Review: 'Mann V. Ford' A One-Dimensional Tale Of Bittersweet Justice Served

by Kevin Jagernauth
July 18, 2011 1:59 AM
16 Comments
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What kind of price tag do you put on justice after decades of being harassed, abused, ignored and victimized by big business and government alike, whose actions have devastated a community and a way of life that will never be the same again? Can justice ever truly be served and what shape will it take? Those are the central questions that co-directors Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink endeavor to answer with "Mann v. Ford" a well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed film that takes us elbow-deep into the shocking and heartbreaking titular case, which results when the Ramapough Mountain Indians -- longtime residents of Ringwood, N.J. -- find their people ravaged with cancer and other illnesses after it's discovered that Ford used their land as dumping ground for toxic waste in the late '60s and early '70s.

With a history stretching back well over a hundred years, the Ramapough are a close-knit and insular group that drew tighter as the world around them cast them in the roles of inbreeders, thieves and generally a northern version of the worst Ozarks-type people served up since "Deliverance." And thus, as the community children began to develop strange symptoms from playing with the dumped paint sludge -- often using it slide down hills or make colorful mud pies as kids are wont to do -- the village elders, out of fear of the reaction they might get if they brought it to the authorities and a little wilful ignorance too, turned a blind eye to what they were seeing. But those symptoms soon became deadly diseases and the damage being done to both to the environment and to the the Ramapough was worse than anyone could have imagined.


Enter Vicki Gilliam, lawyer at the The Cochran Firm in Memphis, Tennessee who is hired by Wayne Mann to represent his people in a class action lawsuit against the car manufacturer. Pairing up with a few other firms to share the workload and expense, Gilliam begins pulling together the details of the case that will include over 600 plaintiffs and a web of malfeasance that seems to get worse each day the case moves forward. While Ford's complicity is pretty much confirmed by their own damning internal memos, which not only reveal their full knowledge about the dumping that occurred at the time, they also demonstrate overt racism against the very people they were affecting. In short, they didn't care and they were pretty sure no one else would either. But the failings didn't stop there. Perhaps even more galling, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site -- one in desperate need of cleanup -- only to literally pour a bunch of rocks over the problem and announce it was "safe." In fact, it was still so badly polluted that the community rallied and succeeded in having their neighborhood relisted as a Superfund site (something that is rarely done) but the damage was done and the hope that their own government would step in to help quickly gave way to easy cynicism.

In case it isn't already apparent, "Mann V. Ford" will make your stomach churn in outrage and your heart ache in sympathy. However, the filmmakers are hampered by an approach that almost never steps outside the viewpoint of the Ramapough and their supporters. This isn't to impugn the accuracy of their evaluation of the devastating toll Ford's actions have taken, but from a cinematic perspective, without the participation of anybody from the carmaker (they declined to be interviewed for the film) or even the EPA (they appear in a few brief scenes), "Mann V. Ford" quickly becomes one-note and at times drifts into being strident. With repeated mini-screeds against Evil Big Business and their attention on the bottom line versus human rights, the film takes on an amateurishly political bend at times that's better suited to idealists in dorm rooms than a measured, level-headed film. And as an indication of perhaps how starved the directors were for material, the middle of the film takes a detour and creates a mini-documentary about Gilliam's journey to becoming a lawyer. It's a fascinating story but it has little to no bearing on the tremendous legal action that is being put forth.

As the doc moves into its second half, it simply begins notching timestamps in the decades-spanning case, with more and more details emerging not only painting a better picture of just how nearly everyone in the Ramapough has suffered sickness but also how much of this mess came from the decision-makers at Ford. A suggestion is floated that the EPA is actually run/lobbied by Ford and other industry folk who influence their findings but it never goes beyond suspicion. Likewise, a thread involving Lisa Jackson -- a supposed champion of the Ramapough and President Obama's choice to head up the EPA is his administration following the election -- ends up unresolved with no followup after she is sworn in.

Justice does eventually arrive, but it's a bittersweet moment because it ultimately does nothing to bring back those lost or to replace the void they left behind. Overlong, repetitive and not as investigative as it could have or should have been, "Mann V. Ford" can be admired for giving a voice to the Ramapough, but in doing so, Chermayeff and Fink make sure it's the only voice you hear, to the detriment of the film. [C]

"Mann v. Ford" premieres on HBO tonight at 9 PM.

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16 Comments

  • ak | September 4, 2013 4:40 PMReply

    I found it interesting, though not a surprise coming from HBO, that the only President mentioned in a negative light was Reagan. This despite the fact that since 1967 there have been 5 republican (including the unelected Ford) and 4 democrat presidents. Also no indication of the political dominance of democrats in NJ. The original flawed superfund cleanup was in 1994. Why not at least acknowledge the fact that Clinton was president then -not saying he's responsible, just asking.

  • JH | June 4, 2012 3:03 PMReply

    Hey "JACK",

    I do understand the story behind this tragedy and you obviously don't know what the hell you're talking about. If we follow your logic, then every defendant must be guilty just because they don't testify in their own defense. Very nice....whose the buffoon now?

    Do your homework about this dump in Ringwood and the history of the area in general. The iron mines were in operation since the late 1700s so to think that all that mining had ZERO impact on the environment vs Ford's LEGAL disposal of Mahwah castoffs for four years is ludacrious. Do you even know that this land Ford leased was a dump prior to them LEGALLY getting access to it? Do you know the city of Ringwood and the state of NJ authorized their use of the land?

    So what you call "dumping" was indeed legal at that time per the environmental regulations. Does that make it right? No, but you speak with the tone as if they committed a "crime" when that simply isn't the case.

    I think "Pissed Ringwoodian" said it best when this film is not an even-handed attempt to tell the WHOLE story from all sides. This is a hit piece to smear "evil corporations" with the Ramapoughs playing the "tribe" card to eek out some more free money by reaching into someone else's pocket.

    I think he / she can speak to this better than anyone residing in the area.

  • Pissed ringwoodian | May 27, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    I agree that the dumping of paint sludge is a tragedy and that ford is guilty of environmental negligence. But this story is totally embellished and exaggerated. I have been living in ringwood for 41 years and had to go live and exist with the people in this film. I know almost every ody who was interviewed or pictures on this documentary. Now let me explain the what the real problem is with this so called tribe. Not one person up there takes their native American ancestory seriously. The last time they did was 10 years during their last lawsuit when they attempted to use their " native American history " to be able to legalize gambling in their side of town. I have seen with my own two eyes , insest and marriage between cousins. It is rare if a person from up there marries outside of where they live. The drug use is rampant with cocain, heroine and meth all bought and sold to their own family members. Check with ringwood police about the drug busts and violence that occurs up there. Thank god the amount of money they received was low or else the beautiful town of ringwood would turn into a drug ridden shithole. This is not to say that everybody is like that up there but a good estimate would be that 90% of the residents are like that. 100 years of inbreeding and drug use does not stand a chance against paint sludge.

  • raincloud | February 8, 2013 10:43 AM

    @P.R.:
    You need to check your history. The Ramapough couldn't be less interested in casinos, and one of their major goals is to build a longhouse for religious purposes, to replace the one that was destroyed in 1840. If they're so uninterested in their Native heritage, why do they have pow-wows every September? For crying out loud, that's hardly a cash cow. Why would they even remain as a distinct community, when for the past 200 years there was so much of a benefit to moving to the City and trying to "pass" as Turkish or Portuguese, if they didn't take their ancestry seriously?
    As far as the incest myth, the Dutch passed a law that anyone with a Native name, anyone speaking a Native language, or anyone practicing a Native religion would be executed. So, when the Lenape were forced to give their "name", they picked the first thing they could think of (like if the first name that came to mind for you was John Malkovitch). Naturally, people would choose the same names: politicians, high-ranking officials of the Dutch West India Company, and to a lesser extent, families who were friendly to the Ramapoughs. That's why you have names like Van Dunk (after Adriaen van der Donck) and De Freese (after David Pieterszoon de Vries). Well, sooner or later one "Van Dunk" will marry another "Van Dunk." There's the appearance of incest, without the reality.

  • Bart | May 31, 2012 12:33 AM

    You're completely clueless. So what if there is incest and drug use in Ringwood...this justifies big business dumping toxic chemicals into the community and poisoning people? Do you have another genius theory to explain the rampant cancer cases? Would you still be writing the same nonsense if you or your children lived there and got cancer? Now that's an eye opener...eh?

  • Beverly | October 8, 2011 3:36 AMReply

    Thank you, Monica, for your clear, concise thoughts. I couldn't agree more. If the reviewer takes issue with the fact that Ford cared not enough to comment -- please take it up with Ford. The facts stand clear.
    That the "settlement" of $8000 per victim was approved? I wish Cochran et al would comment. That is a tragedy.
    I believe Chermayeff, HBO, et al provided a great public service by airing Mann v Ford. I would appreciate a follow-up on the health issues in 5 years.

  • kolcs | September 16, 2011 9:16 AMReply

    i just saw this film at the cambridge film festival in the uk, and i could not have given clearer words to the thoughts i had during the viewing.
    a more objective and distanced approach to the film by the filmmakers would have been far more effective

  • unfooled | August 11, 2011 7:24 AMReply

    This is obviously written by the company, then the 1st comment tries to tie in a republican supporter to make it look more realistic.

    We are not sheep, also did you pay google to make this the top hit when searching for the topic?

  • JH | August 5, 2011 6:09 AMReply

    Finally, a level-headed reaction to this propagandist film. All I've seen / read is nothing but complete rants from left wing loons who hate Ford and ALL "evil corporations". This film does not fully present all the FACTS associated with this disaster and is only interested in smearing Ford, corporate America, and capitalism to make a larger political statement. Thanks for giving an accurate review, Kevin.

  • Jack | March 11, 2012 4:40 PM

    Sorry "JH," but what exactly makes you any different from the "left wing loons" that you deride? Ford had an opportunity to participate...and it declined. There was ample research presented in the film to build the case...Ford's unwillingness to participate damns them more than just about anything else. But why should they participate when they have stupid mouthpieces like you and Kevin who solicit the idiotic notion that if a corporation doesn't tell it's side of the story because it chooses not to...the story ought not be told?

  • Maureen | July 23, 2011 7:10 AMReply

    Thank you very much, MONICA for your comment to this post. I agree with everything you said and could not have said it better.

    The person of whom wrote this review should be reviewing children stories. What total rubbish from you: “better suited to idealists in dorm rooms than a measured, level-headed film. And as an indication of perhaps how starved the directors were for material, the middle of the film takes a detour and creates a mini-documentary about Gilliam’s journey to becoming a lawyer. It’s a fascinating story but it has little to no bearing on the tremendous legal action that is being put forth.”.

    Sir, after watching this documentary, HOW could you write such a cold thing? Wondering if you really work for Ford or the EPA myself....

    Ford had a chance to be part of this film but with no surprise here, declined. Was this a one-sided story? NO, it WAS NOT...

    Powerful film, everyone living in the USA should HAVE to watch. Our own government would throw any of us under the bus for a extra buck and do anything possible to cover it up as I feel the EPA would allow it (as long as they got their dollar as well). Where are you, Lisa Jackson and where is your 'concise'?. These people did NOT receive justice but were a stepping stone for your new EPA job....

    To the lovely Ramapough Mountain Indians, my deep love for holding on to your land, even though Ford made sure, your grandparents would not be around to see their families grow, live and love. If I could clean this up for you, I would. Were these people given justice? Not even close.....even the reviewer of this film gave you no justice (go back to reviewing children stories or better yet, STOP doing reviews).

    Again, my thanks to the above post from MONICA for saying it straight. With her parting words: Shame on you, shame on the EPA, shame on Ford, but a big thank you to HBO for showing this documentary.

  • Had nothing better to criticize but the dimension | July 19, 2011 4:13 AMReply

    This documentary isn't about dimension. As a reviewer you should understand the intent and approach best suited to what needs to be conveyed.
    Do you think Ford would have agreed to be part of this documentary?
    Duh?

    Maybe you prefer a 3D summer blockbuster for dimensionality.

  • Jack | March 11, 2012 4:47 PM

    The simple answer is that he's not a reviewer...he's a corporate apologist. The message he's selling is this: if the corporation chooses not to participate in the documentary, the documentary ought not be made. Although I do need to correct you (as I recall, Kevin did claim that Ford declined to participate), at the end of the day, all that shows is just how indifferent the corporation has become to public suffering. And the fact that there are still idiots that come out to defend Ford and attack a documentary for being one sided when the other side refused to participate shows just how asinine corporatist drones have become!

  • michelle | July 19, 2011 2:51 AMReply

    I don't know if you can call 8,000 per person for years and years of damages "justice" in any sense of the word. Although one-sided, you can't blame the filmmakers for the cowardice of the companies to blame.

  • Monica | July 19, 2011 2:44 AMReply

    Your review is full of grammatical errors and is poorly worded. Of course Ford declined to be interviewed for the film. The film makers gave an accurate description of the case and the evidence that was made available to them. If you had problems with the story, the facts, and the timeline that is your opinion. But to call it a documentary "better suited to idealists in dorm rooms than a measured, level-headed film" is completely inaccurate and an insult to the programming that HBO is trying to run. There is no other side to this story. It was completely clear to any of the organizations involved with this story that people were being abused simply because they had no political clout. Shame on you, shame on the EPA, shame on Ford, but a big thank you to HBO for showing this documentary after the wonderful "Hot Coffee" documentary that premiered a few weeks ago.

  • StephenM | July 18, 2011 8:39 AMReply

    Boy, I thought this was going to be about Anthony Mann vs. John Ford. Guess I'll move along now.

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