Top Docs: Two Generations of Black Women Entertainers; the Last Blockbuster; a Wildfire’s Devastation

LJ’s documentary film reviewer picks four stirring new works, now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free. 112+ min. PBS. 2021. DVD UPC 841887044943. $24.99.
During the 20th century, Black women were one of the most marginalized groups in the entertainment industry. This entry in PBS’s American Masters series chronicles the trials, the tribulations, and the muck that Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, and Pam Grier went through, and the lasting influence of these women on current performing artists. With the depth typical of the series, the film uses the careers of the aforementioned women as jumping-off points for larger discussions of representation, stereotypes, and discrimination in America. Looking at everything from the subjects’ activism to their sense of fashion, this documentary offers a wealth of clips, images, and thoughtful discourse on a variety of topics. It might leave viewers inspired, educated, angry, and proud.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. 98+ min. Utopia. 2020. Blu-ray UPC 814456022932. $29.99.
Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, brothers Bill and Turner Ross’s work follows a day in the life of a Las Vegas dive bar going out of business. The boozehound regulars at Roaring 20s spend one last day drinking, talking, laughing, dancing, crying, and arguing with one another in various stages of inebriation. Sound depressing? It’s not. The bar’s diverse patrons bond over their shared love of alcohol and the spirit of community that this dingy, dark, cramped room holds over them. The film is so intimate, so full of humanity, that the smell of cigarettes seemingly wafts from the screen as the hours grow deeper in the night for the lost and the lonely.

The Last Blockbuster. 88+ min. Passion River. 2020. DVD/Blu-ray UPC 195269029029. $29.99.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, video was king. This documentary chronicles the heights of the Blockbuster chain (more than 9,000 of them in 2004) to the lows (bankruptcy, losing the battle to Netflix, a single store left). Director Taylor Morden’s documentary is a nostalgic time warp back to those artificially lit aisles where customers pondered decisions as if the fate of the world were linked to what they chose to rent for the weekend. Amid the business talk, this is a paean to the experience of spending time in a store with human interaction and physical objects in the good old days. Video is dead, long live video!

Rebuilding Paradise. 120+ min. National Geographic. 2020. DVD UPC 786936881554. $19.98.
In November 2018, the massive Camp Fire quickly overtook Paradise, CA, and within a few hours, the city of 26,000 people was nearly completely gone. The opening moments show the incredible, end of the world footage of the fire itself, but it’s when the flames burn out that this film, directed by Ron Howard, truly begins. It focuses on the devastation and the people traumatized by what they lost—in life and property—as they grapple with resilient stubbornness about rebuilding or contemplate fleeing at first opportunity. This layered work is both heartbreaking and uplifting and delves into the issue of climate change but mostly homes in on the emotionally numb locals as they suffer from their post-fire post-traumatic stress disorder or deal with the restrictive bureaucracy hindering their efforts to rebuild. Powerful stuff.

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