John McEnroe, Zora Neale Hurston, and Film Photography | Real Reels

This month’s must-see documentaries range far and wide, from a sports doc about tennis phenom John McEnroe to an exploration of Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an anthropologist. 

Dear Mr. Brody. 98 min. Greenwich Entertainment. 2020. DVD UPC 3832926191. $19.99.

In 1970, Michael Brody Jr., a 21-year-old hippie millionaire, promised to give away $25 million to promote love and peace. The story went “viral” in papers around the globe, and thousands of people wrote letters to Brody, hoping to get money. Did Brody deliver on his promise? Director Keith Maitland tells the story of Brody but as his tale takes a darker turn, Maitland pivots to focus on locating the letter-writers five decades after they contacted Brody. As odd as Brody’s story is, the strength of the film is these confessional, desperate, sad, humorous, and philosophical letters. When people are reconnected with these time capsules from their pasts, emotion pours out of them. It’s touching to witness. VERDICT A quirky bit of U.S. history with surprising emotional heft.

Grain: Analog Renaissance. 80 min. Collective Eye Films. 2021. DVD UPC 0233804886. $50.99.

Like vinyl records, whose popularity has exploded in the last decade, film photography is another analog technology whose death was greatly exaggerated. Alex Contell and Tommaso Sacconi explore new films, old cameras, and the dedicated people who have embraced this old-fashioned, nondigital way of creating, finding something meaningful and unique. Despite the cost of film, its slowness, and its unpredictability, these restrictions can be inspirational and freeing. This documentary combines both a brief history of the medium and a myriad of positive affirmations to join the movement and shoot with film for a more thoughtful photographic experience. VERDICT Recommended to boost art collections—the past and future are analog.

McEnroe. 104 min. Showtime. 2022. DVD UPC 1010368652. $26.99.

John McEnroe is one of the all-time tennis greats. He was also infamous for poor on-court behavior, given the nickname “Superbrat” by the British press for his raging antics. He led a complicated professional and personal life. Both areas are ripe topics for McEnroe to grapple with in director Barney Douglas’s probing, enjoyable film. McEnroe never shies away from brutal honesty about his successes and failures, his mistakes and victories. As with any sports doc, footage of the subject in action is crucial; here, it is often riveting. Watching McEnroe dominate opponents while waging war against umpires, fans, the press—and ultimately, his perfectionist self—is extremely entertaining. VERDICT An illuminating look at one of the best ever to play professional tennis.

Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space. 120 min. PBS. 2023. DVD UPC 4188704763. $24.99.

Part of PBS’s American Experience series, this is a standard bio-doc, but instead of focusing on her novels (like the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God), director Tracy Heather Strain approaches Hurston’s anthropological work—a good decision. Drawing on Hurston’s upbringing and research, including some terrific ethnographic films shot by Hurston herself, Strain is able to show a broader spectrum of Black life and folklore across the American South during an era when that was an uncommon academic subject. The novels aren’t ignored, but this film is more about the anthropologist than the novelist and about how her life shaped both her nonfiction and her fiction. VERDICT A window into not only Zora Neale Hurston but also Black lives in the 20th century.


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