It certainly took its time reaching national headlines---but as today's celebrity-fueled media should remind us, the most important stories are rarely front and center. The event in question, of course, is the chaos stemming from a racially-charged incident during late summer 2006 in Jena, Louisiana, where nooses were hanged at a school (from the tree seen above, which was later cut down), a fire was set, several students were threatened and at least one wound up in the hospital. Additionally, six black students (dubbed "The Jena 6"), who physically assaulted a white student in December 2006, were charged with conspiracy, second-degree battery and attempted murder...even though the victim was treated and released from the hospital hours later. Those who hung the nooses months before were not punished. Since then, District Attorney J. Reed Walters has been at the forefront of the legal proceedings, sparking outrage from protesters for insisting that justice is indeed being served.
Long story short: it's an ugly reminder that racial tensions are still at large in our world.
In any case, the story of The Jena 6 has received plenty of public attention, even though most mainstream news outlets didn't cover it until mid-2007. Protests, rallies, and petitions have taken place locally and abroad, in what many would call some of the largest civil rights movements since the 1960s. Even so, the story is far from over: controversy has followed in the wake of related events during the last two years, from public appearances of the defendants to lawsuits and the mishandling of legal defense funds. It's a tragic, complicated tale that will undoubtedly become fodder for several made-for-TV events in the coming years; for now, we've got a documentary that attempts to explain it in the same amount of time it takes Domino's to deliver.
The Jena 6, a short documentary by Big Noise Films, attempts to sort through the rubble but doesn't accomplish a great deal. With a running time of just 28 minutes, this on-location piece includes interviews with several defendants, their friends and family members, offering a brief recap of the events and where the story is headed. Unfortunately, much of the situation isn't presented in great detail, resulting in a somewhat confusing flow for those who aren't overly familiar with the incident. Heavy-handed shots of local churches and a Wal-Mart truck (?) do little to further the narrative, while interviews with several closed-minded locals establish quick hero-villain roles early on. District Attorney Walters is clearly presented as a culprit here---and it's obvious that his actions are race related, but The Jena 6 does little more than provoke its audience with easy targets. The unfocused end result has its moments (footage of several large protests as they unfold, for example), but most documentary enthusiasts will find the structure sorely lacking.
The DVD presentation by Big Noise Films does little to help its case, unfortunately. The technical presentation is up to par in most respects, but the lack of bonus features makes the $15 price tag feel all the more expensive. In all honesty, this brief curiosity would be better suited as a download or bonus feature than a stand-alone DVD release. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16:9 displays, the bulk of The Jena 6 looks just fine. Not surprisingly, image detail is typically solid during most daytime sequences, but darker scenes are notably less impressive. The natural color palette doesn't exactly leap off the screen, but overall transfer quality is on par with most lower-budget documentaries.
The audio is presented in a Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix that can't help but feel a bit thin at times. Some of the dialogue is quite tricky---unless you're especially good at deciphering Louisiana accents, of course---but it doesn't typically fight for attention with the background noise. Optional English subtitles or Closed Captions may have eased the dialogue problem, but they haven't been included.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the plain-wrap menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 28-minute main feature has been divided into roughly half a dozen chapters (with no selection screen, oddly enough), while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes no inserts of any kind.
No extras have been included here, aside from a few studio-related Trailers...which proves to be mildly disappointing, given the nature of the events at hand. It's not surprising, but the lack of effort still takes this release down another notch.
The heart of the story is undoubtedly provocative, but The Jena 6 is far too brief and short-sighted for its own good. The small timeframe in which this documentary was recorded severely limits its scope---and to make matters worse, the small amount of information here isn't exactly presented in a logical manner. Big Noise's DVD presentation is equally unimpressive: the technical presentation isn't bad in most respects, but the lack of bonus features (and subtitles) lessens the impact. Some interested parties may want to hunt this down as a rental, but most will be better off doing their own research and saving $15 in the process. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.