The Farm: Angola, USA · Colonial Counterfeiters · Pretty Boy Floyd

Plus the Wolf of Wall Street, and more football-adjacent crime.

We’re wrapping up our look back at overlooked Best Documentary Feature nominees today, as Susan reviews 1998 nominee The Farm: Angola, USA.

The Farm: Angola, USA follows the lives of six inmates at the country’s largest and arguably toughest maximum-security prison. Angola is a presented as a world unto itself, a former slave plantation isolated by its geography (18,000 acres on the banks of the Mississippi River; rising waters threaten to take it over at one point during the film) and finality. Eighty-five percent of the prisoners at Angola will die there, and this reality clearly dominates both the filmmakers’ (including the amazing Liz Garbus, making her directing debut) point of view and that of the prisoners who tell their stories.

The film introduces us to George Crawford (a new inmate, at 22 years old he’s been given a life sentence for murder), Bishop Tannehill (a prisoner at Angola since 1959 who offers wisdom about what the place will do to a man: bring you to a turning point, harden you as a criminal, or kill you), Ashanti Witherspoon (a third of a way through his 75-year sentence, he’s become a leader and mentor to others), Logan Theriot (a prisoner dying of lung cancer), John Brown (a death-row inmate), and Vincent Simmons (convicted of rape, he steadfastly maintains his innocence).

Among the most wrenching of these stories is that of Vincent Simmons. He appears before the parole board and presents compelling evidence that his trial attorney failed to seek discovery; as a result, evidence that could have presented reasonable doubt to the jury was never aired. With no discussion, the board rejects his claim outright. Given what we now know about the fallibility of witness identification (the only evidence against Simmons is testimony by the two victims, who also claimed that “all black men look alike”) as well as the impact a scattershot defense can have, it’s absolutely heartbreaking seeing this unfold.

The finality of incarceration at Angola hangs heavy over the film and its subjects. While there is a sense that you can have a life inside — through bettering yourself or helping other inmates — it’s also a starkly isolated existence, with the specter of death looming large. In an early scene, veteran inmates speak at an orientation for new prisoners. Among the guidance offered is a warning that during your stay, everyone close to you will fade away. You will be here alone. Hope is fleeting at Angola. What hope we do see manifests in the relationships prisoners build with each other. Particularly touching are the inmates who visit the dying Logan Theriot to offer him comfort. When he passes away, they reassure his family that he didn’t die broken and alone, that he was at peace.

The Farm: Angola, USA is full of humanity for its subjects and illuminates the challenges they face expertly. With many of their fates up in the air at the conclusion of the film, I found myself Googling their names to learn what’s become of their lives in the intervening years, and I’d wager that you will too. Highly recommend. — Susan Howard

(The Farm: Angola, USA is available on YouTube and iTunes. You can watch above. — SDB)


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A little link round-up to start your week off right:

  • For our ongoing pile of Adapt This Now candidates, the Chicago man who allegedly killed his mother to further his rap career. [Chicago Sun-Times]

  • Jordan Belfort, the real-life Wolf Of Wall Street, claims he was scammed by the FILM The Wolf of Wall Street — and he’s suing. [Variety]

  • Gangster Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd would have turned 116 years old today. I don’t know much about 1930s gangsters; I also don’t know how to find The Last Run Of Pretty Boy Floyd, the 2016 documentary whose CGI trailer (?) is linked above. JustWatch.us was no help, so if you’ve got some intel for me, leave a comment!

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From the archives: A review of Ben Tarnoff’s currency history, A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers. Note that it was originally titled Money-Makers: The [etc. etc.] American Counterfeiters, so if that’s a bit confusing in my original write-up, that’s why.

If colonial paper-hanging sounds dry, just add Ben Tarnoff…

The crime
"America's most successful counterfeiters" -- in chronological order, Owen Sullivan, David Lewis, and Samuel Upham -- provide a through line for a history of American finance, bad money, and entrepreneurship. The Jesse Jameses of their respective days, fascinating to civilians even as they jangled the nerves of authorities and upset precarious colonial and municipal economies, paper-hangers Sullivan, Lewis, and Upham made flesh the challenges of pioneer life; the debate that raged for a century or more over federalized banking; and the American dream as charming rake.

The story
It won't take you long to get past the fact that Ben Tarnoff is a 2007 Harvard graduate. Thanks to his flawless topic selection and crisp prose, the envy disappears (mostly) only a few pages in, when you learn something new about the history of the Secret Service (founded specifically to foil counterfeiting) or corporal punishment in the 1750s (for the likes of Sullivan, an R brand -- for "incorrigible Rogue" -- and clipped ears). I take more of an interest in bad-paper tales than most, but even I found Money-Makers daunting in the beginning thanks to the colonial/early-eighteenth-century focus, which can drift into Irving Stone-y fantasias in the hands of the wrong author, but Tarnoff keeps all the plates in the air with ease. He clarifies the prevailing financial and currency systems -- no easy task for most of the book, as every institution from towns to counties to insurance companies seemed to have a currency or bond issue, particularly on the frontier. He describes, for instance, the forest hideouts of Lewis and his contemporaries evocatively, without showing off; you get a solid visual (and rhinal, at times) sense of the surroundings, down to when a mist might burn off of a morning and the misery caused by a leaky roof of branches. He can fill in background with a couple of strokes, like his sketch of "wildcat banks … whose reserves consisted of kegs full of broken glass with a handful of coins sprinkled on top" (170).

Tarnoff has great material that's tricky to organize, but he's in control of it, particularly in describing Upham's adventures during the gold rush. I love the account of life onboard the Osceola, passengers passing the time with games and bets in which buttons -- or a promissory monkey, to be purchased at the next port -- came to serve as the currency. But whist could only while away so many hours: "The most popular pastime, however, was fighting." When storms didn't unlevel the decks, that is; Upham is a piquant writer himself, and records of one gale in his diary that "[t]he night was rendered hideous." Landed in California and making a mint by legal sales means, Upham later writes that "I had a vision, and in that vision I saw -- pickles." I read that line, and imagined the tear of reportorial gratitude that must have come to Tarnoff's eye upon finding it for the first time.

Money-Makers is like a written tour that only goes to the cool places and only tells you the really interesting stories, and not flashily so -- Tarnoff tucks in bits of info that, really, could become books of their own. Did you know that the Confederate double sawbucks of a single 1861 issue had 229 different varieties thanks to printers' errors? Me neither! Don't you want to read a book about that drunk-ass plate-setter? Me too! And I hope Tarnoff writes it -- right after he's done with a book about the Union code-breakers he mentions who dubbed themselves "the Sacred Three." He can even do it novel-style. I'll buy it. — SDB, 5/4/13


One more archival entry — a review of 2012’s Shenandoah, which was part of one of my 31 Films In 31 Days sprints through the ol’ Netflix queue back in 2015.

A small town tries to close ranks around its football stars, and fortunately fails…

One of the things I love best about 31 Films In 31 Days is the subpatterns that emerge. I had a little Anna Kendrick subpattern going a few days ago with Happy Christmas and Into The Woods back to back; in today's entry, Shenandoah, one of the high-school football players charged in the murder of Luis Ramirez, isn't welcome on the squad anymore during his wait for trial, so he joins the winter musical as one of the princes in...Into The Woods.

That player, Brian Scully, is the only one of those charged who participated in Shenandoah, and he's an interesting subject. (That's not him above; that's a flag-squad dude the football players tend to pick on.) Scully and three other players -- princes already of a small town hit hard by the recession and the death of the local mines, where the gridiron squad is entertainment and identity for the whole community -- got into a drunk altercation with Ramirez late one night and beat him to death while yelling racial slurs and telling Ramirez to "speak English." Local PD's coverup almost worked, but Ramirez's girlfriend Crystal called in a Latino defense fund, who got the FBI involved. Not that that stopped a local jury from clearing the kids on almost all counts, but in the end, almost everyone got some time, including Scully, who's on house arrest. Scully doesn't seem to get it at first; the reveal of what actually went down, who's involved, and what's at stake is something of a slow build, and Scully narrates his part in it without much affect. "I went to kick him in the head, and I missed" is one typical flatly disturbing line. He also sighs that his football coach, who turned him off the team, should have "been there for" him more.

His parents, meanwhile, definitely don't get it. We first meet his mother, Julie, when she's weeping about "the torment that we've had" about Ramirez's death -- not that a man died, or that she raised the kind of young man who would shit-kick another person to death because he had the temerity to yell at Scully in Spanish. Their torment. Later, she's reading a statement (I think) she's planning to give to the court in support of her son, and the "some of his best friends are African-American" claim is bad enough, but she doesn't use that term. "Colored boy" is what she says. Julie: don't help.

But it feels as the movie unspools like Scully is starting to understand what went wrong here. Asked if he'd have gotten into it with someone who was hassling him in English, he says it wouldn't have gotten that far if he'd understood the word "stop," and of course that's laughable; you don't need to know the word for "stop" to know a guy who's on the ground getting kicked by you and the rest of the defensive line that he's probably signaling you to cut that out. But you can kind of see Scully realizing that himself, as he's talking.

Shenandoah is solid despite some laziness in the construction (the visit to Ramirez's hometown in Mexico drags, enough that you notice the cheesy Zorro music cues), and the timeline's a bit foggy as to when the filmmakers got into the story, but said story is good enough -- and mixed in with enough effective interviews with local peeps like Eileen, a retired Philly police officer who grouses that, if she hadn't witnessed the incident, the Shenandoah PD would probably have dumped Ramirez's body somewhere and had that be the end of it -- that it's worth a look. — SDB, 1/11/15


Tuesday on Best Evidence: Another cop podcast? And whatever else Eve’s got cooked up. Speaking of m’publisher, she and I will both be on Extra Hot Great in just a couple days, talking about McMillion$.


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