Race

Jackie Robinson

Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

Released: 2016

View on: Your local PBS affiliate

Jackie Robinson is everything you expect to get out of a Ken Burns film, and definitely a good one. The film starts out with a history of Robinson’s life, his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and his early athletic achievements. Robinson was born in the deep south to sharecropper parents. When his father left the family, Robinson’s mother moved them to the Los Angeles area and raised Jackie and his three siblings on her own. Robinson lettered in four sports at UCLA – football, basketball, track, and baseball. His older brother, Mack was also a track star and won the silver medal in the 200 meter dash in the 1936 Olympics, finishing behind only Jesse Owens.

Robinson was an officer in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he briefly played football and then briefly served as the athletic director and basketball coach at what was then called Sam Huston College in Austin Texas (my hometown)! Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball league for a short stint before being approached by Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey and the Dodgers picked up Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals, for the 1946 season. Then, in 1947, Robinson broke the color line by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not only was he an exceptional player, he was also strong in the face of immense racism from fans and players.

One thing I really liked about this documentary is that it discussed not just Robinson’s nonviolent and outwardly calm demeanor in the face of prejudice, but also the righteous anger he had. He knew that he had to remain calm for his first couple of years, basically to prove to white people that he didn’t fit the stereotype of an “angry black man.” But slowly he began to speak out more as his career progressed. The documentary talks about the anger many people had toward Robinson as he began to defend himself.

What Robinson faced in his first few seasons paved the way for players of color to come after him, not just in baseball but in other sports that were also slow to integrate. What he faced in his last few seasons, as players and fans negatively judged him for speaking out about issues affecting him and black Americans, continues to this day for black athletes. One recent example is that of Colin Kapernick and other black players who decided to nonviolently protest the killing of black Americans by police. Colin and other players decided to sit or kneel during the national anthem before football games. Personally, I think that this action is a respectful way to state that they see an injustice and they want to bring light to that injustice. In fact, I think that part of what this country was founded on and continues to stand for today is the responsibility of each citizen to stand up to injustice and work toward equality for all.

The backlash that Robinson, Kapernick, and other players have faced as they chose a nonviolent way to protest is, to me, outrageous. White America first tells black Americans that they must protest nonviolently. Then, when black Americans choose a form of nonviolent protest, white Americans raise hell about how disrespectful these black Americans are. It’s a vicious cycle. It makes me feel that white America now values the contributions of black athletes, but they don’t want to acknowledge that black athletes also face discrimination and are part of a community that is consistently discriminated against in many ways. It makes me angry, because I think that sports are a powerful way to bring people together, but only if we value all of the players not just for their athletic ability but also simply for the fact that they are human beings. Black athletes are not commodities simply to make money or win games for someone else. But it seems like a lot of white Americans treat them that way.

After his major league career concluded, Robinson was involved with the civil rights movement – a movement that he helped to lead in its early days. As I reflect on what I think he would want us to take away from his life, it is the continued struggle for civil rights. I think that a nice way to honor Mr. Robinson would be to make a donation to Colin Kapernick’s organization, the Know Your Rights Camp, which teaches black youth about awareness of higher education, self empowerment, and how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. I also think Mr. Robinson would be honored to have more involvement in local ACLU chapters, fighting for the rights of all marginalized people.

Sexual Assault

The Hunting Ground

Director: Kirby Dick

Released: 2015

View on: Netflix

*Trigger warning: Content of documentary describes sexual assaults and rapes. Blog post references that content.

The Hunting Ground tackles the issue of sexual assault when both the victim/survivor and the assailant are college students (the act does not always take place on campus, but the university still has a responsibility to investigate and punish the assailant if found guilty). In recent years this issue has had more focus from the media and lawmakers, but the issue is still prevalent and universities continue to try to silence victim/survivors who come forward – they’ve been in that practice for years. The reason for increased focus is because victim/survivors began to organize themselves. No one else stood up for them, at least in any real way. They had to do it themselves.

Among the harrowing statistics shared in The Hunting Ground is one that I have certainly known to be true – somewhere between 16 and 20% of women in college experiences a sexual assault. There are also many men who experience sexual assaults, though the statistics are much lower. The vast majority are committed by someone the person knows. Most of the assailants are serial assaulters. As we know, the vast majority of men do not sexually assault or rape (the documentary sites a statistic of about 8% of all college men), but those who do are typically not caught until they have assaulted multiple people.

The documentary focuses on fraternities and college athletes as two groups who have a higher percentage of assailants among them, and who tend to rally around the assailant to protect him (it’s usually, but not always, a him) and shame the victim/survivor. And, while I don’t think I should have to say this – I think it should be assumed – but I have written about this issue too many times not to say it, I will just say that not all fraternity members or college athletes are rapists. But I also think that those who don’t commit sexual assaults should be focusing on holding their frat brothers and teammates accountable instead of constantly just saying “not me!”

I have my own theories about why sexual assaults occur more among these groups. I think some of it is group think – the culture that surrounds these young men. I think some of it is that men who gravitate toward those cultures were taught when they were younger that women are commodities and they have every right to take what they want from women. And I think that these assailants take advantage of a culture with a lot of alcohol, parties, and women in close proximity to assault – truly a “hunting ground.” This last part is also spotlighted in the documentary. To me, that says that one of the most important ways to prevent rape by college students is to teach them at a young age, long before they ever get to college, about respect and consent, and not treating women like objects.

The documentary highlights the way that universities often deal with sexual assaults when they are reported – they try to cover them up and discourage the victim/survivor from moving forward with any actions. If they ever do bring the assailant before a disciplinary committee, they tend to hand out garbage punishments, like expulsion upon graduation (which is just another way of saying graduation), a $75 fine, or a few hours of community service.

Universities, even public universities, are businesses. Universities need to have good reputations so that parents are willing to let their kids go there and pay the tuition to prove it. They need to keep their reputations clean so that alumni will continue donating large sums of money. Many of them also need to keep their reputations clean so that their athletic teams continue bringing revenue in. To do that, they will go to great lengths to protect their star players who bring in wins.

Universities are required to report crime statistics to the federal government, and have been for years. This is one of the reasons they try to discourage reporting. If they have to report a bunch of rapes, they are afraid they will get a bad reputation. What I’ve learned is that you should actually be looking to the rape and sexual assault reporting statistics to be relatively high, because regardless of what the stats say we know there are sexual assaults going on at every campus. You want to see that the university is encouraging reports, because that means they take it seriously.

The women followed in this documentary decided to act when their universities did not properly deal with their reports. They filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, who began investigating their cases as being in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This title prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance. Schools found in violation are at risk of losing federal funding. Once again, it all comes back to the money, and these women understood that. Now, they go around the country helping other victim/survivors learn their rights and file Title IX complaints when necessary.

So what can you do? Well, the first thing is to teach young people about respect, consent, and human worth. It is the most important thing we can do, and even though we won’t necessarily see the fruits of our labor right away, in my opinion it is the only way to truly solve this problem. Second, familiarize yourself with the organization Know Your IX, which was started by college students (I believe some of the women featured in The Hunting Ground). Donate to them if you can, and definitely make sure that all of the high school and college age people in your life know about them. They are an important resource.

Finally, if you attended a college or university, why not contact them and ask them what they’re doing to prevent and respond to sexual assaults when their students are victim/survivors and/or assailants? Let them know their alumni are watching this issue closely. If you are the parent of a student, do the same. Tell them you want to see their statistics showing people reporting assaults, you want to see the process the school goes through to investigate those reports, and you want examples of actual punishments they have given. Money talks, and unfortunately it’s increasingly important to institutions of higher education. So use your power as an alum and donor, or as a parent paying tuition. Speak up so that these students don’t have to continue to relive their assaults again and again just to get justice.

Mental Health, Race

Outside the House

Director: Darnell Lamont Walker

Released: 2017

View on: Outside the House website

I first learned about Outside the House when I came across an article about the documentary on social media. I’m really glad I learned about it – this is an important documentary that uses storytelling, as opposed to just spewing a litany of statistics to talk about mental health and mental illness among black and African American individuals. Don’t get me wrong, statistics are important, but so is storytelling (no worries if you want some stats – check out Mental Health America’s website). The fact that Outside the House relies so heavily on storytelling makes it powerful, and will hopefully help to reduce mental health stigma.

When thinking about mental health in the African American community, it is important to remember our society’s racist history and present. Beginning with slavery, African Americans had their freedoms taken away and were expected to work hard labor and other jobs for no pay and with no hope for anything else. That causes a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and creates a mistrust in the system, because the system has often not worked in favor of the African American community. The history of mental health in the African American community also furthers the idea of suppressing mental health concerns.

“There is a sense of pride in being resilient because of slavery. Black people survived then because we were quiet at times. We didn’t even share our stories of pain with each other out of love. That strategy was necessary at that time.” – Franchesca Griffin

Today, racism still permeates society. For example, one person interviewed talked about her heart racing every time a police car stopped behind her car at a red light – that kind of everyday stress adds up.

Among the women interviewed, and some of the men, domestic and sexual violence was an extremely common theme – a lot of these individuals could pinpoint the roots of their mental health issues back to these incidents. This is universal across all communities – domestic and sexual violence can affect anyone regardless of race, and regardless of the race of the survivor, it is common for these experiences to result in depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other serious issues.

Another issue that came up quite often was that of religion. Among many religious communities, it can be common for people to think that any mental health issues they are experiencing should be dealt with through their religious leader, even if the religious leader has no mental health training. It can also be common for people in religious communities to believe that if they pray hard enough their mental health issues will go away. One person interviewed in the film had a great way to think about this – she said that God had provided professional help for people who need it, so why not take advantage of it?

Beyond a mistrust of the system, and cultural and historic trauma, several issues of access to mental health care exist for black and African American individuals. Most research on mental illness doesn’t include many black and African American individuals, meaning that the science behind treatment and medication literally doesn’t account for these communities. There is a mental health provider shortage in general, but it is especially pronounced for black and African American people. Very few psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers are black or African American. Although there is no requirement that that a mental health provider be of the same race as the patient, for some people it is easier to open up to a person who understands the racial reality that surrounds them. And, a lack of resources exists to get the help that is available – lack of health insurance; providers choosing to operate their practices in predominately white neighborhoods; an inability to take the time to see a professional because of work or child care obligations. The barriers are numerous.

So what can you do? First and foremost, it is important for all of us to understand that everyone experiences mental health ups and downs, and more people than we would think experience mental illness. If you have experienced a mental health issue or mental illness, you are not alone. If you feel comfortable telling your story to others, it can be very helpful in ending the stigma. However, it is your story and you are the best judge of when, and if, you should share that story with others.

There are several organizations that work to end the stigma. One in particular was featured in Outside the House: Black Girls Smile. Black Girls Smile works to ensure that all young African American females receive the resources and support necessary to lead mentally healthy lives. Check out their social media campaign using the hashtag #togetherwesmile.

Another group I like is End the Stigma. This is run by an individual who has experienced depression and anxiety, and who provides education, resources, and discussion about mental health.

If you have questions about mental health issues, either for yourself or someone you care about, please check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline. If you are in need of assistance, please call 911 and ask to talk to someone trained in crisis intervention. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also a great resource.

And finally, I encourage everyone to sign up for a Mental Health First Aid course. I took a course about a year ago and found it extremely helpful. I learned about how to best interact with people exhibiting certain symptoms. For example, if a person is experiencing a panic attack, get on their level, stay calm, ask if you can get them a glass of water, don’t press them to tell you what triggered the attack because often there isn’t an obvious trigger (or any at all). If we all took Mental Health First Aid, I think our society would be much better at interacting with each other!

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

2017 Oscars Predictions and Winners

*Updated after the Oscars were presented for the feature length documentary and documentary short categories.*

I was able to see all five feature length documentaries and four of the five documentary short nominees. With the Oscars coming up tomorrow, now is the time to offer my thoughts.

Best Feature Length Documentary

Nominees:

Fire at Sea

I Am Not Your Negro

Life, Animated

O.J.: Made in America

13th

Film I think will win: O.J.: Made in America

Film I want to win: I Am Not Your Negro

O.J. was a great documentary, and I totally understand why it’s the frontrunner. But I Am Not Your Negro eloquently explains racial issues that our society is dealing with just as much today as it was when James Baldwin wrote the words that make of the narrative of the movie. Plus, I don’t think O.J. focused enough on the fact that what happened was deadly domestic violence.

Film that won: O.J.: Made in America

I won’t say I was surprised, and I also won’t say I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not that O.J. wasn’t a good documentary, it’s just that I Am Not Your Negro was a GREAT documentary. Let’s face it, O.J. Simpson was part of the Hollywood elite for a time, and Hollywood loves a story about themselves.

Best Documentary Short

Nominees:

Extremis

4.1 Miles

Joe’s Violin

Watani: My Homeland (this film isn’t available to stream yet and there weren’t any showings near me, so I wasn’t able to watch it)

The White Helmets

Film I think will win: The White Helmets

Film I want to win: 4.1 Miles

I honestly thought that each of the documentary shorts I was able to watch was amazing, and I will be happy with any of them winning the Oscar. I found myself partial to 4.1 Miles, perhaps because it was the first one I watched. But I think for me it was inspirational – the boat captain the film follows sees a problem and does what he can to help those in need. That’s something I strive to do, but I’m not always as involved as I should be.

The White Helmets felt a world away to me, and made me feel a little helpless. Extremis is important and relatable, but again I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot I can do. Joe’s Violin is heartwarming. But still, 4.1 Miles inspired me personally.

Film that won: The White Helmets

Although I picked 4.1 Miles as my favorite, The White Helmets was an extremely close second and I’m happy that it won. The war in Syria has been going on for far too long, and the people who have been displaced by the war are now, once again, being persecuted for trying to immigrate to a safer place.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

Fire at Sea

Director: Gianfranco Rosi

Released: 2016

View on: iTunes, Amazon Prime

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

Let me premise this by saying that while the story this documentary tells is very important, the film itself is very slow. It took me three sittings to finally finish it because I couldn’t stay awake, which is really too bad because the issue this film is highlighting is very important. Fire at Sea tells the story of migrants, mostly from various countries in Africa, who get crammed into boats and sent across the sea to try to make it to Europe. Their story is juxtaposed with that of some of the people living on a small Sicilian island where many of the migrants are brought.

The migrants pay smugglers for passage on a boat that is crammed with as many as 1500 people. One of the Sicilian rescuers explains in the documentary that the migrants are placed on the boat based on “classes.” A first class spot costs $1500 and gets you a spot on the boat deck near the front. A second class spot also gets you a boat deck spot, but further back on the boat, and costs $1200. A third class spot costs $800 and gets you into the hull of the boat. Individuals in the hull are particularly at risk and it’s not uncommon for multiple people in the hull to die during the voyage due to the poor air circulation.

The people living in on the island lead quiet lives. A young boy spends his time playing with a sling, learning to row a boat, studying, and spending time with his family. His father is a fisherman, he sometimes the boy goes with him on his boat. A doctor does his best to treat both the island dwellers and the migrants who come in. He is portrayed the young boy for a “lazy eye”, and treating a pregnant migrant woman whose pregnancy is risky due to the harsh conditions she lived in and the difficult journey she took to get to the island.

The migrants come from countries like Syria, Niger, and Eritrea. Their journey across the Mediterranean takes up to 7 days, and they get dehydrated. People in the hull often get soaked in a combination of sea water and gas, which burns their skin pretty badly. When the Sicilian rescue ships come to get people off the boats, they bring them few by few, pulling those with the most medical need off the boat first. Once the ship docks, the migrants are put on a bus and taken to a facility while they are processed through they system. The facility isn’t comfortable by my standards, but it sure looks a lot more comfortable than a crowded boat where people are dying, and I’m positive it’s more comfortable than where these individuals came from.

You don’t go through such a harrowing journey if what you’re leaving isn’t horrible.

So what can you do? Like the ideas I provided in the post on documentary short 4.1 Miles, I suggest checking out the work of the International Rescue Committee. Consider donating to them, and look at their “how to help” section. Also, consider helping a refugee relocation agency in your local community. Some of these migrants are bound to be resettled in places other than Europe, and until the President’s recent executive orders it seems to me that some would likely come to the U.S. In Texas, we have a great organization called Refugee Services of Texas that helps to resettle refugees, providing them with assistance in setting up a home and getting settled in their new land, where everything is new.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

O.J.: Made in America

Director: Ezra Edelman

Released: 2016

View on: Hulu Plus

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

Clocking in at just under 8 hours, O.J.: Made in America is by far the longest documentary nominated for an Oscar this year. I was pretty young when the O.J. Simpson murder trial happened. I remember watching the low speed police chase in the white Ford Bronco, and I remember watching when the verdict came in. But as a 7 year old, I had no idea of the complicated dynamics that went into that trial.

The documentary does a great job explaining O.J.’s history, not only his childhood and career, but also his history of power and control, especially over women like his wife Nicole. The documentary also explains the history of racism experienced by black residents of LA at the hands of the LAPD. More than a third of O.J.: Made in America is devoted to explaining this history.

One of the things I didn’t know about O.J. was the way he thought about race before the trial. He was a black man, but he was also a very talented athlete and he was very comfortable among wealthy white people. In the late 60s when many black athletes were taking part in peaceful protests, O.J. chose not to participate. His thought was that his talent should do all the talking. I don’t blame him for that – there are lots of different ways that people work to fight injustice, and one of them is to prove themselves. That’s the route O.J. took. But the film is careful to explain why he had the ability to prove himself – it was because of the sacrifices of black athletes before him who had to fight to even get a chance to play integrated sports.

I also didn’t know much about O.J.’s personal life before the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. He had three children with his first wife, one of whom drowned in the family pool. O.J. had an affair with Nicole Brown before he was divorced from his first wife. One person interviewed in the film who was a friend of Nicole’s recounted when she came home from their first date. Her clothes were torn and she basically said that O.J. was “aggressive” toward her. But she really liked him. From the beginning it was, at best, an unhealthy relationship.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time learning about and volunteering with survivors of domestic violence, and so for me the story of O.J. Simpson just reminds me of the cycle of power and control that I have seen play out for so many survivors. In the case of O.J. and Nicole, the situation was not just one of domestic violence but also one of race. As I’ve noted in a previous post, there is a historical stereotype of black men raping white women that goes back to the times of slavery. At the time that Nicole was murdered, there was also a lot of tension between the city of LA and the black community – Rodney King had been beaten by LAPD officers and they had subsequently been acquitted. The city had erupted.

So, when O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron (which, to me, and I think to many people today, seems like a fact), it was more than a case of domestic violence. Race was intertwined. But beyond that, O.J. Simpson had enough money to hire the best defense team money could buy. Several people interviewed in the documentary note that this was one thing that separated O.J. Simpson from many other black men who were arrested and tried in a racist system, because as racist as the system is, O.J. was able to overcome that racism with money. Notably to me, the other difference between O.J. and some of those other black men was that O.J. was guilty, and certainly not all black defendants who go to trial are, even if they are found guilty.

The last hour of the film is dedicated to O.J.’s life after the murder trial. It shows him womanizing, doing drugs, and of course infamously committing armed robbery. That last one is why he’s in jail today. But to me, probably the most interesting part of the film was the interviews with members of the prosecution and defense teams from the murder trial, an LA civil rights leader, a couple of the jurors, O.J.’s friends, and Nicole’s family and friends. Several of them, even some of O.J.’s friends, are convinced he killed Nicole and Ron. But his defense team and the civil rights leader do not ever say whether they think he is guilty or innocent – only that the system is racist and rigged. They aren’t wrong – the system is racist and rigged. But even though the system is racist and rigged, in the case of O.J.’s murder trial, the system got it wrong.

I think there are several takeaways from this film. First, institutional racism is alive and well and plays into basically everything in life. Second, domestic violence is alive and well and can affect anyone, regardless of their wealth or fame or race. Third, O.J. Simpson worked hard to build up his wealth and fame, and once he got them, he milked it for all it was worth and he got away with an awful lot.

“OJ reached the top of the mountain, and when he fell off, it should not reflect on black people at all. It should reflect on O.J.” – Sylvester Monroe

To me, the social justice issue that is ever present in this film but is not focused on is domestic violence. It is all too common, and most of the time those of us who aren’t in the home or relationship have no idea it is occurring. It can be emotional or physical, or in the case of Nicole Brown, both. In the United States, about 22 percent of murders are family murders – mostly of wives. So what can you do? First, it’s important to push for laws that strengthen the penalties for being convicted of domestic violence and that help keep survivors safe through the use of protective orders. In Texas, we have the Texas Council on Family Violence that lobbies for these issues. Second, it’s important to call out behaviors of power and control when we see it, especially when it is idolized in the world of pop culture which still happens all too often. And third, it’s important to support survivors by working with local domestic violence victim services agencies. In Austin, I support SAFE and Asian Family Support Services of Austin. I recommend checking out DomesticShelters.org to find one near you.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary Short

The White Helmets

Director:Orlando von Einsiedel

Released: 2016

View on: Netflix

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary short.

Before you watch The White Helmets, know that there is some very horrific footage. It’s incredibly important to see, but you should be warned. It is no surprise to those of us who pay attention to the news that the civil war in Syria is bloody and continues to get worse. But even when we hear accounts of it, we have no way to comprehend the all-encompassing nature this war has on the people of Syria. Hundreds of thousands have died, huge numbers of people have fled the country and are trying to be resettled as refugees in other countries.

The White Helmets are a group of people in Syria, similar to a civil defense, who rush to sites that have been bombed to try to save lives and recover bodies from the rubble. Since 2013, this group of men has saved more than 58,000 lives. The documentary follows them as they head to sites that have just been bombed to look for people. At one point, they dig a baby, not even a month old, out of the rubble. Miraculously, the baby is alive. At another point, they pull an older woman out of the rubble. She did not survive.

The White Helmets receive training on how to use special equipment and the best safety techniques at a site in Turkey. The documentary shows their training experience, and one White Helmet notes how peaceful and different Turkey is from Syria – just by crossing a made up border.

As time goes on, the White Helmets explain, more and more civilians are being targeted. Civilian hospitals begin to be bombed while a group of White Helmets is at training in Turkey. The brother of one of the White Helmets was killed while in a hospital. They also explain that the bombs have gotten more sophisticated and can now take out an entire neighborhood as opposed to just a few hundred square feet. The war is not showing signs of stopping. But despite all of this, the White Helmets remain optimists.

“Without hope, what good is life? People will die without hope.” -A White Helmet

So what can you do? Well, aside from keeping up with the situation and pressing our government to work toward humanitarian solutions, it’s hard to say. However, this documentary makes it easy to understand why so many people from Syria have become refugees and are trying to get to the United States or European countries where they actually have a chance to stay alive. In order to assist these individuals in making sure they can come, I have donated money to the ACLU to fight the executive order that came out a few weeks ago barring refugees from Syria. We, as in the world, have a moral obligation to find an end to the civil war in Syria, and quickly.