January jewels

Fri. January 9, 2015 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma (Paramount) is one of several biopics (see also The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Wild, Get On Up and even Big Eyes, to name a few), playing in theaters as the year changed from 2014 into early 2015. Beginning in the turbulent early-to-mid 1960s, around the time of the Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receiving his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Selma focuses on the historic 1965 Alabama march for civil rights, from Selma to Montgomery.

Challenges to King's man of peace status threaten to disrupt his role as an activist, as well as his home life. Constantly butting heads with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was more concerned with the Vietnam war, and under the watchful (and ruthless) eye of the FBI, led by notorious closet case J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), King's priority is to secure unobstructed voting rights, particularly in the South. But racist Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) makes it his business to see King fail.

King surrounded himself with people from all walks of life dedicated to the cause. Among them was Ralph Abernathy (openly gay actor Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), openly gay activist and strategist Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), as well as his devoted wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and countless others. King not only had to overcome the ingrained and undisguised racism of the deep south of the early 1960s, but also the brutal and relentless violence. To its credit, Selma doesn't shy away from presenting the bloodshed and death onscreen. At a time when issues of race and violence (see Ferguson, Missouri) and civil rights (see same sex marriage in Florida) continue to make headline news, Selma is sure to resonate with audiences.

Seven years after his death, almost 40 years after his life was dramatized in the Oscar-winning Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon and more than 40 years after the crime he committed made international news headlines, the story of the late John Wojtowicz, nicknamed The Dog, has been made into a documentary in The Dog (Draughthouse/Unleashed). Producers/directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren give notorious bisexual bank robber Wojtowicz the opportunity to tell his tale in his own words, and he runs with it.

Filmed over the course of several years, The Dog opens with 1978 Jeanne Parr Show footage in which Wojtowicz (interviewed from prison) and his notorious trans wife Joy Eden speak on camera for the first time in years. It's a significant statement about the pair, since it was supposedly to fund Joy's (born Ernie Aron) sexual reassignment surgery that Wojtowicz risked life and limb in his bank robbery attempt.

Wojtowicz doesn't do much for the image of bisexuals, painting himself as a pervert (his word), although he also considers himself to be a romantic. Already a married man (to a woman) and father, Wojtowicz says it was love at first sight when he met Ernie aka Joy. How he got to that hot August day in 1972 and the bizarre and sensational bank robbery in Brooklyn is half the fun of watching this doc.

Combining clips and photos from Dog Day Afternoon (in which Al Pacino played a character based on John), news footage and period photographs, as well as current interviews with family members, friends and even gay activists, The Dog provides the kinds of details a dramatization isn't able to. Following Wojtowicz from his teller job at Chase Manhattan to Vietnam (where he was drafted and identified as a Goldwater Republican) to his 1968 McCarthy Peacenik evolution to his membership in the Gay Activists Alliance and participation in the 1971 GAA action at the NYC Marriage License Bureau and the subsequent Brooklyn bank heist/hostage situation, The Dog was more like a cat with nine lives.

Interviews with Wojtowicz, his first wife Carmen Bifulco, his mother Terry, Daily News reporter Robert Kappstatter, GAA videographer Randy Wicker and others, add dimension to the doc. Blu-ray bonus features include deleted scenes, audio commentary, a booklet and more.

Director Cecilio Asuncion's indie doc What's The T? (MVD Visual) focuses on the personal stories of five trans women through interviews and interactions. Over the course of almost 70 minutes, we become acquainted with Melanie Nya Ampon, an Alameda, California resident and entertainer at the club AsiaSF, who is in the process of transitioning and speaks to the filmmaker just days after her breast augmentation surgery; "Sunday's A Drag" show performer Cassandra Cass, who lives with her dog and cats in her San Francisco apartment with a view of Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge; NYC-based LPN Rakash Armani, who is active in the ballroom scene (she competed in drag realness competition and won her category) and doesn't want sexual reassignment surgery; pre-med college student Vi Le, who auditioned to compete on The X Factor; and Mia Tu Mutch, who escaped her conservative Southern family and works as Youth Commissioner at San Francisco's City Hall.

In addition to providing a forum for the five women to speak for themselves, Asuncion makes a point of including trans terms and definitions, as well as issues facing the five, such as employment, relationships, transitioning and more. The DVD doesn't contain any bonus material.

Also out there is Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story (CNN Films/Wolfe Video), a doc about Christopher Beck, a decorated former U.S. Navy SEAL (retired in 2011), who began the gender transition process in 2013. DVD bonus features include Kristin's Anderson Cooper 360 interview and more.