Two American Families: a commentary.

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It’s hard to talk about this documentary without giving any personal commentary. But here it goes:

The video, called Two American Families and made by Bill Moyers and Frontline, has a cyclic feature. It traces the lives of the Neumann and the Stanley families in Milwaukee from 1991 to the present day. At first the documentary present the two families, one African-American and one white, to the viewer individually, then it follows their struggles through time, finally ending with a recap with footage from the beginning.

Most of the footage in the documentary is from the past, so it is slightly damaged and looks antiquated. The overall effect though is positive because it gives a feel of authenticity to the story.

The greatest quality of the piece is its ability to introduce characters. The footage that was used and the way it was edited together makes the viewer feel like he knows the people in the story and makes them relate to them at a very personal level (as I found out the hard way, crying my eyes out during the entire feature).

Sometimes the characters are shot in an environment that can awaken certain passions in the viewers, such as with the American flag or watching the Presidential speeches. It is also done effectively to give a feeling of depression and surrender. For example, the mother of the Neumann family is pictured alone in a room in semidarkness, having heard that she will have to leave the house that she struggled to keep for over a decade.

The Two American Families documentary uses several stratagems to make some points. Often the interviews or comments made by the various characters are overlapping footage that actually exemplifies what is being said. In the final part of the film these stratagems are used to explicate certain points of view relating to the social and political causes of the families hardships.

The video should also be lauded for its commitment, since it shows the story of these struggling middle class families for nearly 20 years. This kind of venture presents very unique possibilities and issues. The editors can choose footage that is poignant and relevant to what happens in the future to the two families. This is artfully done in the end, when clips from the past are compared with interviews done in the future. For example a young boy says he wants to be a millionaire someday and then he is shown struggling to keep a job as an adult.

The only thing I would critique is that there is a consistent gap from 2003 to the present day, but apart from that the documentary is provocative, compelling and masterfully put together.

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