Tag Archives: social issues

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain should truthfully be titled The MURDER of Kenneth Chamberlain, and I’m pretty sure everyone involved in this film hears the correct word shouted over the one that’s used every time it’s pronounced. The film does the shouting for them, of course, leaving little (no) doubt in anyone’s mind who watches it. Kenneth Chamberlain, a Black man, was murdered by the police. It is such a familiar refrain by now that it may seem redundant to make yet another film – but that’s exactly the point. These stories need to be told, heard, and shared until actual changed is effected. Kenneth Chamberlain was an old man in his bed when the police came knocking on his door. This is his story.

On a November night in 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain rolled over in his sleep and accidentally triggered his life alert button. The police showed up to his apartment in White Plains NY’s public housing do a wellness check around 5:30am. Rousing him from his bed, Kenneth was confused as he fumbled for his hearing aids. He was a retired Marine struggling with bipolar disorder; he was listed as ’emotionally disturbed’ by the police dispatch but in fact he wore the life alert for a heart condition. He refused to let the cops in but verbally assured them that he was fine and the button was pressed accidentally. The cops would not leave. Having assessed his neighbourhood as predominantly poor and Black, they were furious to not be let in, and wanting to teach him a lesson, they mused he might be hiding a meth lab, or a dead prostitute. Kenneth held his ground, growing increasingly agitated by the insistent banging and attempts to push their way in. Keeping the door firmly locked, Kenneth placed panicked calls to the life alert agency, pleading for his safety. Overhearing the police intrusion, the woman on the other end does everything in her power to call off the cops, but no matter what she or Kenneth, or Kenneth’s family do, the cops will not back down.

How do things go from a wellness check to gunning an old man down in just 90 minutes? Frankie Faison as Kenneth paints the troubling picture of yet another innocent Black man murdered by the police. The lengths the police will go to in order to murder him are astounding. While not a documentary, it almost watches like one, determined not to stray from the truth, which was recorded in its entirety by Kenneth’s staying on an open line with his life alert company. For some this will be old news, and for others eye-opening, but either way, this is must-watch viewing.

Ferguson Rises

Say his name: Michael Brown.

Michael Brown had graduated high school just 8 days before the police shot him dead. He was planning to study heating and air conditioning repair at a technical college just two days later. Instead, an altercation with officer Darren Wilson, just 90 seconds from start to finish, led to Wilson discharging 12 bullets, 6 of which hit Brown, the last of which resulted in his death. Eye witnesses share conflicting accounts of what happened, but some are certain that Brown took the shots to his front while raising his hands in surrender and saying “Hands up, don’t shoot”. Michael Brown, completely unarmed, lay dead in the street, where his body remained for over four hours.

In the wake of Brown’s murder, protests, both peaceful and violent, continued for more than a week in Ferguson, and the police department’s response was botched, criticized for the tactless insensitivity of their highly militarized response. A grand jury failed to indict Wilson, adding injury to injury and reinforcing a divide in Ferguson based on the shade of one’s skin.

This documentary, by director Mobolaji Olambiwonnu, revisits the residents of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, 7 years later. Michael Brown’s death – the murder of a Black body by a white and racist police officer – was sadly one of many, but his was a rallying point, igniting protests against police racism and brutality in Protests erupted in 170 cities across the U.S., including Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But for Ferguson, it was different. It was personal. Missouri was the last state to abolish slavery, and the aftereffects of that oppression are still felt today. While white residents of Ferguson watched protests turn to riots, they expressed disbelief, and disapproval. But Brown’s death and subsequent treatment wasn’t a surprise to Ferguson’s Black community. Darren Wilson wasn’t one bad apple; the entire Ferguson PD was institutionally racist, routinely violating the rights of Black citizens.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement that has sprung up as a result of all these protests does have some white support in Ferguson, there are a number of white people still firmly on the wrong side of right. Brown’s mother and father will tell you what it feels like to live in a community divided over your son’s death. His friends will tell you what it’s like to drive by the spot where he was gunned down. Protesters will tell you what it was like to get on a plane and fly back in time, coming home to a town in Missouri where a white police force was brutalizing Black weeping mothers, shooting tear gas at people filled with righteous anger, using rubber bullets against people trying to express their horror, their abhorrence, their shock, their sorrow.

Many voices contribute to Ferguson Rises, and themes of strength and resilience seem to create a pattern. Black Americans may have suffering and oppression in their DNA, but they’ve got determination in their souls.

I knew this documentary would be an emotional watch, but it feels essential to return to the scene of the crime with a clear head in the pursuit of truth, and perhaps more importantly, real change. We have so little to offer Brown in exchange for his life – this feels like the least we can do.


A rural farming township since 1850, Scarborough became the easternmost borough of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953 but grew to be such a busy suburb it became its own city in 1983 – only to amalgamate once again in 1998 into the present City of Toronto, though it remains a distinct, fully urbanized and diverse cultural community. A popular destination for immigrants, it is home to many religious groups and places of worship. It is still the greenest place in Toronto, but it is also the poorest. More than half of residents are foreign-born, and nearly three-quarters are visible minorities. It is a neglected neighbourhood, with fewer of the city’s resources being diverted toward its infrastructure, education, etc, purposely forgotten because of race and class. This is the space in which the film Scarborough and its characters exist.

Three kids meet in a Family Literacy program in their school. Free breakfast is the biggest draw for these kids and their parents, but while there, the program’s teachers emphasize good parenting techniques and reading as a family activity. The program’s directors arrogantly presume that these children have fallen behind because of poor parenting rather than housing instability, unemployment, the demands of special-needs children, English as a second language, inadequate nutrition, racial inequalities in the education system, and other important risk factors. Social factors are outside their purview, so they are roundly ignored even when clearly an obstacle to a child’s development.

Luckily for these three friends – Bing (Liam Diaz), Sylvie (Essence Fox), and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) – they see each other more clearly than any government agency, social worker, or teacher ever well. They’re just kids, learning to read, yes, but also learning to cope, to fit in, to survive. Bing and his mother fled abuse in the middle of the night. Laura gets shuttled between an addict mother and an angry father, and Sylvie tries not to be forgotten between her autistic brother and disabled father.

Scarborough moved me. These kids go through so much, grow up so fast, and yet all they desire is a friend and a piece of candy. Their wants are so modest that it breaks the heart to see them disappointed time and again, to see them failed by the very people meant to protect them. The film isn’t accusatory, though. That would be futile. Instead, it invests in a generation tasked with saving itself, with somehow escaping the cycle of poverty while being forced to run its gamut.

The filmmakers have done a wonderful job generating authenticity and empathy for its characters while showing them with nothing but the dignity they deserve. The casting is particularly commendable as most are non-actors and yet the kids are natural and charming despite some really tough topics.

Scarborough will sit in my heart for a while. It’s a beautiful film, both visually and spiritually, and brave for making its world premiere in the heart of Toronto itself, at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Test Pattern

Renesha’s just had a good first day at a new job and is looking forward to having a good second day, so she’s a little hesitant to go out and join her friend at their favourite place for a drink, but she vows to her boyfriend that it’ll just be a quick one, and she’ll be back home at a decent hour. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) invites Evan (Will Brill) along of course, but drinks with the girls isn’t his thing, so he stays home and she goes out, and doesn’t return home that night at all. When she turns up the next morning, she’s been raped. Plied with free alcohol the night before, a man takes her back to his place, not just against her will, but when she’s so inebriated she no longer has any will at all.

The next day, Renesha and Evan will negotiate the difficult intersection of race and gender at the heart of the justice system and health care. But we’re not just talking institutional injustice and inequality; her private life is also unraveling. Director Shatara Michelle Ford examines this topic from every angle and none of them are flattering. The film doesn’t fall into the easy trap of victimhood, it’s much more complicated, intimate, and heartbreaking than that. Ranesha’s trauma is relived at every turn, and Hall’s performance is so nuanced we can see her being crushed in slow-motion.

You might mistake this for a small film but it packs a hell of a punch. Ford’s observations are as meticulous as they are tragic. Renesha suffers through so much: guilt, shame, embarrassment, resentment, self-recrimination, anger, even doubt, and that’s before uncaring institutions start revictimizing her. Sexual assault is obviously a sensitive topic but also a necessary one. Ford treats it with respect and specificity, but the film’s greatest achievement is also its most devastating: naked realism.

Test Pattern is available through virtual cinemas, including Toronto’s Revue Cinema and Vancouver’s The Cinematheque.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

This “moviefilm” could have been simply called Borat 2 but clearly Sacha Baron Cohen figured, why not have an 18 word title instead? Considering that Borat 1 had a 12 word title, a troublesome pattern is emerging, and that’s far from the least troubling pattern in the Borat franchise.

Borat is a terrible character and you can rest assured that Cohen has not toned things down in any way for the sequel, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Borat is just as offensive as ever, a racist, misogynistic reporter travelling through the U.S. and A., on a mission to gift a monkey to Vice President Pence as a tribute to Trump’s great success in undoing a hundred years’ worth of human rights. The difference this time is that everyone in America has seen his first movie so it’s much harder for him to sneak up on anyone. Fortunately for him, his non-male son Tutar (Maria Bakalova) stowed away in the money cage, and she has always wanted to follow in her journalist father’s footsteps. Unfortunately for Borat, he does not believe women can be journalists (or really anything other than residents of cages). Unfortunately for both, Tutar had to eat the monkey to survive the trip to America. So naturally, Borat decides to gift his daughter to Pence instead. And off we go on an adventure that includes Borat embarrassing a number of people who should know better, most notably Rudy Giuliani, who I expected to have been better coached by his friends in the KGB in the art of kompromat.

In 2006, I have to admit that I enjoyed Borat’s first moviefilm. Who could believe that people would say such outrageous things on camera after being offered a little bait by Cohen? It seemed unbelievable at the time. Fast forward to 2020, where no matter what Borat “tricks” people into saying, it pales in comparison to what happens every day on President Trump’s Twitter feed, or any given afternoon at Giuliani’s hotel suite. Cohen’s brand of shock humour seems almost quaint in comparison, which is terrifying.

For all its improvised scenes, Borat 2 has a remarkably focused and cohesive narrative, and contains quite a few funny character moments. But by nature, it also serves as a near-constant reminder of the ongoing nightmare that is American politics, which for me sucked all the fun out of the movie. No matter how hard Cohen and Bakalova tried (and they tried hard), I just can’t laugh at this stuff right now.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

For most of us, David Attenborough is the voice of nature. His soothing narration has taken us across the globe, from the coldest arctic waters to the hottest deserts to the wettest rainforests. The 93 year old Attenborough has spent his whole adult life exploring the world and documenting nature. During that time, he has seen drastic changes, and he has taken it upon himself to try to help us avoid an impending disaster.

Themes of conservation are not new to Attenborough’s documentaries but Netflix’s new A Life on Our Planet has no time for subtlety. Clearly, Attenborough feels he has no time to waste, which is less a function of his age and more an indication that catastrophe is imminent. Wisely, Attenborough’s warnings are interspersed with the beauty of our world, to show what is at stake and what could be saved or lost depending on which path we choose. Even better, Attenborough lays out a plan for saving ourselves, which he presents clearly and sells by pointing out that our planet is going to keep spinning, but our place on it is not guaranteed.

Unfortunately, Attenborough’s pleas will probably be dismissed by those who deny the changes that Attenborough, and all self-respecting climatologists, are documenting. Instead of ignoring the problem, I wish the deniers would be honest in their selfishness, and admit they don’t want to make sacrifices to preserve the future for coming generations. Of course, that would require them to admit they’re bad people, so I’m not holding my breath.

It is up to the rest of us to take action. A Life on Our Planet shows us how to do it, and more importantly, Attenborough reassures us that we can still undo the damage we have caused. A Life on Our Planet manages to be hopeful without minimizing the problems we face. It is a nature film that is about us, and it is a fitting capstone for Attenborough’s life work.

I Am Not Your Negro

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent describing his next book, “Remember This House.” It was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But when Baldwin died, he’d only managed about 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck delivers a stirring documentary as an ode to the book James Baldwin never finished, a work that enmeshes the civil rights work not only of these 3 great men, but that of Baldwin himself.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates some of the strongest and most poetic words – which will not surprise you if you’ve read Baldwin before. He had his finger on the pulse of America, his America, the oft-forgotten America, and he reported on his people with undeniable lyricism, beauty, and confidence.

The documentary expands on his thoughts with archival footage, which is used most effectively when bridging words he wrote 40 or 50 years ago to images of modern conditions and protest, which still apply. I Am Not Your Negro is about civil rights, but it’s also an expression of identity, of unrest, of passion, of hope. He wrote about his people because he saw beauty there, even in the struggle. He was buoyed by it, as much as they were by him. They shored each other up, and as these same issues continue to be fought for even today, it is no wonder we still turn to his words of wisdom and of utter poetry.

Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.

Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.

The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.

But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.

Queen & Slim

When I get pulled over by the cops, I don’t ever worry about getting shot.  And that’s not because I am polite or non-threatening or have no criminal record.  It’s because of the colour of my skin.  It is a privileged position to occupy and I didn’t earn it, I just have it.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and  Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) don’t have that same privilege, because their skin is darker than mine.  When they get pulled over driving home after their first date, the cop is immediately suspicious, belligerent and demanding.  Slim is ordered out of the car, required to pop his trunk, and when he asks the cop to hurry it along, has a gun pulled on him as he is told to get on the ground.  Worse, when Queen jumps out of the passenger side and slowly and louQueenandSlimdly announces she is going to record this confrontation with her cell phone, the cop shoots her.  Slim goes for the gun and in the ensuing struggle, the cop is accidentally killed, instantly turning Queen and Slim into two of America’s most wanted.

Could Queen and Slim have done things differently?  Sure they could have.  There probably was a scenario where their lives and the cop’s life went on as normal.  But this isn’t that story.  Queen & Slim is about the repercussions of the traffic stop gone wrong, and its greatest strength is making the chase relatable to someone who wouldn’t necessarily make better choices but by reason of his skin colour would likely face very different consequences for any mistakes he made (and probably no consequences at all).

Screenwriter Lena Waithe delivers a believable situation and sympathetic characters.  She also does well to detach the public portrayal of Queen and Slim from their actual personas.  They did not ask to be outlaws and they did not choose to become fugitives.  Those were the only choices they were left with after a cop accidentally got shot.  It helps immensely that we get to know Queen and Slim, ever so briefly, before their fateful confrontation with an overly aggressive cop.  We get to see how the chase is framed from the outside while also seeing that there are not two sides to this story, that the lazy media narrative framing these two as cop-killers is more than just wrong, it is dangerous.

Left unsaid, but hanging in the air to digest afterward, is the question of how many more times does this sort of thing have to happen in real life before our society stops arguing over whether there is a problem and starts working together to fix it.   The biggest strength of Queen & Slim is that Waithe doesn’t shy away at all from the underlying social issues but manages, above all else, to be a compelling love story about two people who just wanted a chance at a second date.

Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.