This month’s picks look at an organized-labor fight, a student impostor and a lecturer chronicling racism in America.
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By Ben Kenigsberg
The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘American Dream’ (1990)
Stream it on the Criterion Channel.
Barbara Kopple is one of only a small group of filmmakers who have received two Oscars for best documentary feature — and both of Kopple’s winning films concern the thorny, almost intractable complexities of organized labor. The first, “Harlan County, U.S.A.” (1976), is a stone-classic chronicle of a Kentucky miners’ strike in the early 1970s. The second is “American Dream,” which tackles a similar subject from the perspective of the Reagan era, when meatpackers in Austin, Minn., went on strike, in part because their employer, Geo. A. Hormel & Company, had insisted on a contract that reduced their wages, even though the company had earnings of $29.5 million in 1984.
Before the strike begins, the movie presents two contrasting views of how the workers might proceed. One is personified by Ray Rogers, a labor organizer brought in by the meatpackers’ local union, P-9. He pushes the workers to make news and to take the offensive against the company and its financial backers, in what amounts to the 1980s equivalent of a viral pressure campaign that will threaten Hormel’s bottom line. On the other side — though theoretically on the same team — is Lewie Anderson, the head of the meatpacking division of P-9’s parent union, United Food and Commercial Workers. Anderson thinks Rogers is leading the Minnesota meatpackers down the garden path, that P-9 is unwise to strike without a certainty of inflicting economic damage on Hormel and that the tactics being discussed in Minnesota have the potential to undermine decades of collective bargaining and put at risk the wages of meatpackers nationwide.
Does Rogers have the substance and the strategy to back up his rhetoric? Is Anderson, perhaps internalizing the era’s pro-corporate attitudes, too eager to make concessions? Kopple holds out both possibilities as events proceed. Dissident members of the local union meet with Anderson. One of two brothers who works at the plant weighs becoming a scab. (“He won’t be my brother if he crossed the line,” his sibling says in a news report.) The strike has consequences that are felt both economically in Austin and across the country. There are no easy answers in “American Dream,” and there’s no easy ending, either.
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‘My Old School’ (2022)
Stream it on Hulu.
Last week, The New York Times reported that 29-year-old has been accused of pretending to be a student at a high school in New Jersey. A similar story is the subject of “My Old School,” in which the former classmates of an impostor twice their age share their memories of being duped.
The case made headlines in Scotland at the time. In 1993, a man calling himself Brandon Lee enrolled at Bearsden Academy, a school in what an interviewee describes as the posh part of Glasgow. There were some odd things about him, starting with the fact that he shared a name with the movie star who had just been killed on the set of “The Crow.” He looked a little older than his teenage classmates and had more stubble. His accent was tough to place. (His back story was apparently that he had been living in Canada, and was the son of a dead opera singer who had traveled around.) Teachers liked him. He seemed so knowledgeable.
“My Old School” unfolds on several crisscrossing tracks. One is a recollection of the events from Brandon Lee himself, although that wasn’t his real name. He agreed to be interviewed but, we’re told, did not want his face to be shown, for reasons that go mystifyingly unexplained even by the movie’s end. Instead, the director, Jono McLeod, has brought on the actor Alan Cumming to lip-sync to Lee’s words. (McLeod also has a history with the material that is best left to the film to reveal.)
Then there are the recollections of Lee’s classmates, who still speak appreciatively of the way he influenced their taste in music or, partly by virtue of being weirder than they were, elevated them from their own awkward social statuses. Reminiscences from all sides are illustrated with animation, a device that underscores the idea that the stories we’re hearing might not be reliable. But some of the oddest, creepiest material is documentary evidence from the time, notably a video recording of the school production of “South Pacific.” Lee was cast in a leading role.
Reviewing the movie last summer, A.O. Scott asked whether it was practicing a dubious form of access journalism. “Its fascination with Brandon becomes a kind of credulity, a willingness to accept uncritically the mystifications of a proven liar,” he wrote. That is fair enough, and certainly a comparable movie in which, say, an actor lip-synced to the words of George Santos while voters in his district shared impressions of his campaign would probably not play as a lark. But there is a fair amount of fun in watching Lee’s schoolmates, often interviewed in pairs, jogging each other’s memories and trying to figure out what on Earth they were thinking.
‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’ (2022)
Stream it on Netflix.
Built around a talk that the lawyer Jeffery Robinson (a former deputy legal director at the A.C.L.U.) gave at Town Hall in 2018, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” may be the most absorbing lecture documentary since “An Inconvenient Truth.” In the movie version, directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (daughters of William Kunstler, the Chicago Seven lawyer), Robinson, near the beginning, asks his audience to consider that two seemingly incompatible ideas might both be true: that “America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the Earth.”
If that sounds like a polemical premise, it rarely plays that way, in part because much of the historical evidence he presents is in open view, in less-cited corners of texts that any schoolchild might come across. He points to Article V of the Constitution, which exempted the slave trade from even the potential of being outlawed by constitutional amendment until 1808. The third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not one you’ll hear at baseball stadiums, includes the chilling lines “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” He counters the argument that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery by pointing to Confederate states’ own secession statements that explicitly say otherwise.
Robinson also travels to different parts of the country for interviews, including one with a centenarian who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. He visits the part of Tulsa — the area once known as “Black Wall Street” — where the massacre occurred, and where houses used to stand. It’s history that, as Robinson notes, you may not have been taught in school, but it’s hardly hidden.
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