Judge Mike Pinsky exercises this disc's Sixth Amendment rights.
"The thing is, everyone likes law and order, but the First Amendment guarantees certain freedoms that don't look very orderly."—John Walter
The Sundance Channel and Court TV team up for the first three installments of a new series dedicated to telling true stories about freedom of speech in America—and the battlegrounds upon which our constitutional rights are tested.
It might be said, if anything is really safe to say in these days of the Patriot Acts, that you can easily distinguish the Left from the Right in this country by each group's supposed loyalty to favored bits of the Constitution. The Right defends the Second Amendment and invokes the Fifth when somebody noses into its business. The Left defends the First Amendment and invokes the Fourth whenever backed into a corner. Poor Third Amendment. Nobody has any time to fret over quartering any more.
The First Amendment Project is a curious co-production of the Sundance Channel and Court TV, who seem strange bedfellows in this political climate. Nonetheless, this collection, meant as a sort of series, brings together three tales of tap dancing by corporations and governments who seem more interested in coddling mediocrity than defending the ideals of the United States. None of the stories are earth-shattering, and none will likely make you mad enough to take to the streets. Together, though, they create a portrait of a post-9/11 America gradually slipping back toward the comforting embrace of Cold War paranoia, where anyone who disputed the party line was considered damaged goods.
First up, legendary documentarians Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob introduce their piece, "Fox vs. Franken." You probably remember this story: In an absurd convergence of circumstances, Fox News was prodded into a lawsuit against liberal imp Al Franken on preposterous grounds (they objected to his parody of their slogan "fair and balanced") in order to coddle star pundit Bill O'Reilly. Franken makes his case here, and although his comedy has been known to veer toward the strident, he comes across as quite funny and sympathetic in this tale. O'Reilly comes across as a humorless boor. But the real joke is how badly Fox's efforts to muscle Franken backfired. Indeed, the whole story is so crazy (for example, Fox accused Franken in legal documents of being "deranged") that you would think Franken invented it for one of his own books. It would be easy to add comedy to a piece like this, but apart from a snarky opening bit with Franken, Hegedus and Doob tap their long experience at documentary filmmaking by simply letting the camera do its work without editorializing. Fox digs its own grave without any help.
The second segment, "Poetic License," covers the uproar surrounding controversial poet Amiri Baraka. The militant Marxist Baraka has long been known for his confrontational writing designed to challenge the white establishment, particularly during the "black power" heyday of the '60s. Here Mario Van Peebles outlines the furor over Baraka's post-9/11 poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," in which the poet draws a difficult comparison between the terrorist attack and long-simmering internal problems in America that have been elided in our outrage toward foreign enemies.
Any long-time reader of Amiri Baraka should not be surprised at the content of his work. This was, after all, a poet who once announced (in the mid-'60s poem "Black People!") that the magic words that would create solidarity in the black community were "Up against the wall mother/fucker this is a stick up!" But Van Peebles' piece is less about the poem itself than about everything surrounding the performance of Baraka's work. Talking heads abound, trying to dissect the finer points of arts funding, New Jersey politics, Israeli governmental policies (stemming from some borderline anti-Semitic suggestions in the poem), apocalyptic fervor, and so forth, as if trying to cram in a textbook worth of information before time runs out. Baraka's own voice, powerful in the few moments we get to hear it between the analysis, nearly gets buried in the crosstalk.
Journeyman director John Walter submits the third segment, "Some Assembly Required," tracking the protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention. The focus here is on the disconnect between society's desire for order and the NYPD's overzealous application of force in stamping out potential threats to the placid image of the GOP's "big tent." Considering that the mainstream media downplayed the protests to the point of near-invisibility during the convention, Walter's portrait of several articulate protesters (a church organist from South Dakota, a college professor, a leftist poet) is meant to serve as a corrective.
Less preachy than Mario Van Peebles' segment (but less snappy than the Franken story), Walter's short suffers mostly from the fact that nothing particularly traumatic happens to the key characters. No arrests, no beatings = no real dramatic tension.
Docurama, usually guilty of underpackaging their titles, come through this time on The First Amendment Project with a few extras. We get the full performance of Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America," an extended interview with Mario Van Peebles, a deleted scene from "Some Assembly Required," and some PDF documents accessible on the DVD. Commentary tracks would have been nice, but at least Docurama is starting to get the point. There is one crucial omission here though: where is Bob Balaban's episode on Lenny Bruce, which was also screened on Sundance as part of this series? Are they saving it for a future collection of episodes, or were there rights issues of some other sort involved?
Admittedly, Franken's battle against Fox, while the most entertaining of the three segments, is not technically a First Amendment test case. Fox's misguided lawsuit was not a government act, and the system worked swiftly to redress the conflict in Franken's favor, defending his right to satire and parody. In that case, the Constitution worked just fine. The other two episodes present touchier cases in which governmental authority (the state of New Jersey and the NYPD) overstepped their authority in attempting to silence dissent, although both situations are pretty mild compared to most other places in the world.
At about 23 minutes apiece (designed for a 30-minute commercial slot), each episode can make its point without too much fuss. And put them all together, as this DVD does, and you get the creeping sense that our rights are eroding away. Overall, the three episodes of The First Amendment Project make you long for a more sustained effort to critique the increasing pressure on Americans to shut up and toe the line. If the goal of the current power structure in this country is to promote silence (or at least to drown out any dissent with the shouting voices of the Bill O'Reilly brigade), then the only remedy is to speak up with more and more stories. The First Amendment Project is a decent start.
Director Jon Long and his collaborators are found guilty of a patronizing approach to a complex issue, but are released because the court finds their good intentions sufficient mitigating evidence. Court is adjourned.
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