Review: ‘The Issue of Mr. O’Dell’

DOXA 2018

3 mins read

The Issue of Mr. O’Dell
(Canada, 35 min.)
Dir. Rami Katz

History repeats itself in the Canadian documentary The Issue of Mr. O’Dell. This respectful portrait of Civil Rights activist Jack O’Dell discusses institutionalized racism past and present. O’Dell dissects the USA’s tumultuous and ongoing history of racism in soft-spoken interviews. Director Rami Katz lets O’Dell recount his own story in his own words, and the wisdom of the 94-year-old activist speaks to the present as his experiences fighting alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. resonate strongly with the Black Lives Matter movement. The personal and humanizing portrait illustrates how change begins at the personal level and takes a very long time to reach the collective consciousness.

The doc looks to the past in its first act as O’Dell roots the story of America within its legacy of racism and slavery. Sober black and white images depict O’Dell as shares with Katz his history in the Civil Rights Movement. Still photographs highlight the violence Black Americans faced leading up to the Civil Rights movement and during it, while haunting hymns sing for the dead while finding hope for the future.

O’Dell recounts the struggles that create fissures within the organizations fighting for change. His affiliation with the Communist Party leads to harassment from the FBI and to being ostracized from Dr. King’s circle. O’Dell doesn’t shy away from his past and sets the record straight in between snippets of archival footage in which Dr. King speaks about the investigation into O’Dell’s alleged Communist leadings. Being ousted despite of a lack of criminal charges leads O’Dell to develop a deeper political consciousness about the different forces oppressing those who fight for change. He’s seen everything in his many years and doesn’t hold anything back in this wide-ranging, soft-spoken interview.

O’Dell, now a Vancouver resident, finds a little colour in the second half of the film as Katz dispenses with the inky black and white aesthetic to speak to the present. The subject continues his interview by taking stock of the latest wave of racialized violence in America. The frustration at the lack of change is palpable as his calm, measured voice can’t ignore inexcusable longevity of the struggles faced by Black Americans throughout history. His words of wisdom inspire audiences to learn from the past and to stand strong together to inspire tangible change.

Watch a clip from the film here.

DOXA runs May 3 to 13. Visit DOXA Festival for more information.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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