At a time when many of us are searching for something good to watch at home, I’d like to recommend a handful of films from off the beaten path. The only thing they have in common is that I like them, because they introduce me to worlds (and people) I wouldn’t otherwise know about.

Attack of the Murder Hornets sounds like the title of a cheesy 1950s science-fiction film. It is, instead, a droll documentary about a very real threat to the Pacific Northwest that could have spelled disaster for the already depleted bee population of North America. Michael Paul Stephenson, whose resume includes Girlfriend’s Day and Best Worst Movie keeps a straight face, so to speak, as he documents the discovery of these winged invaders by a working-class beekeeper and his family, who count on the revenue they derive from home-made honey to supplement their monthly budget. They join a motley band of government scientists, researchers, and do-gooders to form a posse that is determined to locate and eradicate these murderous insects from Japan. All the participants are earnest, some a bit quirky, but Stephenson allows us to judge them for ourselves as this amusing, low-key suspense yarn unfolds. It’s now playing on Discovery+.

Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey is a 1984 adaptation of the landmark first-person book that later inspired Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. What’s more, it was directed by Gordon Parks, the renaissance man who is perhaps best remembered for directing the original Shaft in 1971. Avery Brooks stars in this television movie as a free man who is sold into slavery, with John Saxon as the venomous land owner who purchases him (a role later played by Michael Fassbender).

Following a stellar career as a photojournalist for Life magazine, Parks made his mark as a feature director with The Learning Tree, then Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score. Frustrations with Leadbelly in 1976 made him wary of working on another Hollywood movie, but the independently produced Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey intrigued him, along with the challenge of filming on location in the Deep South. The multitalented Parks also composed the film’s score. He later expressed regret that the film didn’t go far enough, yet it’s precisely that restraint that earned Odyssey some of its strongest reviews in 1984. The screenplay was written by Lou Potter and noted actor-playwright Samm-Art Williams.

This was the second in a proposed series of films about slavery following A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion, in 1982, which starred the late Yaphet Kotto, Bernie Casey, Ned Beatty, and Brock Peters under Stan Lathan’s direction. These provocative films were produced Shep Morgan and partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. They were created with input from an advisory board of scholar to ensure their accuracy. Indeed, Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey earned the Eric Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Both Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey and a self-portrait of Gordon Parks have gotten a new lease on life: Odyssey is streaming on the Criterion Channel, along with an hour-long self-portrait by Parks, Moments without Proper Names. The documentary is also available on Amazon Prime.

Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman is a no-frills documentary by Herb Stratford that gave me a new appreciation for the furniture maker and architect I already admired. His mantra: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Although influenced by such pioneers as William Morris and John Ruskin, he developed his own style and with it a unique work ethic. He was an entrepreneur, publisher, and an exponent of what we now know as the farm-to-table movement. By following his progress in newspapers, catalogs, and his own publication The Craftsman, and speaking to authorities on Stickley including a few living family members, this straightforward film serves as a useful primer. It has been released to theaters and will soon be available for home viewing through First Run Features. Check the official website HERE.

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June 2024