“Homegoings,” Christine Turner’s exquisitely tender documentary about a Harlem funeral director, is one of those rare opportunities to go toward the thing we fear most — death — and realize how much joy and comfort there is in it, when handled with grace and care.
The film, which airs Monday night as part of PBS’s superior “POV” series, follows Isaiah Owens, who moved to New York in the 1960s and became a mortician. He opened a funeral home that became an essential part of the community, outlasting many of his competitors. Owens also runs a funeral parlor in his South Carolina home town, where, two days a week, his 95-year-old mother answers phones and proudly refers to the deluxe, custom-made casket in the showroom as “my bed.” (For when the time comes.)
Unlike TLC’s “Best Funeral Ever,” which focuses on the most ostentatious displays of African American funeral traditions, “Homegoings” is a thoughtful and enlightening exploration of the cultural history and meaning of these traditions. “Everybody knows it’s going to be a sad, good time,” Owens says of a typical homegoing.
Parallel to the evolution of the modern funeral industry in the 19th century, black undertakers were not only entrepreneurial but also deeply invested in their mission to provide the deceased with the respect they often were not shown in life. Before and after slavery’s end, death was frequently seen as life’s only real reward. The undertaker ushered his neighbors to a greater glory, where, at long last, they would be eternally free of discrimination and suffering.
Owens recounts a boyhood spent transfixed by the rituals of death, holding elaborate funerals for matchsticks and dead bugs in his backyard. Picking up on Owens’s matter-of-fact reverence for his work, Turner and her crew achieve a tasteful yet inquisitive level of access few filmmakers get, watching as Owens lovingly and meticulously washes, embalms and prepares his clients for rest. Remarkably, this is neither macabre nor disturbing, although I suppose some viewers won’t be able to take it; such is our refusal to face mortality.
What’s more revealing is watching how Owens treats the living. A customer comes to him ready to lock in the price (nearly $10,000) for a “pre-need” funeral package for herself. After she tells him that she is known far and wide for her vibrant red hair, he asks her the color and brand, and whether she gets a rinse or a dye. He knows to ask now, because he won’t be able to ask her after she’s dead, and he wants every detail to be exactly right. The whole exchange is giddy and upbeat — and instructive to those of us who put off end-of-life issues.
So fascinating is “Homegoings,” so assured and unobtrusive, that I was disappointed to discover it’s only an hour long. This is one of those documentaries that easily could go on for another 45 minutes, especially if it had further explored the funeral industry’s diciest subject: affordability.
Most journalism about the funeral industry treats cost as a consumer rather than an emotional matter, dating back 50 years to Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of the usual tricks of the trade, which led to some regulatory reforms. Owens makes a passing, doleful mention of how the recession has led to more of his clients’ bodies being delivered to direct cremation. He’s not just sad about the missed opportunity to sell another shiny casket and restore someone’s mother to her faded beauty, he says. He also wants people to get there in the true style they desired.
In addition to entertaining countless millions since its 1977 debut, the Broadway show “Annie” has served as an easy gateway drug for little girls with loud voices and a showbiz jones. For a 2012 revival, some 5,000 girls auditioned for the lead role or one of Annie’s friends at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. It seems as if it’s always about 5,000 girls trying out for “Annie.” Only eight get a part; the other 4,992 get a head start on the useful skill of reducing one’s expectations.
“Annie: It’s the Hard-Knock Life, From Script to Stage,” an engaging, hour-long documentary airing Friday night on PBS stations, is less concerned with the audition frenzy and instead focuses on these precocious young ladies as they rehearse their signature number, “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”
Viewers of all ages will enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at the many pieces that must come together, from the vocals and the choreography to the costumes and the set. “Tomorrow” always takes care of itself, but a measure of the show’s success hangs on its version of “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.” The song is a catchy, jouncy dance number that must somehow impart a twinge of misery and longing.
Instinctively, “Annie’s” young performers want to belt it out as if they’re on a Disney cruise, but in this staging, the director aims for something a shade darker and angrier. (One of the grown-ups points out that “Hard-Knock Life” never sounded quite right until 1998, when Jay-Z sampled it and turned it into a modern, urban grievance.)
While the girls struggle to balance tone and exuberance, the real burden falls to the manic choreographer, who correctly senses that audiences will expect the number to be performed with buckets and mops. “Buckets or no buckets?” he asks himself (and others) over and over. Opening night approaches and the dilemma remains torturously unresolved. It’s worth watching to see how a creative solution presents itself.
(one hour) airs Monday at 10 p.m. on WETA. You can also watch the film online from June 25 to July 24 at www.pbs.org/pov.
(one hour) airs Friday at 9 p.m. on WETA.