Archive for the Film Criticism Category

On Mandela, the Movie Version

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on December 27, 2013 by playthell

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

 Recreating a Major Historical Figure Is Not Easy to Do

Mandela, a biopic on the life of the great South African leader that lately danced and joined the ancestors, a man whose struggle for justice and wise political leadership inspired people around the world, opened in theaters on Christmas Day all across America.  I saw the film yesterday and was impressed with how the filmmaker conceived his task and carried it out.  But I know there will be naysayers, and I will be surprised if some do not condemn the film. I fear it is in the nature of things. Attempting to put the life of a recently departed and much beloved personality on screen as a feature film is a risky business that sometimes rises to the heroic, depending upon the aims and abilities of the filmmaker.

When the subject of the biopic is a political figure with passionate supporters and detractors, whatever the filmmaker does will provoke criticism, some of which can be quite harsh.  Spike Lee was called “a traitor to his race” and a “counter-revolutionary running dog for the capitalists” in response to his movie on the life of Malcolm X, despite the fact that Spike was obviously an admirer of the man.  And for the record I thought it a splendid movie that should have won several Academy Awards.

Despite the risk of being maligned by passionate partisans, enraged because something they thought was critical to the story was neglected by the film maker, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson forged ahead and produced this important film.   In an eventful life that encompasses nearly a century and interacted with so many important personalities, ideas, and political events the first problem for the film makers was how to tell the story, where should the emphasis lie.

Since this is an authorized bio-pic – meaning it is the story Nelson Mandela’s family and the African National Congress has approved – and is based on Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” the basic outline of the story was a given.  The task of the filmmaker was to provide us with a series of vignettes from an epic life that will allow us to peer into the soul and psyche of the man and tell us who he was and what motivated his extraordinary sacrifices in the struggle to elevate his people and free them from the Nazi like rule of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, a regime that the world tolerated for nearly half a century after the destruction of Nazism.

The film makers rightly decided that this story should be told from the perspective of Mandela the man rather than Mandela the political icon.  Hence we see what the struggle cost him on the personal level, with the destruction of his family and denial of any role in the upbringing of his children, because his children were not allowed to see him until they were sixteen and the South African government intercepted and destroyed his letters to them. They also refused to allow him to attend the funeral of his first born son who was killed in a car crash, or that of his beloved mother.

The news he received about the ordeals Winnie was going through during his internment on Robben Island intensified his agony.  No one watching this film whose morality is not deformed by racism could fail to be moved by the myriad pains inflicted on the Mandelas by the South African government; this is why a world-wide movement rose up against it.  However their story is not all gloom and doom, there are moments of beauty and romance too; Idris Elba and Naomi Harris as Winnie and Nelson Mandela do a splendid job of portraying both.

 Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela
Idris Elba and Naomie Harris Nelson and Winnie as Young Lovers

In fact, one could view the movie as a tragic love story, for Winnie and Nelson met as he was a rising young leader in the ANC, and like many South African women she found him irresistible.  Screenwriter Bill Nicholson tells us: “Drafting the screenplay for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, I discovered it was his human side that made him a hero to so many – and that his marriage to Winnie was at the heart of the story.”   Yet the movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that Nelson was quite the lady’s man in his youth.  And how could it have been otherwise?  There is an abundant historical record that demonstrates the sexual attractiveness of men who are brilliant public speakers and identified with a great cause; they are aphrodisiac for many women.  It is a universal phenomenon that crosses the boundaries of race, class and nationality.

This fact was pointed out to Henry Ward Beecher – the famous anti-slavery American preacher and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe – by the brilliant 19th century feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull, when she threatened to expose his many affairs with the wives of powerful men in his congregation at Plymouth Church.  Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, et al were all chick magnets.  And like David, Samson and Solomon, three of the greatest men in the Bible, they all crumbled in the face of temptation.  Hence Mandela was a true man of his calling.

But the great importance of this movie to my mind is the portrait it paints of the resolve of the militants in the African National Congress, brave patriots who would not give an inch on their bedrock principles, beginning with their decision not to offer a defense against the charge of “sabotage” of government facilities with the aim of overthrowing the South African government.  And they refused to appeal a sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island, a place designed to crack the spirit and destroy one’s soul.

On Robbin Island

Mandela, and ANC comrades from movie

Convicted ANC Leaders Salute the Courtroom Crowd

From the moment we see the horrid conditions under which they would live, and hear the words of the jailer who tells them that he wishes they had been hanged and promises to make their lives so miserable they will wish they had been sentenced to hang, we began to realize what the ANC leadership endured for 27 years!  It also places our government’s complicity in this crime in bold relief.  It is a part of recent American history all US citizens should know about and this film is a good place to start.

Of the many virtues of this film its cinematography, script and superb acting stand out.  The movie utilizes the spectacular landscape of South Africa to maximum advantage in telling his story.  The contrast between the magnificence of the landscape and the decadence of the society is ever present and often magnified, especially when we see the difference between the barren and impoverished areas consigned to black Africans and the plush areas reserved for whites or “Europeans,” especially after the passage of the Group Areas Act which assigned 80% of south Africa’s land to whites, only reducing the African population to landless paupers who had to work the farms and mines owned by whites to survive.

The movie does not shrink from graphically portraying the violence against Africans committed by the apartheid government, such as the “Sharpsville Massacre,” and it also shows how the ANC became proficient in building bombs as a result of training in other African countries.   The dialogue is powerful and the cast of superb actors, led by Idris Alba as Nelson and Naomi Harris as Winnie, bring the characters to life in their full human dimensions.

Nelson and Winnie Meet

Idris-Elba-and-Naomie-Harris-as-Nelson-Mandela

Elba and Harris are Magical

Alba and Harris are actors of rare accomplishment.  The daughter of a Jamaican Mother and a Trinidadian father Ms. Harris was born and raised in London. Her mother was an actress and screenwriter hence Naomi literally grew up in the theater.  Her acting credits are many and varied and she brings the full weight of her training and gifts to bear in her portrayal of Winnie Mandela. Her portrayal of Winnie’s evolution from a sweet and gentle wife, mother and social worker into a hardened revolutionary who could order the assassination of people she believed to be snitches is a tour de force.

Idris Alba is an actor of amazing versatility.  I first saw him in American Gangster, and he was so convincing as a Harlem thug playing beside Denzel Washington that I nearly fell out of my chair when I later saw him interviewed on television and heard him speaking with a distinct British working class accent.  I would have bet my last quid that the boy was Afro-American.  Then I saw him again in the moving Tyler Perry flick “Daddy’s Little Girls” where he played a struggling single father in the hood whose wife had abandoned the family and run off with another man, and he had to deal with a haughty and beautiful female lawyer he chauffeured about that was a royal pain in the ass played by Gabrielle Union, and he was just as convincing in that role.  And now he is playing Mandela splendidly.

Another thorny matter the movie handles superbly is the estrangement of Winnie and Nelson Mandela after he returns from 27 years in prison.  Although she walked with him on his victory march upon release from prison, and they shared a house together for a while, she was involved with another man and was living with Nelson because that’s what the world expected since her claim to fame was as the long suffering wife of Nelson Mandela.  Mister Elba, is splendid in portraying Mandela’s calm dignity when all of his comrades were whispering about his wife’s open affair with another man.

I think that, when all the problems of making this film are considered, this is a splendid film that should be seen by anyone who is interested in the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice by oppressed peoples.  Judging by the reception the film got at its premiere in London, its place as an important film will be assured in the history of cinema.

Last Thursday,” writes Bill Nichols, “I was sitting in the Odeon Leicester Square, London, a row behind the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as the film I’d written Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom, was heading towards its end. There was some sort of quiet commotion going on, people leaving their seats, scuttling up the aisles. Prince William was handed a phone. Then Kate was crying. As the credits rolled the royal couple were led away. The audience was on its feet, giving a standing ovation. The film’s South African producer, Anant Singh, appeared on stage, with Idris Elba, our Mandela. The applause redoubled. The producer signed for silence and told us about the death of Mandela.”

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Playthell G. Benjamin

San Francisco, California

December 27, 2013

We Steal Secrets: A Real Scary Movie

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on June 3, 2013 by playthell
           we-steal-secrets-julian-assange          Julian Assange: Hero or Megalomaniac

 On State Secrets, National Security and Cyberwar

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, a powerful documentary film by the Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, takes us into the mysterious world of cyber-espionage,  We are provided an inside view of a group of people whose mission in life is to expose the most vital secrets of the world’s governments and largest corporations.  Written by …..and produced by….., it is a magnificent example of great investigative journalism using the documentary film as the vehicle to tell the tale.  It is a film rich with a compelling cast of characters that range from sane and well balanced to all manner of offbeat, jaded, even bizarre personalities.

The film revolves around a very troubled young man struggling with acute gender confusion who joins the military in order to escape his drab life in an Oklahoma hick town, where it is dangerous to be actively gay, and  play macho man in Iraq instead; a megalomaniacal computer nerd hooked on hubris; a 250 pound dike who played center on her high school varsity football team; an army of gifted computer hackers on a mission, a turncoat hacker who exposes the source of secret American military documents who is so heavily medicated with psychotropic drugs he seems in a perpetual trance like state, and a platoon of spooks, spies and statesmen – including an Icelandic poet turned parliamentarian who champions Wikileaks and invites them to Iceland.  It is a tale whose complex twist and turns, plots and counterplots, is worthy of a Shakespeare.  Yet these talented and committed filmmakers have told the tale in compelling fashion.

Brilliantly conceived, written and reported the film reminds me of an old CBS White Paper Report; which set the standard for in-depth investigative reporting in the audio visual medium.  However the technological advances in film making since those days, has added spectacular graphics and sound effects to the filmmakers tool box, and they make the most of it; especially when depicting the cyber networks that has made the internet powerful enough to bring down nation states when employed by organized dissidents. This film provides some interesting insights into the role played by the internet in the historic uprising collectively labeled the “Arab Spring, which changed the political map of the Mid-East seemingly overnight: the world’s first Facebook revolution.

This film is many things  It is a reflection on the history of American atrocities in Iraq; it is an expose of the cavalier approach to firing missiles from helicopters at suspected “terrorists” on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan killing innocent civilians, and the efforts of the American government to cover it up.  It also shows the racism of many white American soldiers toward the Arabs, which is to be expected when soldiers are involved in a protracted war against a shadowy enemy in a foreign country where the occupying troops know little or nothing of the local culture and cannot speak the language and resistance comes from all elements of the population.

I predicted that this would happen when the Bush Administration first announced their decision to invade Iraq and occupy Afghanistan; it is in the nature of things alas.  The film also shows how difficult it is to end a war once it is begun and the emptiness of promises made by Don Rumsfeld and Dirty Dick Cheney that the Iraq war would be over quickly and without cost to the American taxpayer.

And it reveals how hard it is for President Obama to extricate the US from policies and strategies initiated by the Bush Administration in Iraq. Thus we see evidence that the Obama Administration is continuing the policy of turning over captured Iraqi militants to the Iraqi government where they will face torture.  But what is he to do with them?

The critics of US policy given voice in this film offer no alternative.  In the view of the activists at Wikileaks, no government secrecy is legitimate and is mostly employed to hide state crimes, therefore it is their duty to make these secrets public by dumping classified government documents on the internet for all the world to see.  And while the film shows how these actions did uncover governmental and corporate malfeasance, it also raises questions about the harm that can result from the indiscriminate publication of government secrets, which can damage alliances, expose covert military operations and cost innocent lives.

The most interesting character in this film by far is Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, around whom the movie pivots. And to their credit the filmmakers do not shirk from asking the question if he is a hero or criminal terrorist.  A tall thin guy of alabaster complexion and snow white hair, he is one of the whitest men I have ever seen, and he wears a constant smirk that I have always noticed on the faces of smartass know-it- all white boys – as if they are enjoying a joke that only they are smart enough to understand.  And he behaves that way as he is more and more seduced by the vices of vanity and hubris.

The film presents a graphic portrait of the strange character of Julian Assange. It’s kind of an old story: the ugly duckling who grows into a swan; the wallflower who becomes the belle of the ball, and  the noble crusader who begins with altruistic motives but is corrupted by the trappings of power and celebrity. Indeed, watching the evolution of Julian Assange we see once again the enduring truth of Lord Acton’s axiom “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As Wikileaks becomes the center of global attention after their activities leads to a banking scandal and exposed crimes committed by governments around the world, Assange’s fame grows to rock star proportions and beyond – especially after they dumped the thousands of classified American government documents provided by sergeant Bradley, a soldier stationed in a US Army Intelligence unit in Iraq.  This cache made Assange the most recognizable man in the world, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and even President Obama, goes on television to denounce Wikileaks’ actions  He becomes a kind of guru and cyber-savior to those seeking ways to use the internet to check the power of governments and the giant multi-national corporations.

Predictably, Assange is a single man and thus with all of this fame comes the adulation of the ladies. He was showered with the kind of hero worship that can easily become sexual attraction.  And this became the source of his undoing.  The film reveals a really seamy side to Assange’s character as two women brings sexual assault charges against him.  But these are not what we generally think of as sexual assault and appear to be rooted in his strange existence as a rootless “Cyberman.”  Both women admit that they freely consented to having sex with Assange; the assault charges results from the claim made by the women that Assange secretly tore a hole in the condom in an attempt to secretly impregnate them.

Julian Assange Superstar!
911938_086 Pride Goeth Before the Fall

They were horrified by the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy and terrified that he may have infected them with the HIV virus.   Both felt severely violated, victims os a sexual assault. Then we discover that Assange is alleged to have impregnated four other women in different countries around the world like some sort of sexual Johnny Appleseed.  One of Assange’s close associates believes that it is because of the fact that the internet makes it possible for him to operate from anywhere, Assange lives in a kind of cyberworld of his own construction and has no permanent roots or ties anywhere, and thus making babies gives him a sense of rootedness in the real world where everybody else lives…that it is a bizarre quest for normalcy.

Hence despite his technical brilliance and feigned altruism, one gets the impression that Julian Assange is a very creepy guy; a feeling that is enhanced by his arrogant snide posture at press conferences and a scene of him at a disco dancing alone in a herky jerky white nerd dance that black folks find comical but nerdy white dudes think is cool.  They seem to be saying “we run the world so who gives a fuck that we are awkward on the dance floor.”  At least that’s the feeling I always get watching them go through their tortuous contortions that resemble someone having an epileptic seizure more than a dance.

After listening to the two ladies who brought identical charges against Assange tell their stories, one dressed in disguise and the other never appearing on camera at all because of death threats, the Wikileaks story degenerates from one of heroism to a tawdry tale of the abuse of power by a megalomaniac whose actions are fueled more by hubris than altruism, and possessed by a feeling of omnipotence that renders him untouchable by the most powerful governments in the world.  There is even a scene in the film when a college tells him as much.

Assange’s followers disgrace themselves and their cause when they level charges that he was caught in a “honey trap” set by the CIA to entrap Assange and bring him down with sexual assault charges, in order to disguise their real motive: to disgrace and silence him.  Most shameful is the women who viciously attack his female accusers, charging one of them with being an anti-Castro Cuban who has long been in bed with the CIA.  There were even calls for the rape of these women!

This is an example of how fanatical devotion to a cause, even if it is just, can lead one to excuse atrocities on the part of the leaders of that cause.   It becomes clear that this is what is happening here when one of Assange’s closest associates in Sweden, who knew both of these women well, says the charges are fabrications and describes them as nice Swedish idealistic Swedish girls who came into Wikileaks as volunteers and idolized Assange.  In fact one of the women admits that she was thrilled to “have the hottest man in the world in my bed.”  Just looking at the pale, somewhat effeminate, Assange in light of that statement the thoughtful observer is reminded of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s famous state: “Power is the ultimate Aphrodisiac!”

Assange’s feeling of invulnerability comes suddenly to an end when he is indicted in Britian and open calls for his assassination as a terrorist enemy of America comes from prominent Republicans. To avoid imprisonment Assange flees into the Bolivian Embassy where his is granted political asylum, and there he remains as I write surrounded by British police daring him to try and leave the building, as his allies desert him and his organization falls apart.

 Daniel Berg

65604_198775590273136_1739989631_n

 The former Public voice of Wikileaks

When Assange issues orders for his associates not to talk to the press he forces them into a crisis of conscience, and it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some.  The problem was best stated by Assange’s fellow hacker and close comrade in building Wikileaks, Daniel Domcheit – Berg, a German citizen who was the spokesman for the organization.  “Wikileaks has become what  it detests.”

The second most compelling figure in this intriguing cast of cyber outlaws – or persecuted saviors depending upon your perspective – is the American solder Bradley Manning, who passed on the classified military files  to Assange.  Manning’s case will certainly raise the question of whether homosexuals pose special problems for the military.  This seemed like a done deal after Barack ordered the end to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell system of dealing with gay soldiers.  While some continue to question the wisdom of deploring gays into combat units, what we learn about private Manning’s story in this film leaves no doubt that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell could only make matters worse.

Bradley Manning
Bradley Manning A Hero or Traitor?

Having left his home town because he was afraid to express his homosexuality, Manning lives a closeted life in the military.  Like Assange, he was not a popular kid growing up so he spent his time exploring the marvels of cyberworld and became a skilled computer geek.  It took the military no time to recognize his talents, and thus decided to keep him in the army despite the fact that he did not measure up on some physical tests.  Bradley was stationed with an army intelligence unit in a remote area of Iraq, and would soon find himself with access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents.  Among these was clear evidence that American forces were committing war crimes against Iraqi’s.

Manning was justifiably appalled by what he was witnessing because he could see the actual screen through which the helicopter gunners were targeting their “kills” on the ground, while listening to their conversations, which showed a callous disregard for the lives of innocents who may have been caught in their hail of fire.  He began to have an attack of conscience and came to the conclusion that the American public had a right to know that their government  was committing war crimes in their name financed by their tax dollars.  But he didn’t know who to talk to since, as he told a friend in an e-mail that he was “surrounded by bloodthirsty rednecks!”

Hence he began trolling the internet, finding first a heavily medicated fellow geek, who would eventually turn him in as he began to read the documents, and Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who published them on the internet.  And that’s how their stories became entwined. Bradley was a very troubled guy, because while walking around armed to the teeth playing Mighty Macho Whitey, he was having intense fantasies about having a sex change and becoming a woman.

Once when he was on leave from the army he dressed up like a woman and took a train ride across several states and nobody appeared to be the wiser.  After that becoming a woman was no longer just a fantasy but a real choice.  However not having anyone he could talk to about the agony he was experiencing Manning became more and more instable…even suicidal.  Then one day he flipped out and punched his sergeant in the mouth, but she was a 250 pound amazon and explains how she kicked his ass and subdued him.

She also recalls the day Manning was arrested for stealing the documents, and vividly remembers the defiant smirk he had on his face as military police led him away in handcuffs.  As she talked pictures of the arrest appeared on the screen and for a person who was in as much trouble as him he seemed curiously disconnected from it all.

Later he testified under oath that he decided to make the classified documents public because the US military was engaged in actions in Iraq and Afghanistan that “didn’t seem characteristic”  of the behavior we had a right to expect from the nation that claimed to set the standard for human freedom.  Private Manning calmly stated that the 700, 000 classified documents he gave Wikileaks comprised a record of the US Military’s “”on-the-ground reality” in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Manning left no doubt that he was fully aware of the significance of the documents he sent from a Barnes and Nobel book store computer in Maryland; in a note he appended to the documents he described them as the most important documents of our age.  This assessment will surely come back to haunt him in his Court Marshall, which begins today, where he is charged with being “an enemy of the American State,” and he could well spend the rest of his life in jail.

This why the women who brought the sexual assault charges against Assange consider it an insult to connect the predicament of Private Manning to that of Assange.  They rightly point out that manning is in a military prison facing trial because of an act of conscience; Assange is hiding out in the Bolivian embassy trying to escape trial for a sexual crime!

For all of its virtues the film never resolves the issue of whether what Assange and Wikileaks did was an act of terror and theft of US government policy; a question made all the more fuzzy by the fact that major journalistic organizations like the New York Times and the London Guardian published some of the documents too.  Interestingly those editors were not arrested.  Yet simple logic dictates that if Assange, who is senior editor of Wikileaks, is arrested than so should the editors of the Times and the Guardian.  If the case should ever come to trial this question will be raised no doubt be raised.

Had these been British military documents chances are the Guardian editor would have been arrested under the “State Secrets Act.”  Alas, the film also fails to answer the question of whether it is a good idea to have very flawed but self-righteous individuals decide which classified government documents shall remain secret and which should be made public, or indeed if any civilian should have that right without the mediation of the courts, which is what Senator Charles Schumer of New York is proposing just now in response to the big controversy regarding Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to investigate several reporters, including the Associated Press pool in an attempt to find the source of a leak regarding a successful covert action against a Jihadist group in the Mid-East, where lives could be lost because of the leak.

Unfortunately the investigation is being conducted by the House Government Oversight Committee a good idea gone bad because the committee is presently chaired by Darrell Issa, a hyper-partisan thug from California with an extensive criminal record.  Issa is one of the Tea Party Zealots who have no serious interests in governing, and are more concerned with  tarnishing the reputations of the Attorney General and the President than finding solutions to serious problems of national security.  This is why “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” is a timely and important movie; it may be the best way to inform Americans what is at issue regarding the question of state secrets.

Ever since I began my teaching career at an Adult Education center in Philadelphia almost 50 years ago, I recognized that audio -visual media was a powerful teaching tool. I first reached this conclusion from my actual experience with imparting information in the class room, but I would later discover that the research confirms it.  It is a fact that we retain more of what we see and hear than what we see or hear separately.  Hence I have long been a fan of the documentary film as an effective method of teaching complex information to groups of people simultaneously; especially when this powerful tool is in the hands of great artist.

And it can be used for good or evil. This was convincingly demonstrated over half a century ago by Leni Refiensthal, who made “Triumph of the Will” for the National Socialist Part of Germany and converted the masses of Germans to Nazism.  In that instance this powerful cinematic form was used for evil, in this case it is being employed for good.  This film warns us of the dangers of the cybernetic world that we are living in, dangers that most of us are unaware of yet it could determine our fate.

For instance, at one point in this film we are told how hackers had successfully penetrated the computers in the US defense department.  Such a development could lead to the launching of nuclear weapons by a terrorist group, or give the Russians the impression that we are launching our missiles; which could lead to the destruction of modern civilization.  This is serious business and we need to pay attention.  The claim made by one commentator that this film was made with the startling immediacy of unfolding history,” is true.   Hence everybody who cares about the future of our country should hurry out and see this disturbing but enlightening film.

 

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 Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 3, 2013

Some Reflections on Forty Two

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews on April 19, 2013 by playthell

Jackie Robinson: An Officer and Gentleman

The Heroic Story of Jackie Robinson Comes to the Screen

Last night I went to see 42, the story of Jackie Robinson smashing the color bar in baseball, which was then the most popular sport in the nation and affectionately called “the great American pastime.”  It was at once an uplifting and a depressing experience.  The story on the screen – which provided us a poignant peek into the life of one of the greatest men of what Tom Borkaw has declared “greatest generation” in American history – was inspiring. But the fact that I was watching the movie in a big IMAX theater in Times Square and there was all of seven people in the theater, none of whom were black alas, was troubling.  I wondered if it was yet another instance of young black people failing to take advantage of opportunities that only the most optimistic and visionary members of my generation dared even dream of.

I was saved from lapsing into despair only because it was 10:20 on a Wednesday night, so it was not the ideal time to count heads.  Perhaps it would have been different if it were earlier in the day, or a weekend, I sure hoped so.  Hence I decided to check the box office performance of the movie, although I wondered if there was a break-down of ticket sales by race.  My anxiety was considerably relieved when I discovered that 42 led all movies in ticket sales last weekend, grossing over 27 million dollars, astonishingly beating out “Scary Movie” at the box office.  Hence what anxiety remains is due to the fact that I have yet to see a racial breakdown on the paying customers.

Forty Two is not a bio-pic in the truest sense, because it seeks not to tell the story of Jackie Robinson’s life, or even his entire baseball career.  Rather it focuses on the trials and tribulations of his entry into major league baseball.  Thus the movie is confined to telling the story of his first season, in which he goes from a despised interloper in “America’s game” to Rookie of the Year.  But even so the movie is about two hours long and provides us an incisive look at the state of race relations in American society as reflected in baseball during the 1940’s.

Well written and directed by the Brian Helgeland, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay L.A. Confidential, the movie takes particular care in visually recreating the historical milieu in accurate detail.  Utilizing newspaper clippings, news film footage, thoughtfully designed sets,period  costumes, automobiles, architecture – including some stunning shots of the now defunct Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers – we are transported back in time.

All of these things are enhanced by the selection of background music.  Here we see the power of Ralph Ellison’s observation: “Music gives resonance to memory,” as we time travel through history on the swinging blues music that provided the background sound to the drama of Afro-American life.   Curiously enough, the most representative song for this movie is never utilized: Louis Jordan’s anthem: “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball.”

But after the contribution of all these ingredients are taken into account however, Shakespeare’s observation still holds true: “The play is the thing.” Given the complexity of the issues and how they influenced the personal relations between characters, writing a script that could tell this story with any degree of authenticity was no walk in the park.  Although I have some issues with the script, which I shall return to later, the writer/ director was wise to tell this tale as a love story.

Boseman and Beharie
 
As Jackie and Rachel

Throughout the movie it is clear that the main source of Jackie’s strength and inspiration to succeed is his love for the beautiful, brilliant, gutsy Rachel.  An elegant educated lady of color like my mother and aunts, Rachel grew up in southern California in a middle class black family, and like Jackie, she was a graduate of UCLA.  Self-confident and strong, Rachel was Jackie’s rock in those trying times; his life-long partner and the principal force keeping his legacy alive today as an energetic senior citizen, who is going into her centenary decade.  In fact, she was a consultant on this movie from its inception.

The film was well cast.  All the actors seemed born to their roles, especially their casting of Rachel and Jackie.  Movingly played by Chadwick Boseman and Nichole Beharie, we get a glimpse of black love and family life rarely seen on the movie screen.  It their portrayal of the young Jackie and Rachel I see may own mother and father, my aunts and uncles.  In them we see the true beauty, unshakable dignity, and heroic optimism of that generation of Afro-Americans…whom I insist was the greatest of the greatest generation.  Boeseman has the ebony complexion, handsome face and sculpted physique of Jackie Robinson, and Nicole Beharie embodies the strength, charm, beauty and intelligence of Rachel – whom I met when she was 87 and the lady was still a paragon of feminine elegance and grace….and at 90 she is actively managing a scholarship program for underprivileged youths..

This movie literally traverses the terrain of my youth: Florida, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.  Hence when Jackie went to Florida for spring training I recognized the community.  Since Jackie was denied accommodations in the city’s many hotels due to his rich ebony complexion, a sure measure of the pathological character of southern Anglo-Saxon culture, he was forced to stay in private homes in the Afro-American community.  The Brooklyn Dodgers arranged accommodations for him in the black community with the assistance of a sportswriter with the nationally distributed black newspaper, the Pittsburg Courier. Who was a major character in the film.

Everybody I knew in Florida subscribed to the Pittsburg Courier when I was a boy, so the whole thing was like taking a trip in a time machine.  And the graceful affluent Afro-Americans with big fine houses of many rooms who boarded Jackie, could well have been some of my family or neighbors.  The same was true of the graceful eloquent middle class Afro-Americans who inhabited them. These were black communities where children could chase fire flies, or play hide and seek at night, without being afraid of catching a stray bullet.

Although everybody had a gun back in the day, they were far too civilized to employ them in resolving trivial disputes with their neighbors.  But the same was true of many black communities in the North and West, because  all these communities were run by the “Talented Tenth,” the educated class of Afro-Americans that Dr. WEB Dubois charged with leading “the mass of Negroes away from the worst in their own and other races.”

This is a movie that all Americans should see – especially our young people who know so little of this nation’s history – because it reminds of us the way we were, and thus helps to  clarify who we are now, and how we became this way.  Historical reflection is a necessary exercise for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the problems of the present.   The cultural critic and historian Harold Cruse once observed that Americans are “anti-historical,” and nothing demonstrates this better than the fate of “period piece” movies. Alas, those films dealing with Afro-American historical issues and personalities usually perform the worse financially.

It is a striking irony, because there is a persistent charge by many thoughtful black Americans that the motion picture industry is only out to defame us…when all they are really interested in is making money, and lots of it.  This was once true, in fact the first hit movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” which is hailed as a path breaking film was a viciously racist attack on the humanity of Afro-Americans. And for most of the 20th century  the dominant image of Afro-Americans on the big silver screen, from which most white Americans formed their conception of black folk in a racially segregated society, was the comic domestic buffoon – like Stepin Fetchit, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Hattie McDaniels, Ethel Waters, Mantan Moorland. et al.  We were always depicted as servants to white people, and just tickled to death to  be catering to the every whim of “Miss Ann and Mr. Charley,” who were more often than not smug, condescending, jiveass motherfuckers.

Stepin Fetchit
movies_stepin_fetchit1
Playing the fool for white folks
Hattie McDaniel
Hattie McDaniel
Teaching Missy the social Graces

Some will say that the performance of Django Unchained at the box office, and the Academy Awards, discredits my argument regarding period movies featuring Afro-Americans.  To which I would respond: Django was not an actual historical figure and it was an action movie with a revenge motif that had but little relation to black culture –despite the fact that the historical record supports the possibility that such a character might well have existed . Django appealed to the general American fascination with guns and violence that Quentin Tarrantino has so adroitly exploited in his other movies.  It was a replay of a successful formula the director profitably employed in the Jewish revenge flick “Inglorious Bastards.”  I enjoyed both movies.

But there are other movies dealing with historical themes that I like better.  The Great Debaters, Miracle at St. Anna, Malcolm X, Red Tails, Glory, Lincoln, Lady Sings the Blues, Ray, The five Heart Beats, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, etc.” Forty Two belongs in that distinguished company.  All of these movies except “Heart Beats” are based on real people and their stories.   And this makes them invaluable artistic takes on reality in a very powerful medium.

The Original Red Tails!

Red-tails-original  - originally

Brave Bronze Warriors who Never Lost a Plane

Red Tails: The Movie

red-tails

There are various ways of relating history. The methodology of professional historians is unquestionably the most reliable because of its rigorous rules of evidence, but telling history in dramas, movies and novels is the most exciting and effective.  The narratives of artists can achieve a higher level of emotional power and popular appeal than the scholar because they enjoy “poetic license.”  That means that they can decide how they wish to tell the story; what they will magnify or ignore among the objective facts.  Furthermore, the literary artist can also manipulate time through the  employment of symbols.

However the virtues of the artists are scorned by the historian, who is allowed to take no liberty with the facts, and in constructing a historical narrative the facts must be weighed by their relevance rather than their dramatic qualities.  This often assures that the scholarly historical narrative will be a boring affair when compared to the romanticized narratives of the novelist or dramatist, even as they often distort  historical reality.  That’s why literary men were driven from the profession with great fanfare as the study of history become professionalized. However the great historical novelist or playwright will consult the works of historians to get their basic facts straight, or interrogate the historical records themselves.

I suspect that the writer of this script consulted both…and he had a living archive in Rachel.  Since Rachel has signed off on the film I shall not attempt to be more royal than the queen.  But I cannot help believing that Spike Lee would have made a better movie.  I say this for several reasons: He has been trying to raise the money to make a movie on Jackie for around 20 years.

He is an avid baseball fan, a die- hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and a devoted student of the career of Jackie Robinson.  Spike was wearing number 42 long before it became the fashionable thing to do.  And on top of all this Spike makes great movies about sports.  His film “He Got Game,” in which he coaxed a great acting performance out of NBA star Ray Ray, was just voted “The Greatest Basketball Movie of All Time,” by a panel of writers cum sports fans on ESPN.

However when the panel chose “Raging Bull” as the best boxing movie, Spike said he thought the movie was good but flawed, because they only gave Sugar Ray Robinson – “the greatest fighter pound for pound in the history of boxing” – a cameo.  Spike thought he should have been a more fully developed character.  I agree.  For one thing, it would have enriched the movie.  I am sure that Spike was thinking about the rich cultural milieu in which Sugar Ray Robinson dwelled in Harlem, where he owned a fabulous night club and could often be found on stage playing drums or performing a tap dance routine.

The point is that white Americans do not know enough about us to paint the kind of richly detailed portrait of Afro-American culture important movies about black life and character deserve.  After all, great African-American personalities don’t just invent themselves; they are products of a culture.  Placing Afro-American characters in the proper cultural context has been one of the great achievements of Spike Lee as a cinematic artist.  In this movie we never saw what Jackie and Rachel did for recreation among their own people i.e. what kinds of parties and clubs they went to.  Were they graceful on the dance floor and loved to dance like most Afro-Americans?  We don’t know these things because we mostly view them outside of an Afro-American communal context.

There is also the question of getting inside the character’s head.  Few in the viewing audience either know or care who the screenwriter and director is, and even if they do it means little to them.  But these are the people who control the creative functions; which is to say that all the lines that come out of the actor’s mouth, as well as how they should be recited, is controlled by the screenwriter and the director.  Hence the actors are glorified versions of a ventriloquist dummy.

This is not to decry the skills great actors bring to the portrayal of their roles.  But the character that emerges on careen has been created and directed by others – the actor is the vehicle.  Hence the problem that Harold Cruse identified as the central contradiction hampering the development of an authentic Afro-American dramatic art – the dependence of Afro-American actors on material and direction from white creative sources, remains true – although considerably less so than in 1965 when Cruse wrote his critique.

One only need look at Spike’s  documentary film on the Hall of Fame running back, “Jim Brown: All American,” in order to get a good idea how Spike would have handled Jackie.  Of all the commentary I have heard about Jim Brown, only Spike dealt with Jim as a sex symbol for white women and how that affected his career in football and later as an actor.  White guys either didn’t see that, or just didn’t want to address it.  The emphasis he put on Jim Brown’s descriptions of his father as a big good looking guy who was a fine dresser and great dancer.  Most white film makers would have concentrated on the fact that he abandoned Jim and his mother and left it as that…just another black deadbeat dad story.

Hence in 42, I am certain that Spike would have included scenes where Jackie and his friends spoke candidly about what they thought of the white guys who he was competing against.  Not just what the white guys thought of him; which is what we get in this movie. Although the film does an excellent job of explicating what Dodger Owner Branch Rickey thought –brilliantly played by Harrison Ford in what could be an Academy Award performance – we never see Jackie sitting around with his peers, which included World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, and the great Sugar Ray Robinson, candidly assessing his white teammates as: “Bitch ass peckerwood motherfuckers!”

The Real Jackie with Branch Rickey….
boseman-robinson-rickey-for
….and their movie counterparts.

Yet the most racist of his reluctant teammates  were all ignorant white trash compared to this well-educated, eloquent, elegant officer and gentleman who had mastered four sports at UCLA while earning a degree. And the conventional wisdom  among Robinson aficionados is that baseball was not even his best sport; he was better at football and basketball but chose baseball because it was the only sport where he could make a living at the time by playing in the Negro Leagues.  How could such a superior man like this not have been contemptuous of his po dumb cracker antagonist?

I see Jackie as playing a game with whites that originated as a survival mechanism during slavery times and is expressed in the ubiquitous slave ditty: “Got one mind for white folks to see…got another mind I know is really me…and they don’t know my mind.” If I had written the script, or consulted on it, I would have had a scene where Jackie recited that Ditty, either as an internal monologue or in conversation with black fiends.  And I would have found a way to have the black reporter, a literate man who was certainly familiar with the works of our great black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, recite this poem while reflecting on Jackie’s predicament:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-

This debt we pay to human guile

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties

Why should the world be otherwise

In counting all our tears and sighs

Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask”

The wisdom reflected in the folk saying, which is a mirror into the soul of the black masses, is given literary expression in the artifice of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose parents were slaves and thus rooted in the wisdom and folkways of the common people. And this wisdom certainly informed Jackie Robinson’s approach to dealing with whites who continued to monopolize power just as they had done since slavery times. Had these quotes been presented in this way, which was very easy to do, it would have given a cultural context to Jackie’s behavior in dealing with whites; we would have recognized that his actions were rooted in the marrow of Afro-American tradition.

But far more grievous is the fact that the brief summation of Jackie Robinson’s life at the end of this impressive movie neglects both his pioneering role as a black corporate executive with the Chock Full of Nuts chain, and his impressive history as a Civil Rights activist and close comrade  of Dr. Martian Luther King, marching by his side on some of his most dangerous campaigns.  One such campaign was my home town St. Augustine Florida in 1964, where local white supremacist in the Ancient City Gun Club led redneck demagogue “Hoss” Manucie was threatening murder and mayhem.  How could deeds of such gravitas receive virtually no attention?  I’d bet my bottom dollar that Spike Lee would have found a way to display all of Jackie’s virtues…which go far beyond the baseball diamond.  Alas, despite its considerable virtues, we never see the full measure of the man in this flick.

  Jackie and Dr. King

jackie_robinson & Martin King

Comrades in Struggle

All of this begs the question: how did Brian Helgeland find the opportunity to write and direct a movie on this iconic Afro-American figure, when a film maker of spike Lee’s enormous gifts could not find the backing for the project after a twenty year quest?  This is no picayune issue.  Harold Cruse argued that the theft of “Negro cultural ingredients” by white creative and performing artists has made the black artist the odd man out.

This is because institutionalized racism and the ideology of white supremacy, coupled with white ownership and control of “the cultural apparatus,” will insure that black artists will only be allowed to write and direct Afro-American productions.  There is no chance that they will be selected to write and direct a major movie on an iconic white historic figure.  In looking at how the movie 42 was made we see the advantages that race and class, and how it conspires against the black artist and places them at a disadvantage even when the issues is mining his cultural inventory.

Reduced to its simply terms, “it’s all about the Benjamins” as the rappers say, or as the most successful black movie mogul ever, Tyler Perry, says “It’s about the Golden Rule; he who has the gold rules!”  The making of 42 is testifies to the truth of Tyler statement as a candid of reality in the film business.  According to statements Brian Hegleman as made in the press he had never thought about making a movie on Jackie Robinson until he received a call out of the blue from Thomas Tull, a financier with deep pockets.

A Jackie Robinson fan, Hull had persuaded Rachel Robinson that a major movie on the life of her late husband was long overdue and offered to finance it.  It Tull  called Hegleman to write and direct the movie. That’s how the deal was done.   And Spike Lee, a great film maker who ought to have several Oscars for his writing and directing, missed his chance to define this African American hero on the silver screen…which audience around the world will see.

Ironically, the most compelling lesson from this movie has to do with its making rather than the onscreen performances, as splendid as they are.  Despite the vast distance Afro-Americans have travelled since Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball, from the outhouse to the White House; in business it’s still good to be white – especially the movie business.  Yet after all is said and done, 42 remains a very good movie that every black parent should take their children to see!

Jackie Robinson Givin Some Skin to his Peeps

Jackie and the folks

The Pride of Afro-America!

Two Lovely, Elegant, Brilliant, First Ladies!

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Michelle showers accolades on Rachel

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
April 19, 2013

On Django UnChained

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on February 25, 2013 by playthell

          DjangoUnchainedOfficialPosterPT

Jamie Fox, Leonardo Dicaprio and

A Wagnarian Saga about Slavery and a  Good Movie!

As is to be expected of a film that chooses a controversial subject – in this case the enslavement of Africans in America – Django Unchained has sparked an emotional debate. The loudest voices in the debate naturally belongs to intellectuals, who are most likely to dissect the film with weighty critiques.  Hence for one who is given to penning weighty polemics on important issues about politics and culture, it is with the greatest reluctance that I have decided not to jump body and soul into the critical debate and spar with my fellow polemicists.   However I cannot resist pointing out that much of the critical commentary is not about the movie at all.

For instance, after reading the critique by Ishmael Reed, a great novelist and brilliant essayist, it seemed to me that he decided to use the movie to not only whip Quentin Tarrantino for all the sins of the movie industry ad infinitum, but also to use the film as a weapon to bludgeon a wide range of adversaries with whom he has been waging interminable culture wars.  I mean what the fuck are doing talking about Dr. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” in a review of a movie about a gun slinging ex-slave on a quest to free his enslaved wife?

It is bad enough that he does not understand the concept in historical context – in spite of my futile efforts to educate him, and I remain ever ready to debate the subject with him in writing – but to burden this movie with that antiquated debate is prime faice absurd!  While I find Ish’s cleaver floggings of intellectual adversaries in his innovative novels – “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, “Reckless Eyeballing,” “Mumbo Jumbo” “Japanese By Spring,” etc. -   entertaining and has written as much – see my essays on Ishmael on this blog – his critique of this movie published in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, is a colossal bore and more than a bit silly.

In spite of myriad facts, Ishmael’s essay obscures far more than it enlightens.  For instance, at the beginning of the review he says he was turned off before he ever read the script or saw the movie because the studio that was producing it was evidence that it was being produced for a mainstream audience…say what?  This comment reflects a widespread misunderstanding of the movie business, and making movies is a business.

Movies are a commercial product and if they don’t make money the director won’t be making movies and the studio won’t be in business for long, because making money is an imperative for survival in the market place.  The Jewish movie moguls who created Hollywood understood this well, that’s why they were so successful.  One of the main reasons why black movie makers have not succeeded on that scale is because they are operating from a different premise.

The Jews were businessmen whose principle objective was to make money, so they produced movies for the mass i.e. “mainstream” market.  Since that market was white and Christian they made movies about white Christians.  They even created the blond sex goddesses such as May West, Gloria Swanson, Marylyn Monroe, et al.  They hardly ever made movies about Jews, and even required Jewish actors like Bennie Swartz to take Anglicized names like “Tony Curtis.”  And they were roundly criticized for it by Jewish organizations, as the astute Jewish film historian Neal Gabler has adroitly pointed out.

Jack Warner, head of the enormously successful Warner Brothers studio, once remarked that he was in the business of producing popular entertainment, and declared: “It I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union.”  On the other hand black film makers are expected to be messengers for black causes, or to make films for a black audience populated with black characters and concerns.  It is a formula that will generally insure that you don’t make much money.  And if the movie is also burdened with a weighty message at the expense of entertainment values, you will be lucky to break even!

In Django Quinten Tarrantino has found a formula that allowed him to make money and send a weighty message.  What is that message you ask?  Slavery was an evil, decadent, inhumane system of labor.  The slave holding class was not the noble cavalier Knights Margret Mitchell painted in her best-selling novel that became a blockbuster movie “Gone with the Wind” that won multiple Academy Awards.  Rather they were the “front porch Puritans and backyard lechers” who routinely raped black women, that that other southern woman writer Lillian Smith called them in her extraordinary text “Killers of the Dream.”

It also confirmed Dr. Franz Fanon’s thesis that it is therapeutic for the oppressed to kill their oppressors.  It is   a powerful counter-statement to the American Exceptionalists crowd who insist that America is so morally superior to the rest of the world that it justifies an evangelical foreign policy in which Americans can invade other countries in order to impose our values on them! In my view these multiple messages more than compensates for any shortcomings of the movie.

Hence impassioned denunciations of the movie written by black critics like Jessie Williams, a television actor, which was highly praised by Ryan Adams on Awards Chatter.com, strikes me as little more than persnickety nitpicking diatribes that produce more heat than light.  No movie can be all things to all people.  But I am especially annoyed by those white writers who are perturbed that black people like the movie.  It smacks of the worse kind of paternalism, and it reminds me of the old Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved family.”

I have met very few black people who don’t like this movie.  More typical is the reaction of my highly educated 31 year old daughter Makeda and her boyfriend Odogu, a former boxer:  They loved it!  When I was dragging my feet about seeing it she continued to bug me.  She says that Django reminds her of me.  She told me about the scene in the movie where someone said they had never seen a black man on a horse and she thought: “I have seen my daddy riding horses with big hats on all my life…and she knows that I feel just like Django about racist crackers!  And then there is my friend Samaad, who paid to see the movie five times, or a female Filipino who loved seeing Django kill those crackers while rescuing his woman.

The point that intellectuals who hate the movie miss is that for most black Americans, who have always seen black slaves cowering in fear as they are humiliated and victimized by whites, this movie is a personal catharsis.  They are just ecstatic about witnessing a black man kill some whites on the big screen, and the more the merrier- Which. I confess, was also a great part of the movies appeal to me.  But beyond all that, it’s a damn good action/adventure movie, with sharply drawn characters played by actors of star quality, and the difference between good and evil, virtue and vice is as clear as day and night.  It has none of the tortured complexity and ambiguity that intellectuals glory in.

 A Stone Cold Killer on a Mission!

django_jpg_CROP_rectangle3-large

And black viewers loved ever drop of blood he spilled!

Ironically, Ishmael has a black avenging cowboy in his novel “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, which I found fascinating but a friend of mine who is a novelist and professor of literature dismisses as “a parody of a parody that has nothing to do with the history of blacks in the old west.”  Hence much of art criticism, including the commentary on this film, is a matter of personal perspective and values – a question of personal taste.  And they are certainly entitled to their opinion.

However if this movie is evaluated from the perspective of historical accuracy and the art of making movies for a mass audience, which is how it ought to be evaluated, as commercial melodrama that reflects on a serious subject, it gets a passing grade from me. Critics of the movie have said that the story is not credible, that there is no historical evidence that suggests such a story could have happened.  I say they should hurry up and read Dr. Gerald Horne’s recent book “Negro Comrades of the Crown.”

Not only does he document the many Europeans who visited the US, observed the practice of slavery and responded with a passionate hatred for the slavers in scores of books, but the text is also rife with incidents of ex-slaves slaughtering whites, some rendered in gruesome detail.  He even has a story of an armed ex-slave on a mission to rescue his wife who was still enslaved!  So it is certainly a tale that could have been true.  And that is quite enough to justify the telling.  But lest we forget: This is a feature film, an act of the imagination that can claim artistic license, not a documentary to be viewed as a statement of historical fact.

However this rule can apply even when a feature film treats a specific historical event; as the heated debate around the Chilean film” No,” which depicts the 1988 plebiscite in that country that brought down the murderous military dictator Augusto Pinochet demonstrates.  Directed by Pablo Larrian, the film is based on a play “The Plebiscite,” by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta, who also wrote the novel “II Postino,” which was made into an Oscar winning movie.

The film has been roundly criticized by some Chileans who participated in the struggle to defeat Pinochet, Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean who witnessed it all and now serves as the director of Human Rights Watch Americas,  gave the New York Times 2/10/ 13  a different assessment.  He said the film was “a good effort to show a pretty accurate picture of Chile in the 80’s.”  He conceded that there were important events in that struggle that was “not a part of the film at all…but I went to see a movie not a PBS piece.”

This is exactly how Django should be viewed; it gives us a great felling for the cruel inhumanity of slavery and leaves no doubt that it was a crime against humanity.  And thus more than justifies the bloody carnage visited on white slavers by Django.  I do have some criticisms however.  For instance I would have chosen different music for many of the scenes.  In the opening scene I would have used the deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful Afro-American spiritual “Oh Freedom” and engaged the Fisk Jubilee singers to perform it.

And in the scene where the masked nightriders were chasing Django and his German partner, I would have used Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeries, which is great for an action scene featuring galloping horses, and the movie is working with the same German myths about Brunhilde and Siegfried that Richard Wagner built his “music/festival/drama” The Ring around.   Hence when the beautiful talented Kerry Washington says she saw the movie as a quest of a man to rescue his woman while slaying a few dragons in the process, she is right on the money.

Kerry Washington: The face that launched a bloodbath

Kerry-Washington-Django-Unchained

She gave a moving performance

Indeed Django’s wife, played by Kerry Washington – who was easily the most beautiful woman at the Academy Awards ceremony – spoke German and was named “Broomhilde” – which some black commentators thought was ridiculous – duh?   It was supposed to be, since everything about slavery was ridiculous!  However when the German Doctor /Bounty Hunter explained the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde to Django he was also explaining the main plot of the movie.  It was a clever way of telling the story.

The proof is the reception it has recieved.  The way Austrian actor  Christophe Watz played the character with great wit and charm conjured up the Nazi officer he played in Tarrantino’s last blockbuster movie Inglorious Bastards, which I loved, and reminds us that in Django he created the same cathartic experience for Afro-Americans that he provided for Jews in Inglorious Bastards. And Christophe played the role so well he just won an Oscar for his performance!

The Charming but Deadly Doctor

Django-Unchained-10

Christophe Watz and Jamie Fox

However the main criticism I have of the movie is the portrayal of Sam Jackson’s character.  It is a stereotype that is based on a misunderstanding of history and the nature of “Uncle Tom.”  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character, introduced in the first bestselling American novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an accommodationist who loved his people but in his powerless state was force to play the role of obsequious slave while manipulating the all-powerful white folks.  This was a survival strategy that the great Afro-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar describes in his poem “While We Wear the Mask.”  It was represented in slave culture as “putting on ol massa,” which is to say play the white folks for fools.

This practice was expressed in a slave ditty that has been found all over the slave south :”Got one mind for white folks to see/got another mind I know was really me.  And they don’t know my mind” The character played by Samuel L. Jackson had a bit of this guile bh he more closely resembles Malcolm X’s “House Negro,” in his famous House Negro vs. Field Negro dichotomy.  The problem is that this is an ahistorical analysis because it was the “House Negros” who led the revolts.  That was true then and now.

I am continuously amused when I hear middle class black intellectuals repeat Malcolm’s ahistorical foolishness, because most of the sixties revolutionary leaders ended up as professors or some other middle class professions – and to the lumpen ghetto dwellers  gangsta rappers are the real rebels and they are the “house niggaz.”  It is an irony that somehow escapes them.   Django Unchained perpetuates the myth, because Sam Jackson’s house nigger really does love his master and believes that he is a God-like figure.  This interpretation flies in the face of the conventional wisdom…… but then it’s only a movie.   And when the gorgeous cinemetography is added to its other virtues its a damned good movie at that!

Sam Jackson as House Nigger

Samuel L Jackson

 Sam gave a great performance of a stereotyped character

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Fenruary 24th, 2013

I’M ROOTING FOR TOMMY L. JONES!

Posted in Film Criticism, Guest Commentators, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , on February 24, 2013 by playthell
     Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens                 Tommie Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens

 Lincoln Resurrects “The Great Commoner”

I’m rooting for Tommy Lee Jones to win an Oscar for his riveting performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. Full disclosure: as an historian my hope is this might focus important attention on Stevens. This flamboyant Congressman (and his lashing tongue) had gained enormous name recognition in his time, but it was not the kind a mother wants for her famous son.

Until the modern civil rights movement those who wrote US history took a stick to Stevens.  He didn’t care. By the time he died in 1868 he had earned the appreciation of millions of slaves he helped free, and further admiration as “the father of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.” But until Tommy Lee Jones donned the man’s grim look, sharp wit, bulky swagger and advanced racial views, Stevens faced a thrashing in classrooms, textbooks and movies.

In 1915 Hollywood’s first blockbuster, Birth of A Nation, sought to humiliate Stevens — barely disguised as “Congressman Austin Stoneman.” Never has the media so venomously portrayed a US elected official. The film has Stevens ruining the South by elevating ignorant former slaves to high office.

A Poster Valorizing the Ku Klux Klan
A Birth of Nation imagesCARPE2T6 The Precursor to Nazi film “Triumph of the Will”

This in turn, the script continues, encourages African American officials [played by white actors in black face], to rape white women. In the final scenes the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save white womanhood and Christian civilization. Half a century after his death, this movie was still kicking the man for a good deal of its three hours and ten minutes. Its scenes also bury the fact that the south’s real rapists during and after slavery were planters who held whips and guns as well as public office.

To make its tale believable Birth of A Nation was given a documentary look, a stamp of historical truth and the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson who called it “history written in lightening.” Wilson was quoted in the film prasing “a great Ku Klux Klan, a venerable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”

For decades as the movie made a staggering $50,000,000, millions of men, women and children learned to hate Black people and cheer the KKK. Its debut in Atlanta Georgia jump-started the huge KKK of the 1920s which grew to 4,000,000 members. It took an NAACP national protest to remove a scene showing Klansmen castrating a Black man.

Stevens fared marginally better in Tennessee Johnson where the famous Lionel Barrymore portrayed a malicious politician plotting to destroy the South and white supremacy. Then a heroic President Andrew Johnson [Van Heflin] restores “home rule.” [Note: this was during the war against Nazi racism.]

As the 1915 silent epic and the 1942 feature film captivated audiences, our leading scholars road the same bandwagon. Echoing his profession’s view, Pulitzer Prize historian James Truslow Adams called Stevens “perhaps the most despicable, malevolent, and morally deformed character who has risen to high power in America.”

It is true that Thaddeus Stevens unleashed nasty, hateful invective on slaveholders, ridiculed incompetents, and relentlessly elbowed a cautious Lincoln toward emancipation. However, in 1861 the new President was not “The Great Emancipator.” His First Inaugural announced he would sign an Amendment [the original “13th”] that would make slavery permanent.

In office he steadfastly refused to propose emancipation for his first 17 months. When he first announced his Proclamation, it was a statement he planned to issue a formal declaration on January 1, 1863, and only as a war measure. Given the President’s sorry record and fondness for compromise, Stevens, other abolitionists and people of color had every reason to worry there might be a slip from the cup to the lip.

Thaddeus Stevens: Radical Republican

Thaddeus_Stevens_-_Brady-Handy-crop

The Great Commoner

 Stevens fast walked a different path: “There can be no fanatics in defense of genuine liberty.” He did not shrink from hazardous combat against the Fugitive Slave Law and defiantly turned his law office into an Underground Railroad station. When a band of armed slave runaways in nearby Christiana opened fire on a slaveholder posse led by a US Marshall, Pennsylvania’s most famous attorney volunteered for their defense and won acquittal for the arrested.

Even Stevens’s fiery attacks on slaveholders came with some risk. Twice on the House floor he had to fend off Bowie knife wielding southern colleagues. As abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner sat at his Senate desk South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat him senseless with his heavy cane. Sumner never completely recovered and slaveholders praised Brooks.

From his birth in 1792 in Vermont Thaddeus Stevens lived with adversity. His father Joshua was an alcoholic shoemaker unable to hold a job so the family struggled. Then when Joshua disappeared never to return his mother Sally had to pick up the pieces. Resourceful, energetic and determined to see her four boys educated, she paid family bills through long, grueling work as a maid and housekeeper.

Thaddeus also stepped into life with a clubfoot when society saw this as a Devil’s curse, a sign of mental depravity. From an early age he learned how to battle people who derided him, think for himself and stick to his guns. His own fight with irrational hate may have opened his heart to others society classified as lesser humans.

Stevens graduated with a law degree from Dartmouth College, and opened a law office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His fortunes changed when he bought a Pennsylvania iron works and a Forge, and invested in farmland. He was elected to the state senate just as the legislature voted down an education bill because it raised taxes to aid poor families.

Stevens stormed into the fight with this argument: “the blessing of education shall be conferred on every son of Pennsylvania, shall be carried home to the poorest child of the poorest inhabitant of the meanest hut of your mountains, so that even he may be prepared to act well his part in this land of freedom, and lay on earth a broad and solid foundation for that enduring knowledge which goes on increasing through increasing eternity.”

His speech led to passage of the state’s education law and made him “the father of public education in Pennsylvania.”

In 1848 Thaddeus was elected to Congress raring to fight the “slaveocracy.” He was also drawn to issues of economic injustice. In 1852 he opposed employers who sought to “get cheap labor” by lowering American workers’ wages to European levels, and by using under paid women laborers. Such efforts, he insisted, keep “the laboring classes [with] scarcely enough to feed and clothe them . . . [and] nothing to bestow on the education of their children.”

In 1853 Stevens had to return to his law office in Lancaster to pay business debts of over a quarter million dollars. But in 1859 he returned as a Republican Congressman. When it was far from popular he denounced bigotry, spoke in defense of Native Americans, Jews, Mormons, Chinese, and women’s rights.  And he intensified his crusade against the slaveholder aristocracy.

Lydia Hamilton Smith

Lydia Hamliton Smith -

Thaddeus Steven’s Common Law Wife

Stevens had never married and since 1848 shared his large Lancaster home with Lydia Hamilton Smith, an African American, and her two sons from a previous marriage. While he and Mrs. Smith considered their relationship a common law marriage, his foes saw coarse degeneracy. He refused to publicly explain what he considered a private matter. His will left Mrs. Smith enough money to purchase the family home and live in comfort. Birth of A Nation has Mrs. Smith, played by a pudgy white actor who greets news of Lincoln’s assassination with a dance and shout: “You are now the most powerful in the United States.”

Despite his differences with the President, Stevens forged a respectful alliance with the politician he came to call “the purest man in America.” As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee his control of the war’s finances made him the most powerful member of the House. Lincoln held the power to make emancipation permanent.

The two needed each other. In the 2012 movie Lincoln Stevens is cast as the radical whom Lincoln must tame to insure passage of the 13thAmendment. This is Hollywood drama. The ardent abolitionist was as shrewd a politician as Lincoln, and needed no persuasion to support his life’s goal.

Fawn Brodie, Stevens admiring biographer, calls him “the scourge of the South.” But Stevens’ harsh, lacerating tongue speared Congressional incompetents as well as pro-slavery southerners and northerners. He could reduce political foes to gibbering self-doubt.

During the pivotal Gettysburg campaign in 1863, a Confederate Army rode out to kill him. Confederate Major General Jubal Early detoured his Army of Northern Virginia from Gettysburg to Stevens’ iron works at today’s Caledonia State Park. Unable to find him, “hang him on the spot and divide his bones,” Early ordered his men to burn everything, and steal his horses, mules, grain and iron bars. Stevens had to borrow money to rebuild.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation brought the two men together. Stevens called it “a page in the history of the world whose brightness shall eclipse all the records of heroes and of sages.”Now “this Republic . . . [could] become immortal.” The two now marched down the same road, Stevens, as always, at a quicker pace.

As the war’s casualties passed half a million and its cost soared to four billion dollars, Stevens’ concern turned to those who bore the greatest burdens — “the poor widow, the suffering soldier, the wounded martyr to his country’s good.” He denounced the new draft law that allowed a rich man to hire a substitute for $300 – and which led to four days of rioting among the poor in New York City. As real wages fell and business profits rose, he denounced bankers [whom he never liked] and “war profiteers.”

Tommy Lee Jones Gave a Riveting Performance

TommyLeeJones

Bravo!

In vain Stevens and his Committee tried to prevent northern manufacturers from selling the government useless rifles and damaged goods at inflated prices. He wished “no injury to any, but if any must lose, let it not be the soldier, the mechanic, the laborer and the farmer.”

Stevens explored new directions. He welcomed the liberation of Russia’s serfs as a step toward world freedom. He encouraged a women’s delegation to hasten their drive for the suffrage. When Napoleon III of France made Emperor Maximilian his puppet ruler of Mexico, Stevens urged Congress to aid and provide loans to Mexico’s Indian President Benito Juarez.

As he grew older friends called Stevens “The Great Commoner.” He asked to be remembered as one who tried “to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.” He said, “I have done what I deemed best for humanity. It is easy to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. But it is a great labor to protect the interests of the poor and downtrodden.” His enemies said he betrayed his country and his race, and often his class.

For Stevens and the United States everything changed when the assassination of President Lincoln brought Andrew Johnson to the White House. A poor white scornful of African Americans, he envied and worked to restore the power of the South’s planter class.  Stevens plan for “a radical reorganization in southern institutions, habits and manners” led to repeated clashes. Stevens also faced a Republican party increasingly dominated by northern business interests who valued trade relations with former slaveholders not the new Constitutional Amendments.

Stevens failed to bring justice, equality and a fair distribution of land and power to the South. But Stevens knew his and other abolitionist prodding led to Lincoln voicing his support for voting rights for Black soldiers and educated Black males.

Yes, Stevens can be faulted for his truculent manner, for believing he could defeat his foes’ economic and political influence, and for seriously underestimating racism’s grip nationwide. He fought to have the black and white poor own land, attend school, vote and enjoy equal rights. Though this proved to be an unfulfilled dream, he could not be faulted for his effort. It would require another century, other, younger dreamers both African American and white.

In death Stevens affirmed his goals. His coffin was carried to the Capitol by an honor guard of five African American and three white soldiers. He had asked to be buried in the one Lancaster cemetery open to all races. His grave stone bore his own epitaph: ”I repose in this quiet and secluded spot not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: equality of man before his Creator.”

Yes, Tommy Lee Jones deserves an Academy Award!

And Thaddeus Stevens deserves a full hearing!

******************

 

William Loren Katz

New York City

February 24, 2013

**William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and forty other books on African American history. His website is: www.williamlkatz.com

“Ice the Motherfuckers!”

Posted in Film Criticism, Guest Commentators, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2013 by playthell
django_jpg_CROP_rectangle3-large
Jamie Fox as Django

 Tarrantino tells a Round Unvarnished Tale

My wife and I, after several days of serious debate, decided we’d venture out and check out “Django Unchained.” Our curiosity had been thoroughly whetted and there was enough controversy to lure even the most reluctant public intellectual.  We also decided that we’d see it at the Magic Johnson Theater in the heart of Harlem, where we knew the audience would be almost exclusively African American.

 We arrived late and had to settle for seats toward the front of the theater but not exactly where you have to look up at the screen and leave the show with a crook in your neck.  Even before the film began the chatter was underway, and you know how Black patrons, particularly the young and restless ones, like to talk back to the screen.

 As a kind of preview of the rap to come, two women who arrived even later than we did carried on a conversation across the theater as they struggled to find seats near each other. “Come on ovah here,” one of them called.  “Dere two seats and maybe this gentleman will move ovah and let us sit together.”  The gentleman did and the woman, armed with the biggest container of popcorn imaginable, a huge drink, and heaven only knows what else, excused herself down the aisle and clumped down next to her friend.

“Ain’t we kinda close?” I thought I heard her ask her friend.

“Yeah, but dese was the only seats left, plus we up close to the action,” she answered.

It didn’t take long for the action to unfurl from Quentin Tarantino’s script and under his direction.  The first scenes and the music cued the Spaghetti Western motif we’d heard about and my mind went hurtling back to the Sergio’s of the past—both Corbucci and Leone—and that was a good sign because I totally enjoyed those films, particularly “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and it was hard to think anyone could get any uglier than Eli Wallach, yellow teeth and all.

A coffle of shuffling slaves immediately grabbed your attention, the whelps the size of ropes on their back; like those scarring the back of Caesar who is depicted in so many history books about slavery.  Later, we will see them tattooed on the back of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  One of the slaves chained together is Django (Jamie Foxx) and it’s a set piece that introduces Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who comes out of the wilderness like a snake oil salesman on his buckboard concoction that reminded me of the first scene of Marlene Dietrich as the gypsy woman in “Golden Earrings,” which should give you an unmistakable clue to my age since I saw it long before it got to TCM.

I’ve heard that Tarantino is a real film buff but I doubt if he knew anything about that old movie, though I wouldn’t be surprised given the similarity to the haunting love story his film and the old movie have in common.  Right away you knew this was not going to be a friendly encounter since Schultz is singularly concerned in purchasing one of the slaves.  Most disconcertingly amusing about the exchange between Schultz and the white slave traders is Schultz’s language,“Among your company, I’m led to believe,” Schultz begins, “there is a specimen I hope to acquire.”

His words would not have been any more astonishing had he uttered: “Whither thou goest with those disheveled souls?”  The tone and terminology of the request is as funny as it is deadly earnest and at its conclusion we have the first spilling of the buckets of blood that will make this one of the goriest flicks since, well, Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards.”

Having properly exterminated the traders, the slaves are left to their own devices and Django, like a bewildered Tonto, rides off with Schultz. After they kill the sheriff in a town they are passing through, viewers get a gander at the narrative theme and you wonder how the two of them will possibly wiggle out of a very desperate situation in a town without pity.

 To mollify an angry posse of marauders with lynching on their minds, Schultz approaches them and unsheathes a paper indicating that the sheriff was really wanted for murder and that he had every right to capture him dead or alive.   It was an incredible ruse but effective and it would be their modus operandi as they traveled from dry gulches to the snow-laden, freezing terrain of Wyoming, or somewhere in the chilly West.  They were bounty hunters unchained and as they rode across the prairie I was expecting Count Basie’s band to pop up as it did in “Blazing Saddles.”

    The Basie Band in Blazing Saddles

blazing-saddles-image

  A Surreal Scene

The first half of the film is Schultz and Django as serial killers; mainly Django seems to be along for the ride until he drops his quest on Schultz that in exchange for continuing service they take time out to rescue his wife from a Simon Legree-like plantation owner.  Aha! Now we have the subplot presented and it resembles one of the oldest of Western clichés—rescuing the damsel in distress, only this time it’s not the Durango Kid its Django the man!  (Remember John Wayne in “The Sundowners”?)

 Bad Men doing the Lawd’s Work
Django-Unchained-10 Their Murder and Mayhem is Therapeutic to the Audience

 But another thing occurs when Django tags along with Schultz.  Foxx is far less a traveling companion than he was with Tom Cruise in Michael Mann’s 2004 film “Collateral.”  While the carnage in Mann’s film is vintage Tarantino, Foxx the taxi driver is held hostage by Cruise the hit man, who takes him along on his rampage.

 When they arrive at Candie Land, named for its master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), its reminiscent of those panoramic, long shot scenes from “Gone With the Wind,” with slaves scattered about in forced labor in cotton fields and other duties.  But it was their confrontation with Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the HNIC and the beloved house Negro, the proverbial Uncle Tom in all his nastiness that is most commanding.  Jackson has said of the portrayal as one of “the most despicable characters in cinematic history.”  And he takes the fawning, sycophantic groveling right down to the last “yassuh.”  It brought to mind that famous passage from one of Malcolm X’s speeches about the master and his house Negro.

    Samuel L. Jackson as
Samuel L Jackson
 The Stereotypical “House Negro”

 “If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put out the blaze than the master would,” Malcolm said from his “Message to the Grass Roots.” “If the master got sick, the house Negro would say ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’ We sick!  He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.” Now the audience in the theater had another enemy, someone to hiss at and deride.

Much of the remaining action happens in the Big House where we meet such extras as Franco Nero, the original Django who has a brief conversation with the other Django over a drink at the bar, though the subtleties of their exchange probably meant little to the average movie-goer.  It was a nice little touch much in the same way that Richard Roundtree has a cameo role in John Singleton’s redux of Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson.

But after some rather tame chit-chat the gratuitous violence approaches its apex, with a fight between slaves as a preface.  With a possible nod to today’s ultimate fight events, two muscular Black men tear into each other in a battle royal.  Aha!  Is this Tarantino’s “Mandingo” moment?  Again, I was transported back to the novels and subsequent films based on the books by Kyle Onstott, especially “Drum,” and “Mandingo.”

 World Heavy-Weight Champion Kenny Norton
mandingo1_thumbnail A Scene from Mandingo

Historians will certainly have a field day on the veracity of this fight, much in the same way they debated whether there were actually slave-breeding plantations.  If the scene had taken place outdoors it could have come straight from Cecil Brown’s novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. In this book the fight is cast in a folkloristic manner, conjuring the Trickster trope.

When the less than formidable Efan, faced with a gigantic opponent named Kocomo, walks over to the carriage and slaps Miss Ann, his opponent takes off running down the road; believing that any Black man who slaps a white woman in the state of Georgia in front of her husband and his master is more than he wants to deal with.  It’s a hilarious moment without the bloodshed that results from Tarantino’s combatants.

Intrigue enters the film when Stephen begins to suspect that Broomhilda and Django know each other.  He’s absolutely right and the marks of the branding on their cheeks is a dead give-away, though Stephen doesn’t seem to be aware of it.  This is perhaps his way of toying with her or Tarantino’s idea of creating a dynamic interplay between contending elements of Black culture.

The shootout at O.K. Corral pales in comparison to the slaughter in the Big House, and the carnage soon reaches a point of inane excessiveness.  But vengeance is mine sayeth Tarantino and “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill,” and “Pulp Fiction,” are merely dry runs for the blood and gore at Candie Land.  Even so, there’s a quick instance of laughter when Candie’s sister is killed.

She is blown from the scene like something out of “Poltergeist,” suddenly as if snatched from the room.  The audience almost laughed as loud as when Stephen got his comeuppance or when Django took the whip from an overseer or slave driver and administered his own vicious lashes.  “Whup the motherfucker!” someone cried in the theater setting off a chain reaction of the phrase.

In this moment of retribution I recalled the passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography when he was no longer going to take any more abuse from Covey the slave-breaker.  For nearly two hours Douglass and Covey fought each other and finally Covey had to concede he was defeated.  Douglass wrote:  “The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”  This, among hundreds of others, is the film we’re waiting for.

With bodies strewn all over the place (and the only thing more excessive is the N-word), Django’s revenge is partially fulfilled; however, there’s still the man who threatened to relieve him of his private parts as he was suspended upside down in a barn; there was still the quest to rescue Broomhilda, who, for the most part was little more than a Pauline tied to the railroad tracks waiting for her prince to come.

Okay, the ending was predictable but at least it was a Black hero riding off into the sunset with his wife, and you’ll notice she is armed with a rifle as if now ready to be an agent of her own liberation.  There is a moonwalk from Django’s horse and the two lovers are off to the sequel, huh?

Well, we don’t need another Tarantino film to remind us of what needs to be done cinematically.  “Django Unchained” is, overall, a mixture of Spaghetti Western, blaxploitation, satire, slave narrative, lampoon, send-up, and fairy tale, as my wife concluded.  No, it wasn’t a history lesson, just pure entertainment.  But the question is: have we, as a people, reached a level of progress and tolerance to laugh at the horrific moments of our past?

The Beautiful Kerry Washington

Kerry-Washington-Django-Unchained 

 Django’s Wife…The face that launched a slaughter

 Probably not, despite the hilarity from the audience, because so much of the past is still with us.  There’s too much mass incarceration of Blacks and the author Michelle Alexander has noted that we have more Black men and women in correctional control than were in bondage in 1850, about the time period of the film’s depiction.

Too many Black men stopped and frisked, harking back to the slave codes and Jim Crow laws; too much police brutality almost equal to the beatings administered by overseers patrolling the plantations.   Other ethnic groups may be able to enjoy their troubled past, but there is not enough variety of our experiences in popular culture, too few films of merit or worthy television shows for us to relax and laugh at our torture and oppression.

There is no way we can stop the Tarantino and others from mining the richness or the grotesque aspects of our culture, particularly when he is aided and abetted by Foxx, Jackson, Washington, and producer Reggie Hudlin.  So, what’s to be done?  The only real answer is for us to make our own films; films that begin to depict and articulate the glorious struggle we’ve waged for total freedom and liberation.  We have the resources and the talent, but the will doesn’t seem to be there.

It may take another generation or two before we’re completely “unchained” and ready to tell our own magnificent story where Douglass, Tubman, Robeson, Truth, and others can recount what they endured and overcome without interference from those with the wherewithal but a different agenda.

Meanwhile, “Whup, the motherfucker!!!”

 Leonardo di Capprio as the Sadistic Slave Master

dicaprio_django_unchained

 He projects the decadence and pure evil of American Slavery

****************

By Herb Boyd

Special to Commentaries on the Times

Game Change: A True Story

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Playthell on politics with tags , , , on March 14, 2012 by playthell
       
Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as McCain and Palin

How The Grand Obstructionist Party Created a Monster

To make a great movie requires an excellent script, creative and imaginative direction, great sets and costumes, background music that enhance the moving images on the screen, and splendid actors in virtuoso performances.  Game Change, the HBO movie about the John McCain/Sarah Palin 2008 presidential campaign, has all of this and more.

This impressive film converts a great work of reportage by two crack reporters, Mark Halpern and John Heileman, into a movie that captures the essential details of a complex historical event that changed the character of American politics.

The poll results from Mississippi which show 52% of Republicans believe the President is a Muslim, and Sean Hannity’s chatter about Barack’s relationship with Derrick Bell, a black Harvard law professor, is a replay of what Sarah Palin did with Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers. This is a continuing legacy of the Alaskan barbarian’s incendiary rhetoric.

What Republican election strategist demonstrated with the Palin con was that it is possible to convince large groups of people to vote against their own interest if you tell them lies over and over again through media outlets that they trust. And that has become the modus operandi of all the Republican candidates for President.

With great performances from veteran actors Ed Harris as John McCain, Julianne Moor as Sarah Palin and Woody Harreleson as senior campaign advisor John Schmidt, this movie provides an inside view of how a modern Presidential campaign is put together.

It becomes obvious early on that what they are about is the merger of art and political science that few in the electorate understand.  Yet they are so skillfully persuaded to make specific political choices they are even convinced that the choices they are making is a result of conclusions they have arrived at on their own.  Hidden persuaders indeed.

We see how the pollsters act as weathervanes constantly briefing the candidates on which way the   political winds are blowing; the experts who brief candidates on the wide array of facts that they have to convince the voters they are on top of; the coaches who prepare the candidates for televised debates; the wardrobe and make-up people who prepare them to face the camera’s on the campaign trail; the ad-men  and women who generate the slogans and political commercials, and the grand strategists who advise the candidate on the overall design of the campaign.

The most amazing revelation of this film however, is the way Sarah Palin was selected based on a laundry list of characteristics designed to appeal to a far right, racist, scandalously ignorant Republican base that John McCain – a filthy rich son and grandson of Navy Admirals who couldn’t remember how many mansions he owned – just couldn’t appeal to.

The teleplay goes on to show how they cynically continued to groom and promote her as someone who was capable of being President long after they knew she was a dunce with no clue about how the world works….and quite possibly an instable mental case!

It was one of the most scandalous and rekless acts in American political history.   This choice exposed John McCain as a wishy-washy power hungry opportunist who was willing to risk the fate on this nation for a chance to become Commander-In-Chief and one up his father and grandfather in the chain of command.  He knew that Tim Pawlenty or Joe Lieberman – a Jewish Democrat – would be better choices because they were capable of being President; which is a fundamental requirement for a Vice President.

It was the classic Faustian Bargain.  They created a monster whose sole contribution to American political culture is to make ignorance and bigotry fashionable, and the malicious folly Palin unleashed may well devour the Republican Party’s soul and insure defeat in the coming elections.

While McCain and Palin says they refuse to see the movie, yet hasten to denounce it as a biased trumped up account; some of those who made it happen like McCain’s Senior Advisor Steve Schmidt, played by Harreleson, and Nichole Wallace who was tasked with preparing Sarah before she bombed with Katie Couric, played by Sarah Paulson, have come forth and said the movie is not only accurate in all important details but they now regret their role in this dangerous farce.

They both are now ashamed of the role they played in creating the out of control political monster that is Sarah Palin,  and  they cringe at the memory that they tried to place her a heartbeat from the most powerful office in the world!  As we see in this film, come election day, Nichole Wallace couldn’t bring herself to vote for the ticket she had worked so hard to elect.

Finally her sense of patriotism got the best of her and she couldn’t pull the lever and help inflict the Alaskan Barbarian on the country she loves.  And the hard nose shark, Steve Schmidt, who began the campaign convinced that winning was everything….has confessed in an interiew on MSNBC that sometimes it is in the national interests that your candidate lose!  This is movie making at its best.

Woody Harrelson and Julianne Moore
 Prepping Dumb Dora

**************************

Playthell G, Benjamin

Harlem, New York

March 14, 2012

Midnight In Paris: A Flawed Masterpiece!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews on May 31, 2011 by playthell

 The Eiffel Tower Viewed From Pont Alexandre III Bridge

 

 A Magical Realist Fable

From the moment I saw the notice that Woody Allen had written and directed a movie set in Paris, in which the central character was captivated by the artistic history of the “City of Lights,” I knew it was going to be a fascinating journey.  With America’s most consistently intelligent, inventive and uniquely visionary filmmaker exploring my second favorite city – New York is in first place – I figured it was a can’t miss proposition.

I was not, as it turns out, altogether accurate in my expectations.  Still, the film has many notable achievements.  Since I have long felt that  Woody Allen’s work has more in common with the European art film – ala Luis Buniel’s “Discreet Charm Of the Bourgeoisie,” Lina Wurtmueler’s “Swept Away,” the films of Frederico Fellini, etc. -  he seemed completely at home exploring Paris.

For these European filmmakers Ideas, character development and artistic photography is preferred to guns, explosions and car chases that dominate the content of American films. Deep explorations of complex human motivation and interactions are privileged over ostentatious exhibitions of the technical capability for creating fantastic illusions that is available to the contemporary filmmaker.

Since these films are so costly to produce their primary objective is not artistic but financial success. This is the reason why some of the most interesting films, moving pictures whose narratives increase our knowledge of the world and enrich us culturally and even spiritually, are confined to the small “art movie houses” like the Angelica.

Visually Midnight In Paris may well be Woody’s most beautiful film; his approach to his subject was like a fine artist painting a pertty woman and is determined to faithfully capture her most alluring features and compelling charms.   Although he was helped by the incredible beauty of the City – no American city can match Paris’ timeless beauty; New Orleans is but a pale imitation – Woody managed to present a unique perspective on a cityscape that we have seen many times before.

The lush photography, much of it shot at night, composes a love poem to this celebrated city…Woody’s adoration is palpable.  If it takes one to know one, I think it fair to say that he is a worshipful admirer of this crowning achievement of French civilization.

The tale revolves around a highly successful Hollywood screenwriter who feels that he has missed his true calling as a novelist, and yearns to leave the cultural desert of “La La Land” to relocate in Paris where he hopes to find the muse that inspired the great artists of post war Paris in the 1920′s.  Especially that fabulous coterie of American expatriates collectively known as “The Lost Generation,” whose cross cultural interactions and exchange of aesthetic ideas with the European avant garde created modern art.  A milieu that one of its most illustrious figures, future Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway, called: “A Movable Feast.”

Wonderfully played by Owen Wilson, the bumbling, self-deprecating, somewhat clueless, yet thoughtful and intelligent young American seeker of wisdom and truth is the kind of role that woody usually plays in his films.  I would hazard the guess that Woody cast Owen in the role because he is too old to play it himself.

However it is clear that age has not eroded the incisive wit, penetrating intelligence and riotous humor of Woody Allen.  Like any imaginative writer who is at all familiar with the fascinating history of this city, the temptation to explore that illustrious legacy is ever present. And he makes the most of it.

By juxtaposing the materialistic obsessions and cultural indifference of our hapless hero’s fiancee and her parents – who are visiting Paris on a business trip – he establishes what many people believe to be the central difference in the values of French and the American civilization: Americans worship commerce and the French revere culture.

Hence in America becoming a billionaire is the pinnacle of achievement, while in France it is the great intellectual or artists that is the height of human aspiration.   He does this not by preaching, but in cleaver telling lines casually dropped like silent but deadly farts.  It is also made clear in the aspirations of the writer and his fiancée.

 Star Crossed Lovers

 

 Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams were entertaining in the roles

While he has become bored with the sterile conspicuous consumption paid for by writing commercially successful but simple minded Hollywood flicks – and the even more banal rewrite jobs on the scripts of less talented writers – and wants to relocate to Paris and live the bohemian life typical of the engaged artists of the 20’s, his future wife dismisses his dream as dangerous foolishness and aspires to own an even bigger house on posh Malibu Beach.

Woody brings all of the disdain of the cosmopolitan New Yorker who finds life in the US nearly impossible outside of Manhattan – a sentiment shared by this writer – to his characterization of the vulgar materialism and cultural impoverishment of the fiancée and her parents.

Since none of the things that interest the writer also  interest her they soon end up going their own way.  After wandering off and getting lost in the winding streets of Paris, unable to speak the language he ends up sitting on the steps of a building trying to gain his bearings. As the clock strikes midnight a cab filled with champagne drinking revelers suddenly stops and insist that he join their party.

This is the beginning of a series of surreal encounters with ghosts from the past, the mythical figures who populate his fantasies.  They are all there, and in a series of encounters over the next few days he engages in conversations that take us back to that halcyon era when the most influential creative personalities of the age were working out the aesthetics of what we now understand as modernism.

 Cole Porter

A Master Tunesmith

“Music gives resonance to memory” wrote Ralph Ellison, and Woody Allen evidently believes it too. A clarinetist of mediocre talent but longstanding interest in traditional New Orleans Jazz and the great American songbook, he demonstrates the power of music to evoke the ambiance of an era.  No composer’s music captures this era of Gay Parisian life like the witty literate lyrics set to the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and blues based music that characterized the songs of Cole Porter; who was a prominent presence among the band of gifted American expatriates that included the poet T.S. Elliot, Novelist Earnest Hemingway, the abstract painter Man Ray, writer/critic and patron of the arts Gertrude Stein, et al.  All through this unique and clever movie the music of Cole Porter plays in the background, supplying the soundtrack of a unique era.  Along with the excellent costumes and elegant settings we are convincingly taken back in time.

The Americans are joined by an equally gifted cast of Europeans that include the film makers Jean Cocteau and Luis Buniel, painters Degas, Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Salvadore Dali and Tolouse Le Trec, the talented dwarf whose paintings of Parisian showgirls and whores continue to fascinate art lovers around the world.  That we encounter him sitting at his table in the Moulin Rouge, where many of his paintings were composed, is a measure of the extent to which Woody Allen has attempted to maintain the authenticity of the era in the telling of his revealing fable about the folly of seeking a return to “Golden Ages” long past.

I shall say no more about the plot, or the lessons it teaches, because then I will have said too much and ruined the experience for those who read this.  Which in my view would be something of a sin and a shame; I will have denied to you gentle reader the exquisite pleasure I experienced in the theater just to demonstrate how clever I am.

It is enough to say that this beautifully achieved film reaches a level of intellectual gravitas that one associates with a well written novel of ideas.  In fact, some of the aesthetic devices Woody Allen employs remind me of the “Magical Realism” of great novelists like the Brazilian Jorge Amado, the Columbian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Afro-American Ishmael Reed.

In fact, the way Allen moves back and forward in time as if traveling from one room to another, and his use of satire and parody to eviscerate the ideas of his philosophical adversaries, remind me very much of  Reed’s Novel’s “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, “Flight to Canada” and “Japanese By Spring.”  Although it is rumored abroad that Mel Brooks filched the aesthetic concept for his hit movie “Blazing Saddles” from Reed’s “Yellow Back Radio,” I would not suggest that Woody is guilty of the same practice; although one cannot copyright concepts and all writers plagiarize each other all the time.  At the end of the day however, it is the magnificent city of Paris, with its striking architectural beauty and endless cultural attractions that is the star of the show.

When I visited Paris for the first time to attend a conference at the Sorbonne, which explored the history of black artists in that city, I wrote an essay titled, “Le Professors Noir et Paris: Uncovering a Cultural Legacy,” which was published in Ishmael Reed’s cultural journal Conch.  But when that failed to assuage the urge to explore the city’s colorful history, I wrote five big chapters in the second volume of my yet unpublished novel that delves into the it’s exciting past.

Once I took a walk around that magical city I immediately understood how France’s colonial subjects who came to Paris to get a university education fell in love with French culture and was willing to assimilate. Its ambiance is intoxicating, its culture infectious and its grandeur cannot be denied.

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Alas, while this brilliant master work by Woody Allen captures much of the Parisian milieu of the 1920’s,  he fails to present a completely faithful portrait of  Americans in Paris in the same way that his contemporary portraits of Manhattan also fail.  This failure lies in his treatment of the black presence.

Even as the music playing in the background displays the marked influence of the Blues, Ragtime and New Orleans Jazz – characterized by the syncopated rhythms and prominence of the wailing bluesy clarinet – Allen ignores the tremendous influence of black Americans in the era of “Le Jazz Hot” in Paris.

So prominent was Jazz music in Paris during this period that Anthropologist William Shack, who studied this development tells us: “Between World Wars I and II, Paris became the center for the diffusion in all of Europe of that emerging popular musical genre called jazz. Introduced to France by African American soldiers during World War I, jazz captivated the French, sustaining a despotic hold over them throughout the second Great War. France’s fascination with jazz continues to this day.”

The Parisian love of black American instrumental music began when French musicians heard the great military band of the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment of New York, which was called “The Harlem Hell Fighters” by the French!  They were the most highly decorated American regiment by France in world War I, and wherever they went they were celebrated by the French people.  Especially the mademoiselles!

James Reece Europe Conducting his band in France

They mesmerized the Crowd and confounded French Musicians

Composed of great black New York musicians, and led by master musician James Reese Europe, a pioneer in the development of Afro-American complex instrumental music, this band was called “The greatest military band in the history of the western world” by James Weldon Johnson – himself a twentieth century Renaissance man.  Whether Johnson’s  assessment is true or not – and as a founder of ASCAP and brother of J. Rosamond Johnson, one of America’s greatest musicians, he is a reliable critic.  And as the Puerto Rican musician, poet, and musicologist Aurora Flores points out “Sixteen of the horn players were Afro-Puertoricans that Reese recruited directly from the Island. Among them the internationally acclaimed composer Rafael Hernandez who then remained in N.Y. opening the first Latin music record store in East Harlem in 1927!”

Afro-Puerto Rican Composer Rafael Hernandez

Harlem Hell fighters!  Rafael is on the Left

Jim Europe’s orchestra’s presence in France during World War I changed French music and had a profound effect on French culture.  When the Harlem Hellfighters’ band played a concert of French marches and Afro-American Ragtime music in Paris after the Armistice, the French musicians refused to believe that they were not playing specially designed instruments.  And they changed their minds only after they gave the black American musicians their instruments to play and heard them produce the same exotic sounds.

As Aurora pointed out, one of those brass players that so astonished the French musicians was the great trombonist Jaun Tizol, who went on to world wide fame with the premiere American exponent of Afro-American classical music: The Duke Ellington Orchestra!  In fact he co-wrote one of the Orchestra’s major hits; the American standard “Caravan,” which has been recorded by some of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.  Ellington remembered their collaboration: “One day in 1936,  trombonist Juan “Tizol came up with part of it… it wasn’t in tempo, he stood and sort of ad libbed. He played the  first ten bars, and we took it and worked out the rest of it.”

Jaun would visit Paris and thrill music lovers many times after his historic performance with the Harlem Hell Fighters Band.  They were just as big a hit when they marched down Fifth Avenue with the incomparable dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson marching out front as Drum Major!

Jaun Tizol

Jaun Tizol is in the Middle of Section

When Jim Europe returned from France, he made the following statement about that experience in an article published in a 1919 edition of the Literary Digest titled A Negro Explains Jazz:  “I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negroes should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies…. We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”

This was a decision that had a profound effect on the direction of Afro-American and French music.  In the post war period that followed, many blacks decided to remain in France where they were not the objects of racial hatred but admired liberators.  Afro-American style became en vogue with the dawn of the “Jazz Age.”

Hence during the period covered in this movie, anthropologist William A. Shack tells us in his study Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars, “Harlem-style nightclub culture rapidly paved the streets of Montmartre. Like missionaries of jazz, black American musicians spread the gospel of hot sounds in tiny cafes and a few sumptuous settings that attracted rich and famous British and American tourists, and French socialites. In the Parisian music idiom, this era of the Roaring Twenties was often called the era of Le Jazz hot.”

“Paris, in the twenties, witnessed the rise to stardom of black American Josephine Baker in her musical La Revue Negre; she later became the toast of the City of Light. Ada Smith, better known as “Bricktop,” brought to Paris her experience of nightclub life gained in the cabaret worlds of Chicago and Harlem. Eugene Jacques Bullard, the United States first black combat pilot, who flew for France during World War I, held forth at his nightclub, Le Grand Duc, where he served up jazz and soul food, in equal proportions.

“These developments in the Montmartre jazz scene coincided with the making of the Harlem Renaissance, which shaped the professional and personal lives of black American musicians, composers, writers, and artists. In Paris, their interactions among themselves and with the wider Parisian society molded the day-to-day character of Harlem in Montmartre.”

Eugene Bullard: The World’s First Black Military Aviator

He Escaped the Racism of Georgia and found Glory in France!

Any one of these personalities deserve a movie of their own, especially Eugene Bullard, who was not only became an Ace fighter pilot in the French Air Force, after first distinguishing himself as an infantryman, but married a beautiful upper class French woman with the family’s blessings.  However Bullard was not the only dashing black war veteran making the rounds in Post war Paris.  There was the colorful Senegalese prize fighter Amadou M’Barick Fall, whose ring name was  “Battling Siki.” Having  won the highest awards given by the French government  for valor  in combat – the Croix-de-Guerre and Military Medal – Amadou was one of the most decorated veterans in France.

Battling Siki!

A Dapper Gentleman, Siki is on the left

Ready To Rumble!

The First African World Champion

On September 24, 1922, Battling Siki won the World Light-Heavyweight Championship, before a crowd of forty thousand  spectators at the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris.  The crowd was stunned by his spectacular victory, in which he stopped the Frenchman Georges Carpentier in the early rounds with his famous “Windmill Punch.”  Among the astonished spectators was none other than boxing aficionado and amateur pugilist Earnest Hemingway, Who would later write about it.

A fairly typical American racist, who barred Jackie Robinson when he invited the Brooklyn Dodgers to his home in Cuba, Hemingway resented Siki’s humiliation of the white champion – like Muhammad Ali some forty years later Siki taunted Carpentier by telling him “you don’t hit that hard” every time the champ landed a blow.  Siki was an elegant dresser, big partyer and ladies man.

But despite the fact that he was a highly decorated war hero and spoke several languages including reading and writing French, he was often ridiculed by jealous Frenchmen as an “African Savage who spoke in grunts”and the Championzee.  Clearly the admiration that the French felt for the dashing Afro-Americans was not extended to all their African colonial subjects, in spite of the thousands of Senegalese soldiers who died on the the battle field in defense of France in the Great War.

Nevertheless Siki had plenty of admires – especially among the ladies – and cut a dashing figure promenading about Paris with his pet lion on a leash.  He was also known for firing his pistol in the air after a bit too much champagne.   He was murdered in New York’s Hell’s kitchen by a gunshot in the back in 1925, after having survived an incident with a southern sheriff when he defied segregation laws as a French citizen.  A full fledged biography was published on him by the University of Arkansas Press in 2006, “Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920s,” by Professor Peter  Benson.

Then there was the fabulous Josephine Baker, who promenaded about Paris dressed to kill with her pet leopard, and later became a secret agent for the French resistance against the Nazi’s.  How could Old Woody, who shows so much insight otherwise, overlook these marvelous characters that would have added vivid color to his tale – pun intended.

“La Bakiar” and Her Cat!

She was the most Spectacular Woman in Paris! 

In Naughty Paris….

She Redefined Female Sensuality and was Paris’ biggest Star!

This entire cultural phenomenon, as fascinating as it was, is given only a brief cameo in the film when Zelda Fitzgerald –  a vapid suicidal drunk – suggested that they leave the posh white party they were attending and go over to Brick Top’s club where the real action was.  Brick Top, who got her nick name because her hair was the color of red bricks, was a fascinating figure.  she learned about the night club business from World Heavy-weight Champion Jack Johnson, who opened the most fabulous night club in Chicago after he won the the title from Tommy Burns, and  gave it a French name: “Cafe du Champion.”

Brick Top was the featured singer and Girl Friday in the club, so she learned the night club business from the top of the food chain.  She was actually on stage performing when Jack’s white wife blew her brains out upstairs because she was despairing over his open affairs with other women – most of whom were also white!

Once in the club we hear the exciting sound of black Jazz, and observe a beautiful elegantly dressed black woman doing a sensual dance that mesmerized the crowd. However we are left to surmise who she is, for no one speaks her name.  Viewers who are knowledgeable of this period, like the present writer, can assume that she is Josephine Baker.

But why should we have to wonder when he gives ample space to Zelda, who couldn’t wash Josephine’s drawers if talent, beauty, and cultural influence are the measuring stick!  But then, if as spike Lee and others have pointed out, blacks are invisible in Woody’s films about New York – where black people are everywhere – what can we expect when the setting is Paris in the 1920’s.

However all this begs yet another question: “Is this what white folks mean when they talk about the “color blind society?”  Are we to go from objects of derision to the Invisible Man?   Is that to be our fate on the silver screen?  The answer to that question really lies with the black community itself, because we have our own great artists of the cinema:  Spike Lee, the Hudlin Brothers, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Euzhan Palcy, John Singleton, et al.  These filmmakers are more than capable of producing a body of works about black life to rival the stories of any group of cinematic artists anywhere.  But they have little or no support from their primary audience.

Thanks to the documentarian St. Claire Bourne, we have a film short portraying Langston Hughes in Paris, where he was a ‘cook” and dish washer in Bullard’s Club Le Grand Duc.  Although Woody makes no mention of him either, there is no more influential poet in the 20th century!  Langston is the father of black poetry – poetry based on the rhythms of black music, a genre free of European aesthetic conventions, whether in English, French or Spanish on both sides of the Ocean – this is well documented in the two volume masterwork “The Life of Langston Hughes,” by one of our  our great literary scholars Arnold Rampersad.

I suspect that his omission was motivated as much by ignorance of history as racial chauvinism.  Nevertheless, Langston tutored the great Afro-Cuban poet Nicholas Guillien, who would go on to not only inspire an Afro-Cu ban movement in literature, but would also become the Poet Laureate of revolutionary Cuba!  When Langston met Guillien he was writing in conventional European poetic forms; he asked him one day after listening to Guillien read some of his verse: “Why don’t you write poems based on the rhythms of the rumba?”

Since one of the things Guillien loved about Langston’s poetry was it’s blues forms and cadences, he took heed.  The result was the birth of an entirely new poetic form in the Spanish language.  Langston had the same effect on the great Haitian writer Jacques Romain author of the poetic and insightful novel about the Haitian Peasantry “Masters of the Dew.”  This novel was quite an achievement for a Haitian man of of Jacques color and class.  And Langston helped him see the beauty of the peasantry.

When he met Jacques he was writing French Sonnets, which reflected his French education and francophillc cultural orientation.  Langston told him to listen to the drums in the Voodoo rituals and other “tom toms” for his rhythmic conception.  Langston’s own poems was a critical element in sparking the Negritude Movement in the black Francophone world in Africa and the diaspora, as one of the leading lights of that movement “Leopold Sedar Senghor,” testifies at the beginnig of St. Claire Bourne’s film.

Langston Hughes was clearly as interesting as any personality in the “Lost Generation” of American expatriates in Jazz Age Paris, and was better  looking and a sharper dresser too!  But you wouldn’t know any of this from Woody Allen’s movie. Yet until Afro-Americans support their serious cinematic artists we shall remain invisible in the great film narratives that shape reality in the minds of thoughtful people around the world.  And the failure to include the black presence on the part of serious white filmmakers will continue to result in a gross distortion of reality that, at its best, can only produce a flawed masterpiece like Midnight In Paris.

Langston Hughes:  He worked out the Jazz esthetic

of his poetry while Washing dishes at Le Gran Duc!

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See the Harlem Hell fighters Band playing in Paris

http://youtu.be/j-nCIGtIuj4

Double click on this link!

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 31, 2011

A Night At The Oscars

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism with tags , , , on March 9, 2010 by playthell

Actress Anika Noni Rose

How Far Have People Of Color Come?

They say if you live long enough you will eventually see everything.  That’s the feeling I got watching the Academy Awards last night.  Ever since my parents first took me to the movies I have been bewitched by the special magic of the silver screen.  In the period before the advent of wide screen color television, going to the movies was a very big deal – especially after the invention of Cinemascope and Technicolor films.

The importance of “moving pictures” in our popular culture can be readily seen in the grandeur of the movie theaters of the mid twentieth century – just as the magnificence of Grand Central station reflects the critical importance trains once were to our material culture.  These palatial edifices were modern secular temples where we went to worship the gods and goddesses of popular culture as they cavorted about the giant silver screen conjuring up grand illusions.

All of the theaters had stages with heavy velvet curtains. And as the giant speakers pumped out symphonic music announcing the coming attractions, the curtains opened slowly, titillating our senses and filling us with great expectations.  In those days people dressed up in their Sunday best – suits and ties for men, silk stockings and gloves for women – when they went out to the movies.

It was a very big deal indeed, especially if you were living in a small southern town where there wasn’t much to do, and if you were black it was your only window into the goings on in white America.  And If you were black you always had to be on guard for racist insulting images of your people.  Often times I was glad that we were sitting in segregated balconies – which the white folks called “the Crows nest” – so I wouldn’t have to watch them smirk at the black buffoons on the screen.  Glamour and heroism, the staples of Hollywood fantasy, was confined to white characters exclusively.

Black people were either mindless African savages terrified of the white Tarzan, or grinning, shuffling, Sambos who waited on and fussed over white folks with ever ready smiles.  They had no families, no lovers, no network of friends, and no life beyond serving or amusing white folks.  Indeed the great Afro-American writer Langston Hughes pointed this out after concluding a stint in Hollywood.

On June 2, 1939 – just as Hitler was beginning to plunge Europe into a war that would kill 50 million people – Langston spoke to a conference of radical writers at Carnegie Hall.  The title of his speech was Democracy And Me, and he said of the black image in Hollywood’s popular films: “On the screen we are servants, clowns, or fools…in so far as Negroes are concerned, Hollywood might just as well be controlled by Hitler.”

In such a world it was obvious that come Oscar night there were no black faces on the red carpet.  And although in eighty two years no black director has won an Oscar  for a feature film – in spite of the fact that Spike Lee should have won several – and no black executive can green light a film at a major company, African Americans are now an integral part of the film business.

Tyler Perry has his own “back lot” in Atlanta – 3000 miles from Hollywood – and thus green lights his own films, and Ice cube is a genuine movie mogul who makes all decisions about his projects.  Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world, and although Morgan freeman and Denzel Washington are consummate masters of the actor’s craft, they are but two of a gifted phalanx of black actors and actresses who are both talented and well schooled.

And they cut as glamorous a figure with their beautiful black, brown and beige selves as any of the alabaster stars Hollywood can offer.  They exhibit all the elegance one hears in Duke Ellington’s classic tone poem “Black, Brown and Beige Suite.”

Back in the day it would have been impossible to imagine a movie about a heroic African such as Nelson Mandela – for whose portrayal Morgan Freeman garnered an Oscar nomination – hence this is definitely a sign of progress.  Yet Hollywood, like the rest of the white dominated media, still appears to prefer pathology over heroism when portraying black life.

My daughter Makeda observed for instance, that while the white critical establishment has gone ga ga over “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” for which Sandra Bullock finally received an Oscar, they were practically indifferent to “The Great Debaters,” a wonderful film that was both exciting and spiritually uplifting.

The Motion Picture Academy ignored this film in spite of the fact that it was heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey – who produced it and whose endorsement is usually enough to insure commercial success – and starred Denzell Washington, who also directed the film.  The obvious difference between this film and the Oscar winning films is that they depict radically different views of African American life.  And that difference is instructive.

 

The Great Debaters

In this year’s two Oscar winning movies the most pathological aspects of African American life are presented to the world with great fanfare.  Here the black youths are nihilistic grotesqueries who are nearly sub-human; while in The Great Debaters the black youths are brilliant, optimistic, joyous, elegant and self-confident; in a word heroic!

And since the movie is based in a black college in the deep south during a period when African Americans lived under a system of “white supremacy,” sustained by armed white terrorist in and outside of the government, the black adults who taught them and prepared these Youths to compete in a system where everything was arrayed against them were some of the most heroic figures this nation has yet produced.  And it was based on a true story to boot!

Professor Melvin Tolson, the distinguished poet and fearless freedom fighter played by Denzell Washington, is such a fascinating historical figure he deserves a full length film just on his life and works.  Melvin Tolson was the son and grandson of preachers – those black clerical bards who created the greatest oratorical style in the world, poets by audience demand – and he was at times a poet, professor and professional pugilist.

Hence Tolson was a natural at the art of debate, and the students he trained were invincible!  As the late James farmer, the founder of CORE, cavalierly observed after vanquishing Malcolm X in a debate: “ Malcolm never had a chance; he didn’t come up under Professor Tolson.”  This is the stuff of heroic epics, but the Motion Picture Academy was unmoved.

Hence this years Oscar awards suggest that when it comes to the Afro-American image on the silver screen the more things change the more they remain the same.  White folks are still more comfortable with bizarre tales of black pathology than uplifting stories of black heroism, and apparently a lot of black folks too, judging by ticket sales.

This is why the white critical celebration of “Precious” has been greeted with suspicion by some of the smartest black film critics and pundits.  In spite of my having disagreed with him from time to time – in print and radio commentaries – the reigning Dean of Afro-American film critics Armond White sometimes gets it right.  And he has been vociferous in his critique.

Speaking of Afro-American media moguls Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s role as “Executive Producers” of the movie White argues, “Perry and Winfrey naively treat Precious’ exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment as if it were raw truth. It helps contrast and highlight their achievements as black American paradigms—self-respect be damned. “

Had Mr. White left it at that, one might have been tempted to say Amen!    But Mr. White is too often like the proverbial cow that gives a great bucket of milk then kicks it over before it can be used.  His review “Pride and Precious” published in the November 4, 2009 edition of The New York Press, a small downtown newspaper from which the above quotation was excerpted, supplies incriminating evidence of this tendency.

For instance, Mr. White does not just dismiss the film as art, he goes on to besmirch the character and question the motives of Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Perry in a convoluted argument that strikes me as pretentious and irrelevant sophistry.  It is a tedious polemic that confuses more than it clarifies, obfuscates more than it enlightens.

A representative sample of what I am talking about can be seen in the following passage: “Let’s scrutinize their endorsement: Precious isn’t simply a strivers’ message movie; Perry and Winfrey recognize its propaganda value. The story of an overweight black teenage girl who is repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father, molested and beaten by her mother comes from a 1990s identity-politics novel by a poet named Sapphire. It piles on self pity and recrimination consistent with the air-quotes’ own oft-recounted back stories. Promoting this movie isn’t just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.”

It is hard to find a more compelling example of erudition and nonsense in one paragraph.  Mr. white ranks right up there with pundits like Monica Crowley and David Brooks in demonstrating that ideology can trump erudition when passion triumphs over reason.  I had hoped for a more useful i.e. coherent critique from Mr. White alas.

Being a pugnacious polemicist by nature, I am tempted to deconstruct his pretentious albeit muddled tract, but so expansive a discussion is far beyond the scope of this commentary.  Yet if the argument around “Precious” and the proper  role of black cinema persists, I may be forced into the fray.  However the rhetorical excesses of Mr. White notwithstanding, there are some legitimate questions surrounding “Precious” that cry out for thoughtful discussion.

To begin with it is fair to ask if there is an ancestral imperative that require black artists to clarify and diversify the black experience in this country; to honor their struggles, which, after all, made it possible for them to be doing what they are doing and be recognized and handsomely paid while pursuing a labor of love.  One of the major battles of our most thoughtful and committed ancestors was to counter the dehumanizing images of black culture and personality that flowed from the white owned and controlled apparatus of mass cultural indoctrination.

Indeed, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founded the Association For the Study Of Negro Life and History in the 1920′s because he thought the physical survival of African Americans in this country depended upon changing the racist images of  whites were painting of us in the mass media, especially movies! A good place to begin in an attempt to asses how far we have come would be to critique the images of black women in “Gone With The Wind,” seventy one years ago, with the images in “Precious.”

While most black Americans I knew found Ms. McDaniel’s character “Mammy” embarrassing, compared to Monique’s character Mary Jones she was a paragon of virtue. While Mary Jones is a nihilistic socio-path engaged in criminal child abuse, a scourge on society, Mammy was the vessel through which the highest values of the ante-bellum and post-bellum southern aristocracy was communicated to the children of the high and mighty.

She was a critical link in the socialization of the white southern elite.  Consider what the white racist Mississippi novelist and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner had inscribed on the tomb stone of his black maid: “Mammy, her white children bless her.” And in his eulogy delivered at her funeral he credited her with teaching him how to become a civilized man and said: “If there is a heaven Mammy will be there.”

Then Faulkner named his next novel after her favorite Afro-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” and dedicated the book to her memory.  Which, of course, is irrefutable evidence of how racism fucked up even the smartest white southerners!

Both Hattie and Monique are full figured dark skinned women; and in their roles they were cast as the antithesis of the glamorous movie star. With shabby clothes and bandanas on their heads, the publicity pictures for both films are remarkably alike. Both are perfect representations of the black mammy stereotype physically.

Yet if Hattie’s antebellum slave mammy was a far more humane character cast in a racist, sentimental plantation romance from over half a century ago the critical question becomes: what does this say about the judgment of those who celebrate this film as a triumph for black Americans in the cinema; the taste of the black literary audience that has made pathology laden “ghetto novels” the best selling genre of black fiction; or the preferences of the hundreds of whites who make up the motion picture academy that award the Oscars?

This is, to be sure, a touchy question. For I am against imposing a politically correct conception of art on black creative artists that amounts to a dramatic version of “the sunshine news.” This would be a dangerous business, because as Mao Tse Tung observed in his “Lectures at the Yeman Forum on Literature and Art, all art may be propaganda “but not all propaganda is art.”  I am inclined to let a thousand flowers bloom, and as all who are familiar with Milton’s “Paradise Lost” recognize: The Devil is more interesting than God as a subject for literary treatment.

This is because the essence of drama is conflict and thus unsavory characters and dirty doings make for exciting stories that can also provide an opportunity for moral lessons.  But to pull this off requires sharp intelligence, deep insight into human character and sound literary technique.  Otherwise a narrative can slip unintentionally from tragedy to farce. I have yet to decide in which category Precious rightly belongs, but I for one hope it’s success does not accelerate this trend toward the bottom in Afro-American popular culture which seems to be growing ever stronger.

Hattie McDaniel and Vivian Leigh

Mammy:

A mountain of Strength and  Purveyor of Aristocratic Southern Values

Monique As Mary

A Twisted Nihilistic Child Abuser

Monique Wins It All!

Unlike many of the Oscar winners last Sunday, Monique seemed neither shocked nor lost for words when her name was called out as winner of the Academy Award. Like anyone who received such a coveted prize she was visibly moved, but she never lost her composure.  Indeed, her acceptance speech was ideal: eloquent, cogent and brief.

“First, I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” She said.  And I jumped for joy when she said “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”

As she was walking to the stage, decked out in a blue dress with white flowers in her hair like Hattie McDaniel wore when she received her Oscar, I was thinking about Ms. McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar, who also won for Best Supporting Actress in the plantation school fantasy “Gone With The Wind” – a racist, sentimental romance bemoaning the “lost cause” of the confederacy.

It is a measure of how far we have advanced in American society that when the movie was released Ms. McDaniel was not allowed to attend the premiere in Atlanta, while today Monique hosts a nightly television show from that same southern city that’s broadcast nationwide over the black entertainment Network.

Still, when we compare the image of black women in “Gone With The With The Wind” and “Precious,” and the latter turns up wanting, the thoughtful observer must wonder exactly how far we have come in terms of controlling our image in the movies?  And in searching for the answer to this complex question, it is no small matter that this movie is based on a text written by a black woman and created by a black scriptwriter and director.

Monique concluded her acceptance speech with generous props to those who made the movie possible.  Looking out into the  audience where they sat she said, “ Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey because you touched it, the whole world saw it. Ricky Anderson, our attorney of Anderson & Smith, thank you for your hard work. My entire BET family, my Precious family, thank you so much. To my amazing husband Sidney, thank you for showing me that sometimes you have to forego doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right. And baby, you were so right. God bless us all.”

The lady has a point alas.   Whatever one may think of the subject matter, the enthusiastic response of those who saw it tells us that some people find it a compelling story. And thus one can argue that it deserves to be told.  And great performances should be rewarded whether we like the characters or not.  Furthermore, when one listen to Monique’s explanation of why she  chose to play the role one begins to see the project in a different light.

Revealing that she was sexually abused by her brother, Monique says that she became committed to this project after reading the script because she felt it would throw a light on  family abuse and inspire people – men and women, black, white or other – to stand up and speak out because help is available and they can heal themselves with professional help.

While therapy and moral instruction are certainly worthy goals, it’s long past time to celebrate the heroism in Afro-American history and culture.  To make movies that inspire our youths to strive for greatness; to reach for those things that others say are beyond their  grasp is the essence of the ancestral imperative.

I want to see some movies on brilliant and talented afro-Americans like the Astronauts Dr. Mae Jamison – a pioneer in space medicine who is  brilliant and beautiful – and Dr. Ronald McNair, a PhD in laser physics from MIT, an accomplished jazz saxophonist and a black belt in Karate.

Before his life was prematurely ended in the Challenger explosion he was planning to hang out at the space station and practice Charlie Parker riffs on his sax, which were already out of this world.  Dr. McNair was also a splendid husband and father.  Not bad for a black man who began life as a sharecropper in the racist state of South Carolina.

And where, the thoughtful person must ask, are the movies on Duke Ellington and the beautiful gifted pianist/singer Hazel Scott, and her husband Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who was also the pastor of the venerable Abyssinia Baptist church.  And how is it possible that a major movie has been made on that crude, sadistic, palooka Jake La-Motta while the story of the fabulous  of Sugar Ray Robinson – who whipped La-Motta four out of five times, spanking him like he was his daddy – remains untold on the silver screen.

Aside from being considered by many boxing wise guys as the best pound for pound pugilist ever, Sugar was also a drummer and tap dancer who was good enough to headline an act.  He was also the best dressed man in America, with such high style the Caddillac company produced a special Flamingo Pink color just for his cars!  And what of Daniel “Chappie” James, the air force fighter pilot who became a four star general and commander of NORAD with the power to launch nuclear weapons without consulting the president that could destroy the earth!   I could go on, but the point is made.

Jenny From the Block

Yet the question remains: When will stories of Afro-American heroism trump tawdry tales of gloom and doom as the principle themes for artistic explorations of black life?   In a way this is the question being asked by all non-white American minorities seeking to define their image and culture in the popular imagination.

The feisty Nuyorican actress Rosie Prez, who speaks English with an El Barrio brogue, has observed ironically that she and Selma Hyak are the only actresses who regularly play Latina’s in American movies because the others are often cast as various European nationalities – especially the gorgeous Jennifer Lopez, the biggest Latin movie star of them all.

Hence achieving a fair representation of our people in the mass image making machinery is the challenge that now confronts the black and Latin communities, no matter what we may think of Precious.

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Harlem, New York

March 2010

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