Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 24, 2013

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

A couple of days ago the N.Y. Times ran an article about Columbia University’s football team, the perpetual doormat of the Ivy League. Nick Melka, a political science major and defensive lineman, probably was typical of those ready to endure ignominy on the field:

Melka interned for a financial services firm last summer and hopes to land a job there after graduation. That is the upside of being a Columbia football player: While the football may be terrible, the job prospects are fantastic. The network of former players gives students personal access to chief executives, lawyers, doctors, Wall Street traders.

Ironically, that is how college “amateur” athletics was originally intended at its birth in Great Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Amateurism was a device to keep the working class out of sports—that according to Frank Deford, one of the very knowledgeable people interviewed in “Schooled: the Price of College Sports”, which is now available from Amazon.com both as a DVD and through streaming.

That model was adopted by the United States early on, where football was the essential Ivy League sport played by people like Nick Melka. But after WWII both basketball and football became big business on campus largely through the shrewd planning of Walt Byers, who ran the NCAA from its inception in 1951 to his retirement in 1988. Byers understood that basketball and football could become a cash cow for universities by perpetrating the hoax of the “student-athlete”. In exchange for providing room, board, and tuition, the school would reap millions in television revenue, deals with Nike, and sales of gear with the team’s logo.

When a poor African-American came to play for a Division A basketball or football team, he frequently lacked the money to pay for food or clothing as one athlete reveals. This puts enormous pressure on them to supplement their income by taking money under the table or worse.

The NCAA not only sought to generate fortunes both to the schools and itself, it also saw the “student-athlete” hoax as a way to protect a university from liabilities due to accidents on the field. One of the landmark cases involved a Texas Christian University running back named Kent Waldrep who broke his neck in a game with the University of Alabama in 1974 and was left a quadriplegic. When he filed suit in 1997 to establish his status as a wageworker rather than a “student-athlete” and thus be eligible for workman’s compensation, the university and the NCAA fought him tooth and nail. Waldrep lost the case but the battle continues.

While some of the experts interviewed for the film such as Dave Zirin and Frank Deford, a regular on the very hard-hitting HBO series “Real Sports with Brian Gumbel”, were to be expected, it was a bit of a surprise to see Taylor Branch making the forceful case for paying athletes like Waldrep and providing insurance.

Branch, who produced the film, has been a long-time advocate for the rights of such athletes, likening their situation to indentured servants. As some of you surely must know, Branch is the author of a series of books on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

He is also the author of an Ebook titled “The Cartel” (http://taylorbranch.com/ncaa/the-cartel/) that can be ordered from his website. As the film explains, the NCAA is a classic cartel with one important difference. As opposed to OPEC, another well-known cartel, the goal is to keep wages down rather than prices up. In either case, the goal is profit—even when a place like Penn State or Notre Dame tries to maintain the fiction that it only has the interests of the student at heart.

I recommend a shorter version of Branch’s book on the Atlantic magazine website titled “The Shame of College Sports” that does not mince words:

Educators are in thrall to their athletic departments because of these television riches and because they respect the political furies that can burst from a locker room. “There’s fear,” Friday told me when I visited him on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill last fall. As we spoke, two giant construction cranes towered nearby over the university’s Kenan Stadium, working on the latest $77 million renovation. (The University of Michigan spent almost four times that much to expand its Big House.) Friday insisted that for the networks, paying huge sums to universities was a bargain. “We do every little thing for them,” he said. “We furnish the theater, the actors, the lights, the music, and the audience for a drama measured neatly in time slots. They bring the camera and turn it on.” Friday, a weathered idealist at 91, laments the control universities have ceded in pursuit of this money. If television wants to broadcast football from here on a Thursday night, he said, “we shut down the university at 3 o’clock to accommodate the crowds.” He longed for a campus identity more centered in an academic mission.

“Narco Cultura” opened on Friday at the AMC Empire 25 in New York, followed by a nationwide rollout (http://narcoculture.com/showtimes). It is as the title implies a close look at Mexico’s drug wars focused on the city of Juarez, within spitting distance of El Paso, Texas, and one of its “success” stories—a Narcocorrido singer named Edgar Quintero from Los Buknas de Culiacan. Although the music is fairly indistinguishable from the accordion-based corridos that have been a staple of Mexican pop music since the 1920s, the lyrics have more in common with gangsta rap in the USA. This is from the supergroup El Movimiento Alterado: “Con un cuerno de chivo / y bazuka en la nuca / volando cabezas / al que se atraviesa” (With an AK / and a bazooka taking aim / blowing off the heads / of whoever gets in the way).

The film focuses on contrasts, juxtaposing Quintero’s braggadocio with the sites of dead bodies on the streets of Juarez, often-innocent bystanders, as well as the cops who are routinely assassinated by cartel thugs. The people who are narcocorrido fans like to “party”, which means getting drunk and or high while singing along with their favorite bands. The musicians are big favorites of cartel bosses who often pay someone like Quintero to compose a ballad in their honor. Whenever I hear Libya described as a “failed state”, I wonder if those who accept that definition understand that Mexico suffered 60,000 casualties during the drug war that began in 2006. That would be equivalent to 150,000 in the USA.

While the film is compelling, there is not much in the way of analysis. It is content to interview Quintero, who is a tiresome lout, or the cops in Juarez but somehow decided to omit any kind of expert testimony on how this drug war came to be. For this you have to look elsewhere.

On this score, I recommend Dawn Paley, who has been researching a book. A preliminary article “Drug War Capitalism” can be read here: http://dawnpaley.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/dawn.pdf. I also recommend Anabel Hernandez’s “Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers”. Hernandez is a Mexican journalist who understandably always travels with two bodyguards.

A Guardian profile on Hernandez describes the sordid connections between the USA and Mexico, not distinguishable in any way from what existed during Colombia’s drug wars:

The release last month of the cartel boss Caro Quintero by a Mexican federal court made headlines across the world; Quintero had been convicted of a part in the torture to death of a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. It’s a murder which, in Hernández’s account, throws light on both Mexican government and CIA complicity in drug trafficking, a narrative that exposes a deep root of the present drug war.

The court released Quintero on a legal technicality, but Hernández says now: “Mexico’s government did nothing to prevent his release. On the contrary, they contributed cover for the release. The one thing nobody wants is Quintero talking about the roles of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [returned to power, and in government during Camarena’s murder] and the CIA in the origins of Chapo Guzmán’s cartel.”

A documentary that uncovered these ties would be a blockbuster. In the meantime, “Narco Cultura” is not a bad place to get a feel for the personalities involved in a tragic waste of life and treasure.

When I first heard that the documentary “Blood Brother” was about a young American going to India to work with HIV-positive orphans, the first thing that entered my mind was “another Mother Teresa”. The only question is what would motivate someone to take what amounted to a vow of poverty and devote himself to people he barely knew and who were in such desperate straits. Was it religion? Was it a kind of AIDS activism that was prevalent in the USA during the early years of the outbreak?

It turns out that the protagonist, a lean and handsome youth named Rocky Braat who grew up in Pittsburgh, remained as much of a mystery as the film ended as when it began. This, however, is what makes it appealing. You are both impressed with his dedication but at a loss to figure out what makes him tick. In an age when people his age are desperate to find a job—any job—it is a mystery (in the original sense) as to why Rocky would reject that path and choose to live a Christ-like existence. As the press notes state: “Rocky endures a daily diet of rice, a rat infested hut, visa problems.”

Although there is not a single reference to Jesus in the entire film, you cannot but help ponder the similarity:

Luke 17:11-19

11 And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.

12 And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:

13 And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.

14 And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.

Steve Hoover, Rocky’s old friend from Pittsburgh who is seen visiting him in India with a film crew, directed the film. It is Hooper’s first film and done with great sensitivity and with an artist’s eye for the stunning beauty of the countryside around Tamil Nadu, the site of the orphanage. For information on how to provide material aid, go to http://www.givethemlight.org/.

Perhaps the most appropriate recommendation for this film is to confess that I am not its ideal viewer. Immersed as I am in social and political issues, it took some adjustment to realize that “Blood Brother” is an old-fashioned character study. That being said, it is a reminder that if one individual can learn to serve humanity in a selfless fashion that there is hope for the rest of us.

This note from the producer will serve as a reference to how you can see it:

Screenings are listed here: http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/screenings and info on how to host a screening can be found here: http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/host-a-screening-theater/. The film will be broadcast on PBS Independent Lens on January 20th and then released on DVD/VoD/Digital soon after through Cinedigm (http://www.cinedigm.com/)


  1. Slight grammar correction. It’s narcocorrido and corrido and *not* corrida or narcocorrida.


    Comment by Erik Toren — November 24, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

  2. “Narcoland” is a tremendous journalistic achievement, a truly frightening work. The interrelationship between the Sinaloa cartel, the Mexican government and the US is alarming to say the least, and really causes one to wonder whether there is a political solution other than a violent insurrection.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 25, 2013 @ 2:21 am

  3. Director is Steve Hoover. Other than that very nice review.

    Comment by Matt — November 26, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

  4. […] jure segregation but of the de facto segregation that rules today. If you’ve seen my review of a documentary on the NCAA, you’ll recall that “amateur” college athletics was designed originally to keep working class […]

    Pingback by 42; The Jackie Robinson Story | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 25, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

  5. […] Taylor Branch makes the case that Black collegiate basketball and football players are treated as indentured servants. The best indictment of the NCAA anywhere. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/24/three-documentaries/. […]

    Pingback by The Best and Worst Films of 2013 » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — January 17, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

  6. […] NY (and opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on the 10th). Like last year’s “Narco Cultura” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/24/three-documentaries/), it is a deeply pessimistic but compelling work that emphasizes the POV of the average citizen […]

    Pingback by Purgatorio; Algorithms | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 5, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

  7. […] Norteño style with lyrics that toast the drug lords after the fashion of American gansta rap. I found much of it compelling but regretted that there was “not much in the way of […]

    Pingback by Cartel Land | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 11, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

  8. […] doing some background research on the director, I discovered that I had reviewed his last documentary, which was titled “Blood Brother” and had a main character […]

    Pingback by Almost Holy | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 20, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

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