Timely and more relevant now in its 15th year anniversary (and decade in gross obscurity) Speller St. Films is bringing As an Act of Protest into the zeitgeist of the 21st century to prove that the film was a terrifying prophecy and a grim acknowledgment of where race relations, culture, and police brutality is headed if we continue to deny the realities of both the past and the present.
With the acquittal of the Minnesota police officer that unjustly killed Philando Castile, movies bearing a genuine social consciousness revealing our political climate are needed now more than ever. Not bright-light-Hollywood Drone– productions. But hand-made cinematic ‘Molotov cocktails.’A Protest Cinema.
On July 15th Raleigh Film Underground will host Speller St Films’ revival screening of As an Act of Protest, pledging all proceeds towards the restoration of the movie so the film can see an eventual DVD release. Gritty, powerful and provocative movies can remind us of the power of drama and the impact artistic foresight has.
This is the film the Black Lives Matter movement should be learning from. Not a superhero movie, but a film about the real desperation of trying to address the problem that something is “rotten in the state of Denmark.” If the new generations of activists want to advance theories, techniques, dialectics, and problem solving within the web of social diseases and political oppression in America, they can start by dusting off the artworks that were created for them to be inspired by and to challenge.
All revolutions need art. And this is just one example.
Spread the word.
July 15th, 2017 – 7 PM, Tickets are $10 (cash) at the door
Raleigh Film Underground at Kings – 14 Martin Street, Raleigh, North Carolina
Visit actofprotest.eventbrite for advance tickets
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Starring Randy Ruiz, Lionel Pina, Jose Machado, Sylvia Field, & Ernesto Gonzalez
The magical, fantastical, and political converge in The Cruz Brothers & Miss Malloy
In 1965-1966 there were about 5 Black film editors in NYC. The late Kathleen Collins (1942-1988) was one of them.
This is revealed in a brisk, yet thorough and enlightening video interview, reflecting upon her life as an academic and filmmaker, that Collins gave in 1982 with the chair of the African-American Studies Department of Indiana State Phyllis R. Klotman.
It is included as a bonus feature on Milestone Film & Video’s splendid release of Collins’ masterpiece Losing Ground. I have much admiration for Losing Ground and when I saw it two years ago it instantly became one of my favorite films. However, upon seeing Cruz Brothers I thought it was worthwhile to try to write about her debut feature as it set the tone and the seeds for what she and cinematographer Ronald K. Gray would later create with Losing Ground along with two of my favorite actors, Duane Jones and Bill Gunn.
The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy is adapted from Henry H. Roth’s book of the same name; Roth co-wrote the script with Collins although Collins makes it clear that the book and the film are different by merely not including a scriptwriting credit in the film. She declares the author’s book and then herself as the Director/Producer. It’s an interesting detail as this helps to preserve the two different artworks and grants even more reverence to its original source. Not shocking coming from a woman with a background in French literature & film (she pursued her Masters in Paris) and coming from a religious background it is not unwieldy to have a different kind of respect for the written word since most religious texts promote the idea that it was The Word that came first (a nod to the devious insecurity of writers ourselves, but that’s another essay).
Cruz Brothers was Collins’ first feature film and something of an experiment, she desperately wanted to make a film but had never worked with actors, was unsure of what sort of material to develop, unwary of being ‘too intimate’ with the work and so being keen to the process of cinematic literary adaptation which she formally studied in France – she decided to remove herself a bit and adapt one of her favorite stories by another writer. With Roth’s help a screenplay was written, about 5 drafts overall – the final version being hers alone.
The movie was shot in Nyack I believe, a cinematic milieu she inhabited with other lone wolves like Bill Gunn (Collins received support from the Rockland Council of Arts and the Haitian Community Council of Rockland) and she later returned to upstate NY in Losing Ground. As urbane, sophisticated, and aggressive as many of her characters are – they are not city slickers or Woody Allen neurotics. Her New Yorkers usually vacillate between the woods and the subway and are often searching for something intangible, an inner freedom of course that can deliver them to an outer one. And to be surrounded by trees instead of asphalt is one step towards freedom for Collins and a major theme of the Cruz Brothers.
The movie is about three orphaned Puerto Rican brothers living on their own, having escaped the concrete jungle of the Bronx, who are hired by a dying Irish-American lady to renovate her mansion. The brothers – Victor, Jose, and Felipe – played without an iota of stereotype or ‘white gaze scheming’, there is an exquisite awkwardness and charm in their performances—they josh and play ball and engage in Three Stooges antics at times and they are enjoyable to watch. The pizza scene is well worth it just to see a “Back-to-the-Basics” acting scene, brimming with honest moment-to-moment state of beings and urgency. Jose Machado as Felipe is some kind of Moe Howard himself – rotund and aggravated all the time – Lionel Pina (he shows up in Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City – Sidney Lumet liked him), plays Jose the good-looking Ladies Man, and Randy Ruiz gives an honest performance as the eldest who communicates with the spirit of their dead father (a criminal we learn), and receives his father’s advice from beyond the grave (voiced warmly with humor and panache by Ernesto Gonzalez). All three brothers have yearnings to express themselves, are budding artists in some way. Victor shadow raps in the film (a motif throughout) and records his thoughts on a reel to reel, he will probably become a writer of some kind; Jose develops an interest in theater (which gets developed as the picture moves on) and the miserable Felipe may not be as cerebral or creative, but he’s definitely on the prowl for something more than an ordinary grind. He’s perpetually concerned about his food and his distrust of people and grandiose ideas imply he’s been hurt the most by their dead father’s previously gallant and valiant gangsterism…which in many ways is like the path of the artist: both ignore and develop rules according to their own needs and desires.
You can’t tell who was or wasn’t a professional ‘actor’ in the film and it works out well for the film’s material which rests on magical realism and poetic naturalism. Sylvia Field superbly plays Miss Malloy like an over-aged, miscast, broken East Coast draft of Blanche Dubois. A version Tennessee Williams himself might have gotten rid of and that says a lot – for Miss Malloy’s problem is not only that she is trapped in some kind of past she wished she had but that she knows she is going to die soon. What’s remarkable in retrospect is that this film was made in 1979. Less than ten years later Collins herself would die early of cancer at 46. This first film by a brilliant multi-talented artist and Ph.D. is already infused with the wisdom of old age that the filmmaker never got a chance to even see and yet it sparkles with the ripe passionate yearnings of youth, a true lust for life which she always retained.
There is a free-wheeling tug to Collins’ work – which was honed to perfection in Losing Ground, but here it is rawer and unsteady and that makes it even more attractive to me because it is hard to genuinely promote enthusiasm for life in cinema, especially if you are an intelligent and conscious human being. To celebrate is one of the hardest and highest orders to meet – because it means you will affirm something in this wretchedness called life in spite of its barbarity.
Collins and Bill Gunn both shared an interesting space: they were brainy, righteous middle-class mystics who were well aware of time, history, and present tenses as it informed the ‘Black Condition’ in America and abroad but they were also, simply, great aesthetes (“Ice seasons the ginger” is a line Gunn himself might have written). Collins and Gunn shared a love of slow and ‘still life’ film language that both employed, albeit in different ways. Also, Collins was the light to Gunn’s dark, she was McCartney to his Lennon, a Miles to his Coltrane but I suppose a better literal example is that of Truffaut and Godard. Collins shares Truffaut’s enjoyment of love-seeking people and the sensual pleasures of the imagination. Gunn’s cinematic (i.e. “dramatic” in the mise-en-scene sense) cinematographic recalcitrance or political edge could have exceeded Cassavetes or Godard had he lived but this is not to reduce Gunn and Collins to a comparative game but simply to celebrate what I feel each did better than the other. Collins’ developed singular style was a bit ahead of Gunn’s (not that singularity was what he was going for, mind you) and this is due to her to extraordinary collaborations with cinematographer AND editor Ronald K. Gray.
Gunn and Collins were just sides of the same coin and that’s why it is almost compulsory for me to mention him when I mention her. (An ambitious film curator will one day do nothing but play their films in one program and then excerpt scenes side-by-side. It would be a fascinating feat to see and explore.)
What Kathleen Collins’ The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy also gives us is an urge to be free, to literally want to run and “find ourselves.” People who scoff at this do so perhaps because they’ve never been lost. For many years I was never lost. But when you do find yourself lost or at a crossroads and hampered in between two worlds that suffocate all you want to do is escape. Collins’ desire to show this is obvious in both her features, but in Cruz Brothers it is through literal mad-cap rollicking sequences – the boys playing, running, declaring their love for the field that they roll down, tramping along a bridge, etc. One wonders what she might have done with the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. Her energy, not unlike Richard Lester’s, is one of seeking freedom at any cost and based in surrealism (her masters’ thesis was on Andre Breton). And sometimes the best way is to just drop everything, walk out the door, and have some fun. What also occurred to me in this 7 Degrees of Beatlemania – is that Collins was also a playwright. And in the mid sixties, she was in Europe, possibly around the same time as the avant-garde Adrienne Kennedy (“Funnyhouse of a Negro,” etc) who was being commissioned to adapt John Lennon’s two absurdist books In His Own Write & A Spaniard In the Works for the British stage. A Black American female playwright doing this in 1965-1966? That was huge. People think we have not come far. And we haven’t. We have taken 39 steps back. Nowadays, instead of lauding Kennedy or Collins we have charlatans like Lynn Nottage or Paula Vogel pimping the plight of the working class and “Women’s Rights” and getting upset when the establishment says “You’re not getting a Tony. Next!”
Collins could have bought entrée into this warped Theatrical Bourgeoisie that Franklin Frazier warns us about had she not had foresight and consciousness and been self-possessed and courageous enough to have taken on the $60/week job as an editor. This is a woman who had a master’s and a Ph.D., folks – all in pursuit of teaching and language and academia. She had a lot of good job offers in the late 1960’s. And she simply made a choice (much to her family’s bewilderment) to follow her instinct for film and grasp the zedekoah that would be her raison d’être: Making films and teaching. Combining then, doing both – having a passion AND a job. One that she cared deeply about, for she was not a hack teacher. In fact, she was one of the earliest film teachers in NYC. In the early seventies, there were no film programs yet, they were all being developed around the time the Vietnam War ended and Collins taught at the City University of New York for many years.
The magical realism exhibited in Cruz Brothers for some reason led me back to my love for Ermanno Olmi’s Legend of a Holy Drinker (surely able to convert all non-believers and down-and-outters to something or trust someone). The introduction of Malloy approaching the brothers reminded me of Olmi’s presentation of Joseph Roth’s hobo (magnificently played by Rutger Hauer)being approached by a man who changes his entire life, a literal patron saint.
“I saw your act,” Malloy states to the Brothers referring to their game of crossing a bridge in the woods. “Each time you cross that bridge you tempt fate. You’re tempted to jump. But you’re survivors. I have been one for many years but now I’m going to die.” And with that the film takes on a whole other plane, the hovering spirit of the dead father collides with the trajectory of Miss Malloy, her plans, and her eventual demise.
And all throughout the boys grow up, learn a bit about life, and even more importantly: develop their imagination. Perhaps that’s why the film tugs at my heart. If we can’t imagine, how can we ever achieve or strive or even learn how to wish?
Of course, Miss Malloy reveals she was an actress or rather she wanted to be a stage actress and yet we never really know if her dream transpired or not. Most likely it didn’t and Collins makes this clear with a ballroom sequence not included in the novel to drive home the point that the Cruz Brothers decide to enable Miss Malloy’s fantasies, not simply cause they’re getting well paid to restore her mansion but because they’ve developed serious empathy and she is quite smitten with Jose, in particular, who reveals a secret: he wants to be an actor too.
Lies, acting and memories – true or false – begin to fill up the rest of the movie as we are slowly woven into Miss Malloy’s web. In one sense this is a love story and you could tangentially connect it to Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats Soul. Not so much because of the obvious interracial or age issue but in the sense that all the participants in this ‘affair’ are self-made and are outsiders.
The film’s dialectical forays into human actions and emotions bang up and debate with how we live and how we choose to remember. “I’m looking for my life. Have you seen my life,” she asks Victor at one point. Later she says, “Death is terrible when you cannot remember having lived.” It’s certainly a line and moment that gives you a lump in the throat-especially as one begins to take stock of his or her own life. Collins’ sensitivity towards this is remarkable, it’s never corny or patronizing.
Kathleen Collins was also one of the most intelligent humorists of the cinema and if she had lived she’d have given both Mike Nichols and the far better Elaine May a run for their money. In fact, she did! Her first feature easily beats out May’s debut (The Heartbreak Kid) and they both found equal footing by the late 1970’s with May’s own masterpiece Mikey & Nicky and Collin’s swan song Losing Ground (by then Nichols, never as great as he’d hoodwinked everyone into thinking he was, had lost his bite or willingly sold it out) It would have been fascinating if May had written something for Collins to direct. There is a nearly Chekhovian moment in the film that could have been a May gag. Malloy sits the Brothers down after having done all the housework and she dumps a bunch of invitations on the table and informs them that invitations for the ball have to be mailed. She then dumps out a Telephone book. The boys are incredulous. She tells them, “Invite everyone in the phone book cause everyone I know is dead.” Beautifully understated, subtly macabre, Collins directs humor which reveals pathos through behavior and dialogue. In concert with Gray’s creamy photography and gently non-linear editing, it makes for a fascinating and unique movie and sets a tone and style that became Kathleen Collins signature.
Watching The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy you can’t help but think about gently, gently moving towards one’s own past. And if a film doesn’t make you reflect on your own life then it’s worthless.
Liberty and imagination are key elements of any life. Not happiness. But the freedom to roam in, through, and around one’s life. Can a life be reclaimed? I think Malcolm X would say certainly. Tolstoy too. One can find one’s lost life as one can find one’s virginity. They are never truly lost or taken or given. They are possessed and they can be taken back the minute you decide No I am not going to do that again! Now, we can’t all choose unfortunately but those of us who are haunted by regret or mistakes understand that unless one’s faults have dire consequences on another’s humanity the person you must learn to cherish is yourself. And your tribe. And often those of your tribe may actually not look like you but they may empathize with you and lead you both to look off in the same direction.
The Cruz brothers and Miss Malloy
50 Minutes, 1979
Remastered/Released by Milestone Film & Video – Disc 2 of Losing Ground
A meditation on Christopher Everett’s extraordinary debut film about an 1898 massacre that rocked America
Christopher Everett’s debut film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning documentary about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning. With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…
Malcolm X used to bemoan Black America’s pathological loyalty to the Democratic Party. This perverse agreement to remain supportive of the Democrats was sealed of course with President Johnson’s skillful passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the landmark piece of legislation that deemed discrimination of any kind illegal in the USA. What is most ironic, of course, beyond the fact that since then non-Black immigrants have actually used the gains of that bill and the Civil Rights movement in general – to benefit their own stance, corroborate white racism, and ascend the ladder within America culture. Oppressed people of any stripe are always quick to forget that they are quite often the beneficiaries of another people’s suffering. (Johnny Cochrane interestingly makes note of this in his autobiography Journey to Justice when he describes how the former LA community of west of Main Street went from being a Japanese-American middle-class neighborhood to a New Black Middle-Class enclave post WW2).
I struggle to understand Jews who do not see the actions of Israel as being evil and draconian in terms of how they regard and oppress the Arabs and Africans of the occupied territory once known purely as Palestine. Do we all suffer from our own selective memory, our own bludgeoning “cops in the head”, our own mangled perception of what is right, wrong, and how we benefit or not or fit in or not?
What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the heralding of Lyndon Johnson and his “progressive” administration for putting forth the Civil Rights Act, blah blah blah…Johnson was a politician, not a moralist. He would have sold his own mother if it had meant power. Despite his obvious support of the Civil Rights Act he was staunchly racist and a serious cartoon example of a “good old boy” white Southern cracker. His recorded conversations reveal how natural it was for him to refer to blacks as “Niggers” constantly in conversations held in the oval office (you can hear these recordings on YouTube). Jim Garrison, who charged the United States government in a coup d’état against President Kennedy implied that Johnson himself was even marginally involved in the JFK assassination, so what on earth would convince people he cared about Black people simply because he patronized us and realized he was already in a losing battle…America had to make legislative changes in the 1960’s – the pressure was too much to bear as we the far left was gaining major strides in this country and throughout the world and a Black men protecting himself at all costs against the cruelty and hate of his government would not go unheeded. It is pressure and resistance that always creates legal changes and it either hits you in the wallet or in the head. The dollar or the bullet.
Are we “a virus in shoes” as the late great Bill Hicks once proclaimed? I think we are. Whether we are killing animals or each other, Man is interminably doomed and his shameful celebration of malevolence only continues to prove that while there may not be a god – there is certainly a devil. And he weaves and works his way through the actions of human beings in a way that is profoundly shocking and mysterious. Why? Because, supposedly, everything is all about money. Or the subjugation of one group over another. Throughout history and psychology, all things, all of our spiritual carbon footprints could be whittled down to either of these causes, often both, as Capitalism is a complex duet of both avarice and racism. We are pathetic.
Let’s get back to the checkered past and moral confusion of the Democrats. What a fascinating and morbid history our political parties have purely in terms of their formation, definitions, and self-preservation. For it was on November 10, 1898, North Carolina Democrats enabled a White Mob to engage in a massacre that left at least 100 Blacks dead (the exact number is somewhere between 60 and in the hundreds – the records are murky about this for obvious reasons). For some reason, it was the political affiliation alone that stood out to me when learning this information in Christopher Everett’s new and revealing documentary Wilmington On Fire.
First of all, I had no clue that Wilmington was at one point one of the most cosmopolitan centers in all of the USA, in fact one of the biggest and most economically inspired cities in the world before 1898.Wilmington On Fire does a fantastic job relaying all of this information. It was one of the most diverse cities with (yes!) black-owned and white-owned shops side by side in downtown Wilmington. The Black middle class was so successful, some even had their own butlers and pianos. This puts a whole new twist on the 19th-century Black life, doesn’t it? In fact, what most of us can’t admit: there were more powerfully linked and healthier connections amongst black businessmen and their communities well before the official rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation laws in the USA. This warrants serious rumination.
Obviously this kind of “renaissance” and “progress” of humanity offended racists and white supremacists to their very core, many of which were staunch members and supporters of the Democratic Party. Republicans back then still had the air of liberalism attached to their party.
But meanings and their associations’ change and context – always context! – will always be the end all-be all. Still, it is no less alarming that Americans have a skewered view of the past, identities, and supposed meanings. Perhaps if we regarded political parties as complicated as we have begun to regard our sexual identities or proclivities we may see that there is more to “politics” than meets the eye; more to the values of a political party than its typically regarded associations.
Does it not amuse you that Hollywood actor Wendell Pierce insanely defends the likes of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats legacy? While once again context is vital here, had the actor done this to a Trump supporter, I wouldn’t even mention it. I would casually admire the act for what it’s worth, shrugging off yet another ploy and performance from our nation’s true capital: the throes of Hollyweird.
Even if an actor of Pierce’s modest-stature (commercially speaking) is so disgruntled by a Bernard Sanders supporter or another candidate – he should take time to remember that political parties mean, essentially, nothing. Pierce should spend time putting weight or interest behind Christopher Everett’s excellent movie opposed to paying the state $1,000 bail as a result of his fractious encounter with a Sanders supporter.
About the infamous 1898 massacre of Wilmington’s black businesses and citizens, Christopher Everett’s directorial debut is an unpretentious, direct, and minimalist portrait of the coup d’état created by the white North Carolina Democratic Party in an attempt to broker the lives and future of Wilmington and eventually the entire state – ensuring the legacy and rebirth of a rekindled and acknowledged form of legally sanctioned racism, 35 years after the civil war and the USA’s official outlaw of slavery. As Dr. Umar Johnson fluently explains, after the Civil War in 1865 – a cloud hung over the Ex-Confederate Southern white men who couldn’t bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost a war – not to President Lincoln or the Yankees up North but to their own former slaves! We forget or choose not to remember that Black Americans fought against some of their former slave owners as Union soldiers. And the Union never would have won the Civil War had it not been for the Black soldiers who fought for themselves… and on behalf of the Union.
In retaliation and exasperation, white supremacists who governed the Democratic Party in North Carolina sought to retaliate and officially install a racist system that had been supposedly eradicated some 30 years prior as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates’ dream to restore White unity and Black servitude reached such a grizzled mania that an impassioned yet calculated plot to excise the Black businesses and citizens of Wilmington completely. Independent researcher Kent Chatfield shows us copies of WB McKoy’s pamphlet of 1897, The White Government Union a constitution and bylaws created by the North Carolina Democratic Party whose sole aim was to instill white supremacy government.
The film opens with Ness Lee’s powerful track, “Voice of The Regular People” produced by Illastrate with sampled echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s inimitable falsetto heard wailing, “I’m going to war to find my brother!” is well used here and the closing number of the film has one of the best uses of anthemic protest music that I can think of in any movie since Children of Men’s closing with John Lennon’s “Free The People.” The closing number by James Diallo (produced by Michael ‘Sarkastix’ Harris) in this case is the original and haunting, “It’s a Massacre” – a moody atmospheric poetic hip hop tune that is as defiant and soulful as the film itself. The rest of the music is sparsely and confidently scored by Matthew Head.
We learn in Wilmington On Fire that the White Government Union was a more urbane and far more treacherous terrorist organization than its backyard cousin the Ku Klux Klan for example. These were men who were out for blood, had serious connections and money, and were not going to stop until they removed all Black power-brokers, cultural influence, and existence in Wilmington, North Carolina. The White Government Union’s de-facto militias – known as the “redshirts” – once again, unlike the Klan did not hide their faces and acted like savage storm-troopers upon the African-American community and, as the Nazis did, acted in accordance with some of the most strategic and wicked propaganda put forth by white racists in Wilmington in order to stir up hate and fear against the Blacks. Their vile use of rape as a fear tactic and as a way to protect the white purity of the white woman is on par with the mechanisms later used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Who knows? I imagine Hitler and his henchmen being the history fanatics that they were no doubt impressed and inspired by the methods used by the White Government Union.
Wilmington On Fire was made to enlighten, inform, and arouse interest in not only a slice of American history but also a deeply troubling event that has been swept under the carpet and seldom mentioned. A touchstone of racism and quite honestly one of the multitudinous events that has occurred to Black people in North America alone that helps make-up the Black Holocaust – a stream of harrowing events that Western academics and historians continually downplay in favor of the gargantuan numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust in the confines of Nazi death-camps. Still, if it were a numbers game they would lose. According to SE Anderson, somewhere between 15 and 60 million Black lives were destroyed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade alone. And the horror continues to this day. Each isolated act of terror makes up another patchwork in the terrible mighty quilt known as Modern Culture As Created by the Anglo in What Is Now Known as The United States of America.
Yet, many African-Americans still find it hard to reconcile their past in this country alone. Randall Robinson in his excellent book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks mentions his exasperation via a casual discussion he had with author Walter Mosley with Blacks’ seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their tortured past by downplaying and literally disabling the commercial business of such well-intentioned films like Beloved based on the Toni Morrison classic. Because it deals with slavery they ignored it. That’s probably even truer for the greater mainstream’s embarrassing avoidance of the entire work of genius Haile Gerima. And while pop culture has embraced a Disney-fied, eroticized, and gleefully sanitized “ANTEBELLUM SLAVE & SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS” movie genre (Miss Burning to Clara’s Heart to The Help to 12 Years a Slave, etc) – most of the serious art films or documentaries go unnoticed or un-appreciated because of their innate passion or style or singular vision. Sometimes it’s because of all three – whether it’s serious protest dramas like Nothing But a Man or later radical Black-helmed pictures like Sam Greenlee & Ivan Dixon’s TheSpook Who Sat By The Door – there’s always a distinct difference in the independent filmmaker’s vision and those seeking to exploit, pander, or simply fulfill a Liberal-checklist of obligations for some media company to fulfill. This must always be taken into account when you watch any film, especially a documentary: Ask, “Is this necessary?” And then ask, “Would this director be willing to suffer for giving us this information?”
Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.
Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in a legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.
By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; as a white youth he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…
If film can be an art and a weapon – the documentary is an often thrilling and deadly weapon in the arsenal, at times a best kept secret. For all documentaries seek to make its audience confront something. If narrative directors infused their scripts with this lesson – how much more dynamic and dangerous dramatic pictures would be!
And yet documentaries have become a particular and strange new pornography in our culture. It has become obvious to me that over the past decade a large number of filmmakers who fancy themselves as “progressive” and “Liberal-loving” humane freedom fighters have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money in making documentaries – but not truly advocating any direct social change. They are carefully crafted movies that give facts and tons of information about terrible events or current happenings – and yet don’t actually implore their audiences to do anything. It is not necessary for a film to scream its message to its audience, quite often even the most graphic documentary doesn’t have to do that…and yet it doesn’t hurt if a documentary is a bit forward and incendiary even to its own viewer. Wilmington On Fire toes this line – it is up front about how it feels and how its director regards his subject.
And what I like most about it – is that it is a “simple” American story. By focusing in on his own state’s history and legacy, Everett combines the ideal Pete Seeger coaxed us to consider: think globally, but act locally.
You don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to collect data on terrorism – often all you need to do is investigate your own state or cities history. The United States was founded upon terrorism: where have we all been?
Film As Resistance
“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”
– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller
When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly beginning to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.
What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.
The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?
Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.
Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?
No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.
The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write-up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.
His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.
So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.
I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.
The award-winning documentary “Wilmington on Fire” will be screening in the following cities next week below.
Pittsboro, NC: Hosted by the Chatham County Democratic Party Date:June 24, 2017 Time:12:30pm Admission: Free and open to the public Location: Pittsboro Roadhouse & General Store (39 West St., Pittsboro, NC 27312) Facebook Event Page
Brooklyn, NY: Weeksville Freedom Film Festival Date:June 24, 2017 Time:2:30pm Tickets:Eventbrite Location: Weeksville Heritage Center (158 Buffalo Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11213) Facebook Event Page
How a 7 Minute Corporate Short Film Nearly Drove Me To Suicide
While there does seem to be a disturbing trend of butchering the spirit and art of some of the 20th century’s greatest African-American artists (Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis) – one can only wonder what the pathology of this is and who is pulling the strings. Or rather who is doing the bidding.
Like any good serf serving the Lord of the Manor, one must be mindful and take great care not to break the vow of bondage to the Great Masters who out of the great goodness of their heart provide land for the dutiful serf to live off and prosper from.
In Feudal England they said that a serf owned “only his belly”—even his clothes were the legal property of his lord—and yet the serfs had it even better than the slaves. On rare occasions, a well-to-do serf might even be able to buy his freedom. If he knew what to do with it. That could easily be applied to our Black ‘Hollywood Sharecroppers’ as Bill Gunn called them or simply as corporate bootlickers as they truly are, all suffering from Knee-Grown Celluloidis.
Never heard of it? It is a common disease that permeates most Black actors, screenwriters, producers, and directors in Hollywood and in the tentacles of the so-called ‘Independent Film’ world that claims it has nothing to do with Hollywood. Enabled by venal corporate sponsorship, the cretinous barnacles that grow out of this bizarre merger are usually movie directors and ‘media makers’ from a traditionally oppressed class (people of color, women, gays, etc) [notice how “Jews” are never formally included in this groups and yet are quick to acknowledge their history on the sick end of anti-Semitism] who willfully do everything in their power, using their tenuous and limited talent to uphold a point-of-view that is not only diametrically opposed to the subject they are commenting on and showing but also a perception that helps to keep them in bondage.
While there are many cases to discuss and though it would be beneficial to study the history and estimate the orbit of this mental disorder (which has gotten worse over the past 100 years despite the capitalist success of Blacks in Entertainment and Media) — I want to set my sights on that malignancy that has begun to erode consciousness, artistic progress, and even good entertainment: the 21st century ‘Media Content Maker’ as branded by the Facebook generation and the companies of the world that have followed suit in their mission to make the world believe that it is the Power and Privilege of the Company Man to incur filmmakers to make propaganda for their customers to consume or grant permission to express oneself in accordance with one’s brand or even to decide who and what is an “artist.” If Napoleon Bonaparte had indeed ordered his men to cut off the noses of the Egyptian sphinxes, today he would merely hire a colored movie director in fulfillment of his regiment’s diversity pledge and once branded a corporate content maker, the director would cinematically delete his own nose and stream the deadened cartilage live on Facebook. And he would get a handsome fee to do this. Because his next contract would be to turn the camera in on Toussaint L’Ouverture and were he to do that for Napoleon…well, he wouldn’t have had to muster a plan to arrest and betray L’Ouverture and no literal bloodshed would ever have been spilled. No Anglo-French blood anyway. Because then it would have gone two ways: either the Blacks would have been so brainwashed they would have let their colonized feet follow the orders of France…or these brother and sisters would have said to the Knee Grow With a Camera: “How dare you,” and proceeded to end his life. Revolutions, like decolonization, is hard business folks and it does not take place nicely or quietly. And there is always collateral damage. However in the west’s point of view, in the Empire’s chambers: it’s the conscious or the poor (take your pick) who are merely spoils of war.
I want to put the hypocrites, charlatans, sell-outs, betrayers, and Establishment Players in the cross hairs of my pen and allow my finger to not only twitch but get heavy. Or even lazy. As lazy would also define the artistic ambitions of these Black Filmmakers who consciously or unconsciously trounce and denigrate Black mythology, legends, achievements, culture and folk art for the Lord of the Manors dictating this imperial gastric tumor metastasizing over our lives: the racist spectacle of media, marketing, and movies.
Today we focus on Terrence Nance.
The director of The Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Swimming in Your Skin Again — makes self-consciously arty-films for white Liberals and their oiky-toiky white hipsters who love regarding such Black filmmakers as their “awesome” friends and love to dance with their Afros patronizing them in any way possible to ensure these Blacks don’t ever flex a conscious muscle or dignified stance to boor through their own well-preserved white gaze. Nance exists now in order to maintain and secure the frame around the lens that captures the white gaze, without which white Liberals would be a mess. Preening as they enable the “cool” Black director (“cool” is now code for not intimidating) into their fold, glad he is doing something “different from the Black gutter poets or avant-garde Leftists, he makes the white hipster milieu (Art for Art sake nonsense) as well as their corporate parents comfortable with meretricious and fetishized Black-body images and empty conversations about Black People. Because Black people exist solely on camera for the comfort of the grotesque white gaze and a Liberals checklist (dreadlocks-check, au-naturale naked sister-check, shot of brother’s high buttocks-and dragging feet-check, sexually ambivalent-check, nerdy brother-check, etc)
The man who is one of the MOST FUNDED “ARTISTIC” INDIE DIRECTORS of my generation is not only a hollow mask (it takes a lot to be a hollow mask) but a smug filmmaker who has done a great job exploiting his blackness, urbane milquetoast blackness, and everything having to do with “Blackness”– on the surface. He insists that to be artistic and intellectual is to poke fun at Black bodies/personas and not take them seriously – on behalf of white benefactors and worse…his colonized mind. He exists to bring “Blackness” to the dead white art crowd (the whites lost their own way a long long time ago – somewhere in between the demise of REM, their embracement of Harmony Korine and the rise of Spike Jonze), to the legitimate commercial marketing industry, and to Brand companies jonesin’ for the New Brooklyn, who missed out on Spike Lee (who branded himself anyway and therefore didn’t need anyone to do it for him) and would not know how to make heads or tails of Left-Wing Bushwick filmmaker Mtume Gant, fearful of a genuine artistic sister like Cauleen Smith, or who have never even heard of that old riddle wrapped up in an enigma in Xanadu’s lair Wendell B. Harris (still to this day the greatest unchampioned living American filmmaker of ANY COLOR)
Nance has no “politics” (which is the most dangerous form of political stance to take), he has no vision for cinema (not one person I have asked or spoken to can tell me what he is actually doing other than trivializing cinema and ‘Black’ identity), he has no angst (a filmmaker must be Apollonian in order to achieve his goal – patience and fortitude like a sculptor is necessary, but he must possess a gargantuan amount of emotional depth, he must contain Dionysian impulses within him – because THAT is what moves us and stuns us), and simply he has nothing to say.
Terrence Nance has nothing to say. And it’s not just him. It’s 90 percent of our artists – high or low, famous or underground – having absolutely nothing to say about anything. The creative act, the impulse to make a film, to do anything artistic must come from an act of risk and fear of what might happen if I tell the truth. Period. No risk, there can be no attempt at consummating an incredible relationship. Therefore he can’t even break your heart because you can’t invest in him emotionally or intellectually anyway. What he can do, however, is disrespect, toy, and laugh at you.
A balloon has more contained virtue than any of Nance’s films.
And it is time we start to speak out, debate against, and challenge these assumptions that are being wielded and tossed off like yesterday’s prophylactic or a Poland Spring bottle cap — they’re thrown about and simply accepted. We know its trash and we accept it. Shit has more use – at least it can rejuvenate a patch of grass.
Terrence Nance may be more pernicious than the Hollywood Establishment’s patronization of Barry Jenkins (a talented filmmaker whose trajectory I am nervous about) and could be on par with the dangerous lauding of Jordan Peele’s ‘Buzzfeed’ backward- thinking of Get Out – but it is probably more in sync with the sinister rise of Lin Manuel’s Great Racial Cross Dressing of the Great White Way as both Nance and Manuel are the recipients of not only corporate America’s money but the torrid desire of white liberals who want to make sure that no racial progress, development, truth or artistry will be promoted or get through to the mainstream window without capitulating to the great demands put upon them. In short: No ‘colored’ filmmaker with any personal vision, radical politics, or new aesthetic sensibility (could you imagine a combination of ALL THREE) will ever be money or support to preach the poetry of his soul.
He or she will however be given every opportunity to humiliate, desecrate, and gleefully piss over any conscious Black ideas or sentiments. Even better if you’re willing to pervert the legacy of a great Black popular artist. This is not an opinion. This is a fact. I no longer have opinions as I am an inauthentic man living in an inauthentic time.
As a Nowhere Man you become more and more consumed by the ineptitude of those around you, the betrayal of the avant-garde, the failure my own generation was part of – our conscientious decision to make sure we did NOT surpass even the tepidity of Spike’s films or incorporate the artistic anarchism of Robert Townsend or merely the dramatic flair of the Hughes Brothers. All at one point mainstream filmmakers! There was a time when these cats at least for a moment enabled the young Black director who wished to find his feet in the sand of this awful desert we wander through, finding our way…
It is a fact that the Emperor has no clothes. But it is also a fact that there is no Emperor. Why this need for an emperor in the first place is disturbing. In the arts the Kings announce themselves. Corporate America and film festivals do not do it for you. However, I am deluding myself. Because nowadays they do!
There is shameful acceptance and complicity in our cultural and spiritual demise. The goal of 21st century Neo Liberalism and American Media is to not just homogenize a whole new generation of artists (we did that one ourselves) it is to pimp blackness and reap the benefits of all the Johns who come in to visit the brothel. There are certain things though that not even a Madame would permit.
The meretriciousness of Nance’s films is one of them.
But if Tribeca, AT&T (would you trust anything connected to AT&T?) and Atlantic Rethink say he is worth it – than by God, he must be!
Jimi Could Have Fallen is a 7-minute insult.
With its slinky Black-bourgeois hipsterism and self-satisfied faux ‘modern’ ballet routines, shock-a-jock avant-garde winking, terrible music and horribly re-created pseudo-psychedelic music (the Partridge family could have done a better job making an acid rock soundtrack) and absolutely ridiculous song referencing (Jimi in a literal ‘purple haze’ in one inane sequence), the video looks like a joke about an avant-garde freak and is handled with such a knowing tongue-in-cheek manner that everything about Hendrix, his music, and Seattle go under…In essence, this is 7 minutes of comic-book masturbation in service of an even more absurd contract with Seattle Visit. And while masturbation may feel good, it does not produce life. Nor does it pretend to.
What’s incredible is that the video simply fails in its own commercial goal: to incur tourists to visit. Now, I don’t know much about tourism except for the fact that I despise tourists and everything they have come to represent. (But so did Jacques Tati.)
Why he didn’t just show: “This is where Jimi Hendrix first played guitar” and then flash to where Tom Hanks yearned for Meg Ryan then show us “This is where Quincy Jones first played in the college band” (Seattle University) then cut to show where the City Council convene (majority of which are women by the way!) and then cut to where Bill Gates launched Microsoft—you get the point. That kind of kitsch would have made sense for a tourism video.
Jimi Could Have Fallen is something else. Like his prior work Swimming in My Skin, it is much more inane, sinister, and troubling.
The video seems to cynically purport through its unabashedly snarky Candyland approach that no one would even want to visit Seattle unless they had a mindset of a five-year old. If a five-year old were to watch the video, I could see how the notion of clamoring out to some back alley in hopes of finding a guitar in a garbage can might turn him on. And then he could traipse around with it – with his hipster dad saying “Oh, cool, little Marcus- isn’t this, like, awesome??” and the mother would take photos to text back to her friends in Portland (who thought they were in Williamsburg) and they’d even eat donuts and skip around foolishly like mad-dogs who’d gotten shot with a poisonous dart, getting delirious. So he might be successful if he’s trying to coerce that five-year old boy and his ironic hipster parents. Outside of that I am a bit lost. For not even a group of single women out to take Seattle by storm would be convinced nor would some retiree in Denver who is looking for a bit of a change since his wife has passed and wants to seek out the progressive changes and left-leaning iconography of Seattle – from its initial history of disgraceful treatment of Indians and Asians to tech companies to grunge music and self publishing to the vanguard of LBGTQ movements. Nance should have just done a simple tourist trap commercial. When I first heard about this nonsense, that’s what I thought it was. So I didn’t care. When a filmmaker I profoundly respect demanded I watch it (he didn’t tell me Nance made it or I would have avoided it all together) because it was centered around Jimi Hendrix I took a perverse interest. And then I got scared cause I knew what would soon follow.
If the Osmond’s had been Black and mated with members of the Monkees TV show and were locked in a dungeon with underage Black poseurs from the suburbs who dream of being in fashion magazines and were doused with innocuous ironic white bread marginalia and were written up into a script by Wes Anderson — you would have Jimi Could Have Fallen. (What’s worse, Anderson would have done it better – ARGHHHH!!!!)
Terrence Nance’s cinematic slaughtering of Jimi Hendrix alone should have OUTRAGED all the Black people who believe that Black lives matter. But I suppose the electric son of Seattle does not. And anyway (ahem) they’re too busy using their new credit cards.
The video makes a mockery out of the musical legacy and journey Hendrix went on and the complicated inner landscape he tried to show us. Hendrix was a true poet of music. He was humble, shy, and deep thinking. His music was profound, galvanizing, and wistful. All we learn or are led to believe from watching Nance’s 7 minute burp is that Hendrix was a kooky, loosey-goosey brother who was a little different and didn’t take life serious at all and even had a blast joining the army cause he was a paratrooper and soared through the sky. The film ends with this image and of course is a subtle nod to the United States armed forces. Who can be the last to claim brother Jimi away from his tortured Black psychedelic self, the Jimi who played guitar the way Parker blew on his saxophone, the Jimi who made sonic-powered blues and set his guitar on fire offering it up to the Gods. Townsend destroyed his guitar, Hendrix sacrificed his. That’s deep. That’s Jimi. Maybe that’s a part of Seattle too. But that’s not this little film.
If Nance wanted to cinematically destroy a Black life why not take a stab at Barack Obama — a 5-minute portrait of a pathological Black American Corporate Killer playing the drones as well (if not better) than Hendrix played guitar could have been worthwhile.
Why do we allow Blacks to kill on behalf of the United States of America, why do we enable and support corporate killing of women and children? Why do we get titillated at the idea of a drone but have no interest in finding out truly why Paul Mooney was banned from the Apollo, why Ralph Ellison rejected Henry Dumas’ literary advances, why –?? Oh wait, you will say, this was a SEATTLE TOURIST PROJECT! Yes, right. So in that case I ask the obvious:
Terrence, why not make a short honoring Chief Seattle?
Or better the connection between Hendrix and Native Americans?
Oh no, once you do that you’re fucked. You would get caught in a web that inextricably linked your funders to the DAPL perhaps. (Does it matter? WE ARE ALL IN COLLUSION). But I suppose Seattle Visit wouldn’t appreciate that as they may be comfortable having paternally recognized their Indians legacy and Chief Seattle and what-not but they’re not interested in actual people’s lives or meaning unless it makes them money. Good money. “Happy money.” (What’s sick is that in NYC while the African Burial Ground got deleted from our modern urban history New York made a ton of money off the deaths of people in 9/11 and happily sells this to tourists. They actually consider this to be “happy money.”)
If I was asked to make a film for Visit Seattle, I would start with Chief Seattle and perhaps the history of the Suquamish Tribe and end with Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” over re-creations of Seattle’s anti-Chinese riots of 1885 and we’d see Starbucks coffee exploding in all four corners of the screen. What, you don’t think that would help tourism? Trust me, if Starbucks financed my tour of the locations of the Seattle Anti-Chinese Riots of 1885 and at each location of the riot there were a Starbucks plaque — believe me, SOMEONE would make money and TONS of tourists would come. But I suppose my understanding of people and business and what they want is different from Nance’s. Which is why I can only carve words as Nance can only belch images instilled in him by a banker.
For only an unimaginative person could really imply that Jimi was an alien (they say that about the ancient Egyptians too), not of this earth and therefore just some cool aberration of humanity, his work is “cool” but not real or secular and has no gravity, a little too naively weird and baroque for its own good cause it’s just so freaking “out there” and sixties, yeah…This ignorant and pervasive maligning attitude is why Hendrix is easily an accepted marginal Black cultural figure. But hey if artists like Hendrix, Michael, and Prince were in fact from outer space – believe me a cat like Jimi didn’t fall from the sky. Bowie may have fallen, but Jimi was pushed. Cause no cosmic Brother would even play around up there knowing that he might fall. No one would want to fall into our solar system or onto this planet. Look around yourself. Would you want to be here if you didn’t have to be? _
The corporate tour is 7 minutes. But it felt like 7 days. Probably cause I kept pausing it every 9 seconds. By 4:14 I began to get nauseas. And I felt a suicidal relapse might be imminent. (I immediately called a filmmaker comrade and told him to please stay on the phone with me as I sweated through the remaining 3 minutes of this tourist tail-watching. He said he would but he didn’t have time for my ‘gentrified minds’ antics as he was playing chess and I quickly began to get very jealous. I need a hobby. Badly.)
From the silly twists and dumb dancing to the geeky-tones of a bad flashback sequence from a TV show (making the triteness of That 70’s Show seem almost poetic by comparison, in fact I found myself looking for Ashton Kutcher somewhere in the frames) to the constant unwillingness to celebrate Hendrix’s soulful rock musicianship – recasting his guitar prowess in the guise of a Brady Bunch Blues song due to his Wonder Bread donut fixation (are you fucking kidding me?); Nance does what I never thought possible: he de-funks Jimi.
Yes. That’s right.
He removes every funky, fantastic, down-home psychedelic impulse (Jimi was mind-expanding before he ever heard of LSD), and humble mischief associated with Jimi. He becomes as white men who run banks want him to become: fey, weak, goofy…tame.
Could you imagine Sly Stone or James Brown or Michael Jackson de-funked?? I often think it’s glad most of our phenomenons are gone because we have reached a point where nothing means anything any more. And it’s sad and excruciating to endure. It’s getting harder to get up everyday and face this world that believes “nothing matters anyway.” Or “It’s a just tourist flick, relax.”
I don’t think I can relax about this. Because this is a social disease, it is becoming an epidemic. I don’t know the solution as I am far too gone in my own hell to even propose a re-evaluation of the diagnosis. But the symptoms are plain and clear: remove depth, depoliticize Blackness, make us corny and ironic and make us as enchanting as Mickey Mouse. But do not – DO NOT – infer Black consciousness (which is not the same as political beliefs by the way, folks) and DO NOT add dignity.
The problem here is a cultural one and one that resides within the test and context of values and trust. White folks who grant arts money need to trust that you will put THEIR values and THEIR mission on screen. Most of us don’t think about it this way because we have been so colonized. So naturally what we feel is “theirs” is also “ours” and we have no problem accepting this. And they can tell by the way you walk, talk, and look. I don’t mean your facial characteristics; I use look as a verb – as in how you actually aim your eyes when they address you. If the eyes dilate, you’re good to go. You don’t even have to say anything. They’ll trust you immediately and give you the satchel of money to make your next atrocity on the screen.
We complain about Chicago but Black people kill Black people every day in so many other ways. We do it unnecessarily, and we do it at the behest of an Order That Demands We Become Even Greater At Subjugating Ourselves Than They Could.
I don’t believe in murder, but I do believe in revenge.
And I believe in defense. And I certainly believe in punishment. God knows I have learned my own lessons by smashing into walls. And I stand now as one for Nance and all who follow him. And if they don’t stop, there is always another option. Or, as scientists say, you don’t disprove your opponents. You simply wait for them to die.
However I may die well before Nance. Because if I continue to be subjected to such toxic cinematic energy and such colonized coonery passing off as cinema or the creativity of an “important” filmmaker – I may extricate myself all together.
I’m an old soldier in an even older war. And I have given up so many things, waved far too many flags for Black people in all aspects of society and all tiers of the establishment to understand that the arts and consciousness are in dire straits; I have done my part and I can die with a clean conscience. I only wonder what the charlatans think when they go home. How, Brother Nance, do you sleep at night?
Angry? I’m infuriated. Which is one of the only two reasons one should pick up a pen in the first place.
But I will play the Capitalist game with you, I will humor you and ask the gentle reader:
If my writing in front of you is less worthy than Mr. Nance’s 7 minutes of video – if my argument and response to Nance’s nonsensical corporate video doesn’t merit such outrage or possesses less worth than Nance’s exploitation and silliness than I will stand corrected. I would not only offer a retraction and public apology, I’d fall on my goddamned sword!
And remember at one time millions of Seattle’s indigenous Original Peoples lived, breathed, fought, created, and had their own lives some 4,000 years before the white man and then the colonized Knee-Grows with cameras messed it all up. Just keep that in the back of your mind.
And ask: In all honesty Terrence, would you have done this to Kurt Kobain? (Courtney Love would never allow it, that’s why – and while he may live long with his disease, having Courtney Love on your back would surely number your days) Hell if you wanted to desecrate a Seattle musician – why not show Kenny G? You could have extinguished his cultural importance instead of maligning Jimi Hendrix’s spirit! But I suppose the brand company would not want that huh? No, Jimi is much sexier than Kenny G could ever have been. And there’s nothing to defang, for Kenny G had no venom or soul in his music. So how can we take the most radical, theatrical, innately musical, and mind-expanding musician of the 20th century and water him down even more?
As if it wasn’t bad enough that we (Black people) turned our backs on Jimi once before huh?
Artaud asked us to reconsider who killed Van Gogh. That his suicide was a political one implemented by the forces of society – that it was a kind of dual homicide. We could say the same about Jimi Hendrix – an accidental overdose is an oxymoron. All drug takers and even the heaviest junkie knows what will kill him. Or if it could. I’m not gonna speculate on Jimi’s death wish (if he had one) but I know the brother was leaving a phase of his life and trying to enter a new one musically. And I know there’s no way Jimi ever got over having to leave America (“Black” America) to become himself in Britain (“White” England). Miles Davis was the visionary who knew Hendrix had to be collaborated with – he knew the brother was beyond genius. But it was too late.
And now it is too late again. From John Ridley’s abominable movie on Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin still wakes up in cold sweats from having participated in that) to Nance’s cute corporate Hallmark cartoon on Jimi falling from the sky…All for a tourist board.
“We steered away from traditional travel videos because we wanted to create content that people could watch in their everyday lives, or when they’re seeking entertainment,” states Ali Daniels, VP of marketing at Visit Seattle. “We want them to go to the Space Needle, but also to see how we make amazing whiskey here.” Hm. That says it all. Something tourists could watch when seeking entertainment. Because Jimi was all about entertainment, right? Just another geek for the freaks at the end of the day. All the better that he is dead. Cause everyone knows there’s no better way to get someone to visit a place than to promote the fact that a wild-Black-outlaw artist is dead.
Just remember it was an African-American Indian-man, an artist who had to leave his home to get recognition, and a heavy drug user whose life is being advertised for a Tourist Board’s City campaign. It’s pitifully hilarious. In fact we should be thanking the barbiturate makers and dealers for Hendrix having a way out to begin with! And if he HADN’T overdosed – Nance would not have made this shameful corporate crime. If that is not sick I don’t know what is. Except for Terrence Nance buying into this foolishness. A conspiracy he offered his soul to be part of, but there was no Faustus knock at the door or a convincing Cassius looking over his shoulder.
I’m angry cause Nance does this on purpose. If he is as untalented as his films prove to be than he would not be getting all this funding. It is all by strange design. He gets funding cause he’s willing to go along with someone else’s agenda. He allows this and knowingly creating meretricious works and corporate commercials that have about as much soul as a dollar bill. In fact, a dollar has more blood on it. Terrence should know this. He’s receiving enough of them.
Aime Cesaire wrote, “Beware…of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator.” I assume Guy Debord would have agreed. Well brothers and sisters who dare to hold on to your consciousness and sanity: Welcome to the 21st century Society of the Spectacle! Tucked within our living breathing pages of Brave New World is a new flock of House Slaves deliberately and proudly wearing their status as corporate provocateurs as a badge of courage, pinning their Capitalist diplomas upon the lens caps of their movie cameras. Terrence Nance is a Master of Ceremonies at the new big top carnival, he sets up the tent and cracks his whip hoping to seduce all the Mr. Jones’ into America’s “post-racial” Neo Liberal-Ballad of a Thin Man-freakism. I can only imagine what will happen when the Royal London Hospital Museum hire him to help tourists come view the Elephant Man’s bones. Good thing it’s only a replica they have on public display. Maybe then Nance will feel more comfortable when not dealing…with the real thing.
Bold and beautiful, “Akata” is a cool understated slice of revolutionary cinema.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
– Franz Kafka
David Bowie iterated the same sentiment, differently, in his spooky lament Ashes to Ashes (1980) and interestingly enough this existential reclamation of breaking through in order to be recognized/released, in a quite different context, is the gestalt moment of Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s haunting short Akata.
Akata echoes Kafka’s maxim more literally, though no less poetically: his hero smashes the ice – or in this case glass – in order to be affirmed and to be freed. If only for a moment. The 13 minutes leading up to this Fanonian climax is from a world many of the metropolitan Black artists know well and it is a crippling, hypocritical, and insidious one. It is the professional ‘Art World’ – the nucleus of all that is wrong in our “progressive” culture, all that is wrong with White Liberalism, and all that is wrong with the west.
If you are looking for evidence and sources of our problems, evade the American politicians and stop looking for bombs and the creatures that make them. Look no further than the art institutions and the scenes they give birth to. So venal you’d think you’d slipped into either the boiler room of a hedge fund or the back alley of a Public Education fundraising meeting. Simply: they’re all out to get you. And your humanity. And the hero of Akata is no exception. He’s willingly offered himself to be taken and denigrated until it becomes too much for him. The hypocrisy, institutionalized racism, and slow-burn yearning in Yeboah’s film is wonderfully rendered in a tone both personal and communal. Shot on Super 16, the film is a strong synthesis of the French New Wave and the Classical African Militant filmmaking of Djibril Diop Mambety. But it is also wholly new and fresh and features an effective improvised jazz score by David Boykin, non-professional actors (imbuing this gently surreal film with dignified awkwardness) and an ending as arresting as proverb.
The theme of the Artist struggling to get home is both actual and symbolic and it rendezvous’ with the political realities of a Black man not being able to get a cab, an Artist reconciling that his work may be “worth more” than his life, and the everyday nightmares that often reveal insights in our neurosis.
Akata superbly captures the solitary inner life of a frustrated creative being, the matter of fact loneliness of the artist, and the tender side to wanting to connect and completely re-structure the world and one’s place in it through the use of hands (craft). The Artist paints, greets and accepts a business card, and smashes a window all with his hand. He is forced to give up the brush and make a fist. The artist as unwilling resister to the oppressive culture or even, dare I say it, literal revolutionary is a clear and inherent characteristic of our Revolutionary Black New Wave cinema or ‘Rebel Cinema’ as we sometimes refer to it. A symbiosis of Afro-bleakism and romantic challenge to nihilism and acceptance of unjust norms.
Like other films about the revolutionary plight of the artist (As an Act of Protest, Spit) the equation of the Black conscious artist struggling to go beyond his work and into a society where he can have an impact is implied rather than explored and there’s room for numerous interpretations…but an infinite amount of epiphanies.
Enduring one humiliation after the next just to get to his own art-show, the Artist is also the last to leave the exhibition and, despite the accolades, becomes another frighteningly common archetype: the artist who may be wanted for his work – but not for who he is. The White Art World in particular are fundamentalist believers of “I can experience you through your work (wow!) yet will deny your existence (in actual life).” I don’t want your humanity, just your art. The biblical trajectory of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a classic example.
In life, the budding artist is most vulnerable before he blooms and right after. The setting sun on possibility, the shadows that gather in late evening are enough to commit any struggling artist for the rest of his life. Assuming he lives past his Baptism of Fire.
Akata is perhaps the most delicate of all these rebel films because it’s the most poetic. Its subtleties are not only embedded in the technique of the film (and become more pronounced with each viewing) but because it comes across like a diary entry (read more about the personal inspiration in the Q & A). Unlike the theatrical nature of most narrative movies, Akata remains singular in that its style is severely synced with its director’s raw and sensitive approach to cinema: unfiltered and unacademic. Yeboah distills swiftly and doesn’t waste time getting heady when he shoots, he prefers to let the moment and the feeling of the mise-en-scene guide him. It is a jazz approach that has served him well. Director of Photography Marcin Szocinski gives a warm, painterly creamy look that at times goes soft and racks focus as we ourselves try to make out what is “happening.” Or rather, the themes develop as Jarcin finds what Yeboah has laid out of for us. Szocinksi’s sensual and wonderfully ‘nomadic’ approach to shooting is not only an approach that benefits Yeboah’s instincts it serves Akata well because of the stately roguish nature of the film.
What struck me about the Artist’s dilemma in the film is He hasn’t a friend in the world. Because no one who loves another would allow that person to be anxious about how they are going to get home. But in the concrete jungle, in the colonized wilderness People of Color have gotten lost in and rushed to be part of – there is no home to travel to, only one that can be possessed spiritually. Akata makes it clear to me: we can never go back home. We must create a new home, conceptually and literally. There can be no return or looking back. If one needs help getting home – then that means that person didn’t have a home to begin with. Like a stray feral creature sifting through the trees, constantly on the prowl. Is it going to or from?
And then it all comes together in some kind of cool post-colonialist afterthought: we arrive at the film’s revolutionary gestalt moment and what transpires is coolly transcendent and chilling.
Akata is a mesmerizing film and an important one that must be added to our arsenal.
A picture lives by companionship…It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling.”
– Mark Rothko
Born in Ghana, Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, Djibril Diop Mambèty and Fela Kuti. A trajectory marked with a poetics of refusals, the cinema is his weapon of choice.
That being said Yeboah has been very cautious as to who he shares his art with.
He will only share the film with audiences genuinely interested. He has given up on any notion of commercial success, being popular, or reaping the benefits of a system that routinely exploits and straight-up pimps Black actors and directors via Hollyweird. He does not care about the “foolishness and coonery” he feels has become the new American Norm for Black people – as viewers and creators. His only wish is to keep creating and making his own cinema, regardless of how long it will take. But he balks at the idea now of begging people to look at his work. And while he is a classical filmmaker (meaning he still believes in ‘pure cinema’ and the impact of projecting a motion picture on a large screen VS the TV or computer), he does not want to constantly humiliate himself by hoping someone will take an interest in seeing his films.
They don’t have to understand or even like his work, but they should possess and innate desire to be vulnerable and open to what the artist wants to give. In the 21st century, that is not only one of the biggest problems of cinema (people unable to know how to “view” a movie as the nature of the audience/viewer has changed not only due to the self-satisfied generation of young adults who feel there is nothing they don’t know since life for them is a google at the tip of their fingers) – it is also a general idea that pervades our times ever since Guy Debord’s nightmare of the spectacle became our everyday waking reality. In an age now where everything is up for sale and everything is a movie how does the average watcher of media, consumer of images – allow himself to metabolize a personal independent film in a genuine way? Do they even care?
When you view someone’s film – it is you who becomes Muhammad or Moses or whomever you wish to equate the eyes of a prophet; you are digesting a message from God. All the artist asks is that you respectfully broach the idea of even considering to look at his work.
Secular art is not merely earthly or “profane,” it is a deeply spiritual. It is not religious because it does not link itself to merely one religious belief, it is like Theater – the holiest of the holy: a glorious secular humanism. Without a God or a bible.
Below is an excerpt of a telephone interview I conducted over the phone with Yeboah upon my viewing of the final cut of Akata.
Q & A
My own last name “Kangalee” is a Bengali-Senegalese hybrid, a kind of Black-Indian mash-up. This is quite common in Trinidad but I’d assume the Siddi of India had probably carried the name. It means “wretched” or “the dispossessed.” Go figure! It’s haunted me ever since I accepted my name. And while I never see a word or name doesn’t connect to any given situation we are in – I am curious what the title of your film refers to. What does ‘Akata’ mean?
It denotes ‘a wild cat that does not live at home’.
Yes! That adds a whole other layer to the film…
…And some West Africans use of the term could denote ‘the wild ones’, which is how we perceive some of what appears very wild to us – with our brothers. Its origins could be traced to Fante (Ghana) and Yoruba (Nigeria) . The word ‘akata’ is me experiencing my wild cat self as I’m perceived.
When did you start writing and developing the film?
The film as an idea must have firmed between 2013-2014. Prior to that it was just a feeling. I could never hail a cab like anyone else who wasn’t black. One time I almost disappointed a client at the Race Center at the University of Chicago. It almost made me cry when she finally picked me up after a very embarrassing emotional call “… they won’t stop for me.” Tears came to my eyes when I said those words.
Reminds me of when he says, “I just want to go home.”
This is one of those moments you seek their attention by breaking the glass. The act is only intended to achieve visibility, they walk and drive right through you, till you break the glass and become visible. It’s to their shame that they would only acknowledge you when the tension in your muscles is released. I dress spiffy and all but, still a nigger. My friend Ade wears glasses and possesses an intellectual and harmless demeanor so he assists me in the dead of winter to stop a cab to move two suitcases to my new home, I would step back out of the picture so they may stop for what we both perceive as a less threatening figure than mine. Still not working…and these cabs are almost always driven by nonwhites…Racism is internalized by nonwhites who have bought into the dominant narrative.
When I first saw that moment – I had a knee-jerk reaction and thought “What is this fool doing? Why does he care about being acknowledged by this white man? When will we learn!?” But then just as fast – you have him enter the zone, he breaks through and enters demanding some kind of spiritual awakening. Not for the white man. But for himself. I’ve studied the ending several times to figure that out. It’s a beautiful moment…What’s your approach to actors and casting? I’m always curious how directors with a non-theatrical background execute this.
Well, as you know I prefer non-actors. They give me something new. As a director, I see my characters in people on the sidewalks, coffee shops and in everyday life. I randomly asked Reginald Eldridge (the Artist in the film) after encountering him a few times at events we kept bumping into each other. Met up with Cheryl Pope – who plays his lover in the film on the same day we met on social media. I declared to them: “You’re going to be in my film.” Both are practicing artist-teachers.
Their comfortability with each other was impressive especially as two people who just met and are playing lovers on-screen for the first time. Their ease put a lot of professionals to shame. But that’s also how you shot it – you didn’t direct their intimate scenes with one iota of fetishism. That’s a feat in itself because most bedroom scenes or sex scenes exist to simply titillate the viewer or expose the director’s own hang-ups. You learn a lot about someone by how they stage a sex scene. Tell me about your cinematographer, Marcin Szocinski.
Marcin is the sexiest Polish DP alive. Like me, we don’t appreciate Digital. This is how it started. We are about process and not just product. Grainy Super 16 feels like you are making a meal you care about to share with your loved ones and family. We used only available lights and shot really fast to avoid any trite trappings by overthinking any moment in the film. Just be! The idea that you can’t erase or have multiple takes of a scene is what I swear by film. You immortalize the mundane by making each moment rare and not repeated. Digital forces you to move towards a perfection that only makes the film comparable to host of TV type films.
Why did you refrain from letting us hear the Artist declare “I just want to go home.” Is it because you knew we already understood what he was saying and felt – tonally – that it was simply more effective without hearing him under the jazz score?
It was a beautiful mistake! I accidentally imported a version of the draft edit without the synched audio for the image. The other version had it. Depending which version you saw, you’re right, you deduced something different. You can read into or out of – a film.
See, that’s like jazz music itself. Charlie Parker said if you make a mistake, repeat it. Then do it again. And people will assume that’s what you intended all along and soon you’ll have created a whole new language. You find a lot when you edit, as it should be. One thing I did notice in the final cut was that you cut one of the best “pure cinema moments” – the great pan-back shot of the empty hall when the artist leaves the building. It’s gone! It gave the film a nice idiosyncratic edge. That I remember when I first saw it – I thought it was a brilliant touch. What made you want to cut it out?
I recut the entire film, I got him out of his apartment quicker than the earlier draft, cut a few more shots short. The film was made in a period when I moved house, between cities and just a lot of shifting elements in my life, sometimes I wasn’t sure which version I had. I may have actually edited the actual film just once, that’s who I am, don’t want to mess withthe cinematic spontaneity too much. I only came back to cut out stuff without moving around shots.
“Africa, help me to go home, carry me like an aged child in your arms. Undress me and wash me. Strip me of all of these garments, strip me as a man strips off dreams when the dawn comes. . “
“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”
– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) , upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicians and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.
Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)
And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.
The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.
Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)
I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)
Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.
Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.
Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.
The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)
We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?
“We are done. I’m not speaking only about us here in Africa but of humanity, of man… The feeling I have is that we are done for if we have traded our souls for money.”
—Djibril Diop Mambéty
Most radical spirits and those who wished to “change the world” (a hollow term at this point) have left the arts, incredulous and overwhelmed that the “Arts” have devolved after having been wholly won over by corporate values and American imperialist hegemony. The bourgeois affectation of middle-brow cinema has destroyed us: “Movies should be intelligent, but not dangerous to the establishment,” they demand. Even worse, everyone from Oprah Winfrey to HBO are in collusion and so
we all give in.
There are very few people on this planet who see cinema as a liberation tool. Instead, it is fair to say as Mambety lamented, that we have sold ourselves out…and for nothing in return except the spectre of shadows and awards from the spectacle. All that seek to keep one enslaved. In this Brave New World, we not only accept this- we want this!
And while these Visigoths have obviously won (knowing full well the impact cinema could have on future liberation politics) – it is the perversion of the mirror we look into that disturbs me. Warped surfaces reflect our obscene desires and most heartfelt delusions. As if Frantz Fanon had written The Portrait of Dorian Gray – the gross image of our soul that hangs in the closet must be revealed and it’s own mask removed. It’s the mask of the mask of the mask that must be removed.
Keep storming the barricades of your imagination. And for the love (or hate) of man – if you pick up a camera to make a movie have something to say other than “Action!”
Arguably the best African-American movie of the year, White Face may also be the most important American independent short film of 2017.
There is a scene in Ezra’s Edelman’s mesmerizing OJ: Made In America where OJ Simpson is quoted as saying to some of his white privileged cohorts or sports royalty, “I’m not Black. I’m OJ!” Such bizarre anecdotes are told throughout the film and this is part of what gives Ezra’s magnum opus documentary such a profound level of gravity – for it is gently insistent on the fact that OJ Simpson was/is a man who willingly accepted the delusions and perversions of white acceptance and who was, until the very moment when Al Cowlings took his foot off the gas of OJ’s Bronco: the double edge of colonial Black identity – both the hated “Other” and the persecuted “I”. Edelman’s portrait of OJ is harrowing. A blistering document of the contorted psychology of Black male celebrities who think they can eschew their wretched “blackness” in favor of a white guise that forever protects them. Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby – they too are now classic examples of the “far gone” Black male who has attained millions and so begins to think (actually convince himself!) that he is above white people’s racism and quite possibly even be one of “them.” They are prime examples of the American Nightmare. This damning notion and spiritual conundrum is one we will forever wrestle with as long as America exists as the vulgar bastion of Capitalism. I say vulgar – because American capitalism was established, first and foremost, on the back of its racism. China’s capitalism is nowhere near as vulgar (because it is a much more homogenous society) but it is even more rabid and ferocious. Western capitalism is simply vulgar and frightening because of its excessive racial psychosis and hatred mixed conveniently in the American ethos of a ‘Monopoly’ board game.
Frantz Fanon, in Black Skin White Masks unearths the disturbing trappings and pathology of colonized Blacks and how we have subjugated our authentic Black selves in favor of our oppressor’s personal dominion and psychological make-up. In a paper for the Psychoanalytic Studies (Vol. 2, Issue 4, 2000) Simon Clarke explores how Fanon posed how interesting it is to track the development of a White person in relation to development of a Black person – via Jacques Lacan’s notion of the ‘Mirror’ stage. While reflections and doubles and shadows loom large in psychoanalysis, philosophy, theater manifestoes and cinematic excursions – make no mistake about it: in a Fanonian sense, in a literal emancipatory film reading of our colonized minds, works such as Mtume Gant’s new movie White Face shed light on the horrifying pathology that continues to grow and manifest itself all over our culture and in so many new ways. For as only a formerly colonized person can attest: it is not the mirror itself, but whose mirror you are looking into and for what reason?
The most disturbing aspect of White Face is not what Gant shows us or expresses about his character’s own self-hatred it is in the realization after the film that this type of madness does exist and in more sinister ways than a warped Black man painting his face white and wishing he were that white face staring back in the mirror. If the literal white face is the physical representative of our psychological schism, if it is merely an expressionistic nod to our raped mental hygiene – then we are certainly still riding high and wide in the ‘post-colonial’ delusion that we are who we are because that is truly what we want to be. Arguably the best African-American movie of the year, White Face may also be the most important American independent short film of 2017.
The second installment of his artist trilogy, White Face is a follow up to Gant’s hip-hop sonata Spit, a heart-felt chronicle of Gant’s own struggle as an artist (in this case a hip-hop artist) against the stranglehold of capitalism.
This remarkable follow-up reunites Gant with producer Conchita Campos and cinematographer Frankie Turiano who endows this short with a sublime color palette and interesting tone – as if the colors from a confectionery had been utilized and then quickly tortured – for they “pop,” but there is a dazzling muted touch to the overall look of White Face. Turiano literally made sure he didn’t – and no pun intended – “lighten up” for the sake of the comedy or absurdity of the piece. No matter what, the film retains the same claustrophobic feel of Spit – but this time the tone of the film renders it’s main character’s inner world as opposed to his objective POV. The film also features excellent design work by make-up artist Aria Ferraro.
Although his website states that his films all reveal “that we are all struggling to find peace and acceptance in the face of great political and social obstacles,” I disagree that White Face’s anti-hero suffers from acceptance or lack of peace. Charles is the flip side of the same coin Gant’s previous hero donned, Monk-One. They are mirror reflections of each other. And neither, to me, has any real involvement on screen in seeking acceptance. They are learning acceptance. It’s more about absolution, spiritual rekindling, a refinement. Although diametrically opposed, they both want to transcend and destroy something in order to live. It is important to note that because of the Fanonian resilience within the films-down to it’s bone, I realize more and more that the themes and unconscious agendas of the radical Black new wave is emancipatory decisions and the crisis faced when we are pushed to not even take action – but acknowledge a truth about our condition. That is the gestalt moment. The moment can be at any moment in the film – it is not a gimmick or developed by rote. But it may in fact be an element to help codify a thesis and disclose some of the loose connections inherent in the Black Fanonian cinema tradition (a mild example: in Wendell Harris’ classic Chameleon Street – the con man Douglas Street’s “moment” could be construed as the last moment of the film when his own woman has turned him in, leading Street to do one thing only: laugh as he gets arrested! He accepts it all – his wife’s betrayal, horror of having to live for money, the madcap madness of the world, the racist cobweb he spun himself in and out of…The downright stupidity of the world! If there is a spookier gestalt moment I have yet to find it.)
White Face is an intelligent, stark, haunting flick that blends trite sketch comedy, domestic drama, psychological thriller, and vaudeville in one. Taken at face value it will disturb. For the converted, it will present food for thought in new ways and will continue prompting conscious Blacks and conscious-audiences of all stripes – to ask why have we not gotten past these themes in our cinema? And the answer, very simply: is because we still have not truly explored them. And if they are explored, those works are not being shown – which is a whole other issue altogether.
“As America debates the vision for its political and social future, there has been massive discourse around identity, privilege, discrimination and what we as a country must do to right the wrongs done to those most marginalized by society.” – Mtume Gant
In a world that has opened itself up to all issues and discussions of identity and categorization and how one labels ones’ self – White Face can fit easily into a discussion not on trans-gender but on the greater, more alarming concept of what I call “trans-colonialism.” Deciding when and how to be beneficially “Black” or “colonized” or what have you. If you are born a certain race because your parentage endows you with that racial definition and yet you fight it and try to become an “other” racial category based on how you “feel,” (specifically a race that historically oppressed you!) and yet you still claim to be part of your original tribe or act as a patronizing representative of that tribe – the conscious people of the world would easily consider you a long gone “colonized mind.” And you can see these unfortunate souls all over our highest tiers of income and media. They exist and live in all forms – some are mere Capitalist charlatans or tragic embarrassments. Beyonce instantly comes to mind.
White Face introduces us to New York actor Charles Rodgers, who despises his black skin and all the hardships that come with it. Feeling imprisoned by his race Charles convinces himself he’s found the solution to his problems: become a white man.
Not just any White Man. Charles emulates Donald Trump!
The character and conceit of the film is a conscious or unconscious spiritual reference to the great black counter-culture underground classic novel The Wig by Charles Wright. Wright lampoons the notion that in order to “succeed” in a white world we must become white men – and so Lester Jefferson decides to treat his hair so that he can enjoy beautiful blonde locks instead of black kinky hair and can use his blonde locks to enter the society of which he was intended for! It is a phenomenal book, full of high absurdity and perhaps given a run for its money by the high-octane seismic performance Godfrey Cambridge offers in Melvin Van Peebles’ manic Watermelon Man (1970), a grossly misunderstood, uncomfortably patronized, and wrongly labeled “blaxploitation” movie (if Watermelon Man is a blaxploitation movie than what is The Help, Precious, 12 Years a Slave, or Get Out? Skin flicks!) And while I concede that Van Peebles became deranged and effectively sold us out by conspiring with the likes of his own son to virtually un-do everything he set out to accomplish – one cannot ignore the fact in the 1960’s-1970’s he was a true artist and a hell of an egomaniac who had the chutzpah, courage, and mental imbalance to take on the film establishment and the world at large!)
Written by Herman Raucher (who is white) intending to satirize the hypocrisy of white Liberal America, Van Peebles however ended up creating a wonderfully zany protest film about a racist who wakes up one day as a Black man. While the tone of the film is completely different (Watermelon is a furious satire, White Face a melancholy mood-piece) and the aims different – the parallels are too obvious from a cinematic perspective. Interestingly enough, Gant and Cambridge even share a likeness – particularly under the guise of being in whiteface. Fanon would have applauded the device of literal white-face in Watermelon Man only because the actor is actually Black and proves how revolutionary he is himself by how well his outrage can register when he portrays a white racist who is appalled by the very notion of being black! The use of whiteface cinematically and theatrically contains an insurrectionary element, because it is one of the taboos that Black artists have been able to own in context wholly unknown or unavailable to the white power structure. In White Face, Gant revolutionizes the convention on employing whiteface by one conscious choice: he shows the application of whiteface. He reveals Charles’ whitening. This Brechtian trope could be a fascinating technique down the line if it is developed even out of context. Because while “blackening up” only exists in a specific context and relationship, “whitening up” could be related to anything because we all see the world as owned by and interpreted through the white establishment’s eyes. The white world’s obsession with blackface and dressing themselves up as “Black” people and turning themselves on with BLACK along their face, etc. – is a symptom of their disease and their privilege. That’s why the best way to identify a colonized person of color is to simply observe how they react/identify with Black people. More often than not they don not see an equation between themselves and North American African Peoples. Since whiteness has been constructed as a blessing, only a very “special” person could – for fun – decide and dress up to be another member of a debased race for a few hours before returning to their gift sanctioned by God – the presumed gift of their whiteness.
Waking up and being unable to remove the blackness is another issue. This reversal of fortune is, on one hand every white man’s nightmare, and yet another very complex web to navigate – for in our given political structure only a white man, however, would actually want to be Black as well in order to fulfill certain psychological fantasies and deep-seated pathologies that are simply unable to be resolved. And yet, only we as Black people could wonder what it would be like to be White-so I could know what it would be like to want to be Black.
Conscious Black people are mortified by Blacks who desire to sell-out or are ashamed of their ancestry and puzzled and intrigued by white people who exceed Norman Mailer’s “white negro” problem and actually pose as Black people and appropriate every hard-earned, fought over, bled-over cultural and political contribution in the USA. White people like this are extremely dangerous.
Rachel Dolezal, the disgraced leader of the NAACP and teacher, is a prime case study of this frightening complex – a white woman who pretended to be a Black woman and went so far and creating a whole new alternative history for herself! Her white parents shamefully acknowledged her despicable scheme.
But we are all in collusion. The conspiracy extends to our other brothers of color:
What about the brother of TV star Mindy Kaling? (“The Mindy Project”) An Asian-East Indian who submitted himself and was accepted into Medical school as a Black man not an East Indian. Vijay Chokal-Ingam admits he shortened his eyelashes and shaved his hair off and presented himself as a Black man! When his ruse was revealed he simply stated he was doing it to prove how unfair Affirmative Action is: his poor friends who had excellent grades struggled to get into medical school, yet with his own meager grades – he could easily get in as an affirmative action candidate. The entire situation reeks and is steeped in a lot of problems but did Mindy Kaling use this as an opportunity to enhance your own dimension as a human being or “performing artist”? Of course not. (But what do I expect from the most popular Asian-American TV star ever? To call her a sell-out when all she ever wanted to do was buy-in would be ludicrous. People of color of this nature have no allegiance, empathy, or interest in Black people or the specific African-American struggle. Like the Kardashians/Jenners – Black people are a mere abstraction to exploit, date, fuck, or jeer at for advertisers or the freaks that follow on Twitter!)
‘Miss Mindy’ was merely embarrassed and distraught at the shame Vijay brought upon her family. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it – in terms of Black people. Abuse them, contort them, spit on them (the entire culture does it) – just don’t embarrass the family. This is how we live folks. Vijay Chokal-Ingam simply explored the pathetic and frightening racial cross-dressing that we champion on the Great White Way (Broadway’s Hamilton mania) and our 21st century a la carte approach to life and Black people: every other race and identity can do and take whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want to, from, and with Black people. Period. It’s a continual spiritual and at times literal rape that goes on and on and it doesn’t matter who is President or in charge of the bathroom key.
By seeking to adopt Trump’s brand of whiteness – Gant reveals something else about Charles. Charles doesn’t just want to be “white,” he wants to be white in a very specific context. Now this only becomes apparent and justifies my reading because of the obvious Trump allusion – Charles may study Fascist films, but patterns himself after a Trump type of clown; as if Alfred Jarry’s gorgons had somehow decided they wanted to dignify themselves – this is where it gets interesting. Gant’s portrayal as Charles portraying Trump is more dignified and sophisticated than the real Donald Trump could ever be! Which begs the question – what is Charles’ real intention? (It is tempting to view White Face purely as a metaphor for the demise of the ‘Method’ actor who, while using his own life experiences, wanted to inhabit another identity in order to free his own) Charles admonishes Blacks for being slovenly and not pulling up their pants (Gant’s own personal dig at Bill Cosby, but I’ll leave that alone) and in an obnoxiously tense way he takes to the streets like some kind of deranged lone wolf cleaning up society, a racist-George Zimmerman-vigilante-type who, instead of shooting Black people, tries to act like an erudite Dirty Harry and instill a “Love For the State” attitude to his white stance and virulent racist mind. In essence, Charles’ commitment to his role reaches an even deeper core than Donald Trump ever could. When we see Gant flex his acting prowess (his finest performance to date), recite in the mirror, try hard to get Trump’s cadence, induce his eyes with blue contacts – we know we have entered a netherland, a dimension of Dante’s inferno as written by Amiri Baraka. It is hell and Charles’ spiritual hell is our own hell because we are bearing witness to this obscene game and yet we can do nothing about it. But the Fanonian technique of actually witnessing Charles indulge in his colonized mind and “put on his face” as everyday women of all races do – in a rush – on a subway car – is actually what gives the film its radical nature. Had we just seen the scenes alone – and never Charles’ private moments – the movie would not only be acceptable to whites, it would be less dangerous. And we all know, please trust me here gentle reader: one thing we do not need to be to the establishment is less dangerous.
What is tragically hip about the cinematic choice Gant makes: at least Charles does something to get closer to his ideal life. As misled as he is – Charles is the new breed of Right Wing radicalism in a sense. They don’t ask for permission or get bogged down by what other people think or want to consider. They act out of their own need to exist and to lend credence to their passions. The Right have appropriated acts of passion and daring from the Left, leaving us castrated, humiliated; tawdry Farinellis’ unable even to hum as a soprano. Charles could be construed as the ultimate Black-colonized right wing answer to my own tragic hero Cairo Medina from As an Act of Protest (2002). Both were actors – on stage and, inevitably, in real life. Both took action in a different way and both were only able to find themselves by undergoing draconian tragic circumstances. Charles seeks to become the eternal case study of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks while Cairo is able to reconcile his spiritual exhalation by fulfilling Fanon’s prescription of revolutionary violence. One creates a chain, the other destroys one – in hope of a finite emancipation.
A colonized peeping tom Charles’ debilitating (for us) scopophilia (deriving pleasure from looking) is disgusting – in this case a pornographic titillation simply from studying the white man who lives next door to him. Through a peep-hole Charles studies his neighbor’s most personal neurotic moments in the privacy of his bathroom as if he’s hoping to receive the “secret” to becoming white.
The acting school scenes are ripped out of the quotidian hum of any American conservatory Drama program that posits that Black, Latino, and Asian actors are all ‘American’ actors and therefore devoid of their own color, ethnicity, or cultural psychological baggage – all perfected in a neo-Liberal campaign by the mid 1990’s when “color blind casting” was all the rage. It effectively ended and helped to de-politicize actors of colors’ own existence and condition under white American capitalism. If it sounds ominous it is and it is worse than what I stated and the film merely touches upon it as a background, a foundation on which a creature such as Charles could be built.
Refreshingly, the film maintains its opposition to Mr. Spike Lee’s empty parables because it is also very personal to its director. The only way revolutionary messages or art can be made and be successful – simply as a work – is when the creator sees no division between his life and his politics. Gant introduces an annoying, colonized brother you wished you could just pull into an alley and beat down. But you realize, as the film recedes into itself – like a bad drug experience – that there is so much more going on here than the horror of a Black man in white face wishing he could destroy his blackness. As if that’s not enough right?
The centerpiece of the film is the stirring scene with Kara, Charles’s sister, played by Kara Young – in a very self-conscious, yet tenderly ferocious performance. She gives spunk and concern to her brother’s colonized illness. She takes him seriously. And so we do for a few brief moments. What makes the scene between Gant and Young strong is not only their connection and trust as actors, but the simplicity of the mise-en-scene itself. For a moment, the surrealist edges of the film melt down into a sober ‘slice of life’ scene between a brother and sister and the memories they have and the conflicting views of their blackness. Their memories of their brutally self-hating mother is troubling and all the more uncomfortable to watch because of the nasty truth it bears. We learn that their mother warned them to never trust Black people and that of course Black people are their own worst enemy. All the proverbial masks fall away for a moment in this scene as they try to laugh so they don’t cry – but Charles’ condition is finite –much to his sister’s shock. When she insists she’s always been there for him, he dismisses her courage by rationalizing that she is merely his sister. He reveals, in what is probably the most honest moment in the film, that she could never understand him, that his ability/career as an actor is forever thwarted because since Charles is neither “black” nor “white” (whatever these mean now) – that all he can do now is affirmatively accept what the world has forced him to become. It’s creepy because it makes sense. What is ultimately damning is that Kara doesn’t take Charles out of his misery. You almost want her to get so infuriated with him – that you fantasize maybe she will remove him from the screen (world) and effectively kill him off. End all the pain. But of course that would be a different movie and in the context of White Face it would let everyone off the hook. The longer Charles remains on screen (alive) – the more work we have to do in our own lives. The ending of the scene is capped with a brilliant subtle ellipsis – implying that Kara may never have in the room with him to begin with…
White Face blurs into a hallucinatory pageant for its remaining last 5 minutes or so – Charles foolishly trying to participate in “whiteness” at a club (they even dig his “ironic” Trump get-up); drunk Charles stumbles home, throwing up on a subway platform and of course who asks if he needs some help? An unsuspecting brother.
It is here that the film should have ended.
The remaining three minutes where we see Charles wander home in the rain, his whiteness in danger of washing off, his head full of memories from his acting class – are not perfunctory as much as they are simply hackneyed, I feel they get in the way of the sculpture Gant has spent 15 minutes or so building…But it is the only criticism I have and it is a nominal one.
When I first saw White Face I felt it would definitely irritate the very people whom would take refuge in, say, a white Liberal’s wet dream such as Get Out and while I still believe that – there is an undertow of resignation, a sadness inherent in White Face that is not felt in Spit. Spit is angrier. White Face turns inward and sighs. And therefore it is a deeper film. It’s also what makes it scary.
Gant does in 20 minutes what Jordan Peele’s tenuous imagination, impressive marketing, millions-of-dollars budget and 90 minutes could not achieve. All he had to do was have something honest to say about racism other than be quick to flatter and insult middle-of-the road mainstream Blacks (who desperately need to have their knee-jerk desires satisfied) and middle-brow white people’s smugness. Had Jordan Peele’s hero in Get Out not been some silly-solly brother who was nervous about white folks in the suburbs and resisted even venturing out there (a tired stupid cliché by the way!) – but was instead a willing participant in his and black people’s demise – you would truly have had a horrifying movie. THAT would be something to see. And that is what Mtume Gant on one level has created – a scary cinematic haiku that puts in perspective the cold facts eroding our ability to emancipate ourselves and move forward. It’s not even about trying to figure out how to overthrow capitalism – that will never happen. Only because we haven’t even found a way to navigate through capitalism. We’ve given up our desire to fight the enemy by simply deciding to become him. When in Rome…and that is the mentality ultimately that will seal our fate. The Charles Rodgers’ of the world have convinced themselves that there is no other alternative. And most of us, from Jay Z to the kiosk owner on the corner all seem to believe this. What they all choose to forget and rather ignore: is the fact that Rome burned. For eight days. And while there may not be a fire in front of us (depends on who you ask) it would be affirming to know that we all agree that there at least is such a thing as a flame.
In the radical homosexual Jean Genet’s 1958 play The Blacks: A Clown Show – written for Black actors to portray their white oppressors with literal white masks – the French revolutionary absurdist dramatist purports that as Blacks undergo their colonized wish to become white – they will become just as, if not , more so, morally corrupt and evil as their oppressors. Maya Angelou, who was part of the famous cast of the initial Off-Broadway production, always disagreed with Genet’s conclusion. As much as I admire Genet, I did as well. For many years. Until recently. Unfortunately, it pains me that Genet may be right. And White Face helps me to clarify this argument. It painfully underscores the losing battle Black people have on their consciousness…We are entering an interesting age indeed: one in which more and more Blacks will decide to compete with “white Capitalism” only so they can usurp it. I believe our obsession in mainstream media with “Black excellence” is not about acknowledging and defining our own achievement in different fields – it’s about being able to offer opponents to white business moguls and celebrity personalities by adopting their values and simply put a Black face on them. We don’t want to create our own world or “thing” – we want to out-do white people at their own game. That is how sick we are.
Despite my inability to reconcile White Face’s ending, the coda exists so we fully accept that Charles the Artist died a long time ago – somewhere in between his mother’s colonized self contempt and his white Acting instructor’s kudos: “You removed all the edges (of your work)…Bravo! This…is an American (white) actor.” And so because the dutiful actor has learned his lesson (how to “be white”) his teacher releases his death-grip. It’s an important comment and a bold one. Especially in these times. Because acting as an art form is dead – but again, I digress…
As long as conscious filmmakers become more aware, supportive, and critical (pro and con) of – the conscious Black Radical Left’s independent filmmakers and avant-garde – then something, no matter how small, can happen. I am not a believer in micro-aggressive tactics neither in politics nor in activism and certainly not a believer in them for art or “culture” (whatever that word means anymore) – but they hold more weight than a pamphlet. And if we can start to imagine what it would be like to hold something other than a pamphlet in one’s hands and possibly imagine a “conscious-raising” grenade instead – we will begin to get somewhere. We will get back on track. We have lost our way. We will return to an idea of cinema as a liberating art again. White Face proves this.
May God – or fate – or Fanon’s bones – or whatever providence you may believe in – get us back into ourselves such for a moment. It will not change the trajectory of our decline. But it will make the exit a lot more joyful.
But what do I know? I am an outsider. I’m crazy. I’m off my medication. And this is why I’m on my friends couch.
– DLK 4/8/2017
Douglas Turner Ward’s satirical play, Day of Absence – which imagines the folly of a fictitious Southern state that wake up one day to discover all its Black citizens have disappeared. Ward conceived the play to be a diabolical farce with Black actors playing the White characters in whiteface! (Similarly as Sam Cooke became politicized in 1963 as a songwriter after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Ward was prompted to write this protest play after being inspired by Genet’s The Blacks)The Wig, by Charles Wright – A frighteningly funny 1966 novel about an unemployed Black man who dyes his hair blond in order to find a job and gain access to the “great society.” A brilliant work, one of the early instigators of Richard Pryor and Ishmael Reed. Contemporary political madcap-satire and Afro-consciousness starts with Charles Wright. Wright would not be as prolific as that genius Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones at the time) but what he possessed was a cosmic absurdity Baraka himself must have relished!
Imitation of Life, a 1959 Hollywood feature film by Douglas Sirk. A melodrama classic (in more ways than one) that repelled many critics while making Sirk a champion of the ‘studio’ auteurs. Watch it purely for the conflict between African-American mother Annie (Juanita Moore who plays Lana Turner’s caretaker) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner, a Mexican-Jewish actress) a light-skinned Black woman and decides to pass for white, excising her blackness…until, of course, it’s too late. Even when “corny,” the film packs a punch because Sirk fulfills every handkerchief-wringing moment. Harrowing stuff for 1959 American mainstream audiences…and even more harrowing today. Sirk’s penchant for dignifying “soap opera” recipes is what catapulted him into the cosmos where he became a major inspiration for the ‘Wagnerian’ European filmmakers from Fassbinder to Von Trier. One could argue after Von Trier’s “golden heart trilogy” – peaking with Dancer in the Dark no one in contemporary popular cinema has found a way to legitimately “move” and manipulate an audience as well as Von Trier did when it comes to righteous indignation and emotional pity. Unfortunately, as with many revolutionaries, Von Trier gave up liberation in order to become a Fascist.
Black Girl, Ousmene Sembene’s classic 1966 de-colonialist film and Third Cinema’s salutation. The Senegalese master’s first movie – and although Sembene never tops less prolific Djibril Diop Mambety (Touki Bouki, Hyenas) – he kick-starts African revolutionary cinema as Black cinema’s Chuck Berry. For no matter what one can say, Sembene’s influence cast a long shadow over any conscious Black filmmakers. Even those who don’t like his work. Black Girl is a damning film about a young African woman (a moving Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who moves from Dakar to Antibes to work for a rich French couple and their children. Anticipating a ‘Marie Claire’ lifestyle, she quickly realizes she is nothing but a “chic” indentured servant and soon the colonizing walls close in and Diouna kills herself.