June 14, 2005 -- Three teams of award-winning documentary directors participated in a groundbreaking First Amendment Project, creating three films about three controversial incidents regarding the First Amendment rights. These films, produced by Court TV and the Sundance Channel were recently broadcast on the Sundance Channel. Today they are available on home video for the first time. It is being released as part of a “docudrama” series by Newvideo.
I saw these films on DVD. They are short, 67 minutes total, not counting the extra features, but loaded with information on the three cases. The first covers a Fox News network lawsuit against comedian Al Franken which attempts to halt distribution of his book which is critical of Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly. The second short film recounts retribution against New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka because of heated reaction to his 9/11 poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” The third short film covers New York City police response to 500,000 demonstrators in the city during the 2004 Republican National Convention in the city.
The first segment is the most entertaining film with Al Franken mugging it up in a cheap Moses costume, claiming to have gotten orders from God to write his book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look a the Right.” Franken says when his publisher called him, waking him up to tell him he was being sued by Fox because of the book, he said “Good,” and went back to sleep. Within hours of the spread of the news of the lawsuit, his book, languishing at number 315 on the best seller list, had jumped to number one. A film clip of Franken talking to a large audience includes Franken's funny description of the trial, in which Fox claimed Franken was infringing on Fox's motto of “Fair and Balanced.”
The film is comprised of skits, clips and interviews with Franken, his attorney, a newspaper reporter who covered the case and others. I was very surprised to see the judge who handled the case, Denny Chin, grant an interview for the documentary. Chin noted there was an unusual media and public interest in the case. He also noted that after his decision, Bill O'Reilly personally attacked him on the air for another of his court decisions. O'Reilly likes to have the last word, and he's protected by the First Amendment. The case was a slam dunk for Franken. Fox retreated, licking its wounds. It is hard to imagine the neo-conservatives stacking the Federal Court system with enough right-wing judges to allow them to actually win a hair-brained lawsuit like this, but I suppose anything is possible. This documentary is very one-sided in favor of Franken, although Fox apparently declined comment. This is symptomatic of the “docudrama” style popularized by another left-wing filmmaker, Micheal Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”).
This film is a good primer on some first amendment issues related to parody, word play, trademark infringement, satire and other fair use issues. The case also relates to the famous case of Times Vs. Sullivan, making it very difficult for public figures to sue for libel. For those who want to get deeper into the issues of media bias at Fox News, and other players in the new right-wing media, two films explore the issues in depth, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Orwell Rolls in His Grave. These films also feature quite a bit more information about Bill O'Reilly and his long-running battle with Al Franken.
The second film on the DVD is “Poetic License,” directed by Mario Van Peebles, concerns New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka. His 9/11 poem “Somebody Blew Up America” stirred up a lot of controversy. Baraka's poem (performed in full by the author on the DVD as one of the extra features) relates the attack on the World Trade Centers to slavery and American foreign policy relating to people of color all over the world. The most controversial part of the poem is this stanza:
“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed?
“Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the twin towers
“To stay at home that day?
“Why did Sharon stay away?”
Oddly, the film fails to address this issue directly. Was this allegation true or false? According to this article in Salon magazine, Baraka's allegation appears to be false. For one thing, Salon said, “the theory is a logistical impossibility -- 4,000 Israelis never worked at the World Trade Center in the first place.”
Anyway, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, wrote a letter to the New Jersey governor demanding Baraka's dismissal. The letter included allegations of other anti-Semitic writings by Baraka. The film raises the issue of whether or not state-funded art, or state-sanctioned artists like Baraka have the same free speech protections under the constitution as other people do. The film makes the argument that free speech protections are an essential ingredient in any state-supported art funding program. This film is more even-handed than “Fox vs. Franken” in that it includes clips of several people who are critical of Baraka.
This particular case is very similar to one now playing out at the University of Colorado where conservatives are trying to figure out some way to fire a professor, Ward Churchill, who wrote a controversial article on 9/11 in which he compared the World Trade Center victims to Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann. Like several instances in the documentary, officials are trying to find a “work-around” to slip by the First Amendment. Although Churchill's writings are protected by the U.S. Constitution and by the general principles of Academic Freedom, state officials are still trying to fire Churchill anyway. They are examining his past work and background, trying to find something he did wrong at sometime in the past.
The last film in the DVD, “Some Assembly Required,” is about how New York City police handled hundreds of thousands of demonstrators during the 2004 Republican National Convention. According to the film, directed by John Walter, the estimated 500,000 demonstrators were the most ever for an American political convention. A variety of footage of the demonstrations is included in the film, along with interviews with some of the demonstrators. One amusing segment has marchers chanting “The Republicans are Coming! Defend Your City!” Some 1,800 were arrested during the protests. According to the film, “most were held in an abandoned bus depot until the end of the convention.”
The film alleges that police forced fences through the middle of the crowds, stranding some people in areas where they could not get out. In some cases, the film argues, people were arrested for being in places they were herded into by the police. The film makes the argument that not all demonstrations have to be orderly and that demonstrations are almost by definition a messy business. The film argues that police should be more interested in upholding the law than maintaining a high degree of order. The film argues many of the arrests made in New York were illegal. It also argues police were provoking people unnecessarily and using too much force at times. The film argues the arrests will cost the city millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements.
If the strategy of police was to minimize the media exposure of the protests, it worked very well. Most people in the United States knew very little about the size and extent of the protests in New York, and next to nothing about the motives and beliefs of the protesters. Media coverage of the protests was almost as poor as the coverage of the protesters at President George W. Bush's first inauguration. The film follows some of the 100 ACLU monitors who watched how police handled the demonstrations in New York. At times you can hear the monitors talking to police, asking them not to make the same mistakes they had made the previous day, causing injuries to demonstrators and police alike.
The DVD has a lot of extras, including information on other “docudrama” films, as well as some trailers. There are some deleted scenes, including interview segments with Mario Van Peebles, some extra segments with Baraka, including “Locked Up For a Poem” and “You Gotta Vote.” Extras accompanying “Fox vs. Franken” include DVD-rom sketches in PDF format for never-completed comic strip segments. There is also an author's statement from Baraka on the DVD, also in PDF format. Director biographies are also included. “Some Assembly Required” extras include a deleted protester profile. There is also a photo gallery of protesters.
All in all, these are solid, but short films that give the viewer an introduction to some First Amendment issues that may be unfamiliar to non-journalists. The DVD does not include the fourth film in the First Amendment series, “No Joking,” directed by Bob Balaban and exploring the legacy of legendary comic Lenny Bruce, and the more recent controversies about the Dixie Chicks and Janet Jackson. This DVD rates a B. Click here for more on the First Amendment Project at the Sundance Channel's web site.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.