Documentary Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “D” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “D” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Dark DaysThe Day the Series StoppedThe Day the Series StoppedDecoding Desire, Dear Mr. WattersonDolphinsand Don’t You Forget About Me.

Title: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Director: David France
Production Company: Public Square Films
Summary/Review:

Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City entertainer and activist, who, among other things, participated in the Stonewall Uprising, was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), modeled for Andy Warhol, and participated in ACT-UP.  Through her life she is identified as a drag queen, transvestite, or transgender person and even her family use female and male pronouns interchangeably.  Her charm and easygoing nature made her a beloved figure in New York’s LGBTQ community and earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”  Shortly after the Pride festival in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River.

The police declared her death a suicide and quickly closed the case, but many in the LGBTQ did not believe Marsha was suicidal and suspected she was murdered. As the movie documents, transgender people are murdered at an inordinate rate, even to this day,  with the police failing to investigate the crimes and when someone is actually charged with the offense they receive light sentences. The main focus of this movie is activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project carrying out her own investigation of this cold case 25 years after Marsha’s death.

The story of Marsha P. Johnson is a story that parallels the Gay Liberation movement in New York.  Key figures who feature prominently in the movie are Randy Wicker and Sylvia Rivera. Wicker is a gay activist and writer who was Johnson’s housemate for many years. His opposition to a Pride street festival run by the Mafia has contribute to a theory that Martha was killed by the mob. Rivera co-founded STAR with Johnson in 1970 to provide support for homeless drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. She was outspoken against the gay rights movement being dominated by white, cisgender men who left out transgender people and people of color in order to assimilate with mainstream society.  In the documentary we learn she left New York City after speaking out at a 1973 rally, but returned after Marsha Johnson’s death.  In archival footage, Sylvia Rivera is interviewed while living in a homeless encampment on the Hudson River in the 1990s and suffering from alcoholism.  She is able to go cold turkey with the help of friends, and returns to activism, receiving global recognition for being in the vanguard of LGBTQ equality.

I like that I learned a lot about important activists like Cruz, Rivera, and Wicker and others in this movie. It is a bit disappointing that there isn’t as much about Marsha P. Johnson in the movie.  But then, I guess that reflects reality. Johnson was taken from this world at a young age and is not here to tell her story.  This is a movie that like many a good documentary will make you a little bit smarter, but also a little bit sadder.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 28


BackStory :: Fighting Jane Crow: The Multifaceted Life and Legacy of Pauli Murray

The life and legacy of an overlooked 20th-century figure in civil rights, women’s equality, and gender identity.  We all need to learn more about Pauli Murray’s efforts to fight injustice and promote equality.

Decoder Ring :: Rubber Duckie

The history of the iconic bath toy.

Throughline :: American Socialist

My mother always likes to refer to herself as being “to the left of Eugene Debs.”  This podcast breaks down the history of the prominent socialist who found success as a presidential candidate and activist over 100 years ago.

Throughline :: 1918 Flu

102 years a deadly influenza pandemic spread through the world killing millions.  The 1918 flu is brought up as the most recent parallel to the current COVID-19 pandemic. This podcast traces the history of the 1918 flu and most importantly offers striking differences between the flu and the current crisis.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Book Review: Empire of Shadows by George Black


Author: George Black
Title: Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story Of Yellowstone
Narrator: Jack de Golia
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2019 [originally published in 2012]
Summary/Review:

I’m planning to visit Yellowstone National Park for the first time this summer, so I was excited to read this history.  I failed to read the small print, though, since it turns out this book is the history of Yellowstone over the six decades from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Congressional establishment of the first national park in 1872. It is primarily a military history of the conflicts between Native peoples and the U.S. armed forces sent to defend the interests of white American explorers, exploiters, and settlers.  Part of me rolls my eyes at another history that focuses entirely on military actions, while another part feels shamed that I wish to avoid the bloody background of a place special to all Americans.

Key figures in this history include Jim Bridger, a trapper known for his tall tales, although later many of his descriptions of Yellowstone’s natural wonders would be proved true.  William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, known for their adoption of total war tactics in the Civil War, are key military leaders in the effort to “tame” the West.  The first thorough expedition to explore the future park by the United States was lead by Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, and the exploits of his team make up much of the latter part of the book.

The message of the book is clear in that creating a National Park preserved a unique ecosystem, but it only happened after extermination of the buffalo and removal of the Native tribes.  The buffalo have been reintroduced to the park, but the legacy of the Native people is still hidden.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 15


Hidden Brain :: Passion Isn’t Enough: The Rise Of ‘Political Hobbyism’ in the United States

How politics in the US is harmed by the “reality show” entertainment aspect of national politics and dearth of involvement in local politics where real power can be exercised. It even calls out Massachusetts voters!

Memory Palace :: The House of Lowe

Ann Lowe designed dresses for the women of the 20th centuries elite family, including Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, but never received public credit for her work. Find out why she was kept as “society’s best secret.”

More than Enough :: Complete Series

A four-part series examines the idea of guaranteed income, or universal basic income, from the point of view of those who need it most,poor people.

Science Talk :: Kirk, Spock and Darwin

Interspecies romance is common on Star Trek but less so in real life. Find out why.

Throughline :: Becoming America

How the Spanish American War and the rise of empire lead to the people of the United States to call their country simply America.

The Tomorrow Society :: Nathalia Holt on The Queens of Animation

Interview with an author of a new book about women animators at the Disney studios as well as women who workef at the Jet Propulsion Lab

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Cartoon County by Cullen Murphy


Author: Cullen Murphy
Title: Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Previously Read By the Same Author: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (with William Rathje)
Summary/Review:

Cartoon County is a memoir/biography/history by Cullen Murphy of the comic strip cartoonists and illustrators who lived and worked in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the post-World War II era. The book focuses on his father, John Cullen Murphy, who illustrated the comic strip Big Ben Bolt and took over Prince Valiant from its creator Hal Foster in the 1970s.

I feel destined to read this book, primarily because I grew up loving newspaper comics and fascinated by their history (although these days I exclusively read the comics’ mockery blog, Comics Curmudgeon). I also grew up in Fairfield County myself, and as a kid was proud that Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker lived there. My father took us to the Museum of Cartoon Art in a castle-like house that Walker opened in nearby Port Chester, NY.  The author of this book was even of the most famous alumni of my high school – along with Broadway actor David Carroll, baseball player Tim Teufel, and publicist Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy – and a customized panel of Prince Valiant graced our school’s trophy case.

Murphy writes about growing up in a community of comics illustrators of the “Connecticut School” where his father and the other fathers he knew did not join the crowds of men in gray flannel suit taking the commuter rail to New York City.  Many of these men (and for the most part, the comics was a man’s trade) came of age during World War II where they used their artistic talents in their military service.  After the war, Connecticut was an affordable place where they could get homes with studio space near the publishing houses of New York (it’s alarming to think that Fairfield County was ever affordable!). These cartoonists include Mort Walker, Jerry Dumas, Stan Drake, Dik Browne, Ernie Bushmiller, Milton Caniff, and Crockett Johnson, among many others.  The School included daily comic strip cartoonists, New Yorker cartoonists, editorial cartoonists, and magazine illustrators.

The book covers a lot of territory.  First, it’s a personal memoir of Murphy’s father, who had the practice of using a Polaroid camera to photograph himself (and any family members or friends in the vicinity) in various poses to use as models for his illustrations. Starting in the 1970s, Murphy would work with his father as the writer of Prince Valiant.

Second, it’s a broader history of the Connecticut School cartoonists who were his father’s friends and colleagues. Murphy details their experiences in WWII, settling in Connecticut after the war, and the interplay between their comics.  Events like Look Day at the New Yorker (the one day each week when cartoonists gathered in New York to show their gags to the magazine’s editors) and National Cartoonists Society brought together cartoonists for business with a heavy side of socialization. The men came together for parties and games of golf (which seems to be the origin of the all-too-many golf gags in newspaper comics) as well.

Finally, the book is a tribute to newspaper comics as a unique American art form of the 20th century.  Murphy has some interesting observations on the cartoonists.  While his father was a strong Republican, most of the cartoonists were politically liberal and lived lives of noncomformity for their time. Sentaro Este Kefauver conducted a congressional investigation of the comics industry in which Pogo creator Walt Kelly declared that being a “screwball” was a badge of honor for cartoonists. The comics were innovative for time, and I learned about a short-lived strip of the 1960s called Sam’s Strip (predecessor to Sam & Silo), which Jerry Dumas created as post-modern, metatextual experiment that left comics readers scratching their heads. And yet newspaper comics on the whole tended to be conservative, and as the generation of cartoonists died (many passing on the legacy strips to their children and grandchildren) and newspapers themselves went into decline, comics failed to adapt to the new reality. Murphy mourns the past but still sees hope in the underappreciated work of graphic novels.

This books is richly illustrated with comics panels, original works of art, and photographs.  It’s a great way to dip one’s toe into a time and place when kids gleefully anticipated the Sunday papers wrapped in the full-color comics section.  It tells the story of the men who brought this joy and some of the behind the scenes secrets of their craft.

Recommended books:

  • Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman by Patrick McDonnell
  • Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist by Chuck Jones
  • The Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman


Author: Michael Waldman
TitleThe Second Amendment: A Biography
Narrator: John Glouchevitch
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The Second Amendment: A Biography is a thorough history of “the right to bear arms” in America from colonial period to today.  Bearing arms has always been seen necessary for hunting and self-defense, but in Colonial America the greatest purpose of gun ownership was the duty of serving in a citizen militia for mutual defense.  The idea of militias was highly regarded in the culture of the time since its membership included the most prominent members of the community whereas the regular army drew from the dregs of society. There was a fear of standing armies being a temptation for tyrannical rulers, so the civilian militia was seen as the ideal.

When the Constitution was sent to the states to be ratified, many opponents complained that it did not include a bill of rights and submitted over 100 suggestions for inclusion in a list of rights.  The Framers of the Constitution for the most part didn’t consider a Bill of Rights necessary since they were already encoded in most state constitutions, and by the time the first Congress met the push for a Bill of Rights had faded away.  Ironically, James Madison was among the leaders who didn’t see a necessity for a federal Bill of Rights, but as his constituents were particularly adamant about the issue, he took it upon himself to whittle down and combine the many suggestions into the Bill of Rights we know today.

Waldman takes the time to discuss how this process of revision, combinations, and debate lead to the awkwardly worded Second Amendment that we know today.  He also cites records of the drafting to show that the concerns underlying the Second Amendment were related to individual gun ownership and self-defense as many activists insist today. Waldman examines the quotes the Second Amendment activists use from leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and shows that they are used out of context or are irrelevant to the Second Amendment.

The idea and practice of the militia evolved over time with the Civil War prompting a major growth in a federal military.  By World War I, the United States had the standing army many early Americans feared, and militias had all but evaporated.  Even within these changing times, courts still interpreted the Second Amendment as a communal rather than individual right. When the Franklin Roosevelt administration introduced bans on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, event the president of the National Rifle Association wrote in support of sensible gun regulations.

The great societal upheavals of the 1960s – especially expanded civil rights for Black Americans and urban riots – lead to a backlash among conservative white people who began emphasizing the right to firearms for individual defense. At a NRA convention in Cincinnati in 1977, the more conservative members revolted against leadership and moved the organization to be the activist gun rights lobbying organization we’re familiar with today.

At the same time, judicial appointees from the Nixon and Reagan (and later the Bushes) made the courts more conservative in their interpretations of the Second Amendment.  Waldman focuses particularly on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his idea of following the original intent of the Framers. Waldman demonstrates that original intent is actually a reactionary and activist position. Over Scalia’s long career on the Supreme Court, he went to being an outlier on the idea of Constitutional originalism to being in a judiciary where such interpretations were widespread.  Which leads to the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller where the Supreme Court affirmed for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.

Waldman’s book is very detailed and provides a lot of interesting context for a thorny topic.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I expect this book will show you that there are a lot of things about the Second Amendment that are not what you thought.  This is a good book to read as we continue to grapple with the issues that come at the conflict of individual rights and communal responsibilities.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

TV Review: The Imagineering Story (2019)


Title: The Imagineering Story
Release Date: 2019
Writer: Mark Catalena
Director: Leslie Iwerks
Production Company:  ABC Studios | Iwerks & Co.
Summary/Review:

This documentary focuses on the history of the people behind the Walt Disney theme parks.  Walt Disney Imagineering – originally WED Enterprises – was founded in 1952 as Walt Disney’s engineering division tasked with designing Disneyland.  This is an in-house production, so naturally there’s a promotional element to the series that toots Disney’s own horn.  But I am impressed that the show does acknowledge mistakes and setbacks in Imagineering history.

The director, Leslie Iwerks, is a third generation Disney employee.  Her grandfather Ub Iwerks worked with Walt in the early days and co-created Mickey Mouse while her father Don Iwerks was a technician and executive from the 1950s to 1980s.  Highlights of the series include interviews with prominent figures – both archival and for the show – such as Bob Gurr, Herb Ryman, X Atencio, Harriet Burns, Harper Goff, Marty Sklar, David Snyder, Blaine Gibson, Tom K. Morris, Kevin Rafferty, Peggie Fariss, Glenn Barker, and Katie Olson, Tony Baxter, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Eddie Sotto, Tim Delaney, Joe Rohde, Ali Rubenstein, and Kevin Rafferty.  Most of those names are men, but the series makes an admirable effort to acknowledge the role of women in Imagineering.  A powerful moment comes in an interview with Imagineer Kim Irvine when she talks about her mother Leota Toombs, an Imagineering designer who became famous as the model for Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion.  Irvine talks about still being able to hear her mother’s voice every time she visits the attraction.

I felt that there was a lot of innovation and creativity in the early days of WED Enterprises that the years covered in the first two episodes could easily have been stretched out into three (or more) episodes.  That being said, the early Imagineers have appeared in many other “behind the scenes” programs about Disney Parks, so it is good that the newer generations are getting a lot of attention in this series.

Dan Heaton at the Tomorrow Society website has written comprehensive summaries and reviews of each episode that I’ve linked below and I recommended reading them should you be more interested in the topic.  Here are my short summaries of each episode:

  1. The Happiest Place on Earth” – (1952-1966) The creation and expansion of Disneyland during Walt Disney’s lifetime and Imagineering’s work at the 1964 World’s Fair.
  2. What Would Walt Do?” – (1967-1983) After Walt’s death, Roy Disney oversees the opening of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida, and Imagineers create EPCOT as a theme park rather than a city. Simultaneous with EPCOT, the first international park is open in Tokyo. The success of these big projects is overshadowed by the lack of future plans and mass layoffs.
  3. The Midas Touch” – (1984-1994) Michael Eisner and Frank Wells takeover as leaders of Disney and shake up the parks with attractions tied to hipper franchises unrelated to Disney, and open the Disney-MGM Studios.  The episode ends with the initial financial failure of Euro Disneyland and Well’s death in a helicopter crash.
  4. Hit or Miss” – (1995-2004) The Disney company attempts unprecedented expansion but the failure of Euro Disneyland also leads to cost-cutting and a decline in quality.  Successes include the Disney Cruise Line, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea, while Disney’s California, Walt Disney Studios Park and Hong Kong Disneyland are serious disappointments.
  5. A Carousel of Progress” – (2004-2016) Bob Iger takes over leadership of Disney.  Projects include rebuilding California Adventure with a Cars Land expansion, and improving the undersized parks in Paris and Hong Kong.  Imagineers also provide controversial overlays to fan favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and it’s a small world.
  6. “To Infinity and Beyond” -Building a new, culturally-appropriate Magic Kingdom in Shanghai takes up the first half of this episode.  The rest focuses on new, fully-immersive experiences in the American parks: Mission Breakout, Pandora, and Galaxy’s Edge.

46


46 years ago yesterday, President Richard Nixon delivered what became known as his “I am not a crook” speech.  This went down as a key moment in the downfall of his presidency, and Nixon would resign less than 9 months later.

There are a couple of things that fascinates me about this historical event.  One, it took place at Walt Disney World, specifically the Contemporary Resort where the monorail passes through, which strikes me as a strange place for a president to deny his crimes.  Two, on a more personal level, I was born the next day so the headlines of the newspapers on the day I was born were all about the “I am not a crook” speech.

Here’s a couple of examples from New York Newsday and the New York Times:

 

After looking back to a highly-relevant past, I also look towards the future.  I have high hopes for 46 in more ways than one.

As always, happy birthday to my November 18th fam: Mickey Mouse, Steven Moffat, David Ortiz, and Chloë Sevigny!

Related Posts:

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 16


99% Invisible :: Ubiquitous Icons

The story behind three symbols that have become mainstays: the Peace Symbol, the Smiley Face, and the Power Icon on electronic devices.  Note: Forrest Gump was not involved.

Best of the Left :: Why We Cannot Have Nice Things (How Racism Hurts Everyone, Including White People)

This collection of stories from progressive news outlets takes “a look at some of the ways that conservative policies, willed into existence almost exclusively by white people, measurably hurt people and shorten life expectancies, including those who most fervently support the self-destructive policies.”

Throughline :: The Siege of Mecca

The purpose of Throughline is to trace the history that shapes current events, but The Siege of Mecca of November 20, 1979 is something I’d never heard about before at all, and think it’s an important event to have knowledge of.

Radio Boston :: 60 Years Ago, A Folk Revival Began At Passim In Cambridge

Passim, the tiny folk club in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, was an important place for me in my 20s & 30s when I attended a lot of shows and even volunteered there quite a bit.  There’s a lot of great history in this interview.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: