two books The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson document this history well. The result is staggering: Continue reading

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Documentaries, Society

The Seven Deadly Sins of Powerful Institutions: Films by Alex Gibney

“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

From the unquestionable belief in Catholicism, Scientology and other religions, to the idolatry of Lance Armstrong and other sports stars, to the trust we place in government and business, we thrust a lot of power to the institutions that surround us. Identifying_The_Seven_Deady_SinsThe documentary films of Alex Gibney examine these institutions and how they become corrupted.

Gibney’s resume is filled with films that cover a broad range of topics, including those noted above. The more I thought about it, his films are excellent case studies of the power of institutions and the damage that they can cause. They also align with the Biblical notion of the seven deadly sins:

  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Sloth
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Pride

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