Winter Soldier,
and a few more films

The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973)

Strictly for PR purposes, the CIA decides to hire its first and only black agent. The entire process is, of course, rigged to eliminate as many recruits as possible, because one is the maximum number the agency is willing to hire.

After lots of racist screening, they hire Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook, from Lord Shango), and almost immediately he's assigned to receptionist's duties, so everyone coming in to the office can see that a black man works at the CIA.

After a few years of that, Freeman quits, but he's learned a lot from being behind the front desk at the Central Intelligence Agency. He goes back to his home town of Chicago and begins secretly training black Americans to be militant freedom fighters — Black Panthers, essentially, though they're rebranded here.

"Remember, a black man with a mop, tray, or broom in his hand can go damned near anywhere in this country, and a smiling black man is invisible."

#244  [archive]
FEB. 19, 2024

Alternating between mellow and thoughtful and angry and violent, this is not in the 'blaxploitation' genre. In the film's more radical moments toward the end, it feels almost like Paul Schrader. 

It was written by Sam Greenlee, based on his novel, which I haven't read but might. It was published in the UK because no American publisher would touch it.

The movie is a compelling telling of a wild story, rough around the edges because it was made independently, and far more subversive than anything from the big studios.

Directed by Ivan Dixon, who, as an actor, starred in Nothing But a Man and (sorta sadly) co-starred in Hogan's Heroes. Music by Herbie Hancock, mixing jazz, progressive, even psychedelic sounds. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Timestalkers (1987)

Like they sing on Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the others." Timestalkers is fun, but it's garbage compared to the other three films reviewed on this page. 

I considered holding back this review for a more playful and less explosive batch, but nah. Some movies have a lot to say and seriously shake up your head, and some movies are just dumb popcorn-chompers, but there's nothing wrong with chomping popcorn.

Brian Clemens wrote dozens of episodes of the fabulous 1960s British cop/sci-fi show The Avengers, and arguably created the series. He also wrote this odd but imaginative made-for-TV time-travel mystery adventure, starring a dour William Devane, Lauren Hutton at the height of her powers, and Klaus Kinski as a grumpy German gunslinger in the old American west. 

There's a bolt of lightning sound effect for every time jump in Timestalkers, and some other exaggerated noises which quickly become annoying, but other than that this is perfectly watchable, if a bit slight.

Directed by Michael Schultz (Car Wash, Cooley High), it features small parts for John Ratzenberger, John Avery, Tim Russ, and unbelievably, Forrest Tucker (F Troop) as a computer whiz, in his last role.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Welcome to New Orleans (2006)

Malik Rahim is a former Black Panther and veteran, who long ago got in a shootout with police, so he's an ex-con. Most of his life he's been a housing rights activist, and this documentary is mostly about him and his work in the aftermath of 2005's flooding of New Orleans.

The city had two days notice that Hurricane Katrina was coming, and did effectively nothing to prepare. Almost as soon as the weather and water hit, though, officials moved quickly to establish a dusk-to-dawn curfew with orders to shoot to kill any violators.

"That's my life, man," says one of the flood's survivors. "It's gone, and I ain't got shit. I've got what, two pair of boxers and an undershirt? Everything else is destroyed."

Cops hassle volunteers trying to help people. White vigilantes brag on camera about shooting 'looters', when it's pretty obvious they mean 'colored people'. There's a preacher's sermon, explaining that God brought the hurricane and must've had his reasons, so the hurricane was good. And of course, the camera drives through miles of ruined homes and ruined lives.

The New Orleans disaster troubled me personally, because my family lived there when I was a boy, just a few blocks from the Mississippi levy. When the hurricane hit, our old neighborhood became a moldy sponge, so I've always been aghast at how New Orleans, Louisiana, and America abandoned the city as the waters went up.

As for Mr Rahim, he seems like a good man, and he ran for Congress in 2008, but on the Green Party ticket, which means he had less than zero chance of winning, especially in Louisiana. Of course, there was no other choice if he wanted to run — certainly the Democrats would have nothing to do with a candidate who speaks from the heart about justice and equality and taking care of people.

Distressing on another level, this TV documentary isn't even American. It was made for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, and it's entirely in English, completely watchable and infuriating, but I don't think it's ever been shown in America. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Winter Soldier (1972)

Remember the American military's extended field trip to Vietnam, jumping into another country's civil war to make sure they didn't go commie?

To my knowledge and I hope I'm wrong, there was no official investigation into the countless ordinary war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. There was, however, this unofficial inquiry, conducted by the activist group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It was an open forum held in Detroit, where American vets were asked to describe the atrocities they committed or saw in 'Nam.

This is a filmed record of those hearings, and it is … beyond my ability to describe, so I'll let a few of the veterans have their say:

• "The way that we distinguished between civilians ['allies'] and VC [Viet Cong]? VC had weapons and civilians didn't, and anybody that was dead was considered a VC. If you killed someone, they said, 'How did you know he was a VC?' The general reply would be, 'He's dead'."

• "The next slide is myself. I'm extremely shameful of it. … It's me, holding a dead body, smiling. Everyone in our platoon took two bodies, put them on the back ramp, drove them through a village for show, and dumped them off at the edge of the village."

• "We never had any instruction in the Geneva Conventions. The lecture consisted of: 'If you're taken prisoner, all you gotta do is give them your name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. Here's your Geneva Convention cards. Go get 'em, Marines.' We were never told anything about the way to treat prisoners, if we were the capturers rather than the capturees."

• "We used to drive by this row of hooches [thatched huts], and a little 3-year-old kid in dirty gray shorts used to run out and scream, 'You Marines, you number 10!' [meaning, no good]… One night the kid comes out and says, 'You Marines, you number 10!' and throws a rock, so we figured we'd get him, because this was a way of having fun. The next night before going out, we all … picked up the biggest rocks we could get our hands on, and piled 'em in the back of the truck. When we left the combat base, we just turned the corner and saw the little kid, we were waiting for the kid, and he ran out of the hooch and he was going to scream 'Marines, number 10!' and we didn't even let him get it out of his mouth, just picked up all the rocks and smeared him, just wiped him out. And I don't know, I can't say that the kid died, but if it would've been me I would've died. Some of the rocks were easily as big as his head. And it was looked upon as funny. We all laughed about it, and then we forgot about it."

• "Everything is set on fire. My squad leader personally ignited the first two hooches, and told us to take care of the rest. When we went out, I would say 50% at least of the villages we passed through would be burned to the ground. There was no difference between the ones we burned and the ones we didn't burn, it's just that some we had time, so we burned them."

• "We were told, 'Do not count prisoners when you're loading them on board the aircraft. Count 'em when you unload them.' Which, the naïve young brownbar says, 'What difference does it make?' And the wisened old first lieutenant says, 'Because the numbers may not jibe. … Don't ever, ever count when they go aboard, because presumably you'd have to say something if one of them got thrown out'."

• "These people are aware of what American soldiers do to them, so naturally they try to hide the young girls. We found one hiding in the bomb shelter, in sorta the basement of her house, and she was taken out and raped by six or seven people, in front of her family, and in front of most of the villagers. This wasn't just one incident, it was just the first one that I remember, but I know of 10-15 incidents at least. The gentleman to my left can corroborate my testimony, as we were together the whole time, served in the same squad in the same company."

• "It got to be like a game, like, the object was to see who could kill the most people. The different ways you could prove how many people you killed, would be like, cutting off ears. Now if you brought back someone's ears, you know, pretty likely you had to kill them to get them. Whoever had the most ears, they would get the most beers. You could trade your ears for beers."

There's a huge amount of HOLY CRAP here, but what's perhaps most remarkable is a spontaneous conversation filmed during a break, between one angry black man explaining loud and clear and plainly that racism is the baseline reason for the war crimes, and a few of the soldiers whose testimony we've heard, who don't particularly disagree.

The forum was held in 1971, and the film was offered to all the networks' news divisions, but there was no interest from ABC, CBS, NBC, or PBS. It was also rejected for theatrical distribution, so it played only in church basements and occasionally museums, until getting a small, art-house release more than thirty years later, in 2005.

So what's the difference between war and war crimes? War crimes are just those very rare days when the wrong people happen to see something they weren't supposed to see. Other than that, war and war crimes are synonyms.

Verdict: BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •    

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Adam Clayton Powell (1989)
Bachelor in Paradise (1961)
Beau is Afraid (2023)

... plus schlock and surprises

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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