Documentary review: Ascension

Jessica Kingdon

I recently watched, on Paramount Plus, the documentary Ascension. The film shows that the people of China are also seeking their version of the American Dream.

Some of the workforce is enticed by factory jobs that may involve no standing, though other jobs require being upright. Lots of propaganda about being team players are sometimes administered harshly. The factory workers include women working on the exacting standards for sex dolls; make sure the color of the areola is right.

We see people training to serve the wealthy in their increasingly capitalistic country. Perhaps they would be servants in fancy homes that require fine dining; Downton Abbey was specifically namechecked. Or maybe they’ll become bodyguards, protecting their would-be employers from assassins.

There are lessons on how to smile, how to be positive that you’ll make lots of money. They too can become influencers. For good and for ill, today’s China is looking a lot like the United States.

Before I saw the film, I watched director Jessica Kingdon interviewed on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He noted that there was no narration by someone trying to steer a particular point of view, which allowed the viewer to see the larger cultural shift.

Ascension is Oscar-nominated as one of the best documentary films of the past year. It’s a little slow in the beginning, but it proves to be a fascinating take on the economic rise of China.

Lynching Postcards

After I watched Ascension, Paramount Plus directed me to a short documentary Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of A Great Day’. Perhaps more unsettling than the lynchings of over 4,000 African Americans by white mobs were the public, festive occasions these murders became. Men, women, and children out having a picnic while watching a hanging and/or burning. The burnings were particularly popular in Texas.

These lynchings were commemorated through souvenir postcards. And people would send messages pointing themselves out in the crowd. ‘Hey, that’s me, third from the right” with the corpse hanging in the background.

One of the images from the film that caught my attention was The Dogwood Tree, a poem that begins
This is only the branch of a Dogwood tree;

The film is only about 15 minutes. Worthwhile.

MOVIE REVIEW: Ballin’ in the Graveyard

While the term “the graveyard” was meant to define a “do or die” level of play, that section of Washington Park indeed was a cemetery.


I took off from work early one day last month, and the Wife and I saw the documentary Ballin’ in the Graveyard at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany. Early on, the participants explained that some of them have played street basketball in various tough neighborhoods in New York City and around the country, yet no game is as intense as the ballin’ in Albany’s Washington Park, less than a dozen blocks from the theater, BTW. These are in-your-face players who do trash-talk to gain an advantage and occasionally will make a bogus call to even up the score.

But the film is only partially about sport. Their success on the court is shown in relationship with meeting the challenges of everyday life. Their court swagger belied the often tranquil demeanor at other times.

While the term “the graveyard” was meant to define a “do or die” level of play, that section of Washington Park indeed was a cemetery, with sections for the city’s black and “stranger” population until 1868, when those bodies were exhumed and reburied. mostly in Albany Rural Cemetery.

The documentary was produced and directed by Paul Kentoffio and Basil Anastassiou, the latter a longtime player, and co-produced by Spectrum owner Keith Pickard.

My wife liked it more as it moved away from basketball and more into their private lives, noting that it was both local and universal. But she also appreciated the notion of the culture and tradition passed down to the next generation. I liked it all.

The movie trailer.

A review by Amy Biancolli

Slavery by Another Name PBS documentary

When you create a class of “the other”, not just racially, but as “the criminal”, even if it were based on a vague, trumped-up charge of vagrancy, it made it easier to think of people as less than human.

My wife and I got a babysitter last Friday night so we could take the bus – MUCH easier than trying to find parking at the uptown UAlbany campus – and watch Slavery by Another Name, “a 90-minute documentary that challenges one of Americans’ most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.” Though the film will be premiering on PBS, Monday, February 13 at 9pm ET / 8pm CT (check local listings), the real draw of viewing it early on a bigger screen was to be able to see the director of the film, Shelia Curran Bernard, and the writer of the book upon which the film was based, Douglas Blackmon, who I had seen before.

Narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, “The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality.

It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.” The movie notes the failure of the federal government, both after Reconstruction, and again in the early 20th century under Teddy Roosevelt, to stem the tide of forced labor.

As both the SBAN book and the movie made clear, the peonage system was, in many ways, far worse than the slavery before the Civil War. If one had slaves, one needed to protect one’s economic investment by providing some measure of food, clothing, and shelter. If one were a business, such as US Steel, leasing convicts, one could work someone nearly to death, or sometimes fatally, and then go lease someone else.

The speakers had no prepared comments but were just doing a question and answer period. Anyone who’s seen a Q&A knows that the quality of questions is all over the place. One person wanted to know why we never heard these stories before. Blackmon noted that the further away we are from it in history, the easier it is to look at it. In any case, there will be classroom material available to talk about this previously unknown, shameful part of the American postbellum past.

A question that intrigued me was, basically, how people could be so cruel to each other. The speakers noted that when you create a class of “the other”, not just racially, but as “the criminal”, even if it were based on a vague, trumped-up charge of vagrancy, it made it easier to think of people as less than human. This tied to another question about the new Jim Crow laws, which continue to incarcerate black people in disproportionate numbers; the speakers referred to Michelle Alexander’s book and other sources for further reference.

I must admit to laughing at a recent comment from the blog of SamuraiFrog “It’s Black History Month. So if you’re one of those complete idiots going on Facebook and whining about how having a Black History Month is racism against white people, please pick up a history book. And hit yourself in the head with it. Repeatedly. Until you black out.” The fact that THIS story has largely been missing from the history books makes the continued investigation of the lost black history, a/k/a American history, still relevant.

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