"Mark Your Calendar: From Film Geekery To Public School Chess, Watch Ten PBS Documentaries This Fall"
PBS may enjoy touting their ratings thanks to the runaway success of shows like Downton Abbey. But while their other programming may not have the sexy frisson of seeing Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew finally get over themselves and admit they’re nuts about each other, PBS also boasts an incredibly strong lineup of documentary and documentary series this fall. If you’re craving a deep dive into the relative advantages of shooting on film or digital, the first American Masters to focus on a sports figure, or the best documentary about a an after-school activity you’ll ever see, you should mark your calendar for these ten films and series, coming soon to a PBS station near you.
1. The March (August 27): Because it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting of President Kennedy, the Television Critics Association has been deluged with projects about the assassination that range from the serious to the scurrilous. Thank goodness for PBS remembering that other things happened in 1963, including the March on Washington. This documentary includes interviews with participants, like Clarence Jones, Claybourne Carson and Joyce Lardner, and with Roger Mudd, who covered the March for CBS as his first national assignment. ” I was the congressional correspondent covering Capitol Hill, and it was a hermetically sealed existence because you never really heard much about what was going on outside,” Mudd told the Television Critics Association press tour. “Everything that we heard was from committee chairmen, Southerners uncommitted and generally uninterested in the Civil Rights Movement. So my experience with the March on Washington was my first firsthand look at the marvelous men whom who participated in that. It was for me a revelation and, I dare say, a revelation to the men and women on Capitol Hill.”
2. Side By Side (August 30): It’s easy to think of Keanu Reeves only in terms of the laid-back persona of so many of his characters. But in Side By Side, he explores an artistic question more probing than how to make Wyld Stallyns the hottest band in the world: the rise of digital cinematography and the dwindling stock of film on which to shoot. ” I ended up directing a film shooting digitally, and I would say, since we spoke last, certainly the digital has continued to grow and improve and something that kind of ties into why I went into doing the documentary in the first place in the sense of ‘Is it the end of film?’” he explained. “I was much more skeptical that it would survive a year ago, and now, even though, you know, film stocks are getting harder to get, who’s going to develop it, there still seems to be an artistic pushback that I think will help it survive in a niche way, that there will be a way that it will hang on a little bit longer.”
3. American Masters: Billie Jean King (September 10): There are so many good things about this look at Billie Jean King’s life, with its particular focus on the fight to get women recognized as professional tennis players, on equal pay, and on why she won the Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs that I’m not even sure where to start in urging you to see it. But for a sense of why King’s such a wonderful subject, it’s worth recounting what she told the TCA about her relationship with Riggs, who became a close friend of hers.
“I think he was a chauvinist, but you have to understand, as a child, I read every book I could on tennis, and I adored Bobby Riggs because he was a former No. 1 player in the world. He won the triple crown at Wimbledon. I knew all about him. I knew he had turned pro and beat Kramer in four sets at Madison Square Garden. I knew all about Bobby Riggs. He’s from Southern California, had a woman teacher. I knew all I listened to all the folklore about him, and I had total respect for him. And the reason I beat him is because I respected him,” she explained. “I used to tell him this match was about history and about change, and he used to say, ‘Honey, it’s about money, you know, and hustling.’ And I go, ‘No, no, no, Bobby. You don’t understand.’ So the night before he passed away, we were on the phone, and I said, ‘Bobby, you know, I really care about you. How are you doing?’ He says, ‘I’m not good,’ and he goes, ‘I guess we really did make a difference, didn’t we?’”
4. Latino Americans (September 17-October 1): Much of America’s racial history is understood as bipolar, a dialogue between the country’s black and white communities. This major documentary series is a corrective to that, stretching back 500 years, and interviewing more than 100 subjects. In exploring the complexity of Latino identity, my hope is that this series will add new dimensions to our conversation about race in America, reminding us that “white” and “black” are as much creations as “Latino” or “Hispanic.”
5. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (September 30): When Journey went looking for a new lead singer in 2007, they found him by means that didn’t exist when the band was formed, and halfway around the world:a YouTube video uploaded by his friend lead Neal Schon to Arnel Pineda, a Filipino singer who was performing with a cover band in Manila. It wasn’t an entirely smooth transition–Pineda, who had no formal musical training, had to learn to pace his use of his voice on an international tour, and some Journey fans reacted to his addition to the band with unfortunate displays of racism.
“Journey is an All American rock band. Right?” said filmmaker Ramona Diaz. “And here’s this Asian guy fronting for Journey, unheard of, and it was just such a it was such a visually even, it was just a shock. And, yeah, a lot of that was racism. I mean, certainly, on the Internet, there was a lot of that. He won them over…He just responded by his performance, which is pretty incredible and has remained incredible for, like, five years now.”
6. Brooklyn Castle (October 8): I’ve written at length about how much I love Brooklyn Castle, which I saw at SXSW in 2012, and which is now streaming on Netflix. The movie, about a public school chess program in Brooklyn, does a couple of things exceptionally well. It picks a fantastic set of characters to follow through a year on the competitive chess circuit, which also happens to be the year they’re taking the tests that can qualify them to get into New York’s famously competitive exam schools. It explains the exam school system in terms that are both compelling as drama and clear–and clear-eyed–on policy. The movie examines what happens when budget cuts come for the program, which is presented as a luxury, but gives students skills that they don’t learn in conventional classrooms. And finally, it’s a wonderful exploration of chess itself, and why the game gives back even to those who don’t become champions.
7. Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (October 8-15): Despite a contentious exchange on superheroes and gender towards the end of the panel for this series at TCA press tour, Michael Kantor’s long-gestating look at the tropes of superhero stories, seminal creators, and the regulatory and cultural reaction to what were once deemed disposable children’s stories is well worth a look. I wrote about a preview of it at New York Comic Con two years ago, and I’m looking forward to Kantor’s examination of how a medium that was once read by 70 million Americans shrunk in sales, even as the characters who populated comic books popped off the page and took over our mass culture.
8. League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (October 8-15): I wrote about the panel for League of Denial yesterday. This may be well-trod territory for many of you, especially if you follow Travis’s work in our Sports section. But this documentary goes into the autopsy room with doctors studying the long-term impacts of concussions, into football history to explore how football players used their heads as weapons, and into the soul-searching by former players who wonder what damage they might have done to themselves and others along the way.
9. 56 Up (October 14): This is the latest installment in Michael Apted’s regular check-ins with a group of British men and women who began the Up series as seven-year-olds, and it marks the fiftieth year of the project. Apted says the process keeps surprising him. He thought this film would find its participants would be “very concerned with mortality,” but that instead, they’re still living full lives. And some of the choices they’ve made have paid off in unexpected ways. “I felt that the participants who’d invested energy and time and family life, in fact, seemed to have a more solid ground to themselves to deal with the rigors of living in the United Kingdom in 2012 and whatever,” he suggested. “As well as others who maybe had chosen more career and ambition and things like that. So I found that very rewarding, that the investment in family had paid off, and I had no idea that that was going to come out. And, you know, it brought a kind of optimism to the film in a sense.”
10. The African-Americans: Many Rivers To Cross (October 22-November 26): Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wanted to launch this six-hour attempt to provide a comprehensive history of African Americans in part because “No one’s been crazy enough to try to do the whole history of the African American people since Bill Cosby,” instead, telling fragmentary stories without providing a larger narrative. Among the examples of disruptive stories he hopes to bring to PBS viewers is that of what he calls the “first Underground Railroad.”
“The reason that this history has been elided is because the British beat the Spanish in the request for North America,” he explained. “So we tend to forget that the oldest city in North America, St. Augustine, founded in 1665 in Florida, and a thousand one other series. In fact, it’s even more dramatic than that. There was such a rivalry between Spain and England that the king of Spain in 1693 issued an edict saying that any slaves who escaped from Carolina or Georgia and over into Florida to St. Augustine and who pledged fealty to the king, the Spanish crown, became a Roman Catholic, and vowed to serve with the Spanish militia was automatically free. So there was this huge the first Underground Railroad was not from the South to the North. It was from the North to the South. It was from Charleston and Savannah to St. Augustine, and we’ve lost that.”