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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Oprah Winfrey

Sundance 2011: Oprah's network buys L.A. crime documentary

January 31, 2011 |  4:40 pm

  Peagler_1

Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, OWN, has acquired “Crime After Crime,” a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and takes aim at Los Angeles County Dist. Atty.  Steve Cooley for his handling of a controversial murder case.

Director Yoav Potash said in an interview Monday that the deal includes an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in Los Angeles and New York before its airing on television. The deal for the film was valued in the low six figures, according to a person involved in the negotiations.

“Throughout most of my time making this film, which was 5 1/2 years, people kept saying Oprah has to see this,” Potash said by phone. “It involves an important social issue that affects women but doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and it’s a film about an African American protagonist who holds her head up high despite being brutalized and being denied justice.” 

The film chronicles the story of Deborah Peagler, who pleaded guilty in 1983 to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. She said she agreed to the plea  to avoid a death sentence for her involvement in the killing of her estranged boyfriend. (Read more about the case, and last week's screening, here.)

At the time, the fact that she was severely battered by her boyfriend was not considered, but California became the first state in the country to pass a law in 2002 that allows cases to be reopened if the defendant can show that domestic violence was a factor that led to the killing.

Cooley became a key foil to the efforts of Peagler and her pro bono attorneys to gain her release under the law, and the documentary follows their topsy-turvy battle to its unsettling completion.

At screenings of the movie in Park City, Utah, many viewers hissed when Cooley appeared on screen, but his spokeswoman released a statement saying that the office was steadfast in its belief that Peagler was treated appropriately.

"Deborah Peagler intentionally orchestrated the murder-for-hire of her estranged boyfriend. She lured him to the spot where he was killed. She witnessed the murder and drove the killers away," Sandi Gibbons said. "She profited by receiving money from the victim's insurance."

--Garrett Therolf

Photo: Deborah Peagler, pictured behind the security glass at Central California Women's Facility prison. Credit: Yoav Potash


Sundance: Harry Belafonte documentary kicks off festival

January 20, 2011 | 10:33 pm

GetprevWhen most people think of Harry Belafonte, one thing typically comes to mind: "Day-O," the catchy calpyso tune the singer popularized in the 1950s.

But there's far more to Belafonte than just the "Banana Boat Song." At the opening night of the the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, a film that traces the life of the now-83-year-old performer and social activist kicked off the documentary competition.

The film's producer, Michael Cohl, the former chairman of Live Nation who is also the lead producer of Broadway's ill-fated "Spider-Man" musical, was on hand to present the documentary.

"This feels much safer," he joked. "There are no wires here. Nobody's gonna get hurt."

"Sing Your Song" is told entirely from Belafonte's point of view, with the singer eloquently narrating his life story. The documentary follows Belafonte from the outset of his career, when he was a handsome and charming singer who was one of the few successful African American performers. It goes on to detail his work in the civil rights movement -- when he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. -- then moves on to the present day, showing his efforts to help imprisoned youth.

Part of the impetus for the project, Belafonte said after the screening, came from the death of actor and close friend Marlon Brando. People knew so little about Brando's true intentions that Belafonte said he wanted the opportunity to tell his own story "fully." But he was terrified by the prospect that the documentary would become "self-aggrandizing."

Oprah Winfrey's team is at the festival, scouting for programming to air on her new cable network, OWN. And "Sing Your Song" seems like exactly the type of thing she would be interested in: a motivational look at an important figure in history who inspired change.

Winfrey had been scheduled to attend a party and cast dinner for the film along with Tyler Perry over the weekend. (The two have paired up at Sundance before, on 2009's "Precious.") But now, neither is expected to attend the gatherings, said a publicist who is organizing the events and did not offer any further explanation.

With or without Winfrey's approval, it was clear that the audience in the Eccles Theatre on Thursday evening held a deep respect for Belafonte: When he emerged on stage after the movie ended, walking slowly with cane in hand, moviegoers rose to their feet to clap enthusiastically.

That pleasant response was abruptly cut short, however, when Belafonte began to take questions from the crowd. One African American man promptly began ranting somewhat unintelligibly. He said that Belafonte was an inspiration but that "white people" controlled Sundance and that the festival had rejected a film of his.

"Do you have a question?" Belafonte quipped. "I think you should rest easy, bro, because my first 100 submissions to Sundance were turned down too."

-- Amy Kaufman

Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: Harry Belafonte attends the premiere of "Sing Your Song" in Park City, Utah. Credit: Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

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