London Film Festival 2019 – Part 1

US prisons, news manipulators, and Dickensian London


Alfre Woodard
Photo credit: Paul Sarkis

Clemency (2019)
Director: Chinonye Chukwu. Featuring Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Brooks

There is a cost to human beings working within a barbaric system. And in a system as barbaric as the USA’s prison estate the fallout is considerable.
Chinonye Chukwu’s unsentimental portrayal of the state killing of condemned criminals stands out for its truth telling, factually and emotionally. And at this prison, the buck stops with the prison’s top official, the warden, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). When a Chicano is put to death painfully – a lethal injection bungled on Williams’s watch – she and other prison officers are badly shaken.
Next time, one senior uniformed officer bows out of the execution procedure; Williams cannot. It is the turn of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of killing a police officer, who insists he is innocent to the very end. Understandably, Warden Williams finds that her professional role of overseeing killing takes a toll on her marriage. Then her deputy tells her he is transferring to a prison that does not carry out executions. And Woods’s human rights lawyer, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), further exposes Williams’s soul to self-examination.
Agony of conscience, continually being forced to square the state’s killing of fellow humans with moral or religious teaching, cannot be assuaged. The foulness of what prison employees do stinks in the nostrils. No quantity of alcohol can wash Williams carefree.
The continued use of legal killing by 29 of the 50 US States, the Federal Government, and the US military certainly poses stark questions for US democrats (far beyond the rotten, bourgeois Democrat Party, of course). But it also raises grave concerns outside the jurisdictions of the US state machine. For example, the UK currently has an unbalanced extradition treaty with the USA, whereby it is child’s play for the US authorities to get their hands on an alleged criminal in the UK compared to an almost zero chance in the other direction. Depredation and death as shown in Clemency should arm calls for a halt to extradition from the UK to the USA.


Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Image courtesy

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)
Director: Matt Wolf. Featuring Marion Stokes, Michael Metelits

Marion Stokes maintained an enormous collection of off-air tape recordings of US news and current affairs programmes broadcast from the 1970s until her death in 2012 aged 83. In total, she filled around 70,000 tapes.
Beginning her working life as a librarian may well have aided Marion Stokes in her task of recording news programmes. But the manner in which news outlets, including the new 24 hour news stations, dealt with and sorted which news to cover also intrigued her as a communist.
Her political experience and concerns led Marion Stokes to produce a Philadelphia access television show discussing questions including how public affairs were dealt with by the media. What grew out of her work in this counter-cultural television programme in the long term was precisely an archive of televisual life over nearly four decades, much of which television companies had treated as disposable. Nothing like the extent or quality of her archive exists elsewhere.
Marion Stokes’s achievement was to use her hoarding tendencies in a way that was and will be beneficial to all those interested in the way media corporations manipulate, edit, and control the production of news through their programmes. Such an archive is crucial to anyone concerned with closely examining how mainstream news media collaborates with bourgeois political parties in order to continue capitalist rule. Media company structures and methodology lend themselves incredibly well to the job they do in conjunction with rightwing and social chauvinist parties of government: an ideological fit to ensure that real democracy fails and the overwhelming working class majority is kept subservient.
Marion Stokes’s work has been preserved by the Internet Archive as a resource for students, academics, and radical critics of media manipulation. Hers is work rightly celebrated by this film, including down to earth tributes from her son Michael Metelits and colleagues.


Dev Patel holding hat
Image courtesy

The personal history of David Copperfield (2019)
Director: Armando Iannucci. Featuring Dev Patel, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Peter Capaldi

A confection of whimsy to which Dev Patel brings zest in the role of David Copperfield. But Dickens’s varying level of sentimentality seems to have taken over this story, marrying it with a comedic thread that borders on the farcical. It becomes arguable that the liberal, concerned Dickens did a better job of peeling back the corrupt carapace of Victorian capitalist Britain, while entertaining the reader at the same time. The film is a disappointment, despite good period sets and acting, as well as high production values.

Jim Moody