Now Playing! People Have the Power

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Koné Bakary in 'Night of the Kings.'
Koné Bakary in 'Night of the Kings.' (NEON)

Nobody—not even bitcoin collectors and vaccine line-jumpers—can resist a good movie about the triumph of everyday people over injustice and corruption. The through-line of history, though, is that mass struggles inevitably confront massive setbacks. That’s not the Hollywood narrative, but it’s at the core of this week’s films.

Night of the Kings
Now Playing
Roxie

Philippe Lacote begins his spellbinding fable with the scenic aerial vista of a Jeep making its way through a verdant landscape to a large, imposing building. The young punk in handcuffs accompanied by armed soldiers can’t admire the view or appreciate the sweet air; he’s too anxious about his destination at the end of the rutted road.

The lad arrives at the dank Ivory Coast prison at an auspicious time, as the inmate who runs the place—subject to the arbitrary rule of the brutish authorities, of course—is nearing the end of his reign. He christens the newcomer Roman and appoints him storyteller for the evening, which the lad (played by Bakary Koné) prolongs to dawn via a procession of centuries-spanning chapters drawn from the seemingly disparate realms of folk tales and slum reality.

Night of the Kings juxtaposes the visceral threats of prison life with the sensuous appeal of fantasy and escape, to mesmerizing effect. Lacote’s camera elegantly wends from chaos to order and back, funneling historical echoes into the present-day maelstrom. His artistry serves a political message that never overtakes Roman’s story or hijacks the film, but is ingrained in every frame.

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All of the representations of power on display in the prison—that is, in the society—are a mirage; we never see the powers that be that hold the real power. The struggle within the underclass is perpetually doomed, unless and until they stop fighting each other and focus on their common enemy.

A still from 'Lost Course.'
A still from 'Lost Course.' (Icarus Films)

Lost Course
Opens March 5
BAMPFA

In September of 2011, the villagers of Wukan in southern China angrily protested the sale of communal land for private gain by corrupt officials. Four demonstrators were arrested; one died in custody. The 9.21 incident, as it’s known, triggered even bigger protests and the political awakening of several activists.

Jill Li’s brave and intimate documentary, Lost Course, follows those incipient leaders—and the cause of democracy itself—through the heady months and difficult years that followed. The three-hour film benefits from exceptional access and remarkable candor, providing a close-up perspective on grass-roots idealism and on-the-fly strategizing.

The protagonists take different paths as their initial goals are thwarted: One quits politics to open a tea shop and another disappears to the United States, though several run for reelection and continue their increasingly compromised campaigns for change. Lost Course, consequently, becomes less of a study of democracy in China and more of a mosaic of public service, ambition, ego and ethics.

The title refers to the wrong turns, ill-advised decisions and poor directions that gradually led the leaders of the 9.21 Wukan movement off their altruistic path. But arguably the greatest error these moderate reformers made was trusting Xi Jinping (the President of the People’s Republic of China), as well as his predecessor, to acknowledge and comply with the will of the people.

Lost Course concludes at the end of 2016 and was completed in 2019, by which time China’s approach to Hong Kong had clarified beyond doubt its attitude toward democracy. This is one documentary for which spoiler alerts are superfluous.

A helicopter sprays agent orange in Vietnam in a scene from 'The People vs. Agent Orange.'
A helicopter sprays agent orange in Vietnam in a scene from 'The People vs. Agent Orange.' (PBS/Independent Lens)

The People vs. Agent Orange
Opens March 5
Smith Rafael, Cinema SF (Balboa, Vogue)

It’s hard to argue with those who describe the virulently toxic herbicide that was Dow Chemical’s infamous contribution to the U.S. war on Vietnam (and its neighbors) in the late ’60s and ’70s as chemical warfare. Vietnam, you say? Isn’t that ancient history? How about all the kids with birth defects and all the miscarriages, in Vietnam and the U.S., spanning decades?

Veteran filmmakers Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna tackle the cold case files with a measured dispassion that, I must concede, is journalistically and historically responsible. But The People vs. Agent Orange lacks an iota of the soul-piercing anger and fiery indignation necessary to launch viewers from their complacency. “Quietly infuriating” doesn’t do the trick, in this case.

The subjects of the film are two older women—not the most respected or heeded demographic in our culture, it must be said—who suffered enormous losses and are still fighting the U.S. government and the chemical manufacturers. Vietnam War survivor Tran To Nga has brought suit in a Paris court (where a verdict is expected this year), while Oregon environmental activist Carol Van Strum still holds out hope that the vast trove of documents she accrued through FOIA requests and other means will help bring someone to account.

The People vs. Agent Orange will air on PBS this summer, although perhaps in a shorter cut. By then a French judge may have delivered justice, instead of yet another setback.