Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

documentary Archive

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April 2019

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Hurley Presents a Surface Level Narrative of a Fascinating Man

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

While the past decade has made great progress in removing the stigmas around homosexuality, documentaries like Hurley serve as excellent reminders for how difficult it can still be for some people to embrace being gay publicly. Professional sports, in particular, remains a fairly hostile environment for LGBTQ people, with many preferring to stay in the closet during their careers. The life of motorcar legend Hurley Haywood could have shed some light on this dynamic, but too often the film that bears his name is too reluctant to dive beneath the surface.

Hurley focuses on two separate narratives for most of its runtime, Haywood’s homosexuality as well as his relationship with teammate Peter Gregg, who committed suicide in 1980. Actor and racer Patrick Dempsey, who serves an executive producer on the film, offers context for Hurley’s place in motorcar lore. People unfamiliar with endurance racing might be confused at first, as the film doesn’t do much to explain the specifics, but you do get a sense for what sets Haywood apart from his contemporaries.

The documentary struggles with the contrast between Hurley’s racing achievements and his life as a closeted homosexual. Haywood has no trouble explaining his achievements throughout the film, at times coming across as rather boisterous, but he’s quite uncomfortable talking about life as a gay man in professional sports. The contrast in confidence is palpable, but the documentary is reluctant to pursue what it means for Haywood to have spent close to seventy years of his life hiding who he really was.

As important as Peter Gregg was to Haywood’s career as a racer, his prominence in the documentary seems puzzling at times. There are several instances where multiple interviewees criticize aspects of Gregg’s personality in sequence, though it’s unclear what larger purpose these accounts serve. The film isn’t ostensibly about Gregg, and its participants start to look a bit petty as they continue to harp on the deceased racer, a situation exacerbated by several interviews with one of Gregg’s children.

The film presents conflicting explanations for why Haywood chose to come out as this particular point in his life. Haywood himself offers up a touching account of a conversation he had with a young closeted gay man, clearly inspired by the profound effect he had on the individual’s life. This perspective is contrasted by Haywood’s clear reluctance to embrace the “activist” label. At one point, one of the interviewees goes on a long-winded diatribe about how Haywood should not become a gay activist, doing so with a kind of subtle homophobia that America continues to struggle with. The “tolerance but not acceptance” approach is one that feels increasingly dated as society acknowledges the injustices of policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Hurley regrettably chose to play a “both sides” approach by including interviews that offered up opinions for how Haywood should present his homosexuality to the world.

Haywood’s husband Steve Hill provides much of the background for their relationship over the years. His scenes are some of the most powerful in the film, emotionally recounting how difficult it was to watch the man he loved celebrate his success from a distance. Hill provides a valuable historical perspective on the closet, immeasurable challenges that America is thankfully moving away from.

What’s sadly missing from Hurley is the idea of resolution for all those years Haywood and Hill spent hiding their relationship. Part of this likely stems from the fact that Haywood didn’t come out publicly all that long ago and still seems fairly uncomfortable talking about his sexuality. There isn’t really any takeaway beyond the sense that Haywood wants to occupy the space between being helpful and a full-on activist. Hurley misses an easy opportunity to shed light on the hardships forced upon LGBTQ athletes, never quite suggesting that something in that culture needs to change.

While it’s easy to understand that Haywood doesn’t want his sexuality to define his legacy, Hurley suffers from a surface level approach to its central narrative. The film would have been better off simply presenting more of a career retrospective, without putting too much weight on Haywood’s coming out to anchor such a large portion of its runtime. Hurley Haywood is an easy man to admire, an individual who achieved great success in a field that still remains hostile to a core part of his existence. The documentary about his life doesn’t really do justice to the man, a film that plays it too safe to present anything meaningful for LGBTQ athletes who might look to Haywood’s story for inspiration.

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Saturday

30

March 2019

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Satan & Adam Squanders a Good Story with No Sense of Narrative Direction

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The story of blues duo Satan and Adam is a fascinating one that transcends racial and generational barriers. The pairing of a young white kid playing harmonica on the streets of Harlem alongside a black guitarist who was once signed to Ray Charles’ Tangerine Records produced a unique sound that brought them plenty of success, including numerous festival appearances and a European tour opening for Bo Diddley. Unfortunately, the documentary tasked with presenting their story never seems confident as to how to tell it.

As a film, Satan & Adam is all over the place. The documentary starts off by setting the scene of racial tension in New York City in the 1980s, featuring interviews with Al Sharpton. Presented alongside the introductions of Adam Gussow and Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, the narrative appears to assign some broader societal purpose behind their pairing, except the film abandons that subject early on. The mentioning of racial tension appears to essentially exist in the film to make the case that it was hard for a person like Adam to perform on the streets of a predominantly black neighborhood. It’s a weird point to bring up with regard to an Ivy League-educated individual, and one that falls flat in its efforts to garner sympathy for Adam’s outsider status.

The documentary struggles in its duel presentation of Mr. Satan and Adam’s lives. Gussow is interviewed extensively throughout the film, but Mr. Satan’s legend is largely established through third-person accounts. Mr. Satan had played for decades alongside James Brown, King Curtis, and Big Maybelle, which makes Adam sound fairly boisterous in several scenes where he equates their playing abilities. The absence of interviews from Mr. Satan creates the illusion that he’s deceased throughout much of the film’s first half.

Satan & Adam struggles to establish Adam’s likability, positioning him as the singular force behind the commercialization of their music. Adam published an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1998, and he admits that he begrudgingly shared half the commission for the story at Magee’s request. Gussow is also depicted as the driving force behind their studio recording, but the impact of this on Mr. Satan’s life is left unclear, a puzzling decision since the documentary extensively covers Satan’s mental breakdown and abrupt move to Florida. Adam is nowhere to be found throughout Satan’s recovery, a point that’s only briefly touched upon.

The film lacks a cohesive overarching narrative, only briefly focusing on Satan and Adam’s success as a duo. Their inclusion on U2’s classic Rattle and Hum album is mentioned along with an interview with The Edge, but the segment feels like a minor footnote instead of a high point of their careers. Satan’s life is fascinating, but the documentary suffers when only Adam’s story is presented, especially given how much of the narrative is driven by Adam’s own accounts. Magee’s wife, Miss Macie, is introduced late in the film, presented essentially as a villain disrupting the band. Macie’s antagonistic introduction is paired with a few quick interviews that hint at tension on the road, though the documentary moves on shortly after without really explaining anything. It’s never really made clear what the filmmakers expect anyone to make of these brief snippets of conflict.

Satan & Adam has a good story to tell, but the documentary never establishes a consistent narrative to tie its many pieces together. With a runtime of barely eighty minutes, it’s possible that the documentary bit off more than it could chew, tackling two separate lives, their joint musical career, as well as Harlem race relations all in one film. What’s oddly missing is the clear sense that both of their lives were improved by their relationship with each other. Satan would have been a Harlem legend regardless of Adam, while Gussow has enjoyed a career teaching literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The lasting legacy of Satan and Adam is one that the film never quite establishes. For a documentary that took over twenty years to film, Satan & Adam doesn’t know what it wants to say.

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