Movies

Washington Couple Behind 'American Casino,' a Documentary of U.S. Financial Woes

In this film publicity image released by the Tribeca Film Festival, a still from the sub-prime mortgage documentary "American Casino", is shown.
In this film publicity image released by the Tribeca Film Festival, a still from the sub-prime mortgage documentary "American Casino", is shown. (AP Photo/Tribeca Film Festival)
Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Washington-based journalist Leslie Cockburn has made television documentaries before, for "Frontline" and "60 Minutes." She even co-produced "The Peacemaker," starring George Clooney. But she and her husband and co-producer, Andrew, are finally making their feature documentary debut with "American Casino," which had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. (The team co-wrote the movie, which Leslie directed.)

"American Casino" takes viewers on a journey through the complicated maze of subprime loans, bond ratings and esoteric derivatives markets that created the financial crisis, which the Cockburns began following in January 2008. They set out, Leslie explained, to include "people all the way up the chain of this crisis, starting with people who were losing their homes, to brokers, to bankers, to the people at the ratings agencies and finally to the guys at the top who made $500 million."

Most of those guys declined to be interviewed, although "American Casino" includes a candid (and anonymous) sit-down with a former Bear Stearns executive. But the film's newest and most damning material is found in Baltimore, where the Cockburns found devastated swaths of abandoned homes, examples of the stunning statistic that at the height of the boom, African Americans were nearly four times more likely to be sold subprime mortgages as white Americans. The City of Baltimore and the NAACP are pursuing lawsuits over the practice, called "reverse redlining."

Although the issue has been covered in the news, "American Casino" is the first documentary to put it front and center. "I thought it was such an important story that it would be all over the place by the time the film came out," Leslie said of the part that race played in the subprime disaster. With lawsuits in play, she added, "I think other people will catch on."

The Cockburns hope that "American Casino" will arrive in theaters later this year.

-- Ann Hornaday


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