Cynthia Fuchs

Young and Restless in China

"I never thought there was such a big world out there," says Wei Zhanyan as she walks to work in a factory. A migrant worker sent to work at 13 in order that her brother could continue his studies, Zhanyan is proud of making 40 cents an hour and glad to feel independent of her family, who remain in the village where she was born. Offering a brief tour of her one-room apartment and reveling in her freedom to read a book or watch television after work, she pauses, briefly, to wonder about what might have been. "I always wondered how other parents could support their children's education, but not mine," she says. Taking off her glasses to dab at her eyes, Zhanyan apologizes to her interviewer, then readjusts. "I shouldn't have said that," she says. "It sounds like I am blaming my parents for not living up to their responsibilities. But that's past."

It is and it isn't. For even as Zhanyan lives her present life in the city she is also tied to her past. This much is made clear when she learns, just a few minutes into Sue Williams' Young & Restless in China, that her father has arranged for her marriage through a matchmaker. And so, Zhanyan announces, "I got engaged, just like that." Still, she muses, "I like to be free and independent." And so she faces a dilemma, caught between old and new.

In this, Zhanyan is much like the other eight interview subjects in Young & Restless, which airs on 17 June on PBS' Frontline. From 2004 to 2007, Williams' crew followed them, observing their professional and personal turns. The film's wide-ranging and mostly superficial structure -- cutting quickly between participants, narrating cursorily to set contexts, and offering brief "confessional" comments by each subject -- recalls alternately the Michael Apted's Up series and The Real World, a mix of pop cultural reportage and current events documentation.

Construction in preparation for the Beijing Olympics provides a recurrent image -- workers in hard hats, bulldozers, and scaffolding -- reminding you that the nation is looking forward to a "global coming out party" even as citizens struggle with day to day details. Workaholic Ben Wu has returned to Beijing after a decade in the States, with a plan to open a string of internet cafés, modeled on Starbucks, but bigger and glossier. As he leads the camera crew through the first opening, Britney Spears' Toxic wafts in the background, blue lights throbbing and stylish spaces less than crowded. The cash flow is good, he says, and his investors are happy. And yet, Wu reflects later, his wife is working on her accounting degree in the U.S., which means he's feeling lonely for much of the year. "I should just get on a flight and go to New York and be with my wife just for a weekend," he says. "My café is not gonna go bankrupt over the weekend, so why don't I do it? I can't answer that question."

Similarly dedicated to her career, public interest lawyer Zhang Jingjing sees her social and political formation initiated by the crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As preparations for the Olympics pick up speed in 2005, the government forcing "one and a half million residents" from their homes or erecting non-approved electric lines around their neighborhoods, Jingjing sues the state on behalf of affected citizens. Though she insists the case is not "opposed" to the government per se, she does want to ensure that the law is followed during the rush to get ready for the Games. "We targeted an illegitimate licensing procedure," she says, "We sued because we believe that people come first." Her commitment to the cause takes tolls on her own life, as she admits a year later, when her fiancé breaks off with her. She knows it's because she doesn't put him "first," but she's torn, too, and not a little hurt that he finds solace with another woman who "flattered him."

Hospital resident Xu Weimin also feels formed by Tiananmen, "the June fourth incident," and he too is frustrated by the lack of long-term effects on policy. Nearly 70% of Chinese have no medical insurance, narrator Ming Wen notes. The film shows Xu Weimin making his way through literal crowds of people waiting outside the hospital, seeking medical attention, mostly unable to afford it. As he succeeds, he must also consider those left behind, like his own parents, no longer insured, his daily existence reflecting the film's central focus on the split in today's China between "idealism and materialism." As opportunities increase -- one participant declares the new imperative to "Get rich as fast as you can and have a good life" -- large swaths of the population remain in limbo or fall behind.

Rapper Wang Xiaolei (MC Sir) has creative as well economic ambitions. "People look down on you if you don't make money," he says, as he explains his identification with black U.S. hip-hop artists. The walls in his bedroom (he lives with his grandfather; his parents are divorced) feature posters of KRS-One, while the stories he tells through his music are specific to his own experience, including his relationships and, as the film puts it, "ancient Chinese myth." Energetic and surrounded by fellow artists, Wang Xiaolei makes money as a DJ, but has plans to start an independent label and produce records.

His family problems loom large on Wang Xiaolei's landscape of frustration, but they're put in another perspective by the story of Yang Haiyan, a housewife whose mother was "trafficked" 18 years ago. Determined to find her mother and "bring her home," Haiyan and her husband finally track her down. The camera follows them to the village where she embraces her mother and listens to the details of her kidnapping and trauma. Now living with a man, "cooking and cleaning and sleeping with him," Haiyan's mother wants to return with her daughter but is also conflicted, feeling obligated to care for a new baby and, having lived so long feeling dread and shame over her situation, afraid to go back.

Such is the recurring rhythm of Young & Restless, found in tensions between yearning and restriction, hope and acquiescence. Even as Wei Zhanyan finds it in herself to reject the marriage her father has arranged, insisting on her independence, other subjects living in much finer surroundings, worry over money and obligations. The film reveals so many similarities -- in ambition, possibility, and material interest -- between China and the West. But the prevailing resemblance remains the tension between capitalism's promises and realities.

PopMatters, the #1 independent online arts and culture magazine, is international in scope and dedicated to documenting our times and promoting cultural understanding. Find more PopMatters content at www.popmatters.com.

The Unassuming Icon

It's 1955, and men in fedoras and overcoats patronize Times Square magazine stores, scoping the racks for titles like Titter and Wink, Escapade and Flirt. They peer sideways at one another, not quite acknowledging a common desire and sense of guilt (which only enhances the titillation).

"Do you have anything a little… different?", a narrow-eyed customer asks the clerk. "Anything with… unusual footwear?" When the inevitable raid begins, the men scatter into the night, heads down and clutching their coats around them.

This is the scene at the start of The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron's smart new movie that is not, despite its title, quite about Bettie Page. Though Bettie (in a terrific performance by Gretchen Mol) appears in nearly every scene, the movie is more about the many forces that made her "notorious," the moral hypocrisies and sexual repressions that shaped the '50s and persist today.

That's not to say the film doesn't walk you through some biopic-ish steps. Bettie grew up in Tennessee, married a serviceman, moved to NYC where she met photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor). But these particulars don't string together in cause-and-effect relationships; instead, they establish contexts for Bettie's popularity, scandal, and eventual turn to Jesus when she left the "special interest" industry.

A glimpse of the Senate committee hearings on what chairman Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) calls "the effect of pornographic material on adolescents and juveniles" cuts to pinup queen Bettie, with white gloves and pert collar, waiting outside the chambers for her turn to testify. She's nervous, potentially the government's Exhibit A in its case against the scourge of porn (the actual case involves an adolescent boy who has appeared to hang himself, either in emulation of an s/m scene, or in despair inspired by his interest in smut).

From here the movie cuts again, to Bettie's childhood flashback: girls posing for photos for a boy their age, hiking up their skirts and laughing under the caption, "Nashville 1936." Even as a reverend's voice intones, "Come all you sinners and be not proud," Bettie hears her father's voice, calling the kids back to the house to "do your chores." It turns out that young Bettie is to "come on up" the ominous stairway, lurking in the background of the shot: her face goes pale in close-up and dad clunks up the steps behind her.

The rest of The Notorious Bettie Page complicates and contextualizes the themes laid out in these first three scenes. Bettie grows up in a culture that presents itself as pious, adult, and responsible to its precious children, but which actually exploits, abuses, and menaces those same innocents.

Which is not to say she appears here as a victim. Bettie is more a product of conflicting expectations and ideals. On one hand, she's the perfect, unthreatening pinup, glancing back over her shoulder with a big smile, welcoming the most insecure of viewers to imagine that she wants him. She's also a popular fetish model, spike-heeled and corseted, bound and gagged, exposing herself and posing oh-so-outrageously with fellow model Maxie (excellent Cara Seymour). Bettie embodied both and all, having "fun" in front of the camera, claiming innocence concerning any uses consumers might have for her image.

Of course, not all of her experiences are copacetic: during an early solo foray into city streets, she's approached by a sweet-seeming boy who asks her to go "dancin'" with another couple. She ends up in the middle of nowhere, where she's threatened with gang-rape. Telling the slick-haired boys, "It's that time of the month," she enrages a fellow who was looking forward to "getting some tail." She's forced to give them "some kinda satisfaction" as the camera pulls out and up.

Following the off-screen attack, Bettie appears in classic '50s-movie framing, running from the woods into the camera, tearful and afraid. She pauses, gathers her sweater around her, and heads back into the city: the camera watches her walk away, a survivor of hick cruelty yet again.

That she doesn't press charges or otherwise right this wrong indicates, again, the era's restrictions on "girls." Bettie finds another way to make sense of her experience, riding a Greyhound bus to NYC, competing in beauty pageants, and at last, stumbling upon her calling. An off-duty cop with a camera, Jerry (Kevin Carroll), invites her to pose on the beach. A crowd gathers, then a uniformed cop, displeased that she's white and he's black. Jerry starts to apologize, but Bettie soothes him, "They're just prejudiced. I used to be but I grew up and got over it." (The girl's a saint.) Jerry smiles, grateful for her kindness, and when they regroup in his studio, he comes up with tricks for "better" photos, padding for her bikini top and a new haircut -- Bettie's signature bangs, to cut the shine on her "high round forehead."

Harron's movie juxtaposes Bettie's personal and performative virtuousness with the smarminess of other early photographers, a men's "club" who pay to snap pictures of barely clothed models. "I saw it! I saw beaver!" gasps one to another, and it's clear you're in the land of perpetual adolescents, thrilled like Beavis and Butt-head over the mere hint of genitalia.

"It takes all types to make a world," Paula tells Bettie, offering a kind of instruction on self-preservation while also teaching her to pose for cheesecake, wear vinyl, and wield whips. "What kind of types?" asks Bettie, ever the naif, and ever lovely for it. When the Klaws' friend and director/designer John Willie (Jared Harris) wonders what Jesus might think about Bettie's profession, she pauses to ponder, then says she's been given a gift to make people happy. As the film illustrates, this means forcing her smile upside down when a customer murmurs nervously, "I want the young lady to look very strict."

When federal investigation pressures come to bear on the Klaws' business, Bettie sets off on vacation in sunny Miami -- these sections of the mostly black-and-white film are shot in color, suggesting the pulsing, vibrant life of the place. Here she poses for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), an erstwhile model who rejects the gear Bettie's brought along. "I believe the female form can stand on its own," she says -- and the perfect model has found her perfect photographer. "This girl has something special," Bunny notes in voiceover. "When she's nude, she doesn't look naked."

When one of their nude photos ends up on a Florida postcard, with yellow bikini added, Bettie feels like a star, and indeed, she's dubbed "The Pinup Queen of the Universe."

Certainly, not everyone loves her celebrity; her family worries that she's wasted her education (she wanted to go to college, and had the grades for it, but lost a local scholarship), and her boyfriend, actor Marvin (Jonathan Woodward) is shocked when he learns what's she's been doing for money (they met in an acting class, where he proclaims, "Acting is about truth"). But his stuffy response is set against a fan's question: "Does it make you sick to see guys like me grovel?" She smiles -- of course not -- because she's unphased by perverse devotions or Marvin's stern judgments. "Doctors write books about this sort of thing," he grumbles. "Do you understand what kinds of men buy these photographs?"

For Bettie, it's "just silliness." The condemnation and the masturbation both emerge from a lack of imagination, a desire to contain and possess "the female form." As Bettie works with Paula and Bunny behind the camera, or poses with Maxie (who's planning her own transition from model to photographer), The Notorious Bettie Page finds in these relationships mutual support, giddy fun, and familial trust. Without conventional melodramatic biopic trappings, the movie doesn't pretend to decipher the real-life Bettie Page (to this day, she's still preaching the gospel).

Men can ogle and evaluate all they want. The film's Bettie is what they've made, but she eludes them.

An Inside Job

New York is everywhere in Spike Lee's sharp new genre-bending movie. Not just in the sweeping-through-the-streets or creeping-along-the-sidewalk shots, but also inside the Manhattan bank where the film is set, inside the minds of the cops trying to solve the heist, and inside the exit interviews they conduct in tight, white-lit shots. New York is outside and inside "Inside Man", but mostly, it's in the incisive focus, impetus, and consequences of the film.

Ostensibly a heist movie of the "Die Hard" sort, with colorfully ingenious villains who reveal surprising motives, Lee's film (scripted by first-timer Russell Gewirtz) works within and without conventions, juggling a number of balls both familiar and eccentric. The detectives on the case -- hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Mitch (Chiwetel Ejoifor) -- appear first at the station, oblivious to the robbery that you already know is in serious progress. You've seen the foursome in painters' uniforms and masks enter the bank -- located, the camera notes from an ominous low angle, at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway -- disable the surveillance cameras, and take all the customers, workers, and security guards hostage.

When the scene cuts to Keith, he's on the phone with his stunningly beautiful cop girlfriend, promising her an evening with "Big Willy and the twins." Not the role Washington usually plays, but Keith is clearly a man of his environment, seated across two desks from Mitch and crabbing about an Internal Affairs investigation into a missing $140,000.

And then comes the call. Mitch and Keith light up when they realize they've got a chance to prove themselves, to get out from under the clamor at HQ. The captain's other, favored team is somewhere else, and so, as Mitch exclaims, they're off to "the show."

The crime scene is already taped off, a mini-city populated by shooters and uniforms, hulking vans and vocal gawkers. But even as the outside scene recalls "Dog Day Afternoon" (which Keith cites by name); inside, the machinery is grinding along: the robbers dress the hostages like themselves, move them from room to room so they can't get to know one another, and dig up a wall in the storage room. While you and the cops wonder what they're up to, Keith has to make nice with turf-protecting Emergency Services Unit Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), still mad at him for some case they worked years ago, but also anxious to get this one off quickly and successfully.

Keith's got bridges half-burned wherever he turns, which makes him intriguing, if cryptic. Among the bridge's he's going to be burning during this adventure is a relationship with bank board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who shows up partway through the calamity to offer "support," whatever he can do. The robbers have asked for a jet, which the cops recognize as a ploy (no one ever gets a jet, not since Munich, and everyone's seen the movies that make this point), but which Arthur agrees to right away. The cops, huddled in the corner of their commander-trailer, exchange smirky looks and send him off, understanding he's powerful and rich beyond anyone's dreams, but has no clue how to how to talk with people or grocery shop.

And so Case sends a minion, a very well-dressed, perfectly coiffed, excruciatingly intelligent fixer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), introduced as she's arranging for Bin Laden's nephew to purchase a condo (what's more, she puts him off, politely, as soon as she gets the call from Case, whom she's never met -- that's clout). "Miss White," as she's called repeatedly, gets exactly what she wants when she wants it, at least for a minute: she bribes Keith effectively, she plays Case, she knows how to reach the chief robber in charge, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). And yet, she can't quite solve this puzzle, which involves a special personal safe deposit box inside the bank (though the answer to this puzzle is "Inside Man's" least effective move, by far).

Miss White's presence highlights a couple of ideas that drive the film. One, that folks with money do pull the strings, but they don't know (or want to know) the details of the wreckage they leave behind. This would be the purview of Keith, as well as Dalton, who has his own sort of insight into how the system works. Matching wits with the cops, he admires Keith's pluck and ingenuity, but presumes he is smarter, as all villains do. He spends some time with a couple of the hostages (mostly to beat on them and impress them with his virtuosity: "Anyone else here smarter than me?"), in particular, a small boy who plays a handheld video game, "Kill Dat Nigga" (the visual and plot basics recall the game in "Clockers"). Clearly, the violence exhibited by the robbers has nothing on what kids see and imagine every day in the city. Dalton voices his concern: "I've got to talk to your father."

Amidst the plotting, the film flash-forwards to exit interviews with the hostages, with Mitch and Keith cracking jokes and pressing them to confess their collaborations. Appearing in tight shots, the grainy hi-def exacerbates the interviewees' complexities: their pocked faces and the too-shiny surfaces surrounding them.

If this interview-pressurizing also recalls "Clockers" (where one suspect appears in Harvey Keitel's glasses), "Inside Man" makes smart use of Lee's other signature techniques (the street overview, the bystanders with attitudes, the moving sidewalk -- all deployed brilliantly here).

Tense, showy, and shrewd, the movie is -- like everyone's been saying -- Lee's most generic (i.e., "accessible"), but that's not what makes it brainy or galvanizing. Indeed, its cleverest moments involve odd, telling details: the credits sequence use of "Chaiyya Chaiyya," the white-guy who recognizes but cannot translate Albanian language, and perhaps most energetically, the Sikh who resents being profiled as "Arab."

Thinking he's one of the robbers, the cops tackle him, take his turban, then refuse to return it to him. When Keith and Mitch pull him into the diner they're using for headquarters to question him, he finally has enough. Tired of being profiled at airports and eyed on the street, the young Sikh wonders, "What happened to my fucking civil rights?" Keith smiles a little. "Bet you can get a cab though." Competing traumas, leveling oppressions, comparable resiliences -- it's definitely New York.

A Different Kind of Family Reunion

"This is the voice," says Bree (played by Felicity Huffman), practicing her woman's pitch.

As if to do battle with the world, she prepares carefully before heading out the door, ensuring that her body is properly contained, her nails appropriately pink, her lipstick perfectly blushy. If she's not precisely the image on her Glamour magazine, she's as close as most mortal women might be. Bree means to make the case to her therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), that she's ready for surgery: her year in transition is nearly done, her hormones are aligned, and it's time. "This is the voice."

Or maybe not. Sitting in Margaret's office at the start of Transamerica, Bree admits in a gush that well, she's had a phone call raising the wee problem of the son she fathered when she was "Stanley," and much as she wants to put that self behind her, Margaret insists that she integrate. "Stanley's life is your life," she smiles, soothing. "This is a part of your body that cannot be discarded."

This is the sort of language that makes gender so perplexing, and so rigid at the same time. What does it have to do with bodies, lives and names? How can it determine who you are, or at least how others see you, which amounts to much the same thing if you're inclined to want approval or feel desired or even just to get along. And so Bree must face that past she thought was over, in the form of a 17-year-old Calvin Klein-model-boy named Toby (Kevin Zegers). She heads to NYC to bail him out of "downtown lockup," where he's residing since he tried to shoplift a frog. Yes, the child is looking for help, and Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary, doing good work under the auspices of the Church of the Potential Father.

The fact that Bree is not only determined and focused but also rather clever, often at her own expense (or at least, at an expense that you get because you know her dilemma and Toby does not), makes her endearing. It also makes you wonder about the series of decisions she makes in order that the film earns its cutesy title -- she and Toby end up driving cross country, getting to know one another and meeting each other's families in order to find themselves.

First stop: Kentucky, where Toby's redneck stepfather lives in a trailer, apparently so stuck in his stereotype that he can't keep his hands off Toby even for an evening. Bree is horrified that her son has been so ill-treated as a youngster, and considers that this may explain his current cockiness and half-assed hustling. It also means that their journey will continue, as Bree can't leave Toby in Kentucky, having witnessed this horror. And so, because Bree can't bring herself to confess her actual relationship to Toby, and he's not inclined to take advice from a church lady, they ride along encased in a kind of dull tension, ever on the edge of revelation, yet hanging back... because the movie must go on for another hour or so.

The episodic structure of Transamerica isn't so tedious as its gentle pokes at conventions as a means to make Bree's situation both affecting and palatable for an imagined, mainstream-y audience. This means that the conflict between parent and child must accommodate or reflect the sorts of anxieties that such viewers recognize and smile at, tiffs that don't quite reach crisis points, but instead allow the free-to-be-you-and-me vibe to permeate the film. Toby announces, "It's degradable," in an effort to impress his kind driver to give up hustling. Bree can't help herself, and corrects him: "Degrading."

So now you know, in case you missed it the first five times, that Bree's a stickler and Toby now has a mission, to trouble her sense of order just enough to assert himself and disrupt her seeming security.

Or so he thinks. They're headed for an inevitable collision, occasioned by a loss of funds and Bree's decision to bring Toby to her parents' pink and beige home in Phoenix, where her parents, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and Murray (Burt Young), revisit their discomfort with her "change." As Bree's car has long since died, they hitch a ride with the kindhearted Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene), who takes a liking to Bree. The movie supposes that Calvin doesn't "know" her secret. By this time Toby has discovered she has a penis, having spotted it while she relieved herself during a roadside pause, rather carelessly, given all the concern she's displayed about hiding the details of her anatomy. And so Toby is unnerved that Calvin might find Bree attractive, as the "deception," as he sees it, replicates the one he endured.

At the same time, however, the film doesn't allow for much identification on Toby's part. He leans heavily on his little-boy-lost affect, going so far as to lay himself out on a bed and attempt to seduce Bree -- his thanks for her kindness and generosity. In his mind -- perhaps -- he's playing gay boy, girlish boy, and maybe even studly boy, all at once. That the movie can't explore or even spend much time on this particular transgression -- incestuous desire, ambiguously gendered to boot -- exposes a distressing lack of nerve. The pain and betrayal can only lead to forgiveness, Lifetime-style.

More compellingly, the film's resistance to grappling with the interrelations of gender and sex suggests an investment in artifice, which is not in itself a problem (gender being a lifelong series of performative gestures, as in "the voice" Bree works to perfect). And yet Transamerica stops short, settles for the familiar "alternative family" rather than questioning all those systems of assessment and measurements of morality that make the very concept of "alternative" necessary.

Emperor of Masculinity

I think anybody that explores American history can't help but be drawn to the question of race. – Ken Burns, "The Making of Unforgivable Blackness"

See, Johnson was a pure individual. He did everything exactly the way he wanted to. I don't think it ever crossed his mind that he should be anybody else's version of Jack Johnson. – Stanley Crouch, Unforgivable Blackness


The story of Jack Johnson is huge. The first black heavyweight champion of the world, 1908 to 1915, he was rowdy, smart, rebellious and proud. He was also resilient in the face of unrelenting racism. And, as Stanley Crouch observes in Ken Burns' Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, "There is nobody like Jack Johnson, because, first thing, when Jack Johnson was fighting, he could have been killed at any of his major fights. There were people out in the audience who were probably willing to murder him. He knew it, they knew it, everybody in the world knew it."

Talented and world-famous as a young man, as well as essentially unbeatable, Johnson was champion when (official, as opposed to underground) boxing was a wholly white province, when The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Jack London, all editorialized as to natural orders, in which African Americans were humble and inferior, and Caucasians were honorable, strong, and always right. And yet, as courageous and frankly brilliant as Jack Johnson was, his story is frequently forgotten in the wake of more recent flashy sports and other celebrities.

This despite the fact that he just about invented bling, at least in the form of gold teeth and fast cars. While the play and movie, The Great White Hope (both starring James Earl Jones, who serves as an interviewee for this film) complicate and celebrate Johnson's biography, this exceptional documentary fills in lots of blanks. At once wildly popular with most black audiences and grievously threatening for most whites, Johnson's achievements (his rise) are attached to his difficulties (his fall), most often, his relationships with white women, private relationships that he refused to hide. In his day, miscegenation was still an offense that inspired lynching.

With the man's elusive history in mind, it's appropriate that Unforgivable Blackness begins with a story that may or may not be true. Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, he ran away when he was 12 – or so he recalls (his self-narration, from letters and his autobiography, is read by Samuel L. Jackson) – to meet the man whom he most admired, who happened to reside in Brooklyn. This was Steve Brodie, self-proclaimed "Champion Bridge Jumper of the World," following a reported jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Whether young Johnson actually made it to New York to shake Brodie's hand is unclear, but the story helps to form part of his legend – an ambitious, determined youngster whose rise was inevitable, despite all odds. He began boxing as a teen in the Jim Crow South, and, as the film shows through images of anonymous black folks of the moment, life was difficult, even for the hardiest, most resolute child.

He spent years pursuing the chance to fight for the championship, which he won in 1908, in Australia against Tommy Burns. The reason that Burns, against the wisdom of most other white fighters, even gave the "Negro" a chance at the title, was the money – an unheard of $30,000; Johnson knocked him out in the 14th round. The fact that Johnson so plainly enjoyed beating up white challengers made him a fearsome specter. And as he always had, he refused to moderate his behavior. Taking "orders from no one," he posed what the film calls "a perpetual threat." When, in 1910, he and Jim Jeffries fought the "Battle of the Century" in Reno, Nev., stakes were high: it appears that every white American – save Johnson's many girlfriends (Roberts calls him "heroically unfaithful") – wanted the title returned to Jeffries (who had been retired for several years and came back to salvage the white race's good name).

Jeffries' loss, observes Roberts in the film, incited a kind of panic. "The press reacted as if Armageddon was here. That this may be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." Indeed, race riots broke out in major cities, and Congress got to work on legislation that would ban the release of fight films, at the time very lucrative industry (Johnson's victories tended to play in black theaters, further distressing lawmakers and others). "His real crime," the film observes, "was beating Jim Jeffries."

Johnson persisted in traveling openly with white women (often, "sporting women," or prostitutes, one of whom, 19-year-old Lucille Cameron, he eventually married), and so he was eventually arrested and convicted, in 1912, of violating the Mann Act (Lucille's beside-herself mother instigated the proceedings, though Belle Schreiber testified against him). This despite the fact that the act, passed in 1910, outlawed the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce, "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose"; in other words, it was designed to stop commercial prostitution, not consenting individuals. But in the eyes of the white legal system, relations between black men and white women could not possibly be consensual.

Johnson fled the country (in a great story recounted in the film, he escapes by boarding a train with a Negro League team, unnoticed by authorities because they "couldn't tell one big black man from another"). When he eventually returned, in 1920 (after he had lost the title to a white boxer, Jess Willard, in 1915), he did his year in prison, where he trained aspiring boxers and then returned to his loving wife Lucille.

As Burns and his crew explain in the making of documentary included on PBS' DVD of Unforgivable Blackness, they were faced, for once, with an abundance of visual material (this was quite different from their own history, of scrounging for images, photos and papers concerning the Civil War or baseball or long forgotten jazz musicians). "Some fights were filmed from multiple camera angles," beams Burns. And while these shots were static and wide (no close-ups or no mobile frames), they did allow for editors to "crop in and recompose, to create medium shots."

These creations emphasize Johnson's remarkable smile – in the ring, on the street, on the vaudeville stage where he performed between bouts, to maintain his lavish lifestyle. The images are digitized and cleaned up images to look crisp, and the editors employed "classic techniques of montage to create a kind of urgency about boxing," sound designs that include crowd and punches and grunts, so the lengthy (25 or more rounds) bouts might be cut into digestible and exciting bits. As Burns has it, this sort of futzing around with the archival material was new for him, and the film has a "new, experimental feeling in the editing, the music, and the rip-snorting story."

The movie, based in part on Geoffrey C. Ward's book, is slightly less than "rip-snorting," in that it takes up a typically Burnsian pace, including period-style music (composed by Wynton Marsalis) and an impressive array of actors reading from letters and newspaper articles, calling him "the Negro," "the Ethiopian," and other more offensive terms (Amy Madigan as Johnson's mistress Belle Schreiber, Billy Bob Thornton, Alan Rickman), as well as interviews with a variety of experts (Crouch, Gerald Early, Bert Sugar, George Plimpton). The film's first part focuses on Johnson's professional ascent, the second on his takedown by U.S. authorities unhappy that the "honor of the white race" had been lost when he became "the strongest man in the world," or even better, "the emperor of masculinity." Yet, if the film's basic structure is pedestrian, Burns is right about one thing: Johnson booms off the screen in every image.

Many of these are stills – most posed for magazines, promotional posters, and newspapers, as well as others, apparently records of more intimate moments, with his mistresses and wives, and with his beloved sports cars (at one point, he owned five, which he loved to drive fast and to crank up the engines to ensure he was heard, roaring through city streets, and it's perhaps fitting that he died in a car crash following an excessively speedy drive instigated by his rage at his treatment at a Jim Crow restaurant). He was a beautiful man, large, looming, and voracious: he played the bass, resisted entreaties from moderate black authorities like Booker T. Washington that he behave as a proper role model.

Johnson's influence – his pride in himself and his blackness, his excesses, ambition, and fortitude – stretches into the future. And Burns' film, putting together the pieces of Johnson's remarkable life, reminds us not only of how it was, but also how it can be, when racism, combined with another sort of pride and excess, shapes legal limits and social attitudes. Jack Johnson, as he puts it, "was the brunette in a blonde town, but, gentlemen, I did not stop stepping."

Metallica in Therapy

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky could hardly have known what they were in for when they set out to make a movie about Metallica. Though they had brief contact with the band previously (in securing permission to use some music for their film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), this time, the mighty rockers' label was paying the directors to document the recording of an album.

That album was "St. Anger," and it took nearly three years to make.

When Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived, the band was recuperating from the departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, who finally had enough of the group's perennial "creative disputes" and ongoing arguments between vocalist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. After 90 million records sold and more 20 years spent on the road and in studios, the hard-living pair appeared increasingly unable to collaborate, with guitarist Kirk Hammett's efforts at appeasement falling by the wayside. Their company, Q-Prime, decided to take drastic action, and hired "therapist/performance enhancement expert" Phil Towle (for $40,000 a month) to bring the boys back into some state resembling working order. Metallica, intones Towle, "needed to take a look at itself."

The film begins at the end of the process, with the band promoting the new record, acting almost as if it's like any other. Asked to describe "the span of his career" in one word, Hetfield is stumped and bored. The point is cut to emphasize how answering such inane questions, again and again, can become tedious, depressing, and daunting. At this point, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster turns the page, back to the moments when the album, Metallica's first studio project in seven years, looked like it wouldn't ever be completed.

Initially, Newsted's exit sends Metallica into something of an emotional, even existential, tailspin. In an effort to calm themselves, they bring on producer Bob Rock to play bass for the record, and set up a studio at the Presidio, apparently perceived as a restorative environment. Hetfield appears in his expensive sports car: "I really like going fast," he testifies. No kidding. The film repeats biographical information that will be old news for the band's fans. Since their inception in the Bay Area in 1982, the band notoriously careened from disaster to disaster, including the 1985 death of first bass player Cliff Burton. With ups and downs made incessantly public, they have endured a raucous blur of substance-abusing (they were once called "Alcoholica"), infighting, and raging at various external targets (their noisy campaign against Napster, in which Ulrich became most vocal, earned them a dubious distinction, as the "band most hated by their own fans").

As the sessions with Towle begin, the film patches together old concert footage and the Presidio rehearsal sessions, soon skidding to a kind of stop when Hetfield begins rolling his eyes at Towle's sketchy New Agey speak; when he asks if they can "sack" him, Ulrich says no, "the Phil stuff is important," an "investment in the music." Soon after, Hetfield removes himself to rehab (a stint that will last over a year), whereupon the filmmakers, band members, and management decide to pursue the project anyway. It's transformed into something else, a weird therapeutic exposé, partly self-defensive, partly confessional, and largely performative (it's no secret at any point that cameras are rolling).

One of Towle's first steps is to get the band to generate a "Metallica Mission Statement." Towle's sessions with the band take up a good chunk of Some Kind of Monster's 139 minutes running time (culled from some 1600 hours of footage shot). His techniques range from prodding his clients to "share" their feelings, to suggestions for behavioral changes. At one point, during Hetfield's absence, he convinces Ulrich to sit down with Metallica's former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (who, on being fired by Metallica in 1984, formed Megadeath and carried a lasting grudge against Ulrich and Hetfield).

The filmmakers have never pretended to be "objective" documentarians, but in their earlier work, it was easy to take the sides they laid out, against the invasive news media Brother's Keeper (1992) or the prejudiced locals and self-serving legal system in Paradise Lost. Here, all the figures on screen appear flawed and vulnerable, by turns self-indulgent, spoiled, and struggling to make sense of their own perpetual adolescence.

Hetfield establishes that his family and home are off-limits (he not only restricts his work time to four hours a day, but also insists the other band members stop work when he does, all leading Ulrich to considerable spewing about what it means to be "rock band"). By contrast, mellow Hammett opens up his serene home amid rolling hills to cameras and agrees to cut back on guitar solos ("I'm actually very comfortable with my role in this band," he says, "I'm not a really egotistical person"). And by yet another contrast, Ulrich takes Towle to visit with his father, Torbin, once a professional tennis player, who leans on his walking stick and offers his blunt opinion of the record so far: "I would say, delete that." (Meantime, Ulrich is selling off his paintings at Christies for some $5 million, making the Napster business seem even more niggling.)

On Day 701 of the film's production, the band undertakes a video shoot, performing for prisoners at the California State Prison at San Quentin. (This would be used to promote the album's first single, ""St. Anger"": "I need my anger not to control. / I want my anger to be me.") Speaking to his tattooed, hard-bodied, mean-looking audience, Hetfield suggests that if it had not been for his music, he would have ended up in prison or dead. But it's clear that he's not like these particular fans here, that he's fortunate beyond words, if wounded in ways that he can't articulate.

By Day 715, Ulrich sounds nearly converted ("You can make something that's aggressive and fucked up with positive energy"), and the band is moving on, in part signaled by their search for a bass player for the tour: their selection of Robert Trujillo produces the film's happiest seeming moment, as he's giddy at the prospect. Shortly afterwards, the group does break with Towle, who's talking about accompanying them on the road. Hetfield puts his foot down: "We don't want to have our hand held through life." When he hears the news, Towle's upset is uncomfortable to see, as he accuses band members of denying their need of him and exposes what seems his own need of them. By this time, you've seen how complex and seductive their intricate pathologies can be, their strangely intoxicating and harrowing dynamic. More than anything, the film is perversely about itself, about producing analysis and performing selves.

Black Hawk Revisited

Reports and images of ongoing guerilla warfare in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities recall for some observers the events of October 3 and 4, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia. When Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott's dark and earnest movie about those difficult days, was released to theaters in late 2001, the war against Iraq was still an idea rather than a daily reality. Now, as Columbia releases the film on gorgeous (if extras-less) Superbit DVD, this version of U.S. troops in crisis comes full, and frankly disturbing, circle. This even as CentCom reports, on 3 June, the blocking of "Somali terrorist" Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki's "assets."

As is well known, the story of terrorism -- state-sponsored and not -- is increasingly intricate. Journalist and ex-marine Mark Bowden's book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War , gets at it from one specific angle -- that of the U.S. troops on the ground (and sometimes, in their Black Hawk helicopters). First published as a 1997 series for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it is a nearly moment-by-moment account of events in Somalia, as the U.S. undertook to take out designated warlords and terrorists. Culled from radio dispatches, survivor interviews (both U.S. and Somali), military records, and media reports, the book recounts the battle that erupted in Mogadishu when the U.S. Army Special Forces -- Rangers and Deltas (D-boys) -- staged an "extraction" of several lieutenants to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and were met with armed resistance.

Praised by military and civilian press (and since its publication in 1999, read by Special Forces trainees), the book illustrates well the absurdity and chaos of urban warfare: There's no ground to be won, no victory to be claimed, only survival to be scraped up against horrific odds, no matter what side you're on. You look out your fellows as best you can: For the U.S. Special Forces, this takes the form of a credo ("Leave no man behind"); for the Somalis, it has a more immediate and more lasting effect -- there is no "left behind," only ongoing hardship.

That the U.S. undertook the war against Iraq, which had to involve urban territories, without extensive preparation of troops for what was in store for them, precisely, has led to disasters. Once again, Bowden describes the costs of U.S. arrogance and delusion in "The Lessons of Abu Ghraib," in the July/August 2004 Atlantic Monthly. "In the end, though," he writes, "context and perspective cannot mask what is universal about the events at Abu Ghraib... Americans are not a superior race, and American soldiers are not morally superior to the soldiers of other nations. The best we can hope is that they are better trained and disciplined, and guided by policy that is morally sound. Sadly, this is not always the case."

His acute awareness of the many stakes in war, the many occasions for failure on small and large scales, makes Bowden's account of Mogadishu engaging for a variety of readers -- those who abhor war, those who see it as necessary, and those who see it as a rite of manhood. And in this context, it's striking that, as hard as Bowden worked to document what happened, as it was perceived by those who were there, he concludes by noting the troops' lingering sense of unreality, of "feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal."

Unsurprisingly, Scott's Black Hawk Down, produced by the indefatigable Jerry Bruckheimer, takes something of an opposite approach. An action movie dressed up like an art film, it is not about betrayal or anger, but heroism and patriotic fervor. Given that the film was completed well before September 11, the fact that its triumphant tone seems so completely suited to the current zeitgeist is not a little alarming.

Black Hawk Down is careful not to dredge up particular aspects of the past, say, the famous television images that haunted that U.S. mission (and, indirectly, the next one in Iraq) -- the bodies of two U.S. soldiers stripped and carried through the streets, the frightened eyes of Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant sent out during his 19-day captivity by Aidid's men, or the U.S. forces' hasty retreat following the operation, owing to the outcry of the back-home viewing and voting public. Rather, the movie allows that not only do the right good guys "win," but also endure enough difficulty so that this victory, though not recognized in 1993, might now be appreciated for what it is.

To do so, the film establishes Mog's menace, such that U.S. soldiers are repeatedly beset by faceless Somali snipers and hordes, while omitting any references to reasons for the aggressive response to the U.S. invasion. It opens with a series of typewritten facts, just enough to sketch clear moral lines: In 1992, 3000,000 Somalis died of starvation, when Aidid stole UN food deliveries and killed UN troops. In October 1993, the U.S. mounted what was supposed to be a routine extraction, Rangers in Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters and Deltas in a humvee convoy.

The troops do get their men, but the mission is costly. A note at film's end reminds you that 18 U.S. soldiers (all named in the credits) and "about" 1000 unnamed Somalis died during those 15 hours of firefighting. Taking the U.S. boys' perspective, the film becomes a surreal thrill ride, a well-crafted and compelling surface of color, movement, and noise. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak and editor Pietro Scalia have put together a masterful hodgepodge of intense close-ups, spectacular chopper point-of-view shots, fast cuts and pans, well-composed surveillance images and grisly prosthetics and effects -- it's hard to walk out of this movie without feeling shaken.

Of course, this perspective also has limitations, and that's the point. You see the SOAR chopper pilots appalled by Aidid's men attacking a Red Cross food station, unable to intervene unless they are shot at (this detail is helpfully included as explanatory dialogue). Shortly after, the cowboyish Deltas, led by the charismatic Sgt. Hoot Gibson (Eric Bana), are whooping and hollering, shooting wild boar to serve up as a tasty treat for their bored-to-tears comrades. As General Garrison (Sam Shepard) discusses the futility of chasing Aidid with a detained gun merchant (George Harris), cigar smoke swirls ominously around the prisoner. Schooling his fellows in the morality of their situation, idealistic Ranger Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) observes that "there are two things we can do: We can help these people or we can watch them die on CNN." When he declares that he's in it to "make a difference," the gung-ho good-guyness of the Americans is clear.

By the same token, the film underlines the villainy of every character of color, save for the single black Ranger with a (minimal) speaking part, Kurth (Gabriel Casseus). Once the fight begins, the U.S. troops are alone sympathetic, tossed about in a melee of handheld shots and smash-cuts. Not only are the scrambling, distant Somalis demonized, but as well, Pakistani members of the UN squad only obstruct action, apparently reluctant even to follow orders that lead them into harm's way.

This attitude riles the U.S. soldiers, who have, of course, suffered for hours. While more than 100 of them entered the fray, the film focuses on a few that it types recognizably: resourceful Grimes (Ewan McGregor), fearless McKnight (Tom Sizemore), Elvis fan/Black Hawk pilot Wolcott (Jeremy Piven), steadfast Steele (Jason Isaacs), Shakespeare-loving Richard "Alphabet" Kowalewski (Brendan Sexton III, who went on, following the film's release, to complain publicly about its revisionist history; see http://alternettest.wpengine.com/story/12508/AlterNet article); and newbie Blackburn (Orlando Bloom).

D-boy Hoot is the most assured of the soldiers, able to make his way in and out of combat areas with stealth and accuracy. His advice to Ranger Eversmann early on haunts the rest of the film: "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes out the window." The film illustrates this shift in consciousness with a visceral ferocity. But as they realize that their mission is not so in-and-out as they had imagined, they see the problem in their surroundings, not in their approach. This makes their surroundings as familiar as the characters are: Mog is yet another heart of darkness, populated by unknowable and frightening "others," whom the troops call "skinnies" or "sammies."

Unremarked by the U.S. troops is the fact that the Somalis' skinniness is an effect of real life conditions, not only their oppression by brutal local warlords like Aidid, but also their "Third World" status, their lack of access to a "global" economy and political agenda, their oppression by the "First World" that is represented by the mighty Black Hawks. Where the Americans are understandably appalled to see their birds go down, one can only imagine the thrill that this same display must have brought the shooters. It was probably a lot like the feeling that the injured, weary, and desperate American soldiers felt when they saw the back-up forces finally arrive, and blow up the rooftops from which Somali snipers were firing.

Neither does the movie address why the "sammies" would be inclined to carry American bodies through the streets. You do see one body hoisted from a downed chopper, then a quick cut to other action, namely, the efforts of Durant (here played by Ron Eldard) to stave off his capture, firing at whoever comes by, until he runs out of ammunition. Cut again, to Durant's view of a crowd of black faces as they swarm over him, and, somewhat later, a brief bit of his battered face as he's lectured by his captor, Aidid's man, Firimbi (Treva Etienne): "In Somalia, killing is negotiation. You think if you get General Aidid, we all stop killing? There will be no peace. This is our world."

Firimbi's observation is the closest the film comes to articulating a historical and political context beyond the U.S.'s particular concerns. The resolute absence of any glimpse into "their world" -- the pain, rage, and hopelessness that shape "their" daily experience -- ensures that any movie, Black Hawk Down included, will not get at the multiple dire stakes involved, for Americans and Somalis, as well as, more recently, Iraqis and Afghanis.

Girlhood Interrupted

Siddiq Barmak's film "Osama" begins looking like a documentary. Taking the firsthand view of a camera turned on a women's protest demonstration, the film observes hundreds gathered, in mostly light blue burqas, wielding signs and demanding the opportunity to work. A street boy, Espandi (Arif Herati), approaches the unseen filmmaker, offering to guide him and to bless him with a dose of smoky, protective incense, just as the Taliban arrive, shoving and brutally hosing down the women. As the women are dragged off, arrested, and worse, the cameraman also finds himself assaulted; the frame goes dark.

The chaos of this opening scene is surely jolting. But the composition and rhythm are simultaneously beautiful and abstract, the women's clothing wafting as they run or fall, the Taliban horde made up of turbaned and bearded, murky figures. When the camera takes up the perspective of a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) and her mother (Zubaida Sahar), who barely escape the brunt of the men's aggression, the film locates its protagonist.

With her father killed in "the Kabul war," and her uncle in "the Russian war," responsibility for supporting the family will soon fall to the girl. When her mother loses her temporary employment as a nurse (her elderly patient dies), the girl must cut her hair and pretend to be a boy named Osama in order to support not only her mother, but also her grandmother (Hamida Refah). Touchingly, Osama keeps one of her braids, planting it in a flowerpot she keeps by her bed.

The first film to be made in Afghanistan since the reported removal of the Taliban, "Osama" concerns the regime's many offenses, especially against women. Young Osama's endeavors to hide her identity are fraught with her own uncertainty -- she's not sure how to behave, as boys' routines and culture are so wholly different than her own. She has the wrong shoes, her voice is too high, and she has no concept of how to pray, as all boys must do daily, in groups. Though she's instructed occasionally by her employer, a man who knew and served with her father, Osama will never be able to keep up with the demands exacted by minute-by-minute surveillance.

Spotted at an afternoon prayer, Osama is rounded up the next day for Madrassa religious and military school: the Taliban trains all boys for Bin Laden's ongoing wars. Given that they know nothing else, the boys are all more or less eager to learn what it means to be "a man," that is, how to pray, how to fight, how to dominate, and how to perform ablutions.

Returning to her mother's house each evening, Osama changes gears abruptly, working as a girl, by serving food at a wedding (held with the groom in absentia, exiled to Iran), populated entirely by women. When the Taliban come by, the women cover themselves with their burqas and pretend to be wailing at a funeral, which, by implication, they might as well be -- whether married, widowed, or single, women have no say over any of their own activities or expectations.

Unsurprisingly, Osama is unable to maintain her deception. At school, though she does her best to act "tough," she is eventually dealt a traumatic punishment for tree climbing: hung by a rope inside a well for hours, as she sobs for her "mother." This incident leads directly to the onset of her menstruation. Hoisted from the well, she has blood on her legs, and while the Mullahs do not have her stoned -- as they do an unfaithful wife -- they do allocate for her a terrible fate.

Though the premise of Osama's tale is categorical -- life for women and girls is horrendous -- it is rendered in a series of telling images. When Osama's mother gets a ride home from her client on his bicycle, neglecting to hide her ankles beneath her gown, the Taliban stop them and accuse her of offense. Cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafuri's camera never even shows their faces, just her feet, at first with ankles visible, then covered, shrunk up into her skirt. Or again, when, following her mother's out-loud wish that god had never created women, Osama's grandmother tries to soothe her, stroking her head while she tells a story where gender is mutable (if you walk under a rainbow, you can switch to boy or girl), the camera holds on the girl's face. It hardly matters that the narrative is so overstated or that the tragedy is so overwhelming. Her face, haunted and grim, offers a simple, immutable truth.

A recurring image speaks to the life Osama will never have, though she imagines it. In this dream, she's in prison, the camera sliding across the bars, to reveal blue-burqa-clad women bowed down in horror and submission. And yet, she also sees herself, jumping rope, an activity she attempts in "real life," but never has space or time to practice. The scene is punctuated with the thunk-thunk-thunk of the rope hitting the floor, as the mobile frame emphasizes the irony of the space she has in the prison of her dream. The diurnal magic and utter impossibility of this simple child's game are unforgettable.

Truth about Biggie and Tupac

Nick Broomfield's "Biggie & Tupac", now available on DVD from Razor & Tie, opens on a famous photo of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur -- together. Each appears to be trying to out-thug-pose the other: B.I.G. stands with his head tilted to the side, his black headrag pulled low over his large eyes, as Tupac Shakur, equally artful, throws his hands up, both offering a "fuck you" to the camera, representing the way he used to do.

As the camera passes over this image -- so frozen in time and now, after all the violence and grief, so sad -- Broomfield's voiceover explains the occasion for his film. Tupac was shot to death in a car in Vegas on 7 September 1996, and Biggie was murdered just 6 months later, outside a party in L.A. He wonders aloud how these two one-time friends came to an apparently fatal enmity. But this introduction to the vagaries of hiphop industry competitions is only a hook. Broomfield's film is less interested in Biggie and Tupac per se than in the simultaneously extraordinary and mundane circumstances surrounding their deaths, in particular, the frustratingly go-nowhere "official" investigations.

"Biggie & Tupac" picks up arguments made elsewhere, by others, including ex-LAPD officer Russell Poole (who claims his investigation was thwarted by superiors) and Randall Sullivan, author of LAbyrinth, that the murders resulted from a combination of gang and cop vengeance plots and have since been covered up by a variety of conspiracies. (It also argues against Chuck Phillips' suggestion, in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, that Biggie paid to have Tupac killed and was in Vegas at the time of the shooting.)

Versions of the corrupt L.A. cops story have been told before, in a 2000 article in the New York Times Magazine (Lou Cannon's "L.A.P.D. Confidential"), as well as 2001 articles in Rolling Stone (Sullivan's "The Murder of the Notorious B.I.G.," 8 June) and The New Yorker (Peter Boyer's "Bad Cops," 21 May), as well as a Frontline documentary about L.A.P.D. corruption that same year. Essentially, Broomfield, with Poole's on-camera help, makes connections among several L.A.P.D. officers (Rafael Perez, David Mack, and the late Kevin Gaines among them), the Rampart scandals, and the Biggie and Tupac murders.

Broomfield comes at this morass of egos and exploits as he comes at all of his filmic subjects, as an outsider looking for "answers." In this role, he's earnest and dogged, outwardly naïve and even stammering on occasion, but always wryly commenting and asking aloud the questions that might occur to anyone without a background (and some with a background) in the particulars and personalities. Much like his previous films -- for instance, Kurt & Courtney (1998), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) -- this one pushes at the limits of traditional documentary. Broomfield presents himself as a pseudo-valiant, persistent pursuer of "truth," liking especially to look for it in places where others have not, and implicitly acceding that everyone has his or her own truth to tell.

This is Broomfield's great insight, worth repeating in all his films: truth is messy and unstable, truth is self-serving (even if that self might be, on occasion, Broomfield), and truth is produced by the beholder's interests and investments. Broomfield's films don't feature much objectivity. Rather, they give the concept a good going-over, so that, by the end of each, you're likely to be less sure of your own reading abilities than you were at the beginning.

This can be a very good thing. "Biggie & Tupac" is best when it's not making assertions (most of which are not new), and is instead challenging the very idea of making assertions. As Broomfield notes on the commentary track, his "interview method" can seem transparent: He likes to repeat a last word spoken by a subject, as this may help the subject to build on an idea. He "enjoys" his interviews, treats them as "conversations" more than examinations or quests. The film is about process, exposed as equally ludicrous, methodical, accidental, and/or fortuitous. As an investigation of investigations, the film is a little meta, but that only makes it more compelling, more knotted, more galvanizing.

Tracking people who may have known Biggie when he was rhyming on the sidewalk outside a Brooklyn barbershop, Broomfield sticks his mic in someone's face, and she hides: "He de bomb," she says, but "I don't want to be on tv." Then Broomfield trundles off to visit Tupac's former bodyguard, Frank Alexander, recently born again and living with several Rottweilers, still fearful even after writing an autobiography. When Broomfield asks Alexander about his assertion, in the book, that "words circulated" concerning Suge's part in Pac's murder, he hems and haws, underlining that these are not his words, but someone else's that "circulated." Or again, Broomfield goes to see one "witness" to LAPD planning and shenanigans, a guy named Mark Hyland, "the Bookkeeper," suffering from Tourette's Syndrome and depression (he's also in jail on 37 counts of impersonating a lawyer). He literally cries while recalling his money-moving schemes.

The DVD includes a couple of "Failed Interviews," one that Broomfield introduces: "This is us being chucked out of a private housing estate in New Jersey," where they had gone to interview Damien Butler, a witness to Biggie's murder who was now "frightened one way or the other." As Broomfield describes it, the moment is "one of those humiliating experiences that one goes through when making one of these kinds of films, so we thought we'd put it in." The second shows the Last Resort bar in the heart of the Rampart area, where Mackie and other cops would "hang out." Broomfield's questions to the bartender are summarily rebuffed. As well, the DVD features some rough, in-the-studio music tracks by Tupac's stepbrother Mopreme, whose interview with Broomfield is particularly poignant, the Outlawz (Tupac's backing band), footage of Tupac in the studio, as well as a rhyme by Biggie's associate Chico.

While these extras helpfully illustrate problems and, to an extent, the excess -- of feeling, care, and dedication that documentary-making entails, for the most part, "Biggie & Tupac"'s argument stems from the filmmakers' plain affections for Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mother, whom he calls a "former schoolteacher... who appeared in the video for 'Juicy'" (at which point you see her in the video, as well as her son's visible respect for her). She plays a role reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's aunt in Kurt & Courtney: kind and sincere. Not only is Miss Wallace charming and helpful in the filmmaking (when Broomfield can't get an interview with Lil Cease, she has him sit and wait at her home while she calls Cease, and gets him to come on over right that minute), but she is also generous with her time and fond memories of Biggie ("My son was a poet").

The same cannot be said for Pac's mom, Afeni Shakur, whom Broomfield describes as a "former Black Panther" (which everyone knows already, but somehow it seems part of a legacy of "violence" here) and as keeping a tight control on materials and still-to-be-released tracks. Afeni remains affiliated with Suge Knight, as they continue to release Tupac's work. And if she won't be interviewed, he eventually will.

To get access to Suge, Broomfield must go through several intermediaries, including the prison warden at Owl Creek, where Suge's serving time (he's since been released). One of Suge's reps warns Broomfield not to try to "use" Suge like he obviously used people to "elevate" himself and make them look stupid. If Broomfield screws up, this guy says, "Anybody who's black in the prison won't be speaking to you." Articulating the race difference and fear that underlie the business of gangsta rap as well as the supposedly ongoing investigations into the murders, this threat also leads to a scene in the prison, where the black and Latino inmates look askance at the camera as Broomfield and crew make their way along the sidewalk.

Broomfield goes on to make the sort of dry observations for which he is most well known (and, not to put too fine a point on it, beloved). When his usual cameraperson opts out of the trip to see Suge in prison, he notes this is out of concern for "self-preservation." As well, Broomfield observes that Suge only agrees to the interview after some cogitation, and apparently, knows a little something about Broomfield's work, insisting that there be "No slander and funny stuff!" That Broomfield repeats the phrase, deadpan, is partly hilarious and partly odd, though hardly as odd as the interview itself.

On its surface, this interview is uninformative, nearly goofy. Suge will lonely answer one question, essentially, which is to explain his "message to the kids." Seated on a bench in the yard, his bald head shiny with sweat in the sun, big cigar in his mouth, he asserts his desires to help the next generation, to warn them off of his own past: "Peace positive for the kids," he says.

Suge is positioned here as the film's big get. In most of Broomfield's films, this sort of hard-to-arrange interview serves as a climax -- Aileen in her cell, Heidi in her dress shop, Courtney at the ACLU Awards. Here, however, and for all his spectacular strangeness, Suge is overshadowed at last by a return visit to Voletta. She cooks for the crew, and then recalls a phone call she once had with her son, where he refused to get off -- for three hours -- until she forgave him for something he had said or did (something she doesn't even remember). The point is this desire for forgiveness, and the generosity that Voletta not only embodies, but also recalls in her son. She provides "Biggie & Tupac" with welcome grace and warmth.

Platinum Strikes Hip-Hop Gold

It's good to see N'Bushe Wright. That is, it's good to see her anywhere, because she's a smart actor who brings grace and sinuous affect to any part she plays. But it's also good to see her on UPN's splashy midseason hip-hop drama, Platinum, where she's got a choice part as Max, crafty, no-nonsense head of Conflict Records. Having inherited the label when her "man went inside," she defends her property and reputation fiercely. Acutely aware of the gender biases in her business, she will not be disrespected.

She makes this clear to her primary competitor, Sweetback Records owner Jackson Rhames (Jason George), during one of those fancy-joint lunch meetings that take up so much time on soaps about backstabbing rich people. On this occasion, Jax has come to discuss Max's recent dispatch of a pair of heavies to beat up on his white boy lawyer partner, David (Steven Pasquale).

What's different here is the tone, the hip-hop industry context and, importantly, the jokes. Platinum has lots of them, thanks to writer John Ridley (Undercover Brother). And so, when Jax protests that his hiring away of Max's star MC, Pharos, is "just business," she comes back: "Negro, please." She then proceeds to read him out for his bad behavior. She pauses only when he reminds her of her own thuglife tactics, noting, "Players like you are making us all look country."

Ouch. Chances are good you won't be hearing this sort of conversation on any other TV series. Nor will you be hearing episodes scored with tracks by Fabolous, Noc-Turnal, Prince, Brian McKnight, Slum Village and the Clipse (though you will hear the Neptunes, everywhere), courtesy of the eclectic Photek. The series' intelligent edginess is exactly what makes Platinum work, its capacity not only to exult in complicated characters operating in a hip, energetic, over-the-top context (this despite and probably because of frequent comparisons to Dallas), but also to get inside the foolishness produced by such a context.

The fact that the series looks closely at the excessive lives and appetites of hip-hop artists and producers is not in itself news; this is on display every day in bling-bling, poolside-hoochies hip-hop music videos. What is refreshing is that the attitude here is resolutely not straight: These characters are as complex and neurotic as any in The Sopranos or Six Feet Under (in fact, it's executive produced by, among others, Six Feet Under's Robert Greenblatt), and some are as campy as those in Kingpin or Dynasty.

Add to this that the scripts are willing to take on current (or at least recent) craziness in the business: bad behaviors, outrageous trends, inflated self-images. Among the more colorful instances in the first two episodes is the very first scene, where Sweetback's arrogant white rapper, Versis (played by white rapper Vishiss, who apparently can take a joke at his own expense), rebuffs his video director's suggestions by shooting him in the ass. Literally. Panic on the video set is followed by the arrival of Jackson's brother and business partner Grady (Sticky Fingaz), who ensures that the incident will be "taken care of" -- he agrees to pay the director, on a stretcher en route to the ambulance, a cool $75,000.

That everyone takes this insanity pretty much in stride is to the point. Platinum is about making money, at anyone else's expense. Versis is merely product, an investment worth "supporting" only until his earning power is played out. And this, coincidentally, is the verge on which Sweetback teeters as the series begins: The white rapper's sales have fallen off, the brothers owe money every which way ("Blacklash," explains Jackson, by way of being off the hook; nah, says a popular black artist, it's the company's fault: "You can't sell a white boy to white people"). So now, the Rhameses are feeling pressured to sell the company to Greystar, a major label headed by creepy Nick Tashjian (Tony Nardi).

Trying not to give it up to a white-owned conglomerate keeps the Rhameses busy, especially when a writer from The Source shows up, asking questions about Sweetback's poor performance lately. At this point, Grady's posse decides to help out, misunderstanding (or not) his encouragement that as "homeboys," they gotta stick together, have each others' backs. Following an afternoon spent smoking dope in the office, the crew of three heads over to the writer's crib and dangles him off his balcony. Shades of Suge Knight and, oh, Vanilla Ice (who has made something of a living off that dangling story); or maybe it's shades of Puffy, who reportedly delivered a beatdown to Blaze editor Jesse Washington back in 1998.

Either way, the joke ends up being on the tough guys (though it should be noted that the white boy victims of both these assaults come off poorly, too, posing in the business, and afraid when they need to be). Ooops: the dangler loses his grip and drops the writer on his head. He ends up in a cast in the hospital, promising the woulda-been contrite Rhames brothers that he'll never let slip what happened and never print a foul word about the company.

Still, and although Grady's visibly pleased that it's all turned out so well, Jackson doesn't go for the physicality. He wants to be a legitimate businessman, to do the right thing: He's married to a business lawyer, Monica (Lalanya Masters), and more or less looks after his NYU-attending little sister Jade (Davetta Sherwood). But the right thing doesn't always present itself in his world. And so, when he hears that Versis has been involved in a club shooting, with Jade along for the ride that night, Jax has trouble keeping his perspective. (This would be shades of P. Diddy, since acquitted for a 2000 club shooting, for which his artist Shyne is doing time, and after which J. Lo left him.) Lucky for Jax, Grady helps him to see what's really at stake, when they learn that Nick happened by the police station that night, to bail out and buy cover for both Versis and Jade. Owing anything to Nick is not good.

As if this is all not enough, Jackson has one more piled on problem in the early episodes. T-Ron (Ricardo Betancourt), a onetime aspiring rapper and Jackson's friend from back in the day, shows up to picket Sweetback, along with Alderman Ray (Walter Burden), an Al Sharpton type, complete with bullhorn, a speech about the definition of "niggers," and a tendency to extort cash money when he can; here he calls the Rhames brothers "evilish," which, yes, sounds rather like MJ's recent complaint that Tommy Mottola is "devilish," suggesting that Platinum sees fair game everywhere.

This target range includes the ever-difficult topic of black men with white women, especially when the men have made some money. Is it a sign of selling out to sleep with white girls? Is it a sign of giving over to the mainstream, white system of values? "How come every time a brother hits a white chick," asks one successful artist who has a white girl in his house, "Everybody's like: 'Yo, he sold out, he's gone snow blind'? But I'm thinkin' hittin' is just a part of playing whitey's game. You know, from slavery to Tiger Woods, that's just a white man fear for what a brother's gonna do. Brother's gonna get his. What's the most precious thing Whitey's got? His woman, right? Hit the man's woman. Ain't that uplifting the race? Ain't that bringin' us to the next level? Think about it." (Translation: women = property.) On hearing this discourse, Jackson and Grady agree to seduce the rapper, then shake their heads behind his back. Property's everywhere, and available for the buying.

In this and other instances, Platinum offers cagey, borderline obnoxious assessments of how worlds work -- the hip-hop world, the male self-loving world, the legal and the commercial worlds (and it goes at it in a more incisive way than, say, the movie version of Undercover Brother, which is exasperatingly diluted from the comic strip). If the show wisely avoids trying to be "authentic," it has other ideas to engage.

For example, it is visibly aware of its derivations and debts. Signs of clever biting and self-conscious surfeit are everywhere, in the plotting certainly, but also in the freeze frames, fast cuts, and smart compositions concocted by director Kevin Bray (who directed All About the Benjamins, the Ice Cube movie, not the Puffy video). If the executives and artists are suddenly, first-generationally, filthy rich, they don't handle their newfound clout or their cash much differently than did previous gangsters, from Al Capone to the Corleones (Francis Ford Coppola, by the way, is another of the series' executive producers, and Sofia, also wife of Spike Jonze, well-acquainted with hip-hop video-making, is co-creator, with Ridley). They spend unwisely, party wildly, front perpetually, and assume they have far more insight and talent than they do, especially when it comes to managing their daily lives and, perhaps more importantly, their careers.

Such decadence and acting out are surely not specific to hip-hop. But the show is under fire for its representations of that culture (as if said culture can be reduced to a singular designation), with a boycott of UPN and the series announced by Project Islamic H.O.P.E. Adisa Banjoko, the organization's North California Director, tells BET.com that the show doesn't show "all" that it might about hip-hop. If the makers were interested in a more complete depiction, they would "profile the DJ forced to play garbage music by his program director who is getting kickbacks by the label. They'd show you the hip-hop journalist who can't pay rent but still writes about hip-hop because he loves documenting the culture. Now that is real hip-hop drama."

To ask a single show to represent every aspect of a culture is probably too much, but the point is well taken, that Platinum, as its name implies, is focused on the big-stakes aspects, the costs of making money and leaving behind a belief in a culture, as a means of activist, collective, and creative expression. Hip-hop is a business in Platinum, an occasion for family drama and hijinks. As such, it's mostly familiar to viewers who don't know much about hip-hop, and occasionally frustrating for those who do.

Surely, the characters and situations are broadly drawn, and hardly representative of the culture or the people dedicated to hip-hop, but they do recall and send up the insanity and crazy hype that drives the business -- not just hip-hop, but music generally. Granted, violence, like beatdowns and shootings, is reported sensationally, and tied to hip-hop per se, as opposed, for instance, to involved authorities, as in the Biggie Smalls murder. And a "black" show, much like a "Latino" show, will be assumed to represent the race in ways that white shows are not. That said, the specificity of the protest speaks to the increased clout of hip-hop -- that it is a recognizable political, artistic movement, not just a business. And while hip-hop continues to accumulate force and focus to speak more truth to power, it is good, really, to see N'Bushe Wright.

Cynthia Fuchs, an associate professor of English, African American studies, and film & media studies at George Mason University, is the film/TV editor for PopMatters and film reviewer for Philadelphia Citypaper.

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