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Strong Sundance Docs Raise Specter of Racism in U.S. and Abroad

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik January 23, 2012 at 4:04PM

I haven't yet seen "Slavery by Another Name," a new documentary that's premiering in Sundance this week, but the title evokes a theme I've seen running through a number of docs at this year's festival: the prevalence of racism in the histories of America and other countries. While economic-themed docs drew headlines prior to the festival, strong nonfiction films such as "Searching for Sugar Man," "Under African Skies," "The House I Live In" and "The Law In These Parts" suggest darker, and more disturbing undercurrents about discrimination in societies--as well as, in some cases, the power to counteract it.
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I haven't yet seen "Slavery by Another Name," a new documentary that's premiering in Sundance this week, but the title evokes a theme I've seen running through a number of docs at this year's festival: the prevalence of racism in the histories of America and other countries. While economic-themed docs drew headlines prior to the festival, strong nonfiction films such as "Searching for Sugar Man," "Under African Skies," "The House I Live In" and "The Law In These Parts" suggest darker, and more disturbing undercurrents about discrimination in societies--as well as, in some cases, the power to counteract it.

Sugar Man

It's an odd coincidence that decades after the end of Apartheid, there would be two documentaries, "Sugar Man" and "Under African Skies," that deal with South Africa's horribly racist regime. "Searching for Sugar Man"--about a forgotten Bob Dylan-esque 1970s figure named Rodriguez--is one of the best films I've seen at this year's festival, and it deals not only with the racism that undoubtedly prevented Rodriguez, a Latino, from attaining pop fame in the U.S., but the heroic rock-star status he suprisingly found during South Africa's Apartheid years. His songs like "Anti Establishment Blues" would become protest anthems for South Africa's white counterculture while he lay back in a crumbling Detroit, completely unaware of his role in changing that society.

Similarly, "Under African Skies" tackles another performer, though one more well-known, Paul Simon, and his landmark Graceland album from 25 years ago and how, despite a blacklash from diehard African revolutiories, it may have helped put a human face on the struggle against Apartheid. I'm happy to report that the film is no mere hagiography or celebratory reunion concert movie. While it inevitably comes heavily down in Simon's favor, it certainly raises the thorny complexities of the situation. My full review is available here.

Eugene Jarecki's War on Drugs docu-epic "The House I Live In" doesn't explicitly deal with racism, but the issue dominates much of the film, proving how African Americans--and other minorities--have been unfairly targeted by drug policies for a century. In my review of the film for Screen Daily, I singled out the comments of historian Richard Miller, who discusses the way opium was criminalised to get rid of the Chinese in California, or the way cocaine and hemp were made illegal at other moments to vilify blacks and Mexicans, respectively.

Miller offers a five-point “chain of destruction”: identification; ostracism; confiscation, concentration; annihilation—which as used by Jarecki, eerily parallels the way America has fought its war on drugs, which according to the film, ultimately amounts to a war on poor people. As David Simon, who offers up some of the film’s most inflammatory comments, notes, the War on Drugs is essentially getting rid of 15% of the population. As he says, “You might as well just say, ‘Kill the poor.’”

From the U.S. to South Africa to Israel, a famous trio of racist societies, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz's "The Law in These Parts" is a thoughtful investigation into Israel's justice system when it applied to the Occupied Territories. Alexandrowicz effectively puts former Israeli military justices and prosecutors on trial for the way they've colluded with Israel Security Forces to sustain an unjust society and keep the Palestineans down. The film includes some amazing testimony from legal officials who remain steadfast in their discriminatory policies where "security comes before human rights." Or as one judge says, "Order and justice don't always go hand in hand."

This article is related to: Political Docs, Racial Issues, Sundance 2012