Oscar Noms · Who Killed Vincent Chin? · Stupid Zapruder Tricks

Plus a controversial short film, and an important Twitter poll.

The Oscar nominations come out this morning, and this month, we’re looking back at some of the overlooked true crime films nominated in the Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature category. First up is 1987’s Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which was nominated in 1989 and lost to Hotel Terminus.

In July 1982, an altercation between patrons at a topless club in Detroit resulted in the baseball-bat beating death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American engineer out with friends to celebrate his impending wedding. Who was responsible was no mystery; multiple eyewitnesses (including two police officers) witnessed Mike Nitz and his stepfather Ronald Ebens take a baseball bat from the trunk of a car and attack Chin on the street outside the club. Nitz and Ebens were autoworkers (Nitz had recently been laid off) and the question at the heart of Who Killed Vincent Chin? is whether Chin was targeted as a result of pent-up anger over the encroachment of foreign-made autos into the United States market.

Ebens and Nitz plea-bargained their way down to charges of manslaughter, and were each given three years’ probation and $3000 fines. The judge’s justification for this paltry punishment is bizarre: apparently because Vincent didn’t die until four days after the attack, they didn’t really mean to kill him? Understandably, the lack of jail time for Ebens and Nitz sparked community outrage and an effort to bring federal civil rights charges against the perpetrators. Two trials ensued, and the outcome is less than satisfying when we learn the words lobbed at Vincent before the attack (“It’s because of you we’re out of work”).

Through interviews with Ebens and his supporters, Vincent’s friends and family, autoworkers, and lots of archival news footage, the viewer gets a glimpse of what Detroit was like during this time of 17 percent unemployment and rampant fear of change and difference.

Contrasting the heart-wrenching interviews with Vincent’s mother Lily, who buried her only child on what would have been his wedding day, with the cool detachment of Ronald Ebens and his supporters is really something. Ebens can barely even bring himself to acknowledge that Vincent lost his life, and sees himself as the victim of a media machine that blew this whole thing out of proportion. Allies of Ebens and Nitz lean hard into a narrative that these two just needed to have a “night out for the guys” to unwind from the brutal grind at the plant. When things turned violent, it’s something that (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) “just happened,” as if beating a man to death is standard fare for a night out.

Who Killed Vincent Chin? starkly demonstrates how little the language of jingoism has changed in the last four decades. With hate crimes on the rise in the United States and the unrelenting “otherizing” of some populations that starts at our country’s very top, I found Who Killed Vincent Chin? an affecting and important watch. — Susan Howard

You’ll find the full list of Academy Award nominees here (among other places; the announcement is nigh-on impossible to escape today). I don’t see much in either the Feature or Short documentary categories that qualifies as a true-crime entry, except possibly In The Absence (negligence) or The Edge Of Democracy (political corruption). In fact, the only crime-y films in the conversation this year would appear to be scripted outings Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood and The Irishman, and I suppose I’d better get a Poise and some gorp on board and watch the latter before the ceremony. (The less said about Richard Jewell, the better.)

It is somewhat interesting to see the way the topic “clusters” in the documentary categories evolve over time. Twenty years ago, at least two of the five in each of the categories would concern the Holocaust, and you picked against those in your Oscar pools at your peril; ten years ago, you began to see Iraq/Afghanistan critiques taking over (with the occasional Vietnam consideration). Right now, it’s Syria, and border “concerns,” and climate change. — SDB

I covered a controversial Oscar-nominated live-action short from last year, Detainment, in Brief 37. The short, “about” the murder of toddler James Bulger, outraged Bulger’s family and others by focusing on Bulger’s killers (too sympathetically, they asserted) and returning the extremely painful story to the spotlight. My own take is that it IS difficult to watch, but may have something thoughtful to say about children who kill, and what justice is supposed to look like when the monster who took your child is one himself. (There’s also a number of meta questions raised here…starting with how to weigh the pain of the survivors of such a crime against the artistic or narrative aims the creator hopes to achieve; and how logistically one directs minor children acting in such a project. I think of this every time I see Hallee Hirsh’s unsettlingly on-point performance in the Law & Order episode “Killerz.”) — SBD

And now, for a film that was never in danger of getting nominated for anything (except perhaps a Razzie). I wrote about Frame 313 way back in 2013; the link there will take you to a page that lets you rent it on Amazon, and while we’ll make a couple pennies for links like that, I really can’t recommend you pay for this one. Review below! — SDB

You can boot this dowdily shot, intellectually overcaffeinated conspiracy fail off your Netflix list.

The crime
John F. Kennedy died on November 22, 1963. Considerable disagreement remains on how, and why, that happened. Over the lifetime of The Blotter, you will see hundreds of variations on that phrasing.

The story
Frame 313: The JFK Assassination Theories purports to cover "the five main credible theories," but involving the Mafia at the second bullet point takes "credible" off the table with a quickness. Likewise the narrator intoning, "Each theory has some merit, but it is up to you to decide what happened on November 22, 1963" -- in other words, we'll just present such-and-so ridonk marijuana-scented speculation, and if you buy in, that's on you.

The five coverage areas, roughly: single shooter vs. a larger conspiracy; CIA/Mafia joint involvement; a Soviet Union/KGB investigation…into French-Corsican drug dealers trying to assassinate JFK; Mafia hit men, which apparently differs from the second thing…somehow; and another CIA conspiracy, this one anti-Castro. So, that's…what is that? One of the theories, maybe two, makes any sense in the first place, and on top of that, several of them sound basically the same as each other. The film's refusal to take a stand on the more outlandish of the ideas or statements makes it impossible to buy any of them, never mind keeping them straight.

The film physically is difficult to watch; the archival footage is beautiful and crisp, but the talking-heads interviews look cheap (and in more than one instance, the talking head is out of focus, while the books-by-the-foot background is perfectly legible). The sound is muzzy and marred with feedback.

I can't really argue that some of the "experts" merited more experienced camerawork, either. Robert Groden, a "noted JFK assassination researcher," offers a number of grand pronouncements that Frame 313 fails to follow through on adequately. "Jack Ruby certainly worked for organized crime" is one; "[Ruby's] easiest way out is to shoot Oswald and go for public sympathy. It's that simple" is another. Sure, I'll buy that -- but it's unclear out of what Ruby is trying to make his way. Elsewhere, it's hard to tell what James Files, a Mafia hit man, is talking about when he's discussing Oswald's presence on a "counterstrike team." Countering what? Who's stopping/shooting whom -- the CIA is shooting JFK and blaming the pro-Castro Cubans? Santo Trafficante says what?

Watching Frame 313, I muttered, "Thank you, Simone," several times. There's a lot of the ballistics evidence that I find troubling, but because the film in its entirety is the JFK-conspiracy-document equivalent of Kristy Swanson's "31 Flavors" speech in Ferris Bueller, even the alternative explanations that might hold some water end up seeming like just so much late-night-dorm-room bullshitting. Mikhail Gorbachev is in it, apparently not via footage from elsewhere. Whitewash author Mark Lane asserts, semi-believably, "that there was a period in this country's history where you couldn't tell where the CIA ended and the Mafia began," but then it's a segue into the CIA's hilariously regrettable attempts to assassinate Castro with starfish and whatnot. New Orleans Mafia doofi claiming to have fired shots from the grassy knoll, weird timeline jumps, it's just all over the place.

A couple of deft bits -- an expert claiming, "Oswald even realized he was being set up," coupled with a great (and not used to death) pic of Oswald looking straight up at a photog on a ladder; a KGB colonel shrugging, "One thing that we all agreed was that Oswald was too incompetent to pull this off" -- are wasted in the service of an amateurish and unconvincing waste of time. Too confusing for case newbies, too annoying for buffs, Frame 313 no doubt got green-lit based on subject matter, but producers failed to shepherd the project closely. Avoid. — 4/3/13

What other docs and books look interesting, but actually suck? With somewhere north of 17 gazillion true-crime properties, we can’t review everything — but we’ll try! Your subscription dollars help us fund series like Susan’s, and pay for the extra DVD option on my Netflix subscription (because sometimes it’s like that with older crime documentaries). Sign up today!

Tuesday on Best Evidence: Crime-pod satire from McSweeney’s, a new Zodiac doc (spoiler: still not our dads), and the thrilling results of this nail-biter Twitter poll!

What is this thing? This should help.

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