Lifelong Learning Via Documentary Films

With all the down time I’ve had as a result of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the films I’ve marked “to-watch” on my various platforms. I don’t know about you, but when I run across a film or television show I want to see I keep track of it so when I’m sitting around trying to figure out what to watch I have a place to start. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect system because in the current climate we’re forced to subscribe to various platforms to enjoy media. Through one means or another I have access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Movies, Disney Plus, HBO Max, YouTube TV, IMDB, and a host of other platforms. There is no great way to keep track of what you want to watch, so as a result I have multiple watch lists. If I had the time and inclination, I could probably cross-reference them all and add them to one single watch list — but who has time for that?

All this is to say I have hundreds of titles available to watch at any given time. Lately though, I’ve been catching up on documentaries. I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner and often people ask me how I know so much random crap and I usually say I read a ton and I watch educational television and films. Documentary films in particular allow you to do a deep dive on an issue and usually you end up learning something valuable. Yes, some documentaries are more about entertainment and the subject matter can be trivial or frivolous (Tiger King comes to mind), and yes there are far too many true crime documentaries for my taste, although I do watch them sometimes if the subject is of particular interest. I recently watched the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix because I’ve read a lot about her case and I’m fascinated by the travesty of justice displayed by the Italian court and the focus on a wild but unproven theory about a sexual tryst gone wrong. That poor girl was nearly destroyed simply because she didn’t react “normally” when her roommate was killed.

But what I really look for in a documentary is an opportunity to learn something significant. Some of my all-time favorite docs include Hoop Dreams, Man on Wire, Religulous, When the Levies Broke, Roger & Me, An Honest Liar, Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Searching for Sugar Man, Sherman’s March, and The Thin Blue Line.

I love me some rock documentaries, especially Amy, Stop Making Sense, and A.K.A. Doc Pomus. I have seen tons of food documentaries, from Food Inc. to Forks Over Knives to The Future of Food. Some documentaries are funny, some are serious, and some are a little of both. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a film is a documentary or a drama, like Zelig or This is Spinal Tap.

These are glorious times if you like documentaries given there are so many streaming sites. Right now I have a few dozen docs lined up in my queue from Crip Camp to 13th to I Am Not Your Negro to What Happened, Miss Simone? I hope to catch up on a bunch of them over the next few weeks given I’m off work.

Earlier this week I watched a documentary that had been in my watchlist for a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It is called Disclosure and its about depictions of trans people in Hollywood past to present. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have to say I learned more about trans people in 1 hour 48 minutes than I had in my previous 54 years on the planet. Disclosure is a series of interviews with trans actors and actresses who share their experiences and thoughts on various key trans moments in film over the years. It features a who’s who of trans actors and actresses, including a few I knew something about like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono and tons I knew very little about. It was so eye opening.

It may be true the world is awakening when it comes to trans people, and while there’s a long way to go I was struck by a few things I learned in the film. I know this makes sense, and of course it’s true, but there have always been trans actors and actresses in film. It’s just that for the majority of the time the average viewer had no idea we were watching a trans performance. It was fascinating to hear from some of these actors and actresses who performed on film for years without anyone knowing their true gender. I couldn’t imagine having to hide such a significant thing about yourself in order to do your job.

The most striking thing I learned in the film was that up until very recently, like the past couple of years, trans people were ridiculed on the screen and we all thought nothing of it. There were a couple of specific (and loosely related examples) highlighted. Most film fans will remember 1992’s The Crying Game, about a man who unknowingly entered into a relationship with a trans woman. While Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, (spoiler alert) upon learning he’s been having sexual experiences with a trans woman Stephen Rea’s character reacted by literally throwing up at the thought of it. Imagine how that might have felt if you were a young trans person watching the film at the time? How horrifically irresponsible of the filmmaker. Two years later blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective spoofed the scene by having multiple characters throw up simply upon seeing a trans person. In fact, a trans person is the villain in the film. This too is a common theme in Hollywood, that of the villainous trans person — from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs.

I never really thought about trans portrayals on film and on TV. Over the past few months I’ve been watching the Showtime series Billions, which stars TVs first significant non-binary character in Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason. They are wonderful in the series, but it took until 2016 for Hollywood to write in a non-binary character with some meat to the part. And as for trans characters, they’ve long been subjected to roles as sex workers, murder victims, or comedic interludes.

Disclosure is ultimately a film about the positive turn underway in Hollywood. Trans actors are being taken seriously, and they are getting roles written as trans to be acted by trans actors and actresses. Orange is the New Black was a breakthrough moment for the trans community with Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset portrayed as much more than a sideline character for comedic relief. In fact, Sophia’s storyline is both heartwarming and tragic and it’s definitely not one dimensional. I have not seen the show Transparent, but I understand that while there has been some negative reaction to CIS actor Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans woman, the show does in fact provide some meaty roles for actual trans actors and actresses including Alexandra Billings who is interviewed in Disclosure. And of course there are the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, who wrote and directed The Matrix films and who are setting the bar for trans power in film.

The bottom line is I had never thought much about trans portrayal in Hollywood but it makes sense that popular opinion of trans people will be both reflected by and influenced by film and television. It’s important if we are going to continue to advance as an inclusive society that we recognize the past and fight for the future. We all have a role to play, and educating ourselves is a good start. I’d like to think I’m already a good trans ally for the trans people I know — and I know more and more people transitioning all the time — but there’s a difference between surface-level knowing and deeper understanding. There are so many lessons for the CIS community in Disclosure that I recommend it for everyone who wants to be a better ally.

Top 20 Things I Watched on TV in 2020

In the past I liked to blog about my favorite films of the year, or my favorite TV shows of the year, but 2020 has been a year like no other and I can’t even remember the last time I was in a movie theater. On the other hand, I have spent an inordinate amount of time watching television — older shows, new shows, documentaries, limited series, and everything in between. And yes, I’ve watched a ton of movies on TV, including some that never got to theaters because of the pandemic. So this year I’ve decided to blog about the top 20 things I watched on TV regardless of whether they are “TV” shows or “movies” since those lines are perhaps forever blurred.

For many of us, 2020 has been the year of the binge. Certain shows captured the attention of the whole nation and entered the pop culture that maybe would have been just a blip on the radar in the past. I’m thinking of Tiger King of course, which for the record I did not watch in its entirety rather I saw bits and pieces as my son and his girlfriend binged it, or The Mandalorian which I also didn’t watch. I think the most asked thing on Facebook this year was people asking friends and family for advice on what to binge.

That said, there was a ton of content to choose from in 2020. I definitely haven’t seen everything I want to yet, so I reserve the right to add to this list, but for now with a couple of week’s to go in the year this is where I am. So here we go:

  • Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. (Amazon) I make no excuses for this, but I absolutely loved Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. Yes, I loved the original. And yes, I think Sacha Baron Cohen is very funny. Very very funny. And while I didn’t think it was as pee-in-your-pants funny as the original, it still made me laugh.
  • Unorthodox. (Netflix) I’m a sucker for a good cult story and make no mistake, Hasidism is a cult. The story of Esther Shapiro was engaging, heartbreaking, terrifying, but ultimately redeeming. Inspired by a true story, this miniseries will have you on the edge of your seat. It also featured one of the most remarkable acting performances of the year in Shira Haas’ magnificent portrayal of Esther.
  • The Last Dance. (ESPN) It felt like everyone was watching The Last Dance over the summer. This documentary about the Chicago Bulls was compelling television for basketball fans, sports fans, and frankly fans of drama in general. The footage and the inside stories were remarkable and let’s face it, Michael Jordan is one of the most famous people on the planet and getting a peek into his world was fascinating.
  • My Octopus Teacher. (Netflix) This is one of those documentaries that you would never watch unless someone told you it was a don’t miss. It’s a don’t miss. It’s about a South African guy who becomes friends with an octopus. Really. I know, but he does.
  • David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet. (Netflix) This should really be higher on my list. If you’ve ever watched a nature show, you pretty much have David Attenborough to thank for bringing the genre to life. But this is much more than a nature show, it’s a clarion call to humanity to wake up before it’s too late — and it’s just about too late. If life on earth does go the way of the dodo, what’s left of humankind will look back at this particular documentary and mark the beginning of the end. If we listen to him, there is hope for humankind. If we don’t? Well, I think you know the answer to that. Thank you Sir Attenborough for this farewell message. I hope you don’t look down from above 30 years from now and say I Told You So.
  • Sex Education (Season 2). (Netflix) This show was one of the best surprises of 2019 and Season 2 did not disappoint. This British show is what a teen comedy should be. It’s funny as hell, but it’s also smart and the teens are real. It has a great cast led by Asa Butterfield as the awkward Otis who inadvertently becomes his school’s expert in sex thanks to all the knowledge he soaked up from his mom’s therapy practice. His fellow teens are desperate for his advice and so of course he launches an underground sex therapy practice at school. Ncuti Gatwa excels as Otis’ best friend Eric, a teen coming to terms with his homosexuality in fabulous ways.
  • The Good Place. (NBC, Hulu). I binged all four seasons of this silly show in 2020 and I really enjoyed it. I have to admit, I’m a Kristen Bell fan and her portrayal of Eleanor Shellstrop from Phoenix, Arizona was hysterical. But what makes this show so good is that the entire ensemble cast is wonderful. If you don’t fall in love with D’Arcy Carden’s encyclopedic “Good Janet” there’s something wrong with you and you should be sent to her void.
  • Hannah Gadsby: Douglas. (Netflix) In 2018, Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby broke the internet with her standup special called Nanette. Seriously, people couldn’t decide if it was the best standup special they’d ever seen or it was a Ted Talk in disguise that had no business being called standup. I can tell you what it was for me — the most brave and vulnerable performance by a comedian I’d ever seen and the best 70 minutes you’ll ever spend if you have any humanity. Douglas was her follow up, if there can be a follow up to a revelation, and it was funny and smart and clever and darn good. I doubt very much Gadsby expected that first special to change her life so dramatically, but it did and we’re all better for her being in the spotlight. Nanette will change you. Douglas will make you laugh. Watch them both.
  • Little Fires Everywhere. (Hulu). I’m always skeptical when a film version is made from a book I love, and while the Hulu miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s wonderful novel is not perfect it’s very well done and worth the watch even you haven’t read the novel. Reese Witherspoon has a keen eye for good material and she is an avid reader so I wasn’t surprised when she grabbed up the rights to Ng’s book and I was thrilled when they cast the exceptional Kerry Washington in the co-lead role. Little Fires Everywhere is timely and important.
  • High Fidelity. (Hulu). I began this remake as a sort of “hate watch” but it wasn’t long before I forgot my complaints about why they even attempted to remake a perfect movie. It’s really not the same story. I mean, it’s about a love worn record store owner who shares details about past relationships. But Zoe Kravitz brings a whole new flavor to Rob, above and beyond the obvious gender flip. It is nice to see a story about a woman in charge of her relationships and taking ownership for her mistakes. So often films are stuck in the “boy fucks up relationship” mold that it was downright refreshing to watch Kravitz struggle through her issues. I really didn’t want to like this because the film is among my all-time favorites. But I liked it. A lot. And I’m rooting for a second season. Oh, and the fun little irony of Kravitz’ real-life mom Lisa Bonet having a key role in the original was cool.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix). Aaron Sorkin takes on the 1968 Chicago riots and a cast of 60s characters too crazy to be fiction…I was always going to love this film. When I was in college I read Tom Hayden’s autobiography so I knew a lot about the trial, but it was great to see it come to life on the screen. Sorkin did a tremendous job bringing these hippies to life, but the performances truly stole the show. Sacha Baron Cohen was unforgettable as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne played a perfect laced up Hayden, and Frank Langella was a wicked Judge Julius Hoffman. Truthfully, Sacha Baron Cohen can really act.
  • The King of Staten Island. (Amazon). Judd Apatow has become one of my favorite directors and this semi-autobiographical film about Saturday Night Live regular Pete Davidson was funny, warm, touching, and well done all around. Davidson is one of the few SNL stars with real talent and he puts it all on display here and he may just have a future as a leading man. This film also includes fabulous supporting performances by Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei and especially young Brit Bel Powley as Pete’s girlfriend. It’s classic Apatow, complete with a cameo by his daughter Maude who has really grown up since her under-the-radar turn in This is 40. But this film is all about Davidson, whose real-life story of growing up without his dad who was killed on 911 is heartbreaking. This film is heartbreaking, but ultimately leaves the viewer feeling good about the young protagonist’s future. I suspect we’ll see the same in Pete’s real life…in fact we already are.
  • What We Do in the Shadows. (FX, Hulu). I haven’t seen the film version of What We Do in the Shadows, so I didn’t have any baggage coming into the television series. Frankly, if the film is half as funny as the TV show I should probably watch it sooner rather than later. I’ll admit, this kind of humor isn’t for everyone. It is very British, or in this case kiwi, since the creators are from New Zealand. Creator Jemaine Clement is a crazy nut with a devastating sense of humor and show runner Taika Waititi (of Jojo Rabbit fame) is a dark comedy genius. This show about modern day vampires living in Staten Island really made me laugh and I can’t wait for season three next year. The whole cast is fabulous, but English actor Matt Berry truly steals every scene. Bat!
  • Ozark (Season 3). (Netflix) The story of Marty Byrd and his family is what binge watching is all about. Ozark has been one of the top shows now for three seasons and season three did not disappoint. In fact, it may have been the best yet. The storyline with Wendy’s brother was intense, and every minute of screen time for Julia Garner was breathtaking. Dang that woman can act. She’s already won a pair of Emmys and I suspect it won’t be long before she brings home an Oscar. Her Ruth Langmore is one of the most memorable television characters of all time. I know not everyone liked season three, but that final episode? Come on.
  • Better Things. (FX, Hulu). Don’t you love it when you take a chance on a show and it turns out to be amazing? I binged 43 episodes of this Pamela Adlon-led gem this summer and it was remarkably bold and dangerous and heartwarming and funny all rolled into one mom trying to keep a family of all girls from exploding. I mean, it did sort of explode a few times, but Sam Fox always pulled it together in the end. The actresses who play her daughters are super, especially Hannah Alligood who plays middle daughter Frankie. Seriously, it’s hard to upstage Adlon, but 15-year-old Alligood did it time and time again on this show. I know some won’t watch this show because it was written and produced by Louis C.K., and I get that, but Pamela Adlon is not Louis C.K. nor is she an apologist for her longtime friend and collaborator and in fact she severed ties with him following the scandal. She is an American treasure is what she is. This show was brilliant.
  • Narcos: Mexico (Season 2). (Netflix). The Narcos franchise has been one of television’s most compelling series over the past few years and whether you watch the original series on the Columbian drug trade or the newer series about the Mexican cartels you’re in for a powerhouse of performances and drama. I think Narcos can easily be placed among the best crime dramas ever and for my money it’s right up there some of my other favorites like The Sopranos and The Wire.
  • Love on the Spectrum. (Netflix). This limited series from Australia was a delight to watch. The show follows several autistic adults as they attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of dating, hard enough for people not on the spectrum but even more difficult if you have a disorder like autism. But everyone deserves love. This show is sweet, and pulls at the heartstrings, and makes you giggle. The “stars” of the show are a joy to get to know and you can’t help but root for them to make a love connection. I can’t wait for season two.
  • The Great. (Hulu). Maybe I’m a sick fucker, but no show made me laugh more in 2020 than this little series about Catherine the Great. Yes, it’s a dark comedy set in 18th century Russia. That in and of itself is strange, but it’s truly laugh out loud funny (if you don’t mind gallows humor). I plowed through both seasons of The Great in a few days and didn’t want it to end. Dakota Fanning is so good, but Nicholas Hoult is tremendous as the sex-crazed, solipsistic, idiot of a king. Hoult is one of those actors who you know you’ve seen before but who you don’t likely know by name. The chap from Wokingham was in Mad Max: Fury Road, About a Boy (he was the boy), X-Men, Deadpool 2, and on and on. He’s fantastic, but never better than in The Great. Huzzah!
  • The Queen’s Gambit. (Netflix). Sometimes there’s a good reason why a show gets so much attention — it is deserved. The Queen’s Gambit is such a wonderful series about a topic you probably care nothing about. But the mini-series is a period piece, and it was beautifully shot, but mostly it’s just a great story about a fascinating young woman.  Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an orphan with a mind for chess. What’s great about the show is you don’t have to give two shakes about chess, it’s simply a fabulous story. The fact is, we all love a story about someone considered common who turns out to be extraordinary. It’s part of the American narrative isn’t it? Taylor-Joy is definitely one to watch as she is marvelous as Harmon.
  • Ramy. (Hulu). This underappreciated gem from Hulu is the perfect show for our times and the single best show I binged in 2020. Ramy stars comedian and actor Ramy Youseff as a first-generation Egyptian American living in New Jersey trying to both fit in with his American friends and neighbors while at the same time trying to figure out his relationship to his religion. And that ain’t easy when you’re Muslim in America these days. Youseff is torn between enjoying the freedoms life in America affords us all while still trying to be a good Muslim. It may be an impossible task, and it sure isn’t easy for Youseff. On the one hand, he’s a young American male who wants to have sex, do drugs, go to parties, and enjoy life. But he’s being called to a more religious life and that appeals to him as well. Truth is, you really can’t do both despite the hypocrisy he sees all around him in his Muslim community. Ramy is such an important show right now. It’s critical for Americans to see Muslim characters that are not always cast terrorists. It really is that simple. People fear what they don’t know. The more you watch Ramy, the more you relate to him, the more we start to get past all the hatred of the other. What is wonderful about Ramy is that he does this through comedy, but at times the drama is hard hitting so when you least expect it you get a sense of just how divided we are as a society. Bravo to Hulu for making this show, and bravo to Youseff for bringing it to us. Ramy is a great television show that everyone in America should watch. You’ll have a good laugh, but you’ll also understand more about our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is television at its most relevant and importance. I don’t know if TV can truly change America, but it sure can’t hurt.
A Black Spot on the Heart

Ramy — “A Black Spot on the Heart” – Episode 103 – So let me get this straight, you don’t do drugs, but you’ll have sex with women you’re not married to? That’s not nuanced, its hypocritical. Ramy (Ramy Youssef), Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and Mo (Mohammed Amer), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)