'LA 92,' 'The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,' 'A Suitable Girl' are standout Tribeca docs

ScreenerBlog

The Tribeca Film Festival, wrapping up its 16th edition this weekend, can always be relied upon to provide solid documentary programming. Some big names in the doc world have films at TFF this year, among them the Academy Award-nominated Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), with Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS; Cartel Land’s Matthew Heineman with City of Ghosts; the Paradise Lost trilogy’s Joe Berlinger with Intent to Destroy, about the Armenian Genocide; and GasLand’s Josh Fox with Dakota Access Pipeline doc Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock. And there are some big names among subjects, too, with Whitney Houston, Clive Davis, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Hedy Lamarr, Frank Serpico, Gilbert Gottfried and Roger Stone all on the receiving end of documentary tributes.

With so many docs on offer, it’s tough to make a dent without cloning yourself, but I’ve managed to check out some that broadened my horizons and tugged at the ol’ heartstrings. The first of those is Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s LA 92, about the uprising that sprouted in Los Angeles following the acquittal of Rodney King’s cop assailants.

If you’ve seen O.J.: Made in America, a lot of the first third or so of LA 92 will be redundant. The videotape of King’s beating sparked outrage, both in America as a whole and in Los Angeles’ African-American community, though for the latter group the “revelation” that the legal establishment was riddled with racism wasn’t exactly a surprise. “This is not an isolated incident,” said ACLU spokesperson Ramona Ripston of the King beating. “The difference this time is that we have the proof.” Yet proof wasn’t enough to convict King’s assailants. The case was moved out of L.A. proper to the mostly white Simi Valley in order to avoid biased jury selection (…really?), and three of the four defendants were declared not guilty. What followed was a six-day uprising that started in South Central Los Angeles and quickly spread to engulf chunks of the city in violent protests, looting and arson.

Even if the context of how the L.A. riots came about isn’t exactly untrammelled territory—2017 being the 25th anniversary of the riots, there are several other docs that either have come out or will in the coming months—LA 92 is still a remarkable cinematic achievement. What makes it such a visceral moviewatching experience is Lindsay and Martin’s decision to use only raw archival footage. No talking heads. No voiceovers. Just the rare title card to provide required background info as we dive back in to stunning footage of the riots themselves. LA 92 covers these events from so many angles—how it was sparked, how it hit the Korean-American community particularly hard and the sluggishness of the National Guard in responding, just to name a few—that it boggles the mind to think just how many hundreds of hours of footage Lindsay and Martin must have gone through. However many, it was worth it. LA 92 is powerful and moving, on top of being informative; even without experts to hold your hand and walk you through how things happened and what their modern-day relevance is, you feel the complete story here—not just the riots themselves, but how they fit into modern-day discussions about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Another important slice of history is addressed in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, from director/co-writer (with Mark Blane) David France (How to Survive a Plague). Johnson was a drag queen and trans rights pioneer who played a major role in the Stonewall riots and the gay rights movement that it subsequently kicked off. In 1992, at the age of 46, Johnson was found dead, her body floating in the Hudson River. While the police labeled her death a suicide, Johnson’s friends didn’t buy it—she wasn’t suicidal, they argued, and the circumstances surrounding her death were suspicious.

Though Johnson gives The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson its starting point and its beating heart—her presence suffuses every frame of the film—the film is less about Johnson per se than it is about the trans rights movement, its history and present explained through various facets of Johnson’s fate. (There’s a reason why “Death” comes first in Death and Life.) The throughline is the work of activist Victoria Cruz, who tirelessly investigates Johnson’s death 25 years after the fact. The NYPD’s history of shrugging off violence against trans sex workers; the oft-contentious relationship between the trans rights movement and the wider gay rights movement; the gay rights movement’s affiliation with the mob; and the way the “trans panic” defense is still used in court to essentially blame trans women for their own murders—all is covered in this powerful and resonant doc.

Death and Life casts a wide net. There are times when I wanted to say, “Wait, wait, go back. I want to know more about that.” I was certainly left wanting more about Johnson—her background, her activism work, her role in NYC’s art scene. But that’s not what Death and Life is. France didn’t set out to make a by-the-books biopic, and that’s to his credit. The moment that hit me hardest didn’t directly involve Johnson at all. In footage from the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day, we see the late Sylvia Rae Rivera—a trans rights pioneer and friend of Johnson, and a major presence in this doc—take the stage to a chorus of boos. Angry and sad, she takes the gay rights movement to task for leaving behind “your gay brothers and your sisters in jail, that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help. And you don’t do a goddamn thing for them.” It’s one powerful moment in a movie full of them.

Somewhat less effective is Emer Reynolds’ The Farthest, which is nonetheless a must-watch for space exploration enthusiasts. The subject here is the Voyager mission, which in 1977 launched twin probes into the outer reaches of the solar system. One of those probes is still out there, more than 12 billion miles away, the first manmade object to ever enter interstellar space.

If the subject of The Farthest got me a little verklempt—Exploration! Science! Space! Yes, I did get teary watching Interstellar, why do you ask?—its construction is somewhat lacking. The interviews, with key members of the Voyager team, lean towards the repetitive; one gets the sense that Reynolds liked everyone too much to cut them, but some people just don’t make for interesting talking heads. And Reynolds’ decision to bounce back and forth between various aspects of the Voyager mission was a bad one. I get wanting to mix things up a bit, but every time we went from, say, scientists raptly poring over the first-ever detailed pictures of Jupiter (…there’s something in my eye) to information on putting together the Golden Record, it killed the film’s momentum stone dead. That said, the glory of space exploration shines through. Archival footage of images from the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune fly-bys coming through—and of scientists reacting to said images—is great. And you can’t get better than one scene where a NASA scientist busts out a Raiders of the Lost Ark pun in a room full of journalists, only to be met with a full-body groan.

Common and Nelson George were on-hand to discuss the Common-produced Letter to the Free, a documentary short/music video hybrid that depicts jazz musicians (and Common, singing “Letter to the Free,” which was featured on the soundtrack for Ava DuVernay’s 13th) performing in the empty Queens Detention Complex. Directed by Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma, the upcoming Star Wars Han Solo spinoff), the stunning-looking Letter to the Free uses music to examine mass incarceration and the legacy of slavery.

My final doc was A Suitable Girl, about three Indian women attempting to navigate the world of arranged marriages. Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra’s filmed their subjects over four years, distilling their footage into a trio of storylines about different ways in which the modern Indian woman grapples with the pressure to find, well, a suitable boy. Sweet-natured, optimistic Dipti struggles to find a husband with little initial success, while educated city-dweller Ritu has little interest in marriage and would rather focus on her career. Both realize that don’t really have any options; getting married, moving from your parents’ house to your in-laws’ house, giving up your career and having children is just what they’re expected to do. “I can’t say that it is fair or unfair,” explains Dipti. “But girls have to take it like this only.”

The third interview subject, Amrita, is already engaged when A Suitable Girl starts. At first, she seems to be the most accepting of her situation. She loves shopping and partying, but all the same she’s enthusiastic about moving to her fiancé’s smaller town. If she’s not particularly thrilled to be giving up her career, well, her in-laws have a family business that she’ll be able to contribute to. Things look optimistic… until her wedding, in a scene that serves as A Suitable Girl’s emotional centerpiece. Indian weddings, at least their cinematic representations, are all fun and boisterous, but Khurana and Mundhra say in their directors' statement that part of their mission in A Suitable Girl is to “question the fairytale that is marriage, and to re-contextualize the pomp and circumstance of the Indian wedding as a painful rite of passage for brides who are literally shedding one identity for another, often losing a piece of themselves in the transition.” We see this happen with Amrita, who goes from smiling to grim nervousness, feet fidgeting and tears rolling down her cheeks as her husband sits beside her, clearly concerned but not really sure what to do. It’s a scene that couldn’t have said more if Khurana and Mundhra had sat down and scripted it. Actually, the whole thing feels like it could be a scripted drama, so clear, intimate and open are the stories it tells.