Kino Lorber’s release of these captivating documentaries beautifully revive the power of two indelible figures
Every year, we’re reminded of just how important of a month February is for our nation’s history. With the events of 2020 still very much a part of the present day, this year’s Black History Month seems more important than ever before. It goes without saying that there’s a mix of somberness and determination that’s undeniably stronger than normal this year thanks to the likes of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the movements they accidentally started. Still, as the fight for racial justice continues more determined than ever to prevail, it’s always important to remember the black voices from the past who fought to further their race, doing so in ways they never could have foreseen.
In honor of Black History Month, Kino Lorber has released a pair of documentaries spotlighting two such powerful figures. The work of documentary filmmaker William Greaves is given its proper due with the blu-ray release of Nationtime, which shows what made him the groundbreaking visionary that he was. Meanwhile in Billie, the life of Billie Holliday is covered in a spellbinding look at the iconic singer with a voice and talent were unparalleled, but whose personal life proved more than even she could handle.
One of the crowning achievements of Greaves has been brought to blu-ray for the first time with Nationtime, the story of the 1972 African American political convention that took place in Gary, Indiana. Greaves certainly had a daunting and compelling project in capturing every vital element of the three-day convention, not least of all the cavalcade of famous faces who presided over the events, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz and Isaac Hayes. Greaves captures it all, from the passionate crying out for more representation in Washington, to Michigan delegates storming out when they felt their voices were being ignored by the other states. The filmmaker’s curiosity cannot help shine through in every frame of Nationtime, observing the fiery energy of those yelling out for a better America and the various young people in the audience mesmerized by what was taking place.
The documentary is as raw as it is poetic thanks to Greaves’ touch as he finds himself inadvertently helping to lay the groundwork for the Black Lives Matter movement of today’s world. Greaves was never widely considered the inventor of cinema verité, but he certainly perfected it with this project, which weaves both the reality of the event with a narrative-like retelling. Beautiful narration from Sidney Poitier and a reciting of the works of Langston Hughes by Harry Belafonte (both friends of Greaves from his acting days) only add to this feeling. There’s no shortchanging Greaves as anything but a pioneer when it comes to the presence of black people behind the camera and while Nationtime is proof of this, it’s also a masterful work in its very own right.
Billie Holiday wasn’t just a generation-defining songstress who managed to rise up the ranks in an industry dominated by whites and men, but one who did it in a way which challenged one social norm after another. And yet for all her bravery and influence, it seems as if Holliday has never gotten the full credit she’s deserved as one of the most influential voices of her race. Last year’s documentary, Billie, aims to rectify this as it looks deep into the life of Holliday, exposing both her incredibly rough upbringing as well as her shocking self-destructive ways. Billie opens in 1978 with the introduction of a dead woman named Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who at the time of her death was working on a biography about the legendary singer. From here, we’re taken on a chronicle of Holliday’s life through the many recorded interviews Kuehl conducted with those who knew the singer, such as Tony Bennett, Charlie Mingus and Count Basie. Archived radio appearances from the legend herself further add to the experience in telling her own shocking story.
No stone is left unturned, from Holliday’s early days as a teen prostitute, her bi-sexuality, her drug and alcohol addictions and her turn in prison, during which time she apparently never sang a single note. The boldness of Holliday’s social consciousness and bucking of the system through her controversial song “Strange Fruit” is juxtaposed with her own shocking comments regarding what she felt was a mediocre talent. The documentary tries to weave an unsolved crime theme into the proceedings with the mystery surrounding Kuehl’s untimely death and her fascination with Holliday. Still, this is Billie’s story; and what a story it is.
Nationtime is now available on blu-ray and Billie is available on DVD from Kino Lorber/Kino Classics.