Top Docs: Inspiring 'A Song for Cesar'; 'Julia'; and More

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

A Cops and Robbers Story. 84+ min. Greenwich Entertainment. 2021. UPC DVD 3832925724. $19.99.

If anyone can talk about the ways policing exists in communities in the United States, it might be Corey Pegues. When he retired after over 20 years of service with the NYPD, he was one step from becoming a chief, but he had a deeply buried secret–he was once a drug dealer in Queens. This documentary is the completely fascinating story of the dual lives of Pegues. Told through reenactments and the blunt testimony of Pegues, fellow cops, and childhood friends, no one pulls punches when talking about either street or police life. After retirement, Pegues has embraced the role of critic and social activist, openly aligning with groups seeking to reform the profession. VERDICT An invigorating mix of crime, criminal justice, and social activism.

Julia. 95+ min. Sony Picture Classics. 2021. UPC DVD 4339658039. $25.99.

Julia Child (1912–2004) became one of the most influential Americans in the 20th century who changed the landscape of food through her cooking programs. A late starter, Child didn’t become a public figure until her 50s after living in France and taking a dozen years to cowrite a popular book on French food. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, this documentary tells Child’s interesting life story; while it reveals lots of details, the star of the film is Child herself, in clips of her TV cooking demonstrations. By watching the always exuberant Child, it’s easy to see how her larger-than-life personality quickly became a cultural force that is still being celebrated nearly two decades after her death. VERDICT Prepare to get hungry after watching this delectable charmer about a culinary and television icon.

The Real Charlie Chaplin. 113+ min. Showtime. 2021. UPC DVD 1007254805. $24.99.

For over a decade, Charlie Chaplin (1899– 1976) was possibly the most famous person in the world. Growing up in London, he lived a true rags-to-riches story, with hardscrabble beginnings in an orphanage to America making silent films that propelled him to fame as “The Tramp.” This documentary delves deepest into Chaplin’s onscreen work and all the details that created “Chaplin fever” around the globe. Viewers will gain insight into Chaplin’s comedies, but the film pays less attention to the darker elements of his life—his involvement with much younger women, many of whom were still in their teens; his abusive behavior; and his being swept up in the Red Scare hysteria that tried to root out communists from the U.S. and forced Chaplin into exile. VERDICT Anyone remotely interested in film history will find a lot to enjoy in this documentary.

A Song for Cesar. 85+ min. Video Project. 2021. UPC DVD N/A. $89 (includes limited PPR license).

The bountiful California earth that produces a majority of America’s food also creates an opportunity of exploitation of the labor it takes to cultivate the crops. Cesar Chavez (1927–93), born into the grueling world of farm laborers, found his life’s work after returning from service in World War II and joined his first farm workers union in 1946. No one has had more of an influence on empowering and creating better working conditions and pay for these powerless workers, who are often recent immigrants. Andres Alegria and Abel Sanchez’s film is a much-needed history lesson that focuses on the ways Chavez inspired artists and musicians to create their own brand of protest. To witness the genuine love and admiration for Chavez by such a wide range of people is truly inspirational. VERDICT Blending social activism, art, and music, this film is a rousing tribute to a remarkable man.

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