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Man of interest

HBO’s Who Killed Garrett Phillips? shows how racism and incompetence can undermine justice

“We got a 12-year-old that’s lost his life. … We gotta lock somebody up.” Those words, spoken by a New York State Police officer, sum up the attitude of law enforcement in HBO’s new documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips? Sadly, the people involved with prosecuting the case don’t seem overly concerned with ensuring they’ve gotten the right “somebody.”

Garrett Phillips was strangled in his apartment in Potsdam, N.Y., not long after he returned home from school on Oct. 24, 2011. From the start, the police focused their investigation on Oral “Nick” Hillary, the ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus. The case might not have attracted national attention if Hillary hadn’t been one of the few black men living in this upstate New York community.

The documentary exposes some racism in the handling of Hillary’s case, but more than anything it depicts the incompetence of a small town’s police department and district attorney’s office. In their quest to “lock somebody up,” they stop asking who killed Garrett Phillips and simply assume Hillary did.

But the more we watch, the less we seem to know, and by the end it seems impossible to know who killed Garrett. The documentary shows how slim the evidence was against Hillary and the lengths officials went to in their attempt to convict him anyway. It shows the difficulty of finding justice: Nick Hillary was railroaded—does that mean this kind of thing is happening all over the country? Could there be others like Hillary whose cases don’t receive national attention because they lack a racial element?

Rated TV-MA, Who Killed Garrett Phillips? isn’t easy to watch. We see accusers talk about Hillary with the foulest of language. We see police strip-search Hillary in an apparent attempt to humiliate him. We see the emotional toll the Potsdam tragedy exacts from everyone involved. But Christians should consider how to work toward improving justice in our communities, and should remember to trust ultimately in God, whose justice will resolve all our unanswered questions.

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American professor David Carroll sued to try to retrieve his personal data from Cambridge Analytica


Big data business

The Great Hack delves into the data-sharing scandal between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

It must be hard to make a documentary about a topic the rest of the media has already covered ad nauseam.

Last year, Congress questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others about whether the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had misused 87 million Facebook users’ data during the 2016 election. The Great Hack further explores the dealings of this now-defunct consulting firm, focusing on a former employee and an American who tried to sue the company for his own data.

But the film offers little new info: It follows its main characters around the world for various interviews and hearings—and then as they check their phones. Between these scenes, for pizzaz, video graphics illustrate what it means to “scrape” Facebook data.

The documentarians try to compile a fuller picture of what Cambridge Analytica did: identify undecided voters (not a new phenomenon in politics) and influence them, sometimes by questionable methods.

That picture involves some odd characters. Former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, for example, is way more excited to see her name in print than she probably should be. She worked first for Amnesty International and then for the Obama campaign’s social media team before switching to Cambridge Analytica, which she now speaks out against.

If you finish the documentary still fuzzy on whether this British company broke any laws while performing work for the Trump and Brexit campaigns, know that more than one government is still figuring that out right now too. Facebook was recently fined for its role in the scandal, and Cambridge Analytica pleaded guilty to not providing user data in a lawsuit by a particular date—but overall, the laws are still catching up to the technology.

But breaking the law is not the same thing as breaching an ethical boundary, which is what Cambridge Analytica probably did. Still, another former executive at the company, Julian Wheatland, summed up how this kind of data mining is the new normal for politics and advertising: “This is not about one company. This technology is going on unabated and will continue to go on.”

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Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Bethany Hamilton and her son
Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures


No wave too high

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable offers a closer look at the famous surfer’s inspiring life story

Even as a 13-year-old, Bethany Hamilton was a determined person: She was back on a surfboard four weeks after losing her left arm to a shark. Hamilton became famous through her book Soul Surfer and the 2011 movie of the same name. While she’s proud of that film, the competitive surfer wanted to tell more of her story—warts and all. The result is the new documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.

Tom and Cheri Hamilton raised their family on the island of Kauai, with surfing a major part of their lives. Young Bethany and her friend Alana Blanchard attacked the waves with gusto and began to win local competitions. The Hamiltons filmed much of Bethany’s childhood, on the water and at home, and this archival footage rounds out her story. In one prescient scene, Bethany’s mom asks her, “Aren’t you scared of sharks?”

“No!” the little girl responds. “You just pray about it.”

After Beth loses her arm to a massive tiger shark, a video shows the huge bite taken out of her surfboard. Her survival despite major blood loss is miraculous, and her recovery is quick. In one scene, as a partially disabled surfer visits Beth in the hospital, viewers can sense her young mind churning with the possibilities of getting back out on the water.

Despite the odds against a one-armed athlete, Hamilton becomes a professional surfer, winning competitions through gritty willpower and lots of practice. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she worries how she’ll be a good mom with one arm. Later scenes show her easily caring for her little boy, nursing between heats in a competition, and changing a diaper with the aid of both feet.

Unstoppable doesn’t make a big deal of the Hamiltons’ Christian faith, although we see prayer before a competition and other glimpses of their Christian walk. Viewers will leave amazed at how God can use even a tragic accident for good.

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