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For the curious traveler of Virginia’s back roads, there’s a buffalo farm not too far from the sleepy town of Riner, Virginia, only a few miles away from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The buffalo farm isn’t much different than a number of dairy farms in the area. The only real difference is that there’s been no attempt to rid the grazing land of clumps of brush and trees. In fact, the buffalo seem to like climbing up and down the steep incline that leads to a small stream. This side trip can even take on an air of spirituality, because seeing buffalo, especially in the East, is so rare that one is more likely to have seen one on an old nickel. Here, after all, is a small herd of buffalo thriving, despite everything the federal government did to commit genocide on the species. But the good vibe pretty much vanishes when one realizes that the owners also run a small restaurant in Riner. There, the curious tourist can experience the great American symbol up close—by eating him.

Click here for the full review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running, it is only a matter of time before he gets smashed-and when a journalist turns into a political junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.”

- Hunter S. Thompson


Filmmaker, muckraker, and liberal activist Michael Moore dares to take his camera where no one has gone before. Anyone familiar with Roger & Me or TV Nation will know his style; everyone else can learn about it by watching one or both seasons of The Awful Truth. Moore’s modus operandi as a public advocate includes:

a. Find someone whose doing something that pisses him off.
b. Visit the offending party at their home or office.
c. Confront the person in the most offensive manner possible.

Like Sinclair Lewis at the turn of the last centaury or Hunter Thompson at the beginning of the 1972 presidential election, Moore sees himself as a renegade on a quest. “No one else will tell you the truth,” he seems to say. “But I will.” When Moore is firing on all pistons, his creative rough & tumble is worthy of Swift.

Watching a few episodes of The Awful Truth reminds one of what 60 Minutes might have looked like if Saturday Night Live had produced it. In one scene, Moore travels to Ken Starr’s home with a small group clad in Colonial clothing. Like the citizens of Salem, they are here to show Starr how to conduct an economical witch trial. Crackers, the crime fighting chicken, travels to Disney World to have a heart-to-heart with Mickey about unfair labor practices, while the Sodomobile, a pink van loaded with gay men, travels from state to state fighting for homosexual rights. These particular scenes are very funny and make great theater.

Of course conservatives will hate The Awful Truth as much as liberals hate Firing Line. They might even be so rude as to point out that Moore never deals with real content (as if Buckley did). But The Awful Truth isn’t a news magazine or an exercise in investigative reporting. Mostly it’s a good excuse to harass companies that pollute, fail to pay insurance claims, and sell cigarettes to kids. In one scene Sal, the Bill Collector, visits the UPS office to interrogate a couple of VPs over a supposed contract violation. Even though Sal isn’t real, the two stiff shirts defend their contract to Sal, on camera. The viewer never receives enough information to understand the UPS contract, much less if it’s been broken. And it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the two guys with the ties don’t have better sense than to talk to Sal, the Bill Collector, making both executives, and UPS, look like idiots.

The Awful Truth does have one or two drawbacks, even for the bleeding heart crowd. Moore is front-and-center a little too often, and eventually his self-righteous whine grows tiresome. This is especially true when Moore pursues the bad guys and gals as opposed to a personality like Sal. When this happens, a typical episode runs as follows.

a. Moore delivers the opening monolog.
b. Moore institutes a new program called “work care” and illustrates its usefulness.
c. Moore delivers a second monolog.
d. Moore begins a campaign to deliver TVs to Afghanistan.

With this set-up, The Awful Truth begins to look like a program about Michael Moore.

The second and worst offence is that even when Moore is interviewing someone he’s sympathetic with, that person may be the butt of a joke when the footage runs on the program. When he talks to a number of “locals” in a sketch about the crazies who live in Montana, their answers are meant to seem odd and funny. Bill Nichols asks a similar question of an earlier Moore film. “Is it all right to make Miss Michigan look foolish by asking for her opinion about local economic conditions …in one scene from Roger and Me?” In both cases, Moore seems to make an ethical breech by ridiculing innocents.

Liberals will find solace in both seasons of The Awful Truth, because TV programs from a liberal perspective are a rare find. It will help take the sting out of an unfair world as well as balance out that windy guy on the radio named Rush and the right-wing cadre of reporters on the Fox News channel. Even liberals need a little red meat now and then. Sitting down and watching an episode in the evening could be the perfect antidote to the latest calamity from Bush II. Michael Moore sooths us by demonstrating that no one, be they high, low, or in-between, can escape from The Awful Truth.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Both seasons of The Awful Truth are available at


Before Ken Burns’ Jazz hit the airwaves last January, the critical sparks started flying. Some reviewers disliked the political emphasis that related the plight of African Americans to jazz development. Others noted the lack of footage of post-1960’s jazz and every fan named at least one musician who should’ve been covered, but wasn’t. Oddly, all of this criticism occurred within the jazz world, an audience that Jazz never really considered. Since the film never meant to be more than a lengthy introduction, centered on social and political elements, most of the analysis missed its mark.

Like Jazz, American Roots Music has so much to offer it would be unfortunate if roots fans got sidetracked. In four one-hour programs, American Roots Music introduces viewers to the folk, country, bluegrass, gospel, zydeco, Cajun, Tex-Mex, and Native American music that has simmered and boiled in a huge US melting pot over the last hundred years. Because it covers so much ground, American Roots Music never pretends to be more than a thorough introduction to the major styles and artists. While the program does cover several contemporary artists—Bela Fleck, Gillian Welch, and Keb’ Mo’—it’s mostly concerned with the founders of a particular genre and how it developed. That means that the section on folk covers Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger but bypasses John Gorka and Sam Bush.

For non-insiders, American Roots Music offers the perfect introduction. One shouldn’t worry too much over the use of “roots” as opposed to folk or traditional. Director Jim Brown, like a number of modern commentators, simply felt it was more inclusive than older terms (folk, for instance, has seldom been used to describe zydeco or Native-American music).

While each emigrant brought his or her own songs to Plymouth and Jamestown, it wasn’t until the music began to intermingle that it became a uniquely American music. During the twentieth century scholars and musicians began to recognize the distinct heritage of American music while the phonograph, radio, and TV made regional music available to everyone.

Early on, roots fans and the curious will find much to like about American Roots Music. In the first segment, “When First Unto This Country,” Kris Kristofferson narrates the rise of County music in the 1920’s and 1930’s. There’s the wonderful story of how talent scout Ralph Peer accidentally tapped into a brand new rural market by recording Fiddlin’ John Carson, and how he discovered both Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family during sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. These stories may be familiar to the faithful, but the cream of the coverage includes rare footage of these founding fathers and mothers of yesteryear. There’s a wonderful clip of Rodgers singing “Waiting for a Train,” and when part one turns to the blues, a potent clip of Son House shouting as he flails his guitar. Another nice touch is the comments of latter day musicians like Merle Haggard and Ricky Skaggs on the early founders.

Segment three, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’,” dips into the electric blues and folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s a fun clip of the Kingston Trio, decked out in their pinstriped shirts and singing their mega-hit, “Tom Dooley.” (A folk purist, watching this clip, might even be tempted to point out that banjo player Dave Guard seems to hit the wrong note on the intro.) And who could resist a youthful Peter, Paul, and Mary singing, “If I Had a Hammer, ” or Bob Dylan singing the anthem that gave name to this particular segment? It is particularly engaging to hear Peter Yarrow and Pete Seeger sort out Dylan’s “betrayal” of the folk community when he plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65. Between Yarrow calling Dylan “Bobby” and Seeger saying how much he liked “Maggie’s Farm” (the amplifiers were just turned up too loud), one would never guess what a spat this incident caused. Traditional performers like Doc Watson and Mike Seeger also recall the heady revival days and even take time to play a song or two.

There’s much more. The rise of modern gospel. Nice clips of Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers. Sections on Cajun popularizer Dewey Balfa and contemporary Native-American performer Robert Mirabal. Interviews with Keith Richards, Gillian Welch, and Bonnie Raitt. And a nice folksy narrative by Kristofferson.

Perhaps the outstanding achievement of American Roots Music is the number of rare clips that have surfaced. Imagine seeing a film of Leadbelly, including color footage, singing, “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” or Woody Guthrie singing “John Henry.” There’s old footage of Lefty Frizzell, Howlin’ Wolf, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, and dozens of others. Bob Dylan was kind enough to lend his extensive private video collection—put together by Jeff Rosen—to the project. It probably didn’t hurt that the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian, and the Rock Hall of Fame backed the program. If for no other reason, these fabulous clips make American Roots Music worth seeing.

Of course none of this would’ve tied together so seamlessly without the guiding hand of director Jim Brown. While Burns approached jazz as a novice, Brown has emerged himself in film projects surrounding roots music for twenty-five years. He won an Emmy for The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time!, directed programs on Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and worked with Alan Lomax on the American Patchwork series. This familiarity guarantees that the knowledgeable roots fan will not be jumping up from his or her Lazy Boy every few minutes to correct a mistake in the narrative. Brown also seems to be on good terms with most of the folk community because a number of high profile musicians—Pete Seeger, Ricky Skaggs—gave freely of their time. Brown’s familiarity assures that American Roots Music is warmer and more all embracing than your average music documentary.

One could mention that American Roots Music is educational and then talk about how the program will help Americans better understand their ethnic heritage. But “educational” always sounds a bit drab and this program isn’t drab. It’s shot-through with the wonderful music that has built the foundation for all American music, from rock to pop to country. For roots fans it offers a chance to see old footage of heroes and listen to contemporary musicians discuss—on national TV—folk, bluegrass, and the blues. For those unfamiliar with roots music, the program will be a fascinating history lesson. Either way, American Roots Music offers an opportunity for all Americans to learn about and celebrate the multiple roots and branches of their distinct and rich musical heritage.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

American Roots Music will begin broadcasting nationally on October 29th. Check for local listings.


There were no ceremonies to mark the day when Mary Todd Lincoln left the White House. She had remained secluded in her room for a month following her husband’s assassination, too distressed to attend his funeral. Now she and her son Tad boarded a train to Chicago, Illinois, leaving the White House for the last time. They would not stay in Chicago for long. Mary was restless, and many believed her grip on reality was slipping. She moved from hotel to hotel, resided with her sister, and even stayed in a mental institution for a short time. Mary Todd Lincoln would live a shattered and isolated life until her death in 1882, 17 years after her husband’s death.

Click here to read the full review by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.


28UP begins with a set of questions that seems to hark back to the sociological and psychological ideas of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Is an individual’s personality fully formed at age seven? Will his or her class status bear heavily on life decisions? Will the education one receives be central to one’s career choices? Director Michael Apted goes one better by re-visiting the same group of individuals at seven-year intervals to ask each of these questions once again.

Click here to read the full review by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.