Documentary Round-Up – July 2021

The One and Only Dick Gregory 
(2021, written & directed by Andre Gaines)

Before watching this documentary, I can’t say with confidence that I knew who Dick Gregory was. I’d certainly heard the name, but beyond that, details were sparse. But, if you were like me, then Gregory was a stand-up comedian born in St. Louis. He came up in the 1960s alongside the new wave of Black American comedians like Nipsey Russell & *gag* Bill Cosby. Gregory’s breakout performance came at the Playboy Club in Chicago as a stand-in for their regular comedian. This led to gigs on popular television programs and a general acceptance by the mainstream media industry. 

Gregory eventually became involved in the Civil Rights movement in the Southern states and befriended figures like Medgar Evers & Martin Luther King, Jr. This sparked a sense of activism in Gregory, and he became highly vocal against the Vietnam War. Into the 1970s, he became very involved in the feminist movement, speaking up for Native peoples, decrying pollution, and advocating for greater education on personal health in America. While contemporaries like Cosby liked to use his platform to blame Black people for problems that often had roots in systemic racism, Gregory acknowledged these problems existed but sought to empower Black people to overcome them.

In the latter half of the documentary, I got the sense that some parts of Gregory’s life were being rushed through. For example, when they talked about his Bahamian Diet, a unique powdered diet mix, I wanted to know a little bit more about the legitimacy of the product. It seemed like something worth spending time on because it profoundly affected his wealth, particularly losing most of his money & assets. But, on the other hand, he seemed like a profoundly earnest person and, therefore, quickly caught up in certain things and letting them become the focus of his life. I don’t think there could be any doubt that Gregory wanted to do good, but it feels like something was missing from the documentary.

The Sparks Brothers
(2021, directed by Edgar Wright)

Once again, this documentary taught me a lot about figures in the media I have no knowledge of previously. It always amazes me how much there is to know about the world outside of the tiny sample most people have been exposed to. Here Edgar Wright introduces us to Sparks, a pair of brothers from Los Angeles who formed a band in the 1970s which has evolved into a semi-experimental & incredibly creative project today. Ron & Russell Mael defy definition and explanation most of the time, which makes them so interesting. They enjoy the money their career has brought them and the creative freedom they have with it to make the music they want. Their fanbase was composed of screaming British girls in the 1970s, but they just never seem like a band that would appeal to your typical; “teenybopper.”

This is also a chance to see Edgar Wright as a documentary filmmaker, which he does beautifully. Wright’s strong sense of visuals and sound are right at home here as he uses animated segments to recreate essential moments of the band’s history. Unlike the colorful spectacle of something like Scott Pilgrim or Baby Driver, most of The Sparks Brothers is shot in black & white, except for archival footage of the band performing. All the interviews are done in a beautiful contrast of B & W, which works for some reason with these subjects.

This is one of those films where the enthusiasm of the fans feels contagious. I can’t say I plan on listening to every Sparks album on Spotify, but I certainly appreciate their dedication to their craft, and a few of those songs are very catchy. I can hear the threads linking them to performers like Marc Bolan & other glam rockers, but the sound of modern Sparks has gone off in its own direction entirely. I found the dynamic between Ron & Russell fascinating, with Ron seemingly doing most of the writing. His lyrics on a close listen, while juxtaposed against energetic, often playful music, speak to a very lonely soul yearning for connection. Music that is heard as light & pop when passively listened to but ultimately introspective & questioning is very rare, and these performers are certainly unlike most artists out there today.

Crip Camp
(2020, written & directed by Nicole Newnham & James Lebrecht)

In 1951, Camp Jened was opened in the Catskills Mountains. It was intended to be a place where people of varying disabilities across age groups could come for a month or two during the summer to experience a different way of life. In the 1960s, Jened began to change from being a starch-collared middle-class venture into something more revolutionary under the direction of Larry Allison. Allison was brought in to create an environment centered around empowering disabled individuals to share their voice & thoughts about themselves & the world.

Director James LeBrecht was one of those camp attendees when he was fifteen and his time at the camp shaped his life and many others as they became disability activists into the present. One of the significant events to happen at Jened was ongoing roundtables and discussion groups. The disabled youths would gather and talk about what it meant to be disabled in a world that was often ashamed or fearful. It has to be remembered that the Americans with Disabilities Act hadn’t been enacted at this time in the United States, and even after it was, it wouldn’t be adequately implemented until the 1990s. The campers at Jened experimented with marijuana, engaged in romantic & sexual relationships, and some of the older disabled people even served as counselors. 

The documentary is a very well-done film. The most interesting part to me was the archival footage from the camp, which has been beautifully restored so that the age doesn’t show. I honestly could watch two hours of footage from the camp, seeing these people overwhelmed with joy at being in a community that finally understood them. I particularly enjoyed Denise Sherer Jacobson, a woman with cerebral palsy, who became a very sexually active woman in her twenties in defiance of the limits ableist people in her life put on her. This would lead to her getting a degree in sex education and becoming a vocal advocate for her community. I also loved hearing Steve Hoffman speak, another camper with CP who was a drag queen and very involved in the LGBTQ community. There’s archive footage of him talking about a desire for privacy which was denied him by parents that were fearful about leaving him alone due to not understanding his disability. Like I said that archive footage would be a joy to watch on its own.

One thought on “Documentary Round-Up – July 2021”

  1. Pingback: Summer 2021 Digest

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