Brooklyn auteur Jacinto Taras Riddick offers a new vision in his deceptively simple chamber drama starring Che Ayende, Lekethia Dalcoe, James T. Alfred, and the director himself. Seething with the biblical urgency of James Baldwin, the tension of Harold Pinter, and transgression of Pasolini — A Brother’s Whisper has consecrated a fresh tone of Black drama and American cinema that emphasizes dramatic conflict, acting, and blurs the tenuous line between commercial and avant-garde cinema. It is a modern classic that has looked back in order to go forward – and has changed my life. You can read my review for the Luminal Theater’s Wavelengths here.
Excerpted brainstorms from Podcast Episode Two:
Midnight meditations on flickers, Paul Robeson, the morality of performing in front of a camera, and the embryo of a wobbly cinema
Episode Two – Excerpts, Notes & Brainstorms from November 19, 2021 12:48AM
…I light the candle – and like a film reel running through a projector in the head – I stare at the subtle dips and dives of shadows it tosses – I lay on the floor and I stare up at the ceiling and watch the flickers above the candle dance above the photo of Robeson and Eisenstein…(You wonder what John Berger might have made of it)
The shadows remind me not of the perfunctory Plato’s allegory of the cave – cause in Kangalee’s Cave we’re prisoners of truth, reality is never far from us; if anything we crave fantasy!
But the flickers remind me of the feeling I had as a young artist, the excitement I felt thinking about the plays I’d done…and the films I hoped to one day see.
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman beautifully conceded that if theater was his wife, film was his mistress. In some way I could relate – but for me and in my formative conception of Visual Liberation — it was if art was my wife and activism was my mistress. But one day I realized: it is quite possible to have all your desires in ONE BOOK.
(Speaking of books: read John Tytell’s “Art Exile and Outrage.” About Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s performance group, The Living Theater and the extraordinary combination of Brecht and Artaud in American political Theater. )
Last month I mentioned 3 films – all quite different and none prescriptions of or my conception of a revolutionary film – but each in its own way certainly radical – and therefore an example of Visual Liberation — Chameleon St, Shadows and Dog Day Afternoon.
I realized later why I mentioned these films: the black consciousness and majestic anarchism of Harris’ masterpiece coincided with my own aesthetic connection to Cassavetes’ jazz-inspired slice of life method-acting jam on identity, race, art, and friendship. All these themes and ideas seemed to coalesce for me in a passionate way simply by witnessing Al Pacino’s diatribes against the system in Dog Day Afternoon. I also mentioned Tytell’s book because Malina plays Pacino’s mother in the film…and was a real-life mentor of sorts. Her presence in Dog Day Afternoon underscores its revolutionary fervor, there’s an almost organized Artaudian mood – an impulse to literally riot – within the frames of that one movie by that Hollywood radical himself, Sidney Lumet…
Let’s get back to candles:
These midnight gesticulations on the wall made me think of my trip to Moscow in 1992.I don’t know why maybe it’s because that’s where I first smoked a cigarette and discovered when the glimmer of a candle had burned out: that Pushkin was a black man (the statue of him in Moscow is a site to see)…and that Jean Genet was a prophet of sorts, I had witnessed Roman Victuc’s production of the Maids and instantly realized what an Artaudian experience could be in the theater. 1992: Bush SR was still president. I was 16 – and it was The year I discovered Paul Robeson, Eisenstein and made sense of my visit to the Moscow art theater.
American Protest music and American Protest film – Political Filmmaking in a Left-Wing sense; a Wobbly Cinema if you will —
Dylan, Cash, Seeger, Havens, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bessie Smith…Billie Holiday.
When I mention these American artists what do you think of?
Now, let’s think about this in terms of a specific form of American movies.
Aesthetic and Ideological Foundation: Micheaux, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Clarke, Menelik Shabbaz, Fronza Woods, Julie Dash, Michael Roemer, MVP, Pasolini, Kramer, Cassavetes, Ivan Dixon, etc. Within this…underlying all of this is Paul Robeson.
The spirit of Robeson, who insisted you have to be on one side of oppression or the other. And the artist to him was a moralist who had to fight against abuse, poverty, genocide, and rape.
Recently Rosalie Gancie, artist and publisher in MD, had shared a lovely facsmile of a program circa, 1954-1955 of an announcement declaring a Calypso band at a gathering in support of Paul Robeson who had lost his passport; and the supporting fundraiser – happily endorsed by Charlie Chaplin –she shared the event materials on social media and it was so interesting to see it…and it immediately made me embarrassed at how the Left have shrunk artistically and culturally in POP and in the underground, or the fringes.
One of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century and one of the towering figures of the left as well as one its worst ambassador’s, ironically, for cinema.
Tragically Robeson was one of The White Man’s Movie Industry’s grossest unintentional accomplices for the of stereotypes and derogatory projections of black actors in film. He was a prisoner of the white gaze, while knowing full well – in the end, that his revolutionary desires in cinema had been highjacked and betrayed by his trust and belief that most of the white people he worked with in film would enable what he wanted to do for the common man, the working man…and especially the person of African descent. He never came off the way he wanted to in a movie…
The exceptions are few, but most notably Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (one of the only movies I can watch him in)
( I highly suggest you read Susan Robeson’s book about her grandfather’s struggle for more detailed information about this. One of the several heartbreaking ingredients of his life…)
Because there is very little freewheeling revolutionary spirit and dignity in many of the motion pictures he acted in, it’s hard to watch him at all, frankly, on screen — I think it was Ruby Dee who lamented that she could never watch a movie he was in…and part of this reason is because it is a political and moral choice and vulnerability to perform in front of a camera and/or allow another human being to “capture” a part of you through a lens. Think about it: it’s a take.
“Let’s do a take.”
“Can’t take your photo?”
Or “Let’s take your photo.” As if I have it already and will transfer it someplace else?
“We’re gonna do another take. This time when you look at her, try not to blink.”
The Actor has to now open himself up to…what?
Nothing perhaps. Maybe that’s better. A take. Hmm.
As in…”take my soul,” but leave my body in tact? What is taken? Is the Western conception of film ultimately about the taking and capturing? Is it essentially about taming the subject into a ‘frame’ and recording death of the spirit; extinguishing the passion that cannot be contained?
In photography, they even say “Can I shoot you?”
(A riff on Taking, Capturing, & Shooting A Creature, Idea or Feeling With a Camera: The Western conception of film is about more than dominance, it is about conquest and colonizing a subject, a person, an event, a place and sticking a flag into its gut, while declaring the gardeners through to give up their seeds for the camera! From Herzog to Coppola, the film director is the last talisman of the White Romantic Colonizer who sets out to dictate to others what he cannot create in his own home!
When the bourgeoisie locked up and burned down the Shaman’s vision quest – that ran the gamut of every emotion – it scared the French, embarrassed the English, and made the German, Spanish, and Italians suspicious. To the former, language and behavior was about moving up and through a society; to the latin languages and the more insistent Caucasian tribes — it was about using language as both a strong greeting and even stronger goodbye; getting you into the boat and getting you out. Everything in between was tea. Only a Brit with a dumb camera around his neck ominously like a gun with a silencer could ask an Indigenous or African chief he’d just pounded into a deck of boat after having raped his sister (out of sight, of course) – “Would you mind if I shot you?” )
But for a moment consider what Paul Robeson was up against.
Here was this brilliant man, tall, stately, athletic with an incredible voice who was a wonderful stage actor and an even better singer and orator.
(And a remarkable writer, by the way.)
He was light years ahead of himself – and his vision was greater than anyone around him could probably conceive; his wife certainly was a loving accomplice…and he was quite admired by Sergei Eisenstein, whom Robeson in turn, had respect for. You wonder “Why didn’t they work together?”
Well, you can certainly bet the USA would never have allowed THAT to happen. And yes, it was that bad and YES they do have that power (namely cause we give it to them)
The forces that be will always make sure that highly talented, gifted or brilliant people (in any capacity) NEVER work together, collaborate or commune. They will always try to separate them.
And now I leave you with this:
“On The Willful Ignorance of Andrei Tarkovsky:”
Mikhail Romm (1901-1971) was a Soviet Film Director and Teacher. His film
“Dream” (1941) – about spiritual crisis and poverty – was supposedly deemed by FDR as being one the greatest films ever made. In 1956, his student Andrei Tarkovsky made his first film, “The Killers.” It was a student thesis movie. Based on a Hemingway short story, Romm admonished Tarkovsky for having the lack of imagination and sensitivity for shamefully employing an actor in black-face in the movie! Romm told Tarkovsky – who had previously been studying Arabic! – that he had learned nothing about humanity and that he had no imagination. He decried that the young man had defiled the memory of the greatest Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin – who was black! (Indeed, the film is disappointing in that it reveals the casual racism of the White world at that time via the young and ignorant Tarkovsky. But it’s very telling and revealing that such an “innocently racist” young man would become a deeply compassionate and humane filmmaker a few years later.) In any event, Romm would have none of it, he chided Tarkovsky for being influenced by Fascism and American racism and deemed him counter-revolutionary. In the next 2 years, the young Tarkovsky did a lot of soul searching. Legend also has it that Paul Robeson visited Romm after one of his 1959 concerts at Lenin Stadium (Khabarovsk) when the USA’s ban on his passport had been lifted. Romm refused to introduce the young Tarkovsky for fear of Robeson wanting to see the lad’s first film. I assume somewhere in all this…The great Tarkovsky had learned a valuable lesson and came to understand in the words of King: that there is nothing “more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
We need to return to the embryo of THE NEED FOR A RADICAL CINEMA.
If you are making a film — Have something more to say than ACTION!
Kathleen Collins’ The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy gives us an urge to be free, to literally want to run and “find ourselves.”
Click here to read last month’s piece in the Luminal Theater’s Wavelengths — my “review” and remembrance of Kathleen Collins’ warm and loving first feature, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy – her remarkable introduction into the world of long-form narrative filmmaking . Collins’ sparkling humor and insight into life was not only attractive, but muscular and always curious on screen. Her intelligence alone would make most director’s tremble in their boots. And all of this organically and humbly developed into style which she draped into a confident shawl with her masterwork, Losing Ground.
The art, passion, and myth of Billy Dee Williams
The first part of my profile on the dignified celebrity, intelligent actor, radical artist and spiritual human being…as you may never have had illuminated for you before. More than Star Wars and Colt 45 and Diana Ross, Williams was a very socially-conscious actor and still is a remarkable artist and insightful human being.
Enjoy Part One in the Luminal Theater’s Wavelengths, published by Curtis John.
Revolution Through a Lens: a new way of watching…
Visual Liberation is a way of watching films through a Marxist/Fanonian lens.
They are films and interpretations of those films that champion the fight against the Hollywood celebrations of racism, misogyny, and all other talismans of capitalism. This radical approach to filmmaking is a pedagogy that has been in development since 2000, exemplified in the film As an Act of Protest and surveyed in essays and articles since then, including the 2001 “Notes from the Underground” manifesto, a radical response to the Danish Dogme 95 movement. The first Visual Liberation film program was held in a self-titled festival at the Brecht Forum in 2002, in New York City.
Visual Liberation is both a curriculum that can be implemented in educational institutions as well as an approach to life and creating art. Its goal is in freeing both the audience and the artist in however the “political message” is being relayed by the author/director. In art, the how is as vital as the what. So-called “political films” in the mainstream have forgotten this.
Visual Liberation dismantles the notion that film is hierarchical and inherently fascistic and must be a Nationalist tool. While Audre Lorde is correct to declare one can’t eradicate the system with the instruments the system created, it is also worth noting how those instruments are played and used. Filmmakers can have agency and invigorate an alternative culture and view of both cinema and what it means to be socially conscious.
Through bare-bones intimate casual reflections, this “sermon,” or midnight ramble, is an explicit and personal oral rendering of written essays by Dennis Leroy Kangalee (DLK) reminding Leftist artists what it means to imbue their ideologies in narrative films, positing that “protest cinema” should be on par with American protest music and to help enable the battle against the Left’s cultural quandary and the damage done by American mainstream movies.
Pedagogical, personal, political and always poetic – this is the beginning of a new way of watching cinema.
The podcast is available now on Anchor and Spotify!
A Cinematic Genius warns against the dangers of capitalism…
“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, Director of “Touki Bouki” & “Hyenas,” 1945-1998
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
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 specter 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!”
*Djibril Diop Mambety, the darker side of Senegals’s coin (Ousmane Sembene reflecting the lighter side) is the director of masterworks such as Touki Bouki and Hyenas, the only features he ever made. His work is taut, unrelenting and shaded with funereal satire. A radical in every way, he never pretended that life was getting any better and he never looked away from the problems inherent in his own life, Senegal, colonialism and the world at large.
Why “As an Act of Protest” is still relevant…
Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.
To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives.
The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.
The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.
We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.”
The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations.
Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.
Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.
These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has.
In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.
Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.
Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.
A drawing on the heels of recovering from a nervous breakdown…
Yeats: It takes more courage to plumb our own depths than it takes for a soldier on a battlefield.
Montaigne: How can we learn about “Truth” if we don’t learn HOW to die.
To learn how to die, in order to be reborn — that is truth
Truth as way of life, allow suffering to speak (Adorno)
Bluesmen – the funk, stench, suffering of life in all its shades; personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. Dissonance. Not “harmonious” or “romantic.”
Failed – means tried. Didn’t succeed…that’s all? Experiment built on dispossession and marginalization.
Plato banned the flute but not the lyre in the republic.
Zizek: “Revolutionaries need poets”
Me: Jimmy Garrett’s play “We Own The Night” contains more tragedy and catharsis and profundity than all of Sophocles plays.
Our inability to imagine is destroying us…
A link to my latest essay, “The End of the Imagination” — an updated, refurbished, and almost completely re-written exploration I had begun to explore in 2016. This is an essay one am not only proud of…but, sadly, one that seems to crystallize how I feel now and how I have felt for a long time. Thank you to Brian Alessandro and Lupe Rodarte for once again having the courage to publish work that is challenging, personal, and radical.
“The critic discusses the medicine, the artist administers it. It is neither the job of the creative artist nor the creative critic to make you feel good. It is not our job to provide hope, but truth. The artist gives you truth at all costs. The critic – merely interprets and records what is before him and tries to illuminate certain things we prefer to keep in an artist’s shadow. Or his closet.
Once you have usurped true creativity with an eye towards consumerism and advertising culture you have turned your back from the North Star and have settled on the ethos of Madison Avenue. When banks become proselytizers of culture instead of the individual artist you are in a wasteland.
And wastelands are living death brought to realization by inability to imagine.”