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    movie stills from the documentaries Athlete A, Time, and Coded Bias showing three women

    Moments of Justice

    How documentaries Athlete A, Coded Bias, and Time bear witness.

    By Joe George

    April 14, 2021
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    Midway through the 2019 documentary film Collective, newly appointed Romanian health minister Vlad Voiulescu sits in defeat. After months of crusading against corruption in his country’s healthcare system, Voiulescu realizes that nothing has changed. Mobsters, politicians, and businessmen still put profits above human lives and resist any of his reforms.

    Utterly forlorn, Voiulescu drops his head in his hands and asks, “How the hell do we fix this?”

    I often feel the same way when I watch documentaries. Where narrative films often take artistic liberties or restrict themselves to metaphor, documentaries carry a greater expectation of truth, which makes them uniquely suited to recording political and legal problems. Documentary films have educated me about such topics as the connection between American racism and American prisons (13th, 2016), the mindset of genocidal dictators (The Act of Killing, 2012), and the power of unions (Harlan County, U.S.A., 1976).

    But while this access is indispensable for anyone wanting to unmask the powers and principalities of our world, it can become overwhelming. Documentary filmmakers can throw light on dark corners, but one grows weary peering into the night. I can come away from even an amazingly well-crafted film feeling powerless.

    The powerful valued acclaim over the lives of these women, but justice was served.

    That’s why I’m almost shocked to find that some of the most inspiring scenes in recent cinema have appeared in documentaries. More than just happy endings, these films show examples of actual justice served. The 2020 movies Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, Coded Bias, directed by Shalini Kantayya, and Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, deal with some of the most pervasive sins of our generation, including sexual abuse, systemic racism, and the prison industrial complex. But even as I watch and learn about my responsibility toward these wrongs, these filmmakers also provide images of justice, reminders that I serve a just God who cares deeply about those whom the powerful want to exploit.

    I know next to nothing about gymnastics and less about the abuses within the sport. The few moments that do come to my attention, such as Kerri Strug overcoming a broken ankle to earn a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics, once seemed to me as moments of athletic triumph. But Athlete A offers a different perspective on this story: Strug was a teenager at the time, forced by the institution to sacrifice her body for the competition. I realize that the feel-good version of the narrative I had received was what those in power wanted me to believe, the same people in power who wanted to pretend that sexual abuse was not a problem.

    Many athletes work hard all their lives and never make it to the Olympics. In that way, gymnast Maggie Nichols isn’t so unique. But as Cohen and Shenk show in Athlete A, the problem wasn’t with her abilities. Coaches and commentators talk up Nichols’s prowess, claims backed up by footage of her stupendous feats. Even the prestigious USA Gymnastics took notice of Nichols and began preparing her for an eventual Olympic run.

    At USA Gymnastics, Nichols encountered the team doctor, Larry Nassar. Manipulating the trust he garnered, Nassar sexually abused Nichols and many other girls. When Nichols was finally able to report him, USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny showed no interest in rooting out the man taking advantage of children. Instead, Penny urged Nichols’s parents to let him perform an internal investigation and withheld the information from law enforcement. He did, however, take action against Nichols, withdrawing the attention once given to her and ignoring her parents’ persistent questions. Despite her high marks in competitions leading up to the selection ceremony, USA Gymnastics coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi did not choose Nichols for their 2016 Olympic team.

    Athlete A opens with footage of Nichols and her fellow members of the University of Oklahoma gymnastics team training, set to ethereal music. As Nichols speaks in voiceover, rhapsodizing about her love for the sport, the filmmakers cut to footage of her competing as a child, her ebullient response to the crowd’s cheers clear through the blurry images. Other abused gymnasts join the film, including Jamie Dantzcher and Rachael Denhollander. God created these women with extraordinary abilities, and they joyfully put them to use. That is, until predators like Larry Nassar tried to steal it away.

    “I didn’t know a lot when I was fifteen, but one thing I did know was that abuse victims are not treated well,” Denhollander says. “[Abuse victims] are mocked. They are questioned. They are blamed. They are shamed,” she explains, “and that does incredible damage to the healing process.” The filmmakers capture her resolve as she describes the shame and fear forced upon her as she pursued the sport she loved, and how it took not only her and her teammates’ dreams, but even part of their identity.

    I was ignorant before, but now that I know, I am called into responsibility.

    At the end, Denhollander overcomes her fear and shame to testify against Nassar. She, and so many other women, assert their humanity by telling the world what Nassar did to them. The judges heard, and he has been sentenced to life in prison. Steve Penny and others who tried to block the Nicholses’ investigation lost their positions. The powerful valued acclaim over the lives of these women, but justice was served.

    In Coded Bias, Shalini Kantayya uses a simple hook to move viewers into the tangled world of automated surveillance. In the movie’s first scene, computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, a PhD candidate at MIT, describes a problem she discovered while building a mirror that could overlay a funny or inspirational image on the user’s face. The mirror seemed to work fine until Buolamwini, who is Black, stepped in front of it. The software could not recognize her dark skin. But when Buolamwini covered her face with a ghostly white mask, featureless save for a few holes for nostrils and eyes, the software acknowledged her as a human.

    Recognizing this as more than an odd technological quirk, Coded Bias uses it to launch a large-scale investigation into discrimination built into the algorithms that run our increasingly automated society. Kantayya and her subjects uncover harmful prejudices in programs connected to everything from bank loans and employment decisions to bail postings and teacher rehiring. Throughout the film, Buolamwini and other activists, including mathematician Cathy O’Neil, data journalist Meredith Broussard, and human rights lawyer Ravi Naik, work to dismantle these programs.

    With its cadre of academics and experts, Coded Bias leans hard into talking-head interviews to explain to viewers the prejudices sometimes buried under reams of legal and technical jargon. But Kantayya reveals her subjects to be more than just sources of information. A wonderful sequence showcases Buolamwini’s creative skills, as she recites a poem for her hairdresser. Quick cuts match the energy of Buolamwini’s flow and her words dissolve onto the screen, adding to the smiles and nods the two women share.

    Kantayya contrasts these sparks of humanity to sequences that show the crimes committed against them. A scene in London shows two Black teens, visibly shaken after being misidentified as criminals by facial recognition software. In a Houston middle school, the camera floats around students spellbound by their gentle social studies teacher Mr. Santos, while voiceover describes how the district’s measurement software disregarded his accolades and deemed him a poor teacher. In a predominantly Black apartment complex in Brooklyn, tenants describe the fear caused by their landlord’s new surveillance technology.

    At the climax, Buolamwini addresses a congressional hearing on facial recognition software. Thanks to expert arguments from Buolamwini and others, lawmakers from both parties agree to ban the software. Kantayya cuts to people around the world watching the hearing, and we can see their relief as a potential tool of oppression gets shut down.

    movie stills from the documentaries Athlete A, Time, and Coded Bias showing three women

    Like the bureaucracy that defends sexual abusers and adopts flawed computer software, the prison industrial complex is a labyrinthine system, filled with standards and laws that render it impenetrable to observers. Viewers like me watch these movies and see wrongdoing, but we don’t always know what to do about it.

    Time follows the efforts of prison abolitionist Sibil “Fox” Richardson as she fights for the release of her husband, Rob, serving a sixty-year sentence for armed robbery. Although Fox, who previously served a three-year sentence for the same crime, makes no excuses for her and her husband’s participation in it, she embodies the suffering caused by a disproportionate and inhumane “justice” system. Combining grainy home video footage Fox shot over twenty-one years with slick, high-quality scenes of the Richardson family today, Garrett Bradley captures the true toll of Rob’s sentence.

    With its integration of family home videos, Time offers a far more intimate look than most political documentaries. As Edwin Montgomery and Jameison Shaw’s piano score flutters in the background, we watch the Richardsons’ sons swimming in the pool, celebrate school accomplishments, and absorb the shock of learning that Rob will not be coming home. In one scene, the Richardsons’ twin sons Justus and Freedom mug for the camera as their mother speaks to them. Hoping to impart a parental lesson on the boys, Fox asks them both to explain the meaning of their names. But the two boys, bursting with the energy of a child asked to be still, barely acquiesce. They jump around the room, shove each other aside, and flash smiles at their mom.

    Bradley uses the beauty of youth to underscore the evil of disproportionate and often racially biased incarceration. In one scene, we see little Remington Rich as a child, playing in a video that will be sent to his imprisoned father. In a second, we now see Remington as a grown man, his innocent excitement replaced with stoic dignity. “Time is when you look at pictures from when your babies were small,” Fox explains, putting the phrase “doing time” into perspective. “And then you look at them and see that they have mustaches and beards, and that the biggest hope that you had was that before they turned into men, they would have a chance to be with their father.”

    At the end, Rob emerges into focus walking out of Louisiana State Penitentiary. The words “Never Give Up” are emblazoned on his shirt and a smile is beaming on his face. After twenty-one years in prison, he walks in the direction of Fox’s shouts of joy and embraces his wife as a free man.

    As daunting as the broader concerns in these documentaries might be, the films never let us forget the specific human cost. They uncover the people buried by regulations and red tape, reminding us that these issues aren’t mere facts to be absorbed by viewers; they’re real attacks on real people. Nor are they mere problems to be solved – they are acts of profanity. They defame people created in God’s image. Films such as these pierce through the façade of lies or indifference constructed by those in power. I was ignorant before, but now that I know, I am called into responsibility.

    Throughout scripture, we find example after example of God promising wrath against oppressors and exploiters. Micah 2:1-3 records God’s words of woe to those who plan iniquity and disinherit others. Amos prophesies that God will punish those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6). James puts it most simply when he teaches, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27). I’m overwhelmed with anger when I see a man robbed of the opportunity to grow up with his father, taken away by a system that doles out punishments disproportionate to the crime. I can only imagine how much more this angers God. Proverbs 21:15 (NIV) says that “when justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” These films provide us with examples of both that joy and that terror.

    When I stand against oppressors for the sake of other people, I walk with a God who loves justice and who has overcome the world.

    After her testimony against Nassar went viral, Denhollander told Christianity Today that her decision to go public stemmed directly from her knowledge that “God is the God of justice, these things are evil, and it is biblical, right, and godly to pursue justice.” Faith in that quality allowed her to forgive Nassar and “release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance.” Denhollander came to recognize that “the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection,” but it does need “your obedience,” which “means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.”

    While Athlete A captures the power of women like Denhollander obeying Christ’s example by standing up for the oppressed and the victimized, it also captures beautiful images of restoration. In its final scenes, we watch Maggie Nichols breaking records as a gymnast at Oklahoma State University. She’ll never be an Olympian, but she has found a way of reclaiming the gifts God gave her.

    But such moments are relatively rare. Many documentaries have endings similar to those of Collective, in which nothing has changed. Voiulescu admits defeat and leaves his post, and family members who lost loved ones to the medical system try to remember and move on.

    Watching Collective, I can’t help but ask, “God, what do I do?” The answer I hear comes from Micah 6:8: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Just how we act, love, and walk changes depending on the situation. But that makes me all the more grateful for films like Athlete A, Coded Bias, and Time, movies that remind me that when I stand against oppressors for the sake of other people, I walk with a God who loves justice and who has overcome the world.

    Contributed By

    Joe George writes about pop culture and literature for Tor.com, Bloody Disgusting, and Think Christian. He collects his work at joewriteswords.com and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii

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