Tag Archives: Studio

VIFF 2020 Review: Time

Time is a documentary of how Sibil Fox Richardson (left) fights for the freedom of her husband Robert (right).

Normally I don’t like to see documentaries. I’ve seen enough one-sided documentaries in the previous decade to turn me off them. However I took an interest in Time. Injustice to African-Americans has been a heated topic this year and I felt Time was worth seeing.

The documentary consists mostly of filmed footage from court appearances, church appearances and camera phone videos of various moments and shown in black and white. The film begins with Sibil Fox Richardson trying to get a result back from the legal system for the freedom of her husband Robert. Robert was sentenced to prison for 60 years for an armed robbery he committed. It was his first offence. It’s a sentence many, including Sybil, feel is unjust and she’s working to get him freed.

The story is a long process as Sibil is trying to get a result or even a simple answer from the Louisiana Justice Department. It’s been a long wait over years. Each time she’s been calling, she gets a message that they don’t have a result or even an answer for her. Even when they give Sibil a due date when they’ll have it ready, it’s the same response: no answer.

You may ask how did this all start? It was in the 1990’s when Robert and Sibil had plans to start a business of their own. They planned on starting a sportswear store of their own in Lafayette. It seemed destined for promise as sportswear was all the rage in the 1990’s and Lafayette is a big football town. However business didn’t go as well as they hoped. The two decided to rob a bank in 1997; Robert did the robbery and Sibil drove the getaway car. They were eventually caught and convicted. Robert’s sentence was 60 years in prison and Sibil’s was 2 1/2 years.

Since Sibil’s release, she’s been able to get her life together. She’s been able to maintain a successful career, become a responsible member of the community, and has had six children — all boys including two twins — through Robert. She’s also done a very good job of raising her sons. Her oldest son graduated from a medical college. Her twins are also very good academically. One son is on the school debating team and plans to pursue a career in justice.

One thing is still missing. Robert is not free from prison. His prison sentence was excessive. Sibil has stayed loyally married to Robert during the time and it has been her goal to get him out of prison. It’s a goal in which she’s been struggling with for years involving lawyers, court appearances, legal department negotiations, and even media interviews. She even has a life-sized picture of Robert in his prison uniform glued to a cardboard cutout in the kitchen. It’s a reminder to her and her sons what she’s fighting for.

The battle is undoubtedly a personal one. She loves Robert unconditionally, but it’s hard seeing him imprisoned. It’s hard for her to see it both as a wife and as a mother. She knows how hard it is for her sons to see their father imprisoned. It’s hard when the Justice Department promises something by a certain date, and even has a time limit by law, but they don’t have the answers and it is delayed. She’s polite about it over the phone to whoever she calls about it, but her angry feelings become obvious once she hangs up. It’s also a personal burden for her with her being the getaway driver of the robbery. She served her time, raised her family well, received forgiveness from others, but something’s missing. She may have been forgiven by others, but she never asked her own mother for forgiveness. She’s even seen at her local church during a service asking for forgiveness from her community.

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending. However at long last, Robert is free. We see the video of the day Robert is released and driven home by Sibil. The trip ends with a kiss: the first kiss during Robert’s freedom! The family celebrates with a backyard barbecue. The final act of the celebration is the family can take the cardboard picture of Robert and burn it on the barbecue.

This is a case of the right documentary at the right time. Systemic racism has been a very heated topic of 2020. George Floyd isn’t the first African-American to be killed at the hands of police. Police brutality has caused the deaths of many African Americans for decades. However when the news and video hit the public eye, the outrage grew. It was like the outrage over a common injustice had been hidden for so long and just exploded at that moment. Like a bubble bursting. It’s especially frustrating when they live in a country with a president who denies the wrongdoing and wants to label protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘extremists’ all for the sake of winning the upcoming Presidential Election. And talk from right-wing media pundits who remind the public of crime statistics involving African Americans aren’t helping to put out the fire either. The outrage was not restricted to the United States. Protests were worldwide as people were united in solidarity not only of what happened in the US but of racism in their own countries.

This documentary is about another failure of the system towards African-Americans: the justice system. In the 1980’s, a lot of Tough On Crime acts were enforced into law. This has especially hurt African Americans as prison populations escalated and African Americans make up more of the percentage of prisoners that white prisoners. Much of the problem is predominantly black neighborhoods being overpoliced and black convicts receiving harsher prison sentences. While crime by whites have gone either overlooked or underpunished.

The documentary gives a very good example of this injustice. It puts a human face on what it’s like to be the wife of a husband of a harsh prison sentence. Times like these make you wonder what they’d give a white man who committed the same crime. Sibil comes across as a strong woman who’s determined to beat the odds on the outside, but her inner frailty soon becomes obvious. She ends a phone call with the justice board politely despite the disappointing news, but speaks her anger about how she feels about it. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the racism she senses once the call ends. She’s proud of how her sons have grown up but she is still upset that they’ve all only own their father behind bars. She talks of how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep her family intact. She even wrestles with the personal demon of being part of the crime. She served her full sentence long ago and appears to have more than made up for it, but personal things like repentance to those she hasn’t repented to still bother her. The use of personal camera work is best at showing the human side of the matter because it gets the honesty of what’s happening.

The film focuses on the injustice, but it also focuses on rays of hope. Getting Robert freed from prison isn’t the only ray of hope in the film. The first ray of hope is seen in Sibil’s own life and parenting. Sibil is an oddsbeater. She refuses to make a repeat offender of herself. She’s become a responsible person in her community and church. She acknowledges the past wrongs she and her husband did and wants to move forward. As for parenting, statistics state children of parents in prison most likely grow up to become criminals themselves. That’s not the case for her sons. Their oldest graduates from a medical college. Both of her twins do well in high school and one is active on the school debating team. He plans on pursuing a career in justice. I’m sure seeing the unfairness his father endured is probably what fuels his ambition. The husband’s freedom is also a symbol of why it’s important never to quit on doing the right thing. There are a lot of injustices to overcome, but it’s worth it no matter how hard it gets.

The biggest praise should go to director Garrett Bradley. This film won the Best Director award in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival (the first African American director to win this award), the Charles Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Bradley does an excellent job in showing the images that tell the story. With straight film footage that doesn’t have a voiceover and allows the main subject do most of the talking, we get a no-nonsense undistorted story and a proper unmanipulated point of view. Filming takes places from multiple angles and we get the truth exposed. It presents the solution, but also with the huge problems it overcomes. Showing the images in black and white is appropriate because while justice shouldn’t be black and white, the system has turned it into a black and white issue. Even titling the film Time adds to the film’s quality. It’s about time served, time to rebuild your life, time to make a family happen, time to raise your children, more-that-necessary time behind bars and the seemingly-endless time to make justice for your husband happen. Above all, the time to tell the whole story and time to expose the problems in achieving the solution.

Time is more than just an excellent non-nonsense documentary that does an honest portrayal of its theme. It’s the exact documentary we need at a time like this. Also it’s a reminder that ‘Liberty and Justice for all,’ should mean all! No exceptions!

VIFF 2018 Review: Studio 54

studio 54

The documentary Studio 54 is where co-founder Ian Schrager (right) finally tells the story of how he and Steve Rubell (left) did illegal dealings in the night club iconic with the disco era.

There are some things iconic with disco from the 1970’s. There’s the film Saturday Night Fever, the music of Donna Summer, and the night club Studio 54. Co-founder Ian Schrager has mostly been quiet about his years of Studio 54 and how he and Steve Rubell ran it. In the documentary Studio 54, he finally breaks his silence.

The film begins as Ian Schrager is about to have the book of Studio 54 published. Ian starts talking about his upbringing. He grew up in Brooklyn. He came from a neighborhood mostly of working class Jewish families who worked in hopes that their children would have a better life. Ian met Steve Rubell in college. He attended Syracuse University where he earned a BA and later earned a JD from St. John’s Law School. It was through a fraternity at Syracuse that he met Steve Rubell.

It was the mid-1970’s. Two important things were happening. Firstly, Manhattan had lost its charm. It became dumpy and seedy with the times. Instead of being this place of charm and pizzazz, it had fallen on hard times where it was full of crime and X-rated lewdness and trashiness. Secondly was the emergence of disco music and its style of partying. Already in areas of Brooklyn and Queens, there were night clubs or discotheques that were very popular with their free-spirited dancing and flamboyant styling. The feel of disco came at the right time as it was right after the end of the brutal Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal left many Americans disheartened. It’s like Ian said, “People were tired of being serious.”

Ian and Steve took it into a chance for opportunity. The first thing they did was rent out a theatre that was originally an opera house and was last used as a CBS Studio. Steve and Ian hired workers, most gay men, for months to do all sorts of construction and all sorts of decorations. They also hired Jack Dushey as their financial backer. It was their vision to create a night club no one on earth had ever seen before. Even before opening day, they went around advertising to celebrities that this was the place to go to.

Opening day, Studio 54 is a big hit.Celebrities do show and lots of people from the public were let in too. From that period on, you had what could be an oasis from the real world as you had all sorts of people of race, gender, sexual orientation and class status getting in and having a good time. While people mostly shunned others out in their day-to-day lives, people came together in Studio 54 and had a good time. The place was seen as a must-visit for celebrities and they had a blast with the dancing atmosphere and the special one-of-a-kind effects and decorations in the place. News had come about that Studio 54 was the place to be.

However there were some realities that would come about. First of all Studio 54 was known for Ian and Steve to go out into the crowd of people outside and pick-and-choose who got in. They let in a lot of people, especially gay men, but they left others out. At first people were understanding, but a backlash would soon brew. Also there was the hidden secret that there were people using drugs in Studio 54. The club had a reputation for freeness and drugs were part of it. Then there was the fact that Studio 54 couldn’t wait for their liquor license at first and relied on catering permits during their waiting period to serve liquor. The authorities didn’t overlook that and soon they had Studio 54 closed temporarily. It put a damper in a lot of attendee’s lives. It was within time that Ian and Steve finally did get the liquor license.

However the success of that would only be temporary. Soon Steve gave an interview to Playboy that was ‘Only the mafia does it better.’ He also said ‘don’t tell the IRS about our practices.’ That’s all it took for the club to get raided. What was found was cocaine with the intent to traffic and $2 million in unrecorded under-the-table money. The arrests of Schrager and Rubell made headlines. Soon Studio 54 was no longer the place to be. The club reopened, but for a life of only a few months. The two hired Roy Cohn and had recruited an army of lawyers to defend their case. In the end, the two plead guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. They were let out after serving one year each.

After Studio 54, both Rubell and Schrager looked for other ways to succeed after their release. They tried their hand at opening new night clubs that fit with the 80’s times. Constantly before the opening, Rubell would be interviewed about Studio 54’s infamy. Rubell would confess that they did a lot of wrong things and that they both changed and smartened up. Rubell’s time to redeem himself after Studio 54 was short-lives. Rubell had AIDS and he died of it in 1989. Schrager was luckier as he would later open the night club Palladium and manage the Morgans Hotel Group. Ian married twice and has fathered three children. He even received an unconditional pardon from Barack Obama in January 2017; three days before Obama stepped down from his presidency.

The documentary is a film that allows Schrager to tell his whole story and break the silence of what he was holding back for a long time. Over the 35 years since his release from prison, Schrager has worked to make Studio 54 a thing of the past and establish himself as a responsible successful businessman. He has succeeded in doing so and even gives lectures for people involved in business.

However the film also reminds us of what we knew of Studio 54 and what we didn’t know. For a long time, it was seen as a place for celebrities, disco dancing and culture of freeness. It was a place where hundreds of celebrities came to visit or eventually became regulars. It was also a place which gave many gay men a sense of belonging. We should not forget that the 1970’s was a time when a lot of laws criminalizing same-sex activity were being struck down and declared unconstitutional. Gay men who were long seen as outsiders or scums of the earth were now given a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom and Studio 54 was the place in New York to do it. Even Steve Rubell who kept his homosexuality hidden from his own family found Studio 54 as a place where he could freely love.

One thing is that the image of Studio 54 as a place for celebrities and dancing would make it too iconic to the disco era. Many claim that it was the closure of Studio 54 that led to the end of the disco era and the slow fading of the freeness that came with it. We should remember that the 1980’s would come about heavy stock trading and Wall Street becoming the place to do intense business. There was also the AIDS epidemic as it not only took the life of Steve but the lives of many construction men and dancers. The documentary does give the sense that when Studio 54 died, that’s when these ugly realities came to be. The documentary even shows of Ian and Steve’s friendship and how it was something that still lived on after Studio 54’s demise. Upon Steve’s death, Ian felt it was like losing a brother.

Studio 54 is unique for that it tells all from those survivors who had a big impact in the business. There’s Ian and there’s Jack. There were also some men who did a lot of the construction and renovating. There was also Steve Rubell’s brother who told his side from what he witnessed of Steve. The film includes a lot of imagery through photos and footage. The film also includes a lot of disco music that was part of Studio 54’s heyday. Seeing Studio 54 almost takes you back to that time and you can feel the freeness of that era.

Studio 54 is the ideal documentary for those who still fondly remember the disco era of the 1970’s. It brings back a lot of memories and tells you things you never knew about the place to your surprise.