Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Dhamma Brothers

This documentary tells the story of a Vipassana meditation program in an Alabama correctional facility, focusing on a small handful of inmates, all convicted of murder, who undergo the intensive training. Ten days of silence and meditation has a significant impact on many of the inmates, who give themselves the title 'The Dhamma Brothers'. The film also explores the presence of this Eastern philosophical program in the Deep South and the resistance the program receives from the prison administrators (including the outright banning of the program at one point).

My Thoughts:
It was quite moving to see these big tough men settled down on their cushions for their meditation practice, and very arresting to hear them speak openly about their crimes and lives before prison. The program did seem to create real and lasting change for at least some of these men, at least in the time frame where they were followed by the documentary. It seems to me like this program could be very helpful to other inmates, and I hope things like this spread to other correctional facilities.

Discussion Points:
  • Describe the relationship between a program like Vipassana and religious traditions like Christianity or Buddhism.
  • Why was the program banned in the prison? Do you think this was a fair thing to do? Is this an example of ethnocentrism?
  • Do we as a society have a responsibility to treat prisoners' emotional problems? Do we have a responsibility to provide rehabilitation?
  • How do we view violent offenders in our society?
Website here
Runtime: 76 minutes
Streaming on Netflix: yes

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

This is an exceptionally well made and quite well known documentary about the formation of the notorious street gangs the Crips and the Bloods in South Central LA. The film includes interviews with gang members past and present and considers the variety of social circumstances which led to the situation as it stands today. This includes the immigration of African Americans from the South during the 40s and 50s and the segregation and discrimination experienced by that population, as well as a discussion of how gangs originally formed as a mechanism for fighting back against white oppression, particularly from the police. There is a nice section on the Watts Riots. Also a discussion of the introduction of crack cocaine and how the gangs turned increasingly towards violence against each other.

My thoughts:
When I first saw this, years ago, it was an eye-opener for me. I had never before considered the reasons why anyone would join a gang or the systemic conditions which would prompt that choice. This documentary does a nice job of balancing history and sociology with real, human stories. It's a must-see for anyone interested in cultural diversity issues.

Discussion Points:
  • What does the gang provide for its members? What is the psychological role of the gang in the members' lives?
  • How are life chances impacted by growing up in an area like South Central LA?
  • How did discrimination and prejudice contribute to the formation of the Crips and Bloods, and does it still contribute?
  • What are our stereotypes about gang members? Were any of these challenged by this movie?

Website here
Runtime: 93 minutes
Streaming on Netflix: Yes!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Head Games

Head Games is a thoughtful examination of a sports culture that allows athletes of all ages to accumulate concussions and concurrent brain damage by ignoring or suppressing evidence of injury. The film is a companion to the book of the same name by former NFL player and WWE performer Christopher Nowinski, who also features heavily here. We are walked carefully through the growing evidence that repeated head trauma creates long-term consequences (specifically memory loss and other related neurological conditions), something that has long been recognized in boxers but is now becoming apparent in football, hockey, and soccer as well. Much discussion is given to the effects of concussion and how diagnosis of this condition is underused.

My Thoughts:
It takes a lot for me to sit through a sports documentary, but I was fascinated by this one. It is definitely one-sided. Most of the screen time is given to people who agree that concussion is related to serious problems later in life, and that it is under-diagnosed in service of a culture where masculinity and toughness are valued highly (not to mention, in professional sports, a valuable asset can't earn money if they are benched). There's a lot to think about here.

Discussion Points:
  • Should professional sports teams, as businesses, be subject to the same health and safety controls as other businesses?
  • What role do the ideals of masculinity and toughness play in ignoring injury? (Consider the comment made by one of the football players that football is as close as you can get to being a warrior without going to war).
  • Is it useful for a man to learn to accept pain in pursuit of a goal?
  • Would you let your kids play contact sports? (Or do you already?) 
  • As Bob Costas asks in the movie: what's the level of acceptable risk? What's the level of reasonable reform?
  • How do we think about games in our culture? How does that contribute to this issue?

Documentary website here
Running time: 91 minutes
Streaming on Netflix: Yes

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

This superb documentary follows the creation, rise, decay, and demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis. At the time (the mid-fifties), the project was revolutionary, intended to provide safe and healthy affordable housing for the urban working class. The complex's construction was based on the assumption that the urban population would continue to boom. Instead, white flight and the construction of suburbia drove those who could afford it out of the city, and jobs followed. Those who couldn't get out - many of them poor and black - were abandoned in Pruitt-Igoe. Without sufficient money for upkeep, the complex quickly descended into disrepair, becoming a violent and unsafe place for the residents.

My thoughts:
A complex look at a complex subject, but easily accessible through the range of social experts and former residents of Pruitt-Igoe, as well as pictures and video from the period. This documentary goes beyond the idea of assessing blame to explore the many ways that system failures combined to first create Pruitt-Igoe and then destroy it.

Discussion Points:
  • What impact has redlining and segregation had on creating "bad" neighborhoods?
  • How does the neighborhood one grows up in impact life chances? How might it cause internalized bias?
  • Explore the diverse reactions former residents had to their neighborhood - some loved it, some hated it, some feared it.
  • Do we as a society have social obligations to relieve extreme poverty? Can we ever attribute blame for poverty?
  • Apply broken windows theory , labeling theory , and/or Merton's theory of deviance to this situation. Is any theory fully explicative?

Documentary website here
Running time: 83 minutes
Streaming on Netflix: Yes

Miss Navajo

Miss Navajo is a documentary that tells the story of the Miss Navajo pageant through the eyes of one contestant, 21-year-old Crystal Frazier, as well as delving into the history and meaning of the pageant through former participants. This unique pageant requires young Navajo women to demonstrate skills appropriate to a woman, leader and representative of the Navajo Nation - most memorably including the butchering of a sheep (but no real gory bits are shown). The winner will be a goodwill ambassador for the Nation and a symbol of how the Navajos and other First Nations groups persist despite the trauma and oppression they have faced past and present.

My Thoughts:
I highly recommend this documentary. Crystal is an engaging young woman, seeming initially very shy and reserved, but with inner depths of determination and strength. It was very affecting to hear other Miss Navajos discuss their experience, and this documentary also includes a good discussion of the residential schools which did much to suppress Native American culture throughout America. I would definitely show this in a class.

  • How is culture preserved? How is it passed on? How is it destroyed?
  • Compare and contrast this pageant to something like Miss America. How do the expected skills differ? How does dominant American culture express itself in more mainstream pageants?
  • What is the gender role for a young Navajo woman? 
  • Traditional Navajo culture is matriarchal. Is this seen in the film? How?
Feel free to post other discussion topics and questions in the comments!

Documentary website here
Runtime: 58 Minutes
Streaming on Netflix: Yes


Welcome, everyone!

This blog is intended to be a resource for students and educators who are interested in exploring media resources pertaining to cultural diversity. Each post will feature and briefly discuss such a resource, including documentaries, movies, novels, memoirs, and nonfiction.

In addition to resources which deal with the conventional categories of cultural diversity (race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and age), posts will also consider issues of class, opportunity, and privilege. One posting category will include resources that encourage the viewer or reader to think through the sociological lens. I also plan to post links when I have a good collection to essays, articles, etc from one topic.

To most effectively navigate this site looking for particular resources, search for particular subjects and use the labels on the bottom of each post as guides.

If you have particular resources to recommend, feel free to leave a comment. However, I'm just one person and I gravitate towards subjects that I have a particular interest in.

Thanks for coming!