Two documentaries arrive Tuesday, with nothing in common … except for first-rate craftsmanship.
One is a joyous profile of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison (shown here); the other is an angry look at convicted drug entrepreneur John Kapoor. Together, they show how good PBS’ non-fiction can be.
The network had already planned to make this the summer of women’s history, leading to the 100th anniversary (Aug. 26) of the women’s vote; it had also planned gay-rights specials linked to Pride Month. Then it quickly added black-history and coronavirus reports.
The Morrison profile straddles both the black and women’s themes; the Kapoor one is prime “Frontline” – deep, dark and angry. A look at both:
“AMERICAN MASTERS: TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM,” (8-10 p.m.): If we only knew Morrison from her novels, we would expect endless agony.
“You don’t want to be a character in a Toni Morrison novel,” author Walter Mosley says here, “because she’s very scorched-earth.”
Oprah Winfrey, often fond of grim stories, has included four Morrison novels in her book club. “Her words … are a friend to our mind,” she says here.
“Beloved,” won a Nobel Prize and was No. 60 in the “Great American Read” poll; in a “Read” book (Hachette, 2018), Jessica Allen calls it “a harrowing, horrifying account of America’s past.”
These stories come from a surprisingly upbeat soul. Morrison (who died last August, at 88) comes across as a buoyant people person. She seems like everyone’s favorite editor – which she was.
After growing up in Lorain (an Ohio steel town on Lake Erie), she went to Howard University and Cornell and taught at Texas Southern and Howard. Then she edited at Random House.
Morrison worked with the famous – Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Huey Newton – and people who were then unknown to many Americans – Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambera, Athol Fugard and more.
She had a vibrant life: “She knows how to give a party … and she is loved,” one person says in the film. Adds another: “I don’t know where the woman’s energy comes from.”
At first, her colleagues didn’t realizde the scope of it. While raising her two sons (from a six-year marriage to architect Harold Morrison) and working, she was writing her first novel … often at 5 a.m.
That first novel (“The Bluest Eye” in 1970) drew praise; the fifth was “Beloved” in ‘87. Six more followed, along with children’s books (written with her son Slade), non-fiction, two plays and the libretto for an opera, which was based on the horrifying, real-life story that inspired “Beloved” … a grim tale from a cheerful person.
“FRONTLINE: OPIODS, INC.” (10 p.m.): After growing up in India, Kapoor got a medicinal-chemistry doctorate in the U.S. He soon thrived, buying drug patents, altering them slightly, then pushing them aggressively.
Very aggressively. It was “by any means necessary,” April Moore, a former drug rep, says here.
Adds her former boss, sales chief Alec Burlakoff: “The only way I knew to do it was to bribe doctors.”
It was a legal form of bribery, he says. Doctors were paid a fee to give speeches, then would write massive prescriptions for Subsys, Kapoor’s painkiller.
A Chicago doctor, Paul Madison, was paid between $1,200 and $1,500 per talk, the film says … whether or not there were any people in the audience. He received a total of $86,000 … and wrote Subsys prescriptions totaling $1.2 million.
We know this because Kapoor was big on cause-and-effect record-keeping. For each doctor, he kept track of the payments and the prescriptions.
Kapoor (now appealing his case) was convicted. So were staffers … including a former gentleman’s-club dancer. Former Subsys people say friendly relationships with the doctors were important.