Newsletter: Indie Focus: Unraveling complications in ‘13th,’ ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and ‘The Greasy Strangler’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

When we first started putting on screening and Q&A events, if you had told me we would have Kelly Reichardt and Pedro Almodóvar in the same week I would have laughed out loud in disbelief. They are simply two of the greatest, most consistent filmmakers in the world today. So it is very exciting that this week we will have Reichardt with her latest, “Certain Women,” and the legendary Almodóvar with his “Julieta.”

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Ava DuVernay must have magnificent time management skills. After moving from directing “Selma” to co-creating and executive producing the television series “Queen Sugar” to directing the upcoming big-budget adaptation of “A Wrinkle In Time,” somewhere in there she found time make the documentary “13th.” In theaters and on Netflix, the film is a searing look at the system of mass incarceration within the United States and its connections to race, class and the 13th Amendment.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan said, it’s as “persuasively argued as it is angry, and it is very angry” adding that the film offers “a brisk, cogently argued alternative to the conventionally taught American story … DuVernay gives us a documentary that systematically covers a lot of territory, a century and a half of race relations in this country in fact.”

Director Ava DuVernay has a new Netflix documentary about mass incarceration titled “The 13th.”
Director Ava DuVernay has a new Netflix documentary about mass incarceration titled "The 13th."
(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times )

The Times’ Tre’vell Anderson spoke to DuVernay, who talked about stepping into making a documentary after her recent fiction work.


“I am telling this story through what I learned as a storyteller,” she said. “Hopefully, with this you get to go a little bit deeper into the things we feel as Americans about who’s the criminal.”

Steve Zeitchik covered the film from its recent world premiere as the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival.

“This could have been the dutiful, Learning Channel version of a film about the subject,” said Kent Jones, the New York Film Festival director who spearheaded the decision to open with the movie. “Instead Ava DuVernay has made the bold version.”

Manohla Dargis wrote about the film for the New York Times, “Powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming, Ava DuVernay’s documentary ‘13th’ will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking. It shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States, subject matter that could not sound less cinematic.”

At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson, added, “And if entertainment has a responsibility to represent people in a more just way, it’s just as true that audiences bear responsibility to seek out and even clamor for better art. When more voices are represented and heard, when more images are seen and internalized, that’s a win for everyone.”

‘The Birth of A Nation’

Written, directed and starring Nate Parker, “The Birth of a Nation” won the grand jury and audience awards when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, the film had a momentum and timeliness to it that seemed unstoppable. That is until the story of a 1999 rape allegation against Parker resurfaced and made the film’s very existence, in contemporary parlance, “problematic.” Parker’s personal story and the film’s telling of a particular chapter of history suddenly brought back age-old questions of how to separate art and artist.

Calling the film “admirably ambitious” and noting “you also have to admire the passion and emotionality Parker brought to ‘The Birth of a Nation,’” in his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan added “Like any artistic endeavor, however, the film deserves to stand on its own merits, and that verdict is incontestably mixed. It’s an oversimplification to say everything is good about this film but the film itself, but there are times it feels that way.”


This image released by Fox Searchlight Films shows Nate Parker as Nat Turner, center, in a scene from “The Birth of a Nation.”
This image released by Fox Searchlight Films shows Nate Parker as Nat Turner, center, in a scene from "The Birth of a Nation."
(Jahi Chikwendiu/Fox Searchlight )

Times critic Justin Chang wrote about the film from Sundance, but recently reappraised the film in light of its current context, writing, “For better or worse, the widespread perception of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ as an irredeemably tainted work — a cultural bombshell that may have blown up in its own face — offers a chastening reminder of the eternal difficulty of separating the art from the artist.”

A.O. Scott reviewed the film for the New York Times, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ is not ‘only a movie’; it’s precisely a movie, an ambitious attempt to corral the contradictions of history within the conventions of popular narrative. It dwells, sometimes too comfortably, sometimes too clumsily and sometimes with bracing effectiveness, within long-established patterns of mainstream movie storytelling. In the context of Hollywood history, Mr. Parker is less a revolutionary than a revisionist, adapting old strategies to new purposes, inflecting familiar tropes of violence and sentimentality with fresh meanings.

Vinson Cunningham wrote powerfully against the film for the New Yorker, saying “We do them and ourselves a disservice by lowering our expectations, and extending undue credit to bad art.”

At the Ringer, K. Austin Collins compared DuVernay’s “13th” to Parker’s “Birth,” writing “Seeing DuVernay’s documentary alerted me to the fabricated urgency of Nate Parker’s ambitions. He’s vying to be a spark plug. That may make you sympathetic to his intentions; he’s at the very least part of a long tradition, and he’s made a movie that’s intended to be anthologized and later regarded for its importance, for what it ‘says’ about the black culture of its moment.”

‘The Greasy Strangler’

The world of cinema often asks one to make head-spinning left turns, from heavy issues and social problems to something lighter and weirder. So let us turn our attention to “The Greasy Strangler,” a scatological story of a father and a son and a serial killer who slathers himself in grease.

In a review for The Times, Katie Walsh called the film “a bizarre and often strangely funny and affecting exercise in escalating repulsiveness and bad taste … forthright in its pushing of gross-out boundaries.”


Sky Elobar, as Big Brayden, and Michael St. Michaels, as Big Ronnie, in “The Greasy Strangler.”
Sky Elobar, as Big Brayden, and Michael St. Michaels, as Big Ronnie, in "The Greasy Strangler."
(courtesy of FilmRise )

Out of Sundance, critic Jordan Hoffman wrote for the Guardian, “This relentless monstrosity of a movie is not for everyone, but maybe it should be. For everyone who’ll enjoy ‘The Greasy Strangler,’ there’ll be an annoyed friend forever using it as a sore spot: ‘This makes up for the time you dragged me to the idiotic grease movie.’ Everybody wins.”

At Film Comment, Jonathan Romney wrote “a critic cannot live on French intelligence and sensitivity alone, so instead I’m going to write about a fairly inane, willfully repellent film called ‘The Greasy Strangler’ … it made me chuckle, made me wince a little — and it made me enjoy telling people about it and watching them squint dubiously at me as if they suspected me of making it all up.”

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