By Gregory Crofton
In 1982, well-known New York Times film critic Janet Maslin panned “The Killing of America.” She called it a “greatest hits approach … of real-life death scenes” and “obscene.”
She was right about this documentary, but she was also very wrong about it. A talented team was behind its production, including Leonard Schrader, brother to Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for “Taxi Driver” (1976), and director Sheldon Renan, an underground film historian who founded the Pacific Film Archive.
“The Killing of America” can be accurately criticized for its tonal bluntness, but the filmmakers deserve credit for its originality (it predates the wave of true crime on TV today), and because the power of this movie has plainly increased over time.
It was jolting to find it available to stream on Prime. It is unrated, but could be rated X for graphic violence. It has a tabloid quality, and wonderfully melodramatic narration, but paramount is how it pieces together key moments of modern U.S. history. As a whole they reveal a pathology of murder that has evolved in our country.
And now 40 years on, we have the privilege of knowing how actually things went. The murder rate today in the U.S. is high, but it has decreased in the last four decades. There were 14,128 murders in 2018, down from a peak year of 24,470 in the 1980s.
Mass murder is routine in our country, as many of us have lived through the advent and rise of school shootings since the 1990s. These horrendous crimes have evolved and increased, with shootings now in public places like churches and outdoor concerts.
The scariest reality is that in 2020 the thesis of “The Killing of America” has proven out. And there are no signs of change in sight.
Watch a trailer for the film below.