Latasha Harlins · American Murder · Steve James

Plus lady directors on "Dr. Death," upcoming must-reads, and more

American Murder: The Family Next Door drops on Netflix today. The doc, a found-footage chronology of the Watts murders, has a tabloid-y title that belies a quite nuanced approach to the material and to the genre generally. From my review on Primetimer:

There's a reason lie-detector tests aren't admissible in court, and you can't help thinking about that as you watch the police manipulate Chris Watts' results to pressure him to confess; then you can't help but question your own "loyalties," because while Watts is obviously guilty of something, he's also outnumbered by law enforcement and doesn't have a lawyer present, and how would we feel about the cops' leveraging the polygraph if Watts were wrongfully accused, or had intellectual delays? (American Murder also gently points out the ways "peak true crime" has conditioned everyone — including cops — to respond to certain behavioral cues. A sequence in which a neighbor volunteers his security footage to back Watts' story, but then has a different take on Watts for the officer's ears only, is telling.)

American Murder does a few things in unexpected ways, but is still very difficult, particularly at the end, so it may not be something you want to engage with — but I recommend it, albeit with content warnings. — SDB

I’ll have my review of American Fire up for paid subscribers later today. (My review of “American [Noun]:” book titles? Thumbs down. Just in my line of sight on the to-read shelf are An American Summer and American Eve. Publishers, give that a rest for a year maybe?) In the meantime, let’s pick me a gooder for October! You get multiple choices again this time, so vote for any and all interesting candidates.

October book: go!

I also got a mailer from Penguin Random House touting their fall non-fiction must-reads, including Hell In The Heartland, The Spider (as if I weren’t grossed out enough by Jeffrey Epstein, associating him with arachnids is giving me a wiggins this morning), and Toobin’s True Crimes and Misdemeanors on the Trump investigation (which one?). None of them made me rush to my library app to check for them, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t hear a rec from you guys, so if you’ve sampled these or marked them Want To Read on Goodreads, let me know! — SDB

Is one side effect of the blazing landfill that is 2020 that we no longer have time to care about the OJ Simpson trial? Court TV is betting no, although it’s probably not great news for them that the PR email that occasioned this item prompted an out-loud “OJ? How quaint” from this correspondent. That dismissive response isn’t the whole story for me — I remember well the day of the verdict; I worked in midtown Manhattan and the usually busy lunchtime street atmosphere was very weird and still, and then afterwards, complete strangers were discussing it, in lines and on buses, like at length — and I do think the case still has much to teach us about racial injustice and economic inequality. I just don’t know that I can focus on those teachings right at the minute.

But if you’d like to focus on non-executive-branch criminals for a day or two, Court TV is marking the 25th anniversary of the murder-trial verdictand the 12th anniversary of the kidnapping/burglary verdict that actually sent Simpson to prison in Nevada; they both came down on 10/3, as it happens. The network is replaying the entire run of OJ25 over the weekend, plus a new episode of Judgment With Ashleigh Banfield is “featuring new revelations” on the Vegas debacle. I missed OJ25 the first time around and I’ve had it on my list, but for my money, if you want to mark this occasion, buy OJ: Made in America off iTunes and remind yourself why documentary film is important. — SDB

One of the ways OJ:MIA created context for the Simpson case was to focus on other cases that further divided Los Angeles, including the killing of Latasha Harlins in March of 1991. And the same way that OJ:MIA put the victims in focus, Netflix original short doc A Love Song For Latasha puts Latasha Harlins in focus, and it is heartbreaking. It’s very slightly overdirected at times, but over a 19-minute runtime, the visual effects feel interesting, not intrusive; I really liked the way many of the B-roll shots — waves; ice-cream trucks; that locating-you-in-L.A. overhead-palm-trees shot — were run backwards.

But the stars here are Latasha herself, and her cousin Shinise and bestie Ty, who let you know her and what a loss her functionally-unpunished death was, not just for those who loved her but for the world that didn’t get to. Director Sophia Nahli Allison wisely stands back and lets them put Latasha in three dimensions — a fearless bully-fighter who played hoops with neighborhood dealers and “loved the fellas” and wanted to become a lawyer — while also giving you a good audio-visual flavor of Los Angeles in the late eighties.

Towards the end, Ty says, “Sometimes I think, how did I get this far — and she’s not here.” I think that a lot, about those I’ve lost. I’ve been thinking it today, about my friend Ellen. I think we all think it, sometimes, whether we realize it or not. It’s a year for thinking it, really, so A Love Song For Latasha becomes bigger than just one girl. It really is a love song, and I recommend “listening” to it; it’s on Netflix now. — SDB

And to that point, Steve James’s five-part City So Real is coming to NatGeo at the end of October. My understanding of the project, which bills itself as “a fascinating and complex portrait of Chicago,” is that it’s one of those that rides the line between history/sociology docu and “true crime.” But 1) it’s Steve James, so I’m in, and 1b) many of his projects (the Allen Iverson 30 For 30; Stevie) contemplate the context surrounding (alleged) crimes and the inequities that create cases; and 2) per press materials, City So Real “begins in the haze of mid-summer 2018 as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, embroiled in accusations of a cover-up related to the police shooting of an African American teenager, Laquan McDonald, shocks the city by announcing he won’t seek reelection. … The final episode of the series picks up a year after the mayoral election in 2020, as the city simultaneously grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread social upheaval following the police killing of George Floyd.”

Check out the official trailer:

More on City So Real at Kartemquin Films’ page for the series. — SDB

Still no premiere date set for the TV adaptation of Wondery’s Dr. Death, but there’s a recent update on staffing, namely that Peacock’s limited series has an all-female directing team in place. Original director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) left the project earlier this year due to scheduling conflicts created by coronavirus delays; taking over for him are Maggie Kiley, a director and co-producer on Dirty John: Betty Broderick (which also starred Christian Slater); Jennifer Morrison, probably best known as an actor on House MD and Once Upon A Time; and indie filmmaker So Yong Kim. I like Frears’s work and was looking forward to seeing what he did here, but I’m looking forward to this version, with more voices, more in some ways. — SDB

Hey, you know what else has an all-woman-identified directing team? Best Evidence! Woman-owned businesses come in many shapes and sizes; ours is bicoastal and festooned with pet hair, and would love your support. Tell a friend about us, or treat yourself to a paid subscription!

Thursday on Best Evidence: Comedy = tragedy + true crime?