Archive for the Movie Reviews Category

Fallen Angel: Self-Destructing before the World  

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , on July 7, 2015 by playthell


Amy during better days
 The Short and Tragic Life of Amy Winehouse

The new documentary film on the British singer Amy Winehouse now playing at the Sunset Theater in the East Village is beautifully produced and directed by Asif Kapadia. Over the course of two hours and eight minutes we are provided a remarkable look into the life of this six time Grammy winner who rose up from the London working class and captured a world-wide audience writing and singing songs based on the vicissitudes of the high times and bizarre episodes that mark the rise and fall of her short but remarkable life.  Watching the movie I got the impression that we were witnessing the human equivalent of a shooting star that blazes across the night skies in a bright flash of light and then flames out before our eyes.

The film is thoughtfully constructed from video clips of her life; some of it is finely produced footage from her live performances in the UK and the USA, but most of the footage comes from family and friends.  Thus we see her in a wide variety of settings.  Some of the film has sound, and thus we can observe her speaking, but other footage is accompanied by voice overs of Amy speaking.  Hence we hear a lot of her story in her own words. And what we see is a young person of considerable creative talent who appears to understand little in life except making music, and cannot overcome the deep seated emotional problems caused by the lasting trauma of her father abandoning her and her mother at an early age.

This leaves her with a deep need to be loved by men, or at least win their approval, and her emotional neediness drives her into a destructive relationship with a guy who is also emotionally damaged because of a screwed up relationship with his parents.    He promises to be her rock and help Amy cope and instead he introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Abuse of these drugs along with excessive alcohol consumption final did her in at the tender age of 27.  However in the meantime she managed to become an international superstar who could have become fabulously rich if she had been able to stay sober.

Although Amy’s particular experience is unique, the basic narrative is an old story: old wine in a new bottle.  In many ways her saga is so familiar she comes across at times as a cliché, depending upon who is watching it.  For those who know something of music business history and inside lore it is easy to place Amy’s self-destructiveness within a tradition of music history in the 20th century. Creative geniuses like Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix self-destructed on drugs, and there is a long line of singers whose fame and fortune couldn’t rescue them from self-destruction: Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Elvis Pressley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, et al.  However none of them acted their destruction on stages with a million people watching.

Under Asif Karpadia’s direction we are provided glimpses of Amy’s life before she became a star, when she was a passably pretty girl who was more sensuous that beautiful; her best feature being full pouty lips –DSL’s that forced one’s mind into the gutter –and her long black hair, which she often wore in “big hair” styles resembling the popular “beehive” styles of the 1960’s.  She reminded me of one of those smart mouth delinquent working class English girls in the British movie “To Sir with Love,” starring an unusually stiff and priggish Sidney Portier.

But after all is said and done the raison d’etre for this documentary film is Amy Winehouse’s talent and importance as a musical artist.  On this issue the movie becomes an extended panegyric that degenerates into special pleading.   While there is no doubt that Ms. Winehouse had talent, it is a gross exaggeration to call her “The Queen of Soul,” while the real queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin, was alive and well – not to mention her numerous Afro-American progeny such as Whitney Houston, Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé et al who are singing their asses off in the tradition.  And Tony Bennet’s claim that she was “one of the purest jazz singer I ever heard….if she had lived she would have been on the same level with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday,” is shameless hyperbole.

Perhaps Tony Bennet’s assessment of Ms. Winehouse’s talent was influenced by the fact that she constantly cites him as her artistic “hero,” along with Sarah Vaugh, Billy Holliday, Thelonious Monk, and other Afro-American Jazz greats.  Testimony from black American artists in the film like the drummer/leader of “Da Roots,” an innovative hip hop band from Philly, revealed that she was a serious student of the Jazz tradition that was constantly recommending records for him to study.

However most of the music selected for the film – which one presumes was a representative sample of her work – was Rhythm & Blues and her band was rocking!  There were excerpts from some of her Jazz performances, the most extensive being a recording date she did with Tony Bennett, where she was scared to death and nearly walked out of the studio when she kept screwing up on take after take.  It was clear that Amy and Tony have a mutual admiration thing going; that accounts for the dreamy things they say about each other.  But reality is not so easy to conceal.

Amy Winehouse was just the latest white singer to study the black vocal style and brazenly imitate her idols.  Here too her story is an oft told tale.  It was true of Elvis Pressley, Mick Jagger, Joe cocker, Billy Joel. Janet Joplin, et al.  It was also true of white instrumentalists too.  And in each of these cases once the white performer became competent in the genre they were crowned “The King of Jazz” aka Paul Whiteman; the “king of Swing” aka Benny Goodman; the “King of Rock and Roll” aka Elvis Pressley; the “King of Hip Hop” aka M&M; the “Queen of Rap” aka Iggy Azalia.

According to this film Amy Winehouse was both “The Queen of Soul” and was on the way to rivaling the great Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Billy Holliday as a Jazz singer.  Yet each of these art forms are Afro-American inventions, and only black artists and audiences can decide who is boss because they set the standards of excellence.  The resulting product has captured the imagination and created devotees among musicians all over the world…since the turn of the twentieth century Afro-American musicians have been the most infventive and imitated artists on earth. It is obvious that white folks need to chill, get over themselves.

Aside for these gross exaggerations regarding the magnitude of Ms. Winehouse’ talent; this is a pretty good flick about a very troubled performer who literally decomposes before our eyes.  We watch her go from a healthy, perky, quite attractive girl, to a bulimic sack of bones who seem to be knocking on death’s door – one foot in the coffin and the other on a banana peel.

Lost in Space?
High off everything ….but life

Yet nobody cold reason with her; not her closet girlfriends who had been at her side since childhood, nor the Afro-American rapper/actor  Mos Def, who she evidently admired and pops up throughout the movie at various stages of her career like Banquo’s ghost, warning Amy to turn away from her self-destructive path. Finally, on a hot July day in 2011, she finally killed herself; the autopsy said she died of “alcohol poisoning.”

In the end the filmmaker managed to produce a poignant portrait of a self-destructive artist who turned her pain into song poetry and allowed the world to witness her self-immolation even as she tried to hide out in plain sight.


Double Click on links to see Amy Perform

Live in London 2007

Amy’s last tragic Concert


Aretha Franklin

Whitney Houston

Timbuktu: A Timely and Important Film

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags on March 11, 2015 by playthell
Timbuktu - the movieA Beautiful Malian Family destroyed by Islamic Zealots

 Portrait of an African Tragedy

More often than not the power of cinema is put to frivolous ends and questionable purposes.  In the US the cinema is viewed as an entertainment business with no higher purpose than providing entertainment and cheap thrills from the power of special effects, which often are more important to the film’s success than the story.  And since the major movie companies are driven by the imperatives of commerce rather than culture, as the production cost of these technically complex films keep getting higher and higher they will receive the majority of the company’s promotional dollars, crowding other films that deal with down to earth human stories out of the market.

However in other parts of the world filmmakers view their artistic medium as a powerful weapon for social change and a means of capturing and recapitulating their history in a powerful way that can touch people who have not acquired literacy, and they are making powerful consequential movies for a fraction of the costs.  This is what the filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissakohas has achieved in his powerful new movie Timbuktu which was released on January 28, 2015.

With a gripping screenplay written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall,  stunning cinematography and  hauntingly beautiful Malian music composed by Amine Bouhafa, and outstanding actors the film has won several awards and provides a close up view of the Jihadist takeover of a portion of Northern Mali.  It meticulously recounts the imposition of a crude fundamentalist version of Sharia Law, which they believed was handed down from God/Allah to his last prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, to whom he dictated the Koran, Islam’s equivalent of the Christian Bible, directly.

Although there have been profusion of stories of the Jihadist rampage and the outrages that resulted all over the Middle East and Africa – North, East and West – which catalogue their atrocities, this movie puts flesh, bones and faces on the victims as they come to life through the magic this movie, which I believe is destined to play a heroic role in fighting the murderous Islamic fanatics.

One gets the impression that the filmmaker keenly understands the danger of writing about Islamic fanatics when he fudges the issues he so deftly handled in the movie by responding to a query about the message of the movie with this bit of saccharine sophistry, “I didn’t want to have a Manichean attitude, to have the good on one side and the bad on the other.”  I saw no indication of any attempt to produce the kind of wishy washy movie of the sort that he describes here; the portrait of the Jihadists is one of unrelenting evil and totalitarian oppression.

It is a true to life rendition of who the Jihadists are.   Hence I am forced to speculate as to Sissakohas motives for clearly misrepresenting his own work, and I fear it is a hesitation to insult this murderous mob that appear to have tentacles everywhere.  The long time Fatwa on novelists Shalmon Rushdie, recent assassinations of the editors at the Parisian magazine Charlie Eghbo serves as a stark reminder that these Islamic zealots will not hesitate to murder artists and intellectual who criticize them.  Making this movie was in the nature of things a courageous act, but he should not be expected to be martyred for it.

From its opening frames the movie launches a scathing critique of Islamic Jihadism, and it remains unceasing through the movie.  I saw not a single scene where the Islamic militants are shown to have any virtue, courage nor honor.  They are depicted as the murderous barbarians that they are.  For example the film raises a fundamental issue regarding the deep cultural conflict between indigenous African cultures and Islamic dogma imported from the Arabs when it shows the Islamic Jihadists destroying a pile of  classical African sculpture that is celebrated around the world because it was produced by a people with polytheistic beliefs that contradict Islamic beliefs about art.  This conflict is symbolic of the historical relationship between African and Arab civilization.

These works of art have been roundly praised by art critics and students of the tradition around the world.  But the Arab Islamo-Fascists and their brainwashed black lackeys intended to destroy all of these priceless treasures, just as the Taliban destroyed the magnificent colossi hewn into the side of a mountain by blowing them up because they were carved before the rise of Islam and manifested the pagan values of their creators.  It is the objective of the Islamist to convert the whole world to their version of Islam and establish a global Caliphate – i.e. an Islamic state under Sharia governed by an absolute ruler whose authority comes not from the consent of the ruled by from God!

As is their standard procedure wherever Islamic fanatics take over a country these zealots banned smoking, drinking, music and art. They demanded that women cover themselves from head to toe, even wearing gloves and socks in the hot Malian climate and the sentenced offenders to public punishments ranging from floggings for men and women and stoning to death after burying their victims up to the neck in sand and casting stones at their heads.  Adultery was punishable by death.  The movie does a powerful job of recreating the ad hoc religious courts in which citizens were tried and sentenced by armed, ignorant, religious fanatics armed with the most deadly modern weapons, either acquired on the black market or taken from defeated troops armed by the US and other western countries.

The power of this film lies in the way Sissakohas approached his subject.  There were few speeches by political or religious figures; instead he took us inside the daily lives of the characters within their communities before the arrival of the Jihadists, who were foreign Arab invaders that recruited local men upon fear of being put to death should they resist.  And he employed the barren but strangely beautiful landscape to powerful effect.  The result is that we are there; we witness the intimate lives of the people as if we were invited guest.   The film captures the serene life of the rural society before the arrival of the soldiers of Allah, which magnifies the horror as they terrorize the community with their whacko interpretation of the Koran.

Although much of the Malian population was Muslim, they followed a different doctrine.  This is indicative of a raging civil war over theology in the Muslim world, and the ease with which one could run afoul of the new Koranic laws is represented in the film by the plight of a group of twenty-something men and women who are chilling out in their living room playing on string lutes and singing traditional songs.  One of the Jihadists heard music and called in a complaint to the local headquarters, and they dispatched a heavily armed patrol on a search and destroy mission against the unoffending young artists as if they were armed forces who had attacked them.  For their religious “crime” of making music they were arrested, taken from their homes and imprisoned, then sentenced to from forty to eighty lashes with a whip in the public square.  The floggings and stoning’s are so convincingly st age that we experience the horror of the victims.

A Singer being flogged in the public Square

Timbuktu V

All she did was Sing!

Of the myriad horrors revealed in this movie, none renders a more powerful indictment of Jihadists than the tragic story of the musician Kidane, who lived on the edge of the vast Sahara desert – which as large as the entire USA – with his beautiful wife and darling daughter.  He has chosen to remain in his simple albeit comfortable tent despite the fact that all of his neighbors have fled as the Jihadist take over the region.  A religious man with an optimistic outlook on life Kidane, movingly played by Ibrahim Ahmed, believes that he can get along with the Jihadist and that one day they will be gone and life can return to normal.  He was wrong, and a single mistake resulting from a conflict with his neighbor resulted in the death of Kidane and his wife at the hands of a Jihadist firing squad, leaving their wonderful little girl alone in the world facing a horrific future.

Kidane before the Jihadist Court

Timbuktu = Trial

A harrowing lesson in Sharia Law

This movie leaves no stone unturned regarding the horrors of the Jihadist and the director made a wise decision in choosing to reveal these horrors through the lives of citizens that we came to know well enough to feel their pain.  It is a powerful reminder that we cannot pretend that these people don’t exist or that we can escape their wrath…much of which is directed at the USA and justifiably so. Nevertheless, regardless of our sins against the Islamic peoples, we cannot sit idly by and watch the Jihadists devour entire areas of Africa and the Middle East and build a haven for terrorists to attack anywhere in the world….including the new Freedom Tower in New York.

Perhaps the left, many of whom believe that a Boko Haram  victory in Nigeria or Mali is less offensive than those governments forming alliances with France, England or the US to defeat them, will learn something from this movie. If nothing else they should learn that the modern Islamic Jihad is real, it’s murderous, it’s spreading and it can only be stopped with superior force of arms!  Indeed, as the movie shows so poignantly: the rise of militant Islam on that continent is a modern African tragedy.

 An actual picture of the expulsion of the Arab Jihadists
 Rejoicing expulsion of Islamis from Timbuctoo
The African people of Timbuktu take out their drums and rejoice!
(Double Click below to see the News documentary)
“The Quill and the Sword: How the Islamist took Timbuktu”


 Playthell G. Benjamin
 On the Road
March 11, 2015


Through A Lens Darkly

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , on September 18, 2014 by playthell

Black Model for Lens Darkly

A Photo Featured in the Film

Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People – directed and narrated by the Afro-American photographer and filmaker Thomas Allen Harris, based on a screen play written in collaboration with scholar/playwright Paul Carter Harrison and Don Perry –  is a splendid example of the power of the documentary film as a teaching tool. As a method of teaching history to a mass audience it is unequalled, notwithstanding the arguements of some  who favor the feature film. Although it is no less a work of art than any feature film, it does not take license with the facts in the way a creative work of fiction does.

On the contrary,  this film handles historical facts with exquisite care,  employing narrators who are outstanding historians such as Dr. Nell Painter, Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton, and Dr. Robin G. Kelly, a Professor of History at Columbia, among others.  Some of the commentators, like Dr. Dawson and Dr. Deborah Willis are photographers as well as scholars.

Dr. Willis, an award winning photographer and scholar who heads the photography program at NYU, is a co-producer and guiding light behind this project, which is based on her 2002 book Reflections in Black.  The many black photographers who appear in the film constantly sing her praises like a Buddhist chant, and they assure us that without her efforts as scholar and champion of black photographers their work would be unknown and many of them would be doing something else.

The resulting film is a visually beautiful, intellectually stimulating, spiritually moving documentary that manages to capsulize our history through the images of Afro-American photographers and the stories of how they came to make these poignant portraits of Afro-American life.  It was a wonderful revelation!   It is no exaggeration to claim that if I learned important things about our history from this film after having studied the history of Black Americans for over half a century, and taught that history in the first degree granting Black Studies in the world, the WEB Dubois Department at the University Of Massachusetts at Amherst – see Dr. DuBois: Then and Now on this blog – it is a certainty that anyone else watching the film will be mightily instructed about the black experience in the USA.

The film places the rise of Afro-American photographers within the context of their times, which is to say the story is told from a historical perspective. And that accounts for its importance.  Among the amazing things we learn is that the art and science of photography – which would change the world and redefine the role of painters – was invented in Paris in 1839, and introduced into the USA by an Afro-American in New Orleans, who had the first known photographic studio in America.  At the time photographic images were made through a method called daguerreotypes, which differed from the film that would later become the preferred medium because it is a simpler more efficient method.

Another thing we learn is that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass considered photographers to be a vital force in the struggle for the full freedom and dignity of Afro-Americans – and thus he became one of the most photographed men in 19th century America.  Douglass, whose prolific and well crafted prose offers seemingly endless quotes on the vicissitudes of life –  biographer Dr. Benjamin Quarles went through those voluminous writings with a fine tooth comb and said “I couldn’t find a bad line” – argued that in their quest to demonstrate their superiority whites always put forth the most attractive images of themselves…and so should black folks.

Pretty Fred
The Best Dressed Man in America?

We have but to look at the photographs of Douglass to see that he practiced what he preached.  Standing 6’ 4” and weighing 250 pounds, Douglass was the size of a pro-football linebacker.  With a well-muscled frame forged over his anvil during his tenure as a blacksmith in his youth, and a full curly Afro coif, Frederick Douglass was one of the handsomest men in America.  And the brother ragged his ass off; he was always “clean as the board of health” as we used to say back in the day.  Check out the photograph above.

Watching this film I learned where the tradition of Black male elegance in America originated; a tradition I inherited from the men in my family, my mother’s exquisite taste, other men in the community who were sharp dressers or “sports” and famous entertainers and athletes like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Mile Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, fashion plates all.  These were the men who set the standard of sartorial elegance for all males in America.

However I learned from viewing this film that the love of elegance among earlier generations of black men was no accident;it was a deliberate attempt to counteract the slave/Sambo image that white America projected of us in an unending campaign of psychological warfare to convince us that we were inferior to whites.  Alas, this conciousness has been lost on young black males who ushered in the fashion disaster of the Hip Hop era.

The film makes clear, in a way that I have never seen the point made, that all of the early champions of black America, those stalwart soldiers in the fight to uplift the race, understood the power of photography to assist them in their struggle.  In the 19th century, when the majority of Afro-Americans were slaves, both black male and female leaders understood this; but they also understood something else: elegance must be accompanied by intelligence.

Hence Frederick Douglass risked death in order to learn to read, and once he escaped slavery he devoured books like a piranha in a gold fish pond. And he systematically mastered the art of public speaking in order to better plead the case of America’s slaves, from whose ranks he arose.  Blessed with a sonorous bass/baritone voice – ala James Earl Jones and Paul Robeson – Douglass was the most spellbinding orator of his time, a golden age in American oratory.

However the Consciousness of the power of photography was no less apparent to Black women.  Historian Nell Painter, who wrote the definitive biography of the great abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who also rose up from slavery albeit in New York not the south, discusses the fact that Sojourner also understood the power of photography to define a people and was therefore very careful about the image she projected.  Sojourner was especially careful to project an image of strength, dignity and propriety.  Having been a slave, and as Dr. Painter reveals in her biography, the sexual plaything of both her master and mistress, it is easy to see why a dignified public image was of great importance to her.  Thus we see that the most widely circulated image of her embodies these values.

Sojourner Truth
A Portrait of Rectitude and Strength

In the aftermath of slavery, which was ended only after a bloody Civil war that tore the nation apart, Afro-Americans experienced a brief period when they were permitted to participate in the American democratic process as voting citizens.  However the die-hard racists in the south immediately began a covert struggle to take away the vote and severely limit the new found Freedom of Afro-Americans.  A major part of their strategy was to prove that Afro-Americans were sub-human and therefore unfit to live as free citizens in American society.

The film brilliantly shows how one of the most effective strategies in this reactionary program was to obliterate the heroic images of black men who fought for and won their freedom by defeating the southern slave masters as soldiers in the Union army.  In their place they substituted racist images, which were already well established in the blackface minstrel show where white men “blacked up” to perform degrading parodies of black life and character.

 Armed Black Liberators
       Black Union Soldiers        
A Dangerous Image White Supremacists
 Typical Images of Afro-Americans at turn of 20th Century
Racist Icons III
These images gave support to white racist ideology
 All black people were Fair Game

Racist Iconography II

Even Black Children

While black men were the main target of racist defamation, black women and children were also considered fair game.  The film shows how the proliferation of these images reached its apogee in the wildly popular D.W. Griffith movie “The Birth of a Nation.”   This movie falsified the role of black legislators during the Reconstruction period in the South following the Civil War – a monstrous lie that Dr. WEB DuBois corrected in his magesterial study Black Reconstruction a couple of decades later – glorified the Ku Klux Klan and justified the lynching of black men at a time when such public crucifixions were occurring at the rate of one every two and a half days.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that D.W. Griffith used the cinema to promote mass murder against the Afro-American  minority group here in America three deacades before Lenni Feifensthal produced Triumph of the Will, a film that glorified Hitler and the Nazi’s , inciting the Holocaust against European Jews.  I would not be surprised if she learned her tecnique from Griffith, just as Hitler copied his master race theories from the racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race,” published in 1917 by the American Eugenicist Madison Grant, who served as President of the New York Zoological Society.

This is not a matter of conjecture, as historian have uncovered a letter from Hitler in the papers of Grant, in which Der Fuhrer exclaimed: “Your book is my Bible!”  One need onlr read the racist theories in Mein Kempt and compare them to the arguments in The Passing of the Great Race to see the origins Hitlers Master Race pseudoscience.  Had the writers of this otherwise excellent script explored this bit of America’s racial history it would have greatly strenghtened the narrative.  The violent racist reactions to The Birth of a Natiom prompted Booker T. Washington to launch a photography project to counteract it.  As the founder of Tuskegee Institute, a college in the “Black Belt” of rural Alabama, and the most powerful black man in America, Washington was in a unique position to launch this effort.

Washington was famous for his successful cultivation of powerful white industrialists, and the president of the Kodak camera company was on his Board of Directors.  The Kodak Company provided Tuskegee with a state of the art photography lab, and Washington hired a master black photographer to head it.  The result was a treasure trove of elegant images of black Americans that provided a powerful counterstatement to the racist images emanating from white America, many of which accompanied advertisements for products produced by major corporations.  Like Frederick Douglass, Washington used the camera lens to carefully construct his own image.  Hence we see him depicted in photographs as a thoughtful man of dignity and power.

The “Wizard” of Tuskegee
Booker T. at tuskegee_office
A Man of Knowledge and Power
The Master of Tuskegee
Booker T. On Horseback
Looking Heroic atop his Stallion
Dr. George Washington Carver
World Renowned Tuskegee Scientist
Booker T and Teddy Roosevelt
From slave shack to the White House

Booker T. Washington, was one of the great geniuses in the art of what has become known as “public relations” and he used the photograph to maximum advantage,  as the pictures above aptly demonstrate.  They were quite instrumental in his becoming one of the best known men of his time.  Although he and the leading intellectual of black America, the Harvard and Berlin educated WEB DuBois had many ideological differences, they both agreed on the importance of photography in advancing the race.

Hence Dubois also understood the importance of the image he projected, and every picture we see of him he was dressed to the nines, with his trademark cane, spats, vest, felt or straw hat, and exquisitely trimmed Van Dyke beard.  The two most influential leaders of Black America at the turn of the 20th century held such faith in the power of photography to shape the perception of their people by the wider world that both of them mounted a photographic exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900 showing the amazing progress of Afro-American in the 35 years since the end of slavery in the US.

A Young Dr. DuBois in Paris 

 Dubois at the Paris Exhibition in 1900

Representin at the Exposition in 1900


The Photographs in the American Negro exhibition concentrated on the well to do in their elegant attire and beautiful homes.  It also showed black businesses and professionals – the class of successful strivers that three years later Dr. DuBois would call the “Talented Tenth,”  in his classic work The Souls of Black Folk.  It was impressive enough to win a prize.  The film shows how the tradition of employing photography to counter the racist imagery of white America carried over into the twentieth century as black photographers developed all over the country, and it tells us to take the time to search through our family albums to observe this rich visual record of our people.

The producers  select photographs by known and unknown photographers and the narrator instructs us to examine their poses, which is visual evidence of what they thought of themselves.  What we see is not a defeated people, but a people filled with pride and self-confidence, without the slightest doubt that they were lookin good.  It is evidence that Albert Murray, not Malcolm X was right; Malcolm preached that the white man had convinced us to hate ourselves.  Mr. Murray said that was nonsense in his book “The Omni-Americans;”   he said that all one need do is to look at the elegance with which we decorated ourselves and our unequalled grace on the dance floor to see that we recognized our beauty despite the “fakelore of white supremacy.”  The evidence for his argument is in these photographs.

During the 2oth century some black photographers moved to the front ranks of American photographers and became artist.  First among these, the Dean of black American photographers, was James Van der Zee.  Living and workng in Harlem during the 1920’s he witnessed the emergence of the “New Negro” and the Harlem Renissance” and he captured it as no other visual artist managed to do.  In fact he was inspired by what was happening around him and his work has inspired generations of black photographers ever since.  We hear their testimony in the film.

In Van der Zee’s photos we see the full range of Afro-American life in the nation’s largest and most important city; the strenght and dignity of Afro-American orginazations and leaders, as well as the elegance and beauty of our style – especially of Afro-American women.  The portraits that Ellington – a trained visual artist – would later paint in compositions like “Satin Doll,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,”  and “Black Brown and Biege Suite” was first captured through the lens of James Van der Zee.

 An Elegant Harlem Lady

 Black lady II - Vanderzee


 A Well Appointed Harlem Home
 Black Home in Harlem, James-VanDerZee---Interior-of-Home



 Stylish Harlem Couple in Racoon Coats


While Duke Ellington began his artistic career as a visual artist and metamorphosed into a great musician, James Van der Zee began as a violinist and evolved into a great photographer.  This accounts for the visual nature of Ellington’s music and the lyrical nature of Van der Zee’s photographs.  Like the social and  political leaders of the race, Van der Zee was well aware of the value of his work as a photographer to the elevation of the race.  He once remarked that his major inspiration for becoming a photographer was to preserve the elegance and beauty of the black people he saw all around him for future generations to see.  One has only to peruse his ouevre to witness the fruition of his vision.  He took great care to record the rituals and rhythms of Afro-American life during a great cultural flowering when brilliant, talented black people from all over the world gathered in Harlem.  Every element of Afro-American society was influenced by the zietgiest of the “New Negro.”

Portraits of the Black Family

James VanDerZee - A wedding



James-Van-Der-Zee. - wedding party

Bride, Groom and Wedding Party

A Pampered Harlem Child

Black Chils - Vanderzee


Nationalist Leader Marcus Garvey on Parade

James Van der Zee Marcus Garvey

Garvey Commissioned Van der Zee to Photograph his movement

While Duke Ellington began his artistic career as a visual artist and metamorphosed into a great musician, James Van der Zee began as a violinist and evolved into a great photographer.  This accounts for the visual nature of Ellington’s music and the lyrical nature of Van der Zee’s photographs.  A Printer by trade, Marcus Garvey, leader of one of the greatest mass organizations in US history – The Universal Negro Improvement Association – was fully aware as Frederick Douglass and other leaders before him of the power of a good photograph.  Hence he hired the best to make them.

Of the contemporary photographers who pay tribute to James Van der Zee in the film and acknowledge is Anthony Barboza, whom some critics of photography consider to the heir to Vanderzee’s legacy as the preeminent Afro-American photographer and a great American original, a grandmaster of the art.  In the film Barboza talks about how he sought Van der Zee out as a young man, when the old master was already in his eighties and studied with him and displays a photograph of them together.  Barboza’s ouevre is wide ranging in it’s concerns and he has won many awards for his photography.

Anthony Barboza’s “Black Dreams”

Anthony Barboza VI


 Anthony Barboza V

A work of exquisite beauty and imagination

Harlem Series



This film celebrates so many important photographers it is beyond the scope of this review to comment on them all.  However among twentieth century masters Gordon Parks and Roy Decavara deserve mention. The personal story and artistic influence of Gordon Parks – a twentieth century version of the Renissiance Man – is the stuff of legend, which is why there is a major prize presented in his name.  Although his storied career included much coveted and glamourous assignments like photographing fashion shows in Paris for a prestiegeous national magazine, Parks often said that the camera was his choice of weapon in the struggle for justice and human dignity.  His images of the poverty stricken and oppressed move the conscience of people around the world.

Sometimes the images exposed the ironies of injustices by the way he juxtaposed symbols, a classic example of this is his photograph “American Gothic” which was featured in this film.  A parody of the famous 1930 painting by Grant Wood, a European educated American Artist, Parks substituted a real black cleaning woman in a Washington office building in place of the dour white couple – Grant’s sister and her dentist – standing in front of a typical wooden house in Iowa with European gothic style windows.  By switching the images Park’s symbolism transformed a rather pedestrian painting into a powerful statement about race, gender and class in the world’s most powerful nation.

 Grant Wood’s American Gothic

 Grant Woods American Gothic


 Gordon Parks’ American Gothic

a kGordon-Parks,-American-Gothic,-Ella-Watson,-Washington,-DC,-1942_640

 The Iconoclastic Image as Powerful Social Commentary

 Of all the photographers and works discussed in this documentary, none was more roundly praised as a personal influence than Roy Decavara’s book of photos The Sweet Fly Paper of Life.  A khalidescopic  view of Afro-American life in Harlem, with a text by Langston Hughes, Harlem’s Poet Laurate, it was unlike anything publicly available in one volume.  Born and raised in this uptown Manhattan village by a single mother, Decavara began his artistic career as a clasically trained painter. However while taking photographs to use as models for making prints he fell in love with photography and became a master of the art.  However his decision to abandon painting was not totally an asthetic one, it was also prompted by the blatant racism of the world of “fine art.”  He is quoted in his New York Times Obituary as remarking: “A black painter, to be an artist, had to join the white world or not function — had to accept the values of white culture.”

Decavara was the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in his 1952 application he wrote: “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,”  instead he sought to produce “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”  This was bold talk to a cluless group of white paternalists and cultural chauvanists who controlled the purse strings he need to finance his project.  Yet he won them over.  In 1982, he clarified his mission succinctly in a New York Times interview: “One of the things that got to me, was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”

By the time Decavara was painting his portraits of Harlem life in the 1950’s, long after the “Renissance” had receded into history, Harlem was a very different community.  And his photographs reflect it. Furthermore, his was not a mission of social uplift  that had inspired Van der Zee and other early photographers.  Perhaps the Chief Curator of Photography at New York’s world renowned Museum of Modern Art, Peter Galassi, summed up the meaning of Decavara’s achievement.  After organizing a retrospective show of Decavara’s ouevre, compiled over 60 years, Galassi, said of his work: ” “He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively.”

Roy Decavara’s Sweet Fly Paper of Life 

Decavara - The Sweet Flypaper of Life IV


Decavara - Sweet Flypaper of Life


Decavara - Soul Trane



One of the contemporary photographers who enthusiastically tell us that the work of Roy Decavara was was a great inspiration to him is Frank Stewart, the official photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and for my money the finest photographer of Jazz musicians in the world.  Decavara’s photographs of Jazz musicians were much celebrated, thus one could view Frank Stewart’s work is the extension of that tradition….one of Decavara’s artistic spawn.  The photograph below is case in point.

Deminuendo  in Blue


 Terrance Blanchard

Diane Reeves and the Boys



 Of all the issues raised in this film, none were more compelling than the discussions of gender and sexual orientation.  After all, this documentary is about how black subjects are presented in photographic imagery; thus it should surprise no one that these issues should arise.  The discussion of gender addressed not only the representation of black female beauty in relation to European standards and taste, but the absence of representations of gay Afro-Americans.

The most enlightening revelation regarding the depiction of gay subjects was the discussion of how black family albums have been carefully censored to omit gay members.  This was especially true of out members such as cross dressers, and some of these censored pictures are revealed in the film.  It was clear that the narrator is gay, like his mentor Marlon Riggs -who made the seminal film on black gay life “Tongues Untied” – and thus he was reclaiming these forgotten family members as a validation of his own identity and legacy.

There was much discussion of the role of black women photographers, who have been even more invisible than black men.  This discussion was facilitated by the critical role of Deborah Willis in the production of this film. Her comments along with those of Jeanie Moutoussamy Ashe and especially Carrie Mae Weems raised questions about their struggle to find black female role models in the field of photography when they started out, and the challenge of dealing with the dominance of white standards of femininity and beauty.

One can see this concern clearly displayed in the photographic images of Carrie Mae Weems, a versatile artist who works in several mediums including audio, fabric, video installations and digital imagery.  She is a well-trained artist who studied at the California Institute of the Arts, U Cal San Diego and the University of California at Berkley.  Her views on representations of the black image in visual arts are among the most interesting in the film.  She defines her mission as an artist thusly: “My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals, to beautify the mess of a messy world.”

Ms. Weems has won many honors, including a MacArthur “Genius” Award and has been artist-in-residence or visiting professor at Harvard and Wellesley among others.   And she often appears as a subject in her own  photographs, often posing before mirrors with no evidence of a camera, a marvelous illusion that confounds the viewer.  The two images below, Not Monet’s Type and The Healer are compelling examples.

“Not Monet’s Type”


Carrie Mae Weems_not-manets-type_panel-3

 The words and image speaks volumes


The Healer

Carrie Weems_The_Healer

 From the Series “Dreaming in Cuba”


 Mother and Daughter


 Passing on the ancient ritual of self decoration


 All Americans should see this brilliant and highly important film for themselves, especially black people.   Indeed the black photographers who commented in this documentary repeatedly wondered out loud about how differently many Afro-Americans would view themselves if they had been nurtured on the images provided by black photographers, rather than the degrading images they saw.  Indeed, at the opening of this film the great Afro-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin – a highly intelligent, deeply sensitive and insightful man – is heard remarking about how every black child in America in his time constantly searched for images of themselves in which they could take pride. It was an excellent preface for the film, because it succinctly defined the issue that black photographers addressed.

Alas, the white critics who dominate the pages of the major journals of opinion, such as that snide pompous airhead Dennis Harvey, a San Francisco based critic who wrote a simple-minded review for Variety, may well miss this point.  Among the pearls of wisdom this prissy wag offers up in his banal mutterings about this masterpiece is the following bit of pompous, embarrassingly ignorant, prattle: “Activist leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois (who curated an exhibit of photographed African-American life at a Parisian World’s Fair) stressed the importance of a dignified personal presentation, even if that meant copying the demeanor and dress of the white bourgeoisie.”

It is hard to conjure a more asinine statement from someone who is regarded as a serious commentator on cultural affairs.  They dressed in the high fashion of the times, for the very good reasons that I have discussed earlier.  In his snide know-it-all hip white boy condescension he exposes the fact that he was not really paying attention to the narration, furthermore he understands so little about the imperatives of historical place – and even less about the history of the period – he engages in what historians call “presentism.”

One wonders how Harvey thought they should have dressed; perhaps like Hip Hop heads, or lefty San Francisco bohemian frumps like him?  This is a man who would greatly benefit from Mark Twain’s admonition: Tis far better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt!   Despite the silly and superficial comments of culturally deprived white critic like Harvey, this film, by and measure, is a tour de force and a rare priceless cultural treasure.  It is no surprise that it won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Diaspora Documentary….Bravo!




 Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September, 17 2014

Get On Up!

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 12, 2014 by playthell

Boseman Chadwick-james-brown-get-on-up-movie (1)

Chadwick Boseman Rocks his Role as the Inimitable James Brown


The James Brown Story Comes to the Silver Screen

In her insightful magisterial study “The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright,” Professor Margret Walker says of the great Afro-American novelist “Richard Wright came straight out of hell;” the same can be said of James Brown, an iconic figure in American popular music.  Browns life story is both an epic tale about the triumph of the human spirit through the agency of art and a representative anecdote for American civilization – which that peerless interpreter of American culture Albert Murray defines as “any story of steerage to boardroom” or the rags to riches tales of Horaito Alger. It is a story of tragedy and triumph that allows us to look into the life, loves and art of one of the unique American public figures of the 20th century.

The elements of a great movie are a good story, a well written script, imaginative sets and costumes that capture the milieu – i.e. spirit of the time and place – a good musical score, thoughtful creative directing and great acting.  This film has them all…an embarrassment of riches.   While Shakespeare’s observation that “the play is the thing,” is true enough, it takes actors to transform those words from inanimate symbols scrawled on paper into living breathing believable characters.  Through their agency the words become flesh…in a god-like act.

I have never seen anyone do it better than Chadwick Boseman.  As I watched him bring the larger than life character of James Brown to life, I conjured up the voice of Sir Lawrence Olivier, who is thought by many to be the most accomplished actor of the 20th century, warning young thespians who aspire to greatness as actors: “Acting is a noble profession but an actor should never be caught doing it.”  Boseman must have taken Sir Lawrence’s words to heart and placed it at the center of his art because after a few minutes I completely forgot that he was not James Brown!   He was every bit as convincing in the role as Jamie Fox was as Ray Charles….and he won the Oscar for his performance….jes sayin.

It was a strange experience for me because I witnessed James Brown’s entire career.   I first saw him perform in 1956, when he was enjoying his first hit record “Pleas, Please. Please.”   He was the headliner at the “Two Spot,” the premiere black night club in Jacksonville Florida. All of the great Jazz, Blues and Rhythm and Blues acts performed there.  People came from all around, not just Jacksonville, but the surrounding towns and counties, such as St. John’s County where I lived in the ancient city of St. Augustine.  Some party people even drove down from Augusta Georgia, James Brown’s home town to check out the show.

Please, Please, Please was burning up the airwaves on WOBS, the radio station serving the large Afro-American communities in the Jacksonville area.  Their star D.J Johnny Shaw “The Devil’s Son in Law,” played it constantly.  We had listened to the record on the radio and everybody was running to the nearest record store to buy it.  So me and my boys were very excited to see this guy James Brown perform live.  Never having seen him we were totally unprepared for the spectacle we witnessed.  I was actually too young to even be in the club, but since I was singing with a R&B group that was performing on the Sunday Afternoon Matinee I was allowed to enter this magic temple where great music was made.

The Sunday Matinee at the TWO Spot was a talent contest between competing singing groups in the area.  It was like a scene in Robert Townsend’s great movie homage to the golden age of live R&B performance “The Five Heartbeats.”  The place was packed with pretty girls out to “let the good times roll,” a frame of mind immortalized by Brown’s New Orleans contemporaries Shirley and Lee on their hit record “Come on Baby Let the Good Times Roll.”

All of the five members of my group, “The Dewdrops,” could croon their asses off; we were members of the Murray High Glee Club, directed by my Aunt Marie, and we sang everything from J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangements of the “Negro Spirituals” – that marvelous body of sacred music produced by Black American slaves – to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s B Minor Mass.  Hence when “Bubba Duck” Jackson, a ruggedly handsome football player with a high falsetto tenor voice, fell to his knees while singing  “This is Dedicated to the One I Love” – a Hank Ballad and the Midnighters  hit – with tears rolling down his cheeks, the girls went crazy!  But that was just the dress rehearsal.

Like us, the ladies were there to see “James Brown and the Famous Flames.”   After the talent contest was done, with us coming in second in a very tough competition, the Master of Ceremonies announced “It’s star time at the Two Spot!   Hereee’s James Brown and the Famous Flames!”  The audience exploded in applause and began to move to the groove of the band as we waited for the man of the moment to emerge from the wings.  Suddenly this ebony black guy in a white tuxedo with tails strolled onstage followed by a group of back ground singers dressed in black pants. White shirts, black tuxedo jackets with purple satin lapels and bow ties  closely followed.  He opened with his arrangement of a Louis Jordan hit from an earlier period “Cladonia!”

From the outset his dancing was a marvel, although we recognized that at root it was his improvisations on the “Mashed Potatoes’” and the “Camel Walk” two popular Afro-American vernacular dances au courant at the time, but when James added his unique moves they became something different and something more.  It was love at first sight, I fell for the James Brown sound completely, as did my peers, and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.  It was an enchanting evening in a magical place, the Two Spot dance hall and supper club in Jacksonville Florida, where great musical performances was common fare, because most white clubs and concert halls wouldn’t book black artists.  They preferred the corny white artists who “covered’ their records with saccharine corny versions aimed at white America – ala Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s rousing Rhythm& Blues hit “Tutti Fruti.”

The James Brown Show on Screen

James Brown_Get_on_Up_film_

It was like seeing James Resurrected

This movie captures the essence of those magic moments in American popular music and more. The writers, John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, capture all of this in their well written script and the actors bring it convincingly to life under the able direction of Tate Taylor.   Alas, despite the artistic success of this film, the fact that these major creative functions were all performed by whites and blacks were reduced to the artistic equivalent of ventriloquist dummies whose movements and speech echo the words and ideas of whites, raises some serious questions about the ongoing phenomenon of Euro-American creative artists appropriating Afro-American cultural ingredients and epic tales that define major black historical figures.  What, the thoughtful observer is compelled to ask, does this tell us about the persistence of rampant racism and cultural imperialism in the movie industry.

The broadly learned and insightful Afro-American cultural historian and critic Harold Cruse discussed this issue in depth a half century ago in his masterwork “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” But considering the fact that Tate Taylor also directed “The Help” – a hit film about black maids working for racist whites in the apartheid south of the first half of the  20th century – and the recent hit biopic on the life of Jackie Robinson was also written, produced  and directed by whites it’s time to take up the subject of the Afro-American creative artists in the cultural arena again.  However neither time nor space affords us the opportunity to do justice to this this critical issue here; that subject will be addressed in a future essay devoted to this topic.

Chadwick Boseman proves that he is not only a great actor, but a hell of a singer and dancer too!  James Brown is the most influential dancer/singer in a genre in which dance is central to the performance.  Every major dancer in Rhythm and Blues i.e. “Soul” music since the 1950’s has been influenced by James Brown.   Some of James Brown’s R&B contemporaries – Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry,   et al – had their own moves.

The Delta blues man Muddy Waters was also a great dancer, and Cab Calloway – who was from the preceding generation, taught them all.  But James Brown is by far the most influential dancer in the Rhythm and blues tradition.  Michael Jackson, Prince, MC Hammer and even the Filipino star Bruno Mars are all extentions of the spectatular artistry of James Brown.  And Brown himself belongs to a long tradition of Afro-American vernacular dance.  For insance it is easy to see how he was influenced by the great Song and dance man Cab Calloway, who also fronted a dynamic band.

Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway
The Grand Daddy of them All!

One need only look at such great dancers as Prince, Michael Jackson, Morris Day, MC Hammer, Chris Brown, et al to recognize the indelible influence of James Brown. In Fact MC Hammer made a video calling Michael Jackson out for not giving props to the “God Father” of dance in the R&B idiom.

James Brown
The God Father of Soul!
 Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson II
His moves mesmerized the world!



 Openly Acknowledges that he based his act on James Brown’s Model

MC Hammer

Hammer II

They couldn’t touch this!!!!!

Filipino Sensation Bruno Mars


All are Artistic Extensions of James Brown!

It is no mystery why Afro-Americans have created every popular dance craze in the US.  The ever insightful Albert Murray attributes this to the “tendency of Africans to turn all movement into dance like elegance.”  Growing up in Georgia, and spending his early boyhood in the backwoods where he was immersed in the black folk culture that retained elements of West African culture, James attended a sanctified “Holy Roller” church, and witnessed the power of music to move people…and the way the dancing preacher – a fairly common figure in black fundamentalist churches – used music, chants and movement to hypnotize his followers.

The movie captures all of this in a powerful vignette, and affords us an insider’s view of the origins of James Brown’s performance style.  It is no wonder that Albert Murray would observe that a James Brown performance created the emotional power of a great revivalist preacher in his seminal text on Afro-American music “Stomping the Blues.”  Like Little Richard, Sam Coke, Ray Charles, et al, James began singing in the Afro-American church – an institution that has produced more great original American musicians than Julliard.  Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, who revolutionized western instrumental music, as well as the grand operatic divas Leontine Price, Jessie Norman, Kathleen Battle, et al  and legions of musicians in all genres were products of the black church.

But James Brown remained close to his musical roots, the black southern country churches and those unlettered preachers the black bard and 20th century Renaissance Man James Weldon celebrates in his epic poems “God’s Trombones.”   Of these untutored sable clerics who claimed to be called to the pulpit by God almighty himself, Johnson said “The old time southern Negro preacher had all the devices of eloquence at his command.”  James Brown converted that eloquence into music.  In him we see the evidence of Zora Neale Hurston’s claim that black folk religion is for “people who love magnificence and can’t get enough of it.”

This however, was not the church of the formally educated black middle class, of whose church services the ‘Poet Laureate of Harlem” and peerless observer of Afro-American life and culture Langston Hughes says was the result of a decision to “Let’s be boring like the Nords” in his path-breaking essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  James Brown, a country boy molded in the hell of America’s racist apartheid South, kept it real and relied on the power of his folk roots for the source of his artistic inspiration.  And he brought the funk like nobody else; any R&B or Rap artist who does not understand this is faking the funk!

The movie explores all of this and more, as it takes us into aspects of James Brown’s life that are not well known to many of his fans…this writer included.  With Browns’ longtime musical colleague and personal friend Bobby Bird as a historical consultant we get intimate details of Brown’s life that we could not have gotten from any other source.  And no doubt this is because of the guiding hand of Mick Jagger in the project. A rock music legend that saw James Brown perform live during a tour of the US and never forgot it – in fact he includes the scene in the movie – Jagger understands the intricacies of keeping a band on point and ready to perform on the road.

Thus we are afforded a view of the problems of a touring band that usually never meet the public eye.  We get to see what a strict task master Brown was, docking the musicians pay for every infraction, sometimes seeming petty and ego-maniacal, but the result was one of the tightest bands in the history of the Rock and Roll era. That’s why they were able to respond dramatically to every gesture of his body the way they did. Or go directly to the bridge when he called for it.  We all enjoyed watching him cue the band with words or body movements….but we never understood the hard work required to achieve such precision in performance.

However the greatest revelation about the life of James Brown that I experienced is his relationship with his parents and how he was raised.  Dirt poor and stuck in the back woods, reliant upon a brutal father whose meager pay working as a laborer in the pulp wood industry was routinely squandered on whisky and gambling, who was ignorant, and a mother who confused and abused, James had to figure things out for himself while yet a child.  His mother, tired of poverty and abuse, ran away and became a whore, and when his daddy joined the army to escape his miserable dead end existence in the racist backwoods of Georgia, James was left to live with his aunt, who was the madam of a thriving whore house.

When we look at the conditions these black women endured in the South – oppressed on the basis of race, gender and class – who among us is righteous enough to cast the first stone of condemnation….not I.  They played the bad hand they were dealt as best they could, and some of them aspired to better things for the youths than were available to them.   This was especially true of James’ aunt who ran the cat house.  She told him that he had something special, that one day the whole world would know his name and that he would be fabulously wealthy.  Raised by kind hearted hos James got a look at life that was raw like Sushi.

All of these factors contributed to the personality formation of the man the world came to know as the God Father of Soul.  He was a man who understood that everything good that had happened to him in life was because of his talent as a performer.  And life became very good indeed; luxury jets, fine cars and mansions of many rooms were all his – as well as an endless bevy of black, brown and beige beauties.  No doubt he could have had his pick from a multitude of snow queens, but he stayed with the sistas.   Yet his childhood memories of seeing his mother turning tricks with soldiers, and all the whores he grew up around, made him more than a tad puritanical about the women in his life.  It also made him abusive.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film involve James and his wife – played by the voluptuous brown beauty Jill Scott – a type A female who stood her ground….what the folks in Georgia used to call a “Tushie.”  When he slaps her down in one scene it is shocking to behold: but then, James Brown, like all of us, is a product of his socialization – or lack thereof.  Hence it should come as no surprise that he was relentless and ruthless with is band members in his quest for fame and fortune, and a unapologetic patriarch with his women, or that he showered them with expensive gifts and took good care of his children.

‘Thick Fine” Jill Scott and Chad Boseman


Sizzle on Screen as James Brown and Wife

We can see the seeds of all these adult traits being forged in his personality by virtue of his experiences as a boy.   This film captures it all:  the glamour, the tragedy, the good times and bad, the pathos and bathos of Afro-American culture…and most of all the marvelous music!   According to the director, Boseman pulled this amazing performance off with only two months of preparation.  “We got the go ahead from Universal around the end of August. Chad Boseman had September and October to become James Brown—the dancer, the singer, and played him as a 17-year-old all the way to a 63-year-old. I literally can’t understand how he did it.” Taylor recalls.   The resulting product of all this hard work and generous talent is a cinematic tour de force:  Bravo!



See Video Clips Below

Double click to see “James Brown and the “Famous Flames”

This concert was at the height of his prowess in 1964
Click to see: James Browns Greatest Moves

Where James got his Inspiration

Cab Calloway: Grandfather of Soul!
James Brown honored by the President at Kennedy Center

Playthell G. Benjamin                                                     

Soul Brother #1

On the Road
August 11, 2014

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


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.”


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


 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.



 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
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


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….
….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!


Michelle showers accolades on Rachel


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

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