A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that that makes it explode….
“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”
– Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)
When all is said and done
you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried. Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING. And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience. The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee. Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels. There is no more time for games. This ends it all. Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world. And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.
It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.
After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.” As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang. It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him. It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,” it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it. Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protestis a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do: it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.
We are the children of concrete and steel
This is the place where the truth is concealed
This is the time when the lie is revealed
Everything is possible, but nothing is real
– Vernon Reid, Type (Living Colour)
Running parallel through his arteries is Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol. These are his bare bones influences and they helped to liberate what he had held inside.
“Art is my outlet, connection, retreat, my pleasures jumbled with my pain, art is my therapy”. – Scarecrow
A scarecrow in the traditional sense is a figure made up to resemble a human being set up to frighten crows and other birds away from a field where crops are planted. A scarecrow may be frightening, but it’s not literally dangerous. The same can be said for works of art that exceed the boundaries of our imagination, erase them altogether, or simply remind us that no matter how horrifying the world is – it is our lack of inner vision and reflection that makes it all the more ugly. A bomb destroying a tent of doctors, pregnant women and sick children is loathsome. But to not acknowledge this horror inside of us to begin with is even worse. To turn away, ignore, pretend – is the greatest of sins. And in our times we are all in collusion, we’re all guilty of seeking refuge away from not only the horror but anything that may make us tick and writhe as deeply feeling human beings. Only art can sustain man’s senses and humanity in a rapidly eroding society that is full of aggression and hostility towards all things affirming, conscious, loving, honest, celebratory, and rebellious. The governments of the world no longer need to lift a finger to oppress or imprison: we do this for them – to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters around the world. The tiny moments we don’t are often initiated by taking in a work of art or allowing ourselves to be humbled.
The work of an artist aptly named Scarecrow (Cro Dadi) does both.
Cro’s painting A Joyful:
Upon seeing it, I immediately felt that it was as if someone, something, somehow – fell in between the hard resilient lines of a chalk drawing and a tenuous floating dream…What is most compelling about Cro’s work, aside from its seemingly effortless quality (great art is like breathing my wife always reminds me, no matter how dense it always leaves the impression that its creator is one with the work, that they could literally not do anything other than the work itself) is the fact that there is so much going on. But it’s rendered ‘simply’. I use ‘simply’ in the Charles Mingus sense – Mingus always wanted complex aspects of life succinctly reduced into sober and clear notions and feelings, so this way no matter how cacophonous or multitudinous a work of jazz might be, its meaning would always shine through– for the spaces within it would allow light in. Sometimes we don’t see the rationale or the thought behind complex works that may look like a mess to an untrained (or “un-initiated”) eye. But there is a crack in everything as Leonard Cohen tells us. And that is how the light (art) gets in.
These artworks are eternal vistas into a whole other world, a complex web into a deeper understanding of ourselves…
For several months I kept an outsized, zoomed-in rendering of this piece above as a screensaver. Blown up, the flower in the center of the image comes to resemble a strange creature, an insect perhaps, or is it a tragic face awash in water behind bars? It may be sad, but it is not a despairing image. It is an affirming one. And it is all the more affirming that a living artist created it and that a living artist can still breathe life into a canvas.
Art in general – great art, in particular – always rejuvenates some aspect of the human condition while illuminating the parts we may have forgotten — but when a contemporary living artist who still breathes and sweats on the planet as we all do – manages to cut through the gel that is beginning to harden upon the crust of the zeitgeist – it is something we should celebrate. When art can still give chills it is cause for celebration. Especially since it is wrought by an artist who has not been bought by the establishment or some venal Capitalist gallery whose prime objective is to remove the artist from the very people who initially inspired or understood his work, to begin with.
Scarecrow is an Outsider Artist. Not just because he has no formal training, but because he has, what he creates, what it means to create, and who his audience is. (If you go on online or visit his Facebook page you will be astounded to see the variety of people taken by his work and his fan base is a genuine arsenal of individuals including myself who can only, without blinking an eye, give in to this modest phenomenon that has captured our hearts and minds). He’s an Outsider Artist because his values are outside the realm of corporate art galleries and his reasons for creating have nothing to do with being jaded or cynical. He’s truly independent because (unlike the “Independent Filmmakers” – an innocuous term) he has an and catalogs and sells his own artwork himself, without the bureaucracy or pettiness of a curator or agent. No one has held his hand or tried to broker high-end deals for him at any of the Art Basels. No. That would be beneath him. And while those people give him their money – it is the support of the near-to-the-ground people of all colors and stripes – that Cro’s own network of support has been built upon. And while he is humble about this, it is no small task. The Cro appreciates the people who have taken the time to write him, comment on his artwork, share one of his images, purchase one of his paintings, and gaze into one of his drawings…He does what he does for reasons no NYC gallery or sneering art dealer would ever understand. Artists everywhere should take note and follow his example.
Ever so loud was his silence…
There are many creative people on this planet, but very few are artists. There are many paintings and novels and plays being done — but very few of them are works of art. There are far too many deluded wanna-be Rappers and Actors. And sadly there are numerous creatures on this planet who have usurped and perverted the term “artist” to such an extent that the real artists no longer want anything to do with “art” or “the arts” for fear of losing themselves, becoming infected by the dilettantes and the culture of irony that has made its mark on our world. (Scarecrow himself has stated that instead of the hackneyed term “artist”, he thinks of himself as a Creative Portal, a conduit in which endless creative expression flows. This intrigues me because if memory serves me right, the great theater director Peter Brook once wrote that even the term “Director” should be replaced by something else, it was not only inaccurate – but a frustrating term to begin with!)
Nevertheless, having something to say is the fundamental ingredient for being an artist, but having a compulsion to express it is what seals your fate.
The Scarecrow is such an artist.
Born in Harlem in 1965, the artist lovingly referred to as Cro Dadi (that’s how he signs his work) – is an autodidact and a self-healing individual who came to art through a burst of pain. In 1997 he had a terrifying brush with death and nearly saw the other side as a result of a car accident. “The torch was lit” as he proclaimed in his Artist’s Statement on Tumblr.
The more he created the healthier he got. And as his health improved, so did his desire…to be…more creative.
Gordon Parks stated it is a ‘choice of weapons’ in what we choose to fight with. Some of us turn to guns, some the Bible, others the instruments of creativity. And Scarecrow himself knows this well. For it was pens, pencils, paint crayons, markers and scissors. And saying it this way – this litany takes on an almost biblical implication. He painted, he drew, he cut, he blurred. And people liked the work and people bought the work. And the curse of the car accident became a blessing, unlocking a well of creativity and vision…giving birth to the Scarecrow: an artist who would defy the demons of his world with a combative and compassionate art.
A near-twenty year span of creativity consumed him and with every day objects – pens, pencils, paint, crayons, markers and scissors – the Cro expresses the impressions and textures he remembers from his earlier NYC days. The swirls, the dynamic movement, the urban luster of those heady days of Pop Art’s last sigh and Hip-Hops golden age: somewhere in his veins is the pulse of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Krs-One. Running parallel through his arteries is Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol. These are his bare bones influences and they helped to liberate what he had held inside. Cro Dadi is a prime example of an artist being born out of his responses and unique sensitivity to the stimulants of his environment and the aesthetic responses of a particular atmosphere – which can go on to shape and influence how one filters and sees the world and processes their own experiences internally.
” I never even considered being formally taught about art…just traveling the boroughs of NY exposed me to all that creativity had to offer… My New York experience manifests itself through my art. Abstractly I assign, define and interpret color, shape, line, space and time.” — Scarecrow
LITERARY ACTION PAINTING
What is most interesting to discover is that Scarecrow is actually mostly known for his “conversation peace” collection of collage works and the when the opportunity arises for a live performance, in high volume with inexplicable velocity scarecrow redefines the words Art and Show. After seeing his work or a live performance, Scarecrow really makes you “re reevaluate” that item so common to us all, a pen.
— from Tumblr
While I myself have never been blessed to witness one of Scarecrow’s live ‘Art Shows,’ it must be noted that his works have a literary dimension which defies the separation between word and image and which imbues his own artwork with a literal poetic alliance: his titles are poems themselves. And while not actual haikus, they work on the soul in a very similar way. Swift, like jackknives in the air, they are direct without giving up their mystery. The title of one of his masterpieces:
“Start of a sleepless nite
instantly sets the tone and mood and yet works so powerfully on its own, simply as a phrase. I quite like how the title itself feels like the mood being expressed. Neurotic lines, a spindled tone. The drawing itself is a black ink orchestra of faces, half-faces, eyes all enmeshed over figures and musical signs, notes, what have you…But even if one were blind, one could appreciate the emotional and intellectual scope of Scarecrow’s work just by hearing one of his title’s read aloud. This endows his work with a different dimension, a new sort of cub-ism in some respects.
“My art is as an act of protest against the preconceived notions of what art is…” — Scarecrow
BY SELECTIVE ANGELS THE ONE THEY PROTECT AND SOLELY BY THEIR HAND I THUS STAND BLESSED AND ERECT CRO
Scarecrow’s works are like the expressions of objects going through crisis or celebrations (he uses “meltdown” in titles as quickly as he’ll inject “playground”); they exist in states of extremes (as all art should, despite the west’s misunderstood alliance with notions of subtlety) and they come alive as nervous breakdowns, epiphanies, psychedelic confessions, and electric rays and squiggles that exist in the night – as if neon signs had exploded into the air and then re-assembled themselves to not advertise for vacancies but partitions of the soul. His art consoles and provokes; it is unapologetically Black American and righteous and it seeks to do many things at once.
Scarecrow’s collages are haunting and literal revelations: they present jagged and ripped shards of paper and the images beneath them. Morphed faces, obscuras, blunted perceptions, crunched-in, pushed-down, crackling stories that announce themselves in an urbane blast of truth. I’ve always seen collages as the city man’s version of the countryman’s wood-carvings. Cro’s collages are more akin to some torn notebook rather than an effete presentation of multi-layered artworks. In the best tradition of collage art (one of the hardest things to do in my unschooled opinion), Cro gives you a few moods and ideas at once. Like the best jazz a great deal is implied but the message is quite overt. There are overriding themes in his collages and of course his texts (which, in case I have not made it clear, are now becoming almost as famous as his paintings themselves) help to define his works and the impulses behind them.
Reflections of a Past Self “So much blues earned/Without an instrument to play” – Cro Dadi
Before “recycling” became fashionable Scarecrow, for years, was using found objects as a catalyst for his art…
Some of Scarecrow’s work has a stop-motion effect. His Bo Diddley, collage, for example, proudly proclaiming the rock and roll revolutionary’s evolution from a “nothing into an American something” is a prime example of this near-animation effect. Everything from the ragged microphone patch to Diddley’s now-iconic cigar box homemade guitar – registers the ‘down home’ tradition of Do-it-yourself-frame-by-frame manual illustrative-filmmaking and a sort of nostalgia that may very soon end up becoming part of the American Establishment’s property. The Powers That Be – corporations, governments, architects of the New Mass Media Pop Culture Zeitgeist and their offspring who now run museums — will, one day, take all the owned memories of artists such as Bo Diddley and will try to pretend as if rebels like Diddley did not actually create himself. Success stories are often re-woven by the establishment; but its the artworks created by the outsiders and the underdogs that best cultivate, capture, retain, and reiterate the majesty and importance of men like Bo Diddley. For only an outlaw artist can pay real homage to an outlaw musician:
ROCK ROLL SOUL
INNOVATOR FROM NOTHING TO AN AMERICAN SOMETHING
Perhaps Cro’s best works, however, are his seemingly most urgent ones. A solitary masterpiece like “Insomniacs Playground,” has this quality as well as his pen and ink marker pieces such as “Stained People Through Stained Glass” which has an immediate power and enough for the eye to linger upon repeatedly, allowing Cro’s perception of stained people (the afflicted?) to become ours.
THROUGH STAINED GLASS
I could not help but see the colorful mélange of figures as mangled birds as witnessed through a kaleidoscope. And this is such an integral part of experiencing and understanding an artwork: allowing our perceptions to change and then becoming one with the artist’s work. Even if what we see isn’t intended. It’s still a correct assessment of his vision. For when all is said and done, it is myself I learn about when viewing a work of art. Even when I think I’m learning about the creator himself.
“Is it 5 o’clock yet?”
[On] Dec 31 2015
will be retiring
Thank you all for your continued support throughout
There is always something humbling and mysterious when an artist – perhaps even at the peak of their powers – removes himself from the spotlight. Or respectfully washes his paintbrush and leaves them to dry – and to be doused by someone else. The reasons for retirement can sometimes be as enigmatic as one’s suicide or why people fall in love with the people they do.
But it is also so delicately conscious and generous because when an artist says goodbye – he is letting you know in his own way that he may no longer have much to share with you. He may have things he wants to express – man will always express – but he may not necessarily share them. And that’s okay, too of course. Because he has already given himself to you. Sometimes an artist needs to keep a piece of himself in his own pocket.
Nervous systems are passed along through every canvas, and there is a time when that must stop. Whether it is because the Artist wants to move on or spend concerted energy on family or raising animals or building a woodshed or feeding the poor or devoting himself to a God in a whole other way or…picking his fingernails. It doesn’t matter. Remember Miles Davis retired several times. And his final retirement was due to the fact that he “couldn’t hear the music” inside his head anymore.
A new & final phase has begun for the Cro: a harmonious collaboration with Jerry Ray Orr, a fine artist in his own right, proving again that two artists can jointly create a singular piece. They recently had a successful joint-exhibition in North Carolina (birthplace of Romare Bearden). One of the hardest things to do for a painter or a novelist is to create a work with another artist of the same medium. Collaboration is much more common and welcomed in music or theater — but the “lonely arts” such as painting or photography or poetry are not as open to collaboration and this is partially based on the dynamic and construct of those arts itself. The lonely artist, no matter what type, is confessional. And his pain or joy or struggle is often entirely his own or his own perception or reflection of something outside of him. He doesn’t need or necessarily want help in transmitting his vision – he simply wants to vomit and be done with it. Collaboration, however, even when painful is less grief-stricken and assertive if done in the right way. When it isn’t, wars break out and lives (sometimes literally) can be lost. It is not child’s play. And yet – it requires a child’s devotion…to play.
As someone who has gratefully accepted his strengths as a collaborator and the desire to work in conjugal with someone I trust (in my case, creating directly with my wife) — I look upon Cro and Orr’s collaborations as signs of love and hope. Although sleeker than his solo material, this new work is emotionally robust and penetrating and just might even contain more elements than Cro’s solitary pieces; on one hand this is to be expected as Orr brings a new energy – the buzz of the Rastafarians and the texture of pop cosmology of great graphic novels and illustrations. Their collaborations are thicker, palette almost denser, colors bolder – and it reminds me of both the great children’s books, comic poster art, and some of the classic LP sleeve art of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And as poorly stated as I have just expressed that, I mean it with all my heart. There is something nostalgic about the new work’s visual muscularity…yet something forward-looking. For it is not mere sentiment or kitsch they are after or concerned with. It is the four corners of the mind. They still want to make sure you shed a light on at least one of them…
As we approach
The 31 days of October
Beware of the things…
That go bump in the night
Cause while Mingus composed it. And Henry Miller wrote it. Nobody drew it…quite like the Cro.
“And when the clown cries, the towel dries/All the smeared blood & crimson lies/Clowns don’t cry. They merely wipe their faces with the colors that dripped & smeared/ the silence left after laughter/Clinging in their eyes.” – Dennis Leroy Kangalee
And with that, good people, I leave you with the Cro’s forever motto:
Like what you like
Share what you love
Be a blessing
That you too
Are truly blessed
Cro Dadi resides in Orlando, Florida and can be found on Facebook. Please visit his page, explore his art work. He encourages anyone – anywhere – to reach out and connect.\ https://www.facebook.com/cro.dadi
Antonin Artaud, before he entered the Asylum. Photo by Man Ray
A disaster is when you wake up tomorrow and everything you knew has changed; a nightmare is when you wake up and you have to justify and explain your anger to your oppressors as they beat you.
Unlike a plague a social cataclysm is far worse because the oil of the machinery keeps running. Fascism rests on nationalism and maniacal adherence to preservation of racial identity and hierarchy and a defense of that order, it is a swift, direct and organized violence. Massacres are surprising upswells of homicidal urges; genocides contain the celebration of racism and all its devilish rituals, they are capitalist perversions gone amok, they are conscientious slaughters that expect you to pay rent on the land you’re being executed on. When the bureaucracy is still in tact you don’t have Fascism (fascists don’t care for their enemies taxes) you have ‘Atrocity Exhibitionism’: murder in the first degree, things may feel chaotic where in actuality they are all well choreographed. Even what we come to view as science, and nature and luck — all collide under the ominous shadow of State Carnage. In the corners, swelling — are all the desires of artistic paroxysms which are waiting to explode, to actually combat and taunt the sword…with a pen. When a plague rears its head – it is a sign that something else is occurring. It is here that the Theater has an opportunity to shine but quite often it doesn’t. Not because it can’t but because the virus of racism usurps the potential for not only a catharsis, but the hope for a direct expression of the angst of the oppressed and all who find themselves crushed under the boot of the state. The only way to fight it is to enact a catastrophe upon the plague itself. And that is nearly impossible when a nation becomes a mass of spectators and collectors of awful visions as opposed to creators of them.
Poverty porn. Lynch porn. Snuff films. Bulleted brains. Crucified throats. An asthmatic at midnight. Skeletons at the door. Take your pick.
The New Millennium scourge now, although always uncertain, insistent and insidious, is more sophisticated than the bubonic plague and more nefarious than the Capitalism of the 20th century cause it is one we enable with our knees…
(We have sowed the seeds
The responsibility is on us – it is on visionaries, artists, revolutionary Leftist activists, humanitarians, it is on good citizenry and that is something latent in many people because the answer’s not going to come from a place that the government mandates or a site that the internet hosts. It will not come from endowments from the sky or in the form of a Netflix series. It will come from us. Crisis, catastrophes, holocausts – are survived and illuminated by those untangling themselves from the web. WE have to figure this out on our own, we have to move forward.
With the pandemic on the mind – and the reminder of white violence against black bodies clutching the spin of the world at the moment- amidst an alarming death toll —
— and the macabre glee that the media seems to encourage – a sort of digitized schadenfreude – my mind has constantly been dreaming and returning to the past and some of the hallmarks of my own creative inspirations…When I was most free, at my most dangerous dynamic and draconian. When electricity still surged through my veins.
The work of Antonin Artaud deserves great appreciation in any time in this century, but particularly now because of the Corona Virus and the racism that has been unleashed as a result of it, intertwining themselves into a plague like no other – and because the theater itself is a dead organ which no one has the courage or the impetus to actually want to bury.
Artaud was a French surrealist (although he later broke with the surrealists) and was a maverick of the European arts scene in the 1930’s, he was noted as a superb actor (and acknowledged for his fierce classically handsome features: acute cheekbones and intense eyes) and appeared in Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as the Monk – easily one of the greatest works of 20th century art ever created.
Artaud was an even better poet and writer; a brilliant thinker and the creator of the ‘Theater of Cruelty’, a theater he felt that would impel mankind to acknowledge his weaknesses and strengths and reinvigorate the human spirit to battle injustice, bourgeois malaise, Westernized imperialistic values, and re-connect not only the East and West – but the body and the spirit. his theater was a physically demanding and emotionally violent one, a theater that relied on literal blood sweat and tears; a theater that was based on saliva and the serious intention of changing the audience – meaning the world. He believed if the theater could act as a plague onto the audience – we would be healed. If you could feel the horror of oppression on stage, actually feel it in your bones as an audience member – you would be forced to change society. Confrontational, sweaty, and urgent; nearly impossible but blisteringly inspirational: Julian Beck & Judith Malina’s Living Theater (The Brig, Paradise Now), LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Theater (The Toilet, Dutchman, Slaveship) and rock bands in the sixties like The Doors (“The End,” “When the Music’s Over”) — were heavily influenced by Artaud and are probably the most practical examples of his nearly impenetrable ideas. Even the heartbreaking eyes of Rene Falconetti who plays Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was no doubt influenced by Artaud’s notion of bodily insurrection: her eyes give us a revolution within her face, compelling the entire screen to protect and save her from her murder.
For a mainstream example in 1970’s-80’s cinema, watch Pasolini’s Salo (or 120 Days of Sodom) or Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — the sheer force and commitment to revolt in Al Pacino and Judith Malina’s performances exude a sense of what Artaud hoped for his actors to convey. Although accused incessantly of “agit-prop” and being “too angry” for middle-class cinephiles my own 2001 guerrilla movie As an Act of Protest , an ‘anti-Sundance Independent film’ contains a palpable rage and incurs an Artaudian spirit in the last quarter of the film, where I meld Franz Fanon and Antonin Artaud into a theatrical mise-en-scene which spreads on the screen like a spark kindling before an imminent insurrection against racism….by metabolizing Artaud’s wishful theatrical rage…we find our way to Fanon’s cathartic ending. It is not mere revenge we are after, it is healing. The erasure of trauma.)
Antonin Artaud is one of the Forgotten men relegated to the desks and journals of aesthete frauds and smug pretentious theater historians who, like the mainstream media’s imprisonment of the word liberation and revolution- try to keep Artaud confined to an intellectual ghetto know that has somehow traversed everything from so called experimental theater to pop new wave music. Yet Artaud remains – for the most smug Baby Boomer theater historians – a chic prototype of the great mad poet who suffered in the asylum not to free the bodies and minds of the people – but to give credence and legitimacy to MFA and graduate students who choose to type about the past as opposed to writing/confronting our present and therefore create a future. Artaud’s desire to overturn repressive systems, rebel against the hatred and imperialistic order of European governments, and wish to author a completely new language for the theater based on cries, screams, and shouts of the highest order is often met with mockery, denigration, and flippant irony suggesting that revolution of the body politic, human soul, and spiritual outreach is not impractical but amateurish and the result of a deranged mind.
Antonin Artaud is a forgotten man because those who were most inspired by him died as he did, mainly, and those perhaps like me – those of us who swung and licked up the crumbs of the revolutionary cultural feasts that exploded in the 20th century—have suffered badly exploring in the dark, often breaking our own legs as we attempted to find the stairway up to the bedroom but instead tolerated the crevice between the final step and the landing, unsure of what we might find if we went
Like the man looking for his keys under the streetlamp ON THE OPPOSITE side of the street…we question and wonder, we stall and procrastinate. Like Hamlet, we retreat into our well plumbed brains holding on to the gasp that might just release that emotional molotov cocktail we are ashamed to throw. Unlike Hamlet, we have to spend more time enacting the destruction of the oppressor, not debating it.
Artaud resonates because his hallucinations were not just real, but painfully genuine.
He was a drug addict who suffered before and after entering an asylum, a man who wrote perhaps the greatest essay on van Gogh and the real meaning behind suicide; the first Anglo European male surrealist to declare a new form of theater while simultaneously denouncing colonialism, brutality and racism, Western provincialism…and the deep deep holiness of the Original Peoples (read his Conquest of Mexico play which excoriates the Spanish conquistadores and devises a play in which in a psychedelic reversal of history: the Indians righteously defeat the Spanish racists and I guarantee you will scratch yourself trying to figure out what happened to revolutionary anti-colonialist people in the theater and why are there no Anglo-Western theater poets like this today?)
He was a genius because he saw all that he could not somehow achieve and actually expressed that; he was a seer who had the temerity to recognize – in brilliant hallucinations- both his own abilities and desires as well as his limits and failures. Like Rimbaud he knew his death lay in the impractical reaches of his own art. Unlike Rimbaud he did not commit suicide of the mind or spirit (as Rimbaud did at 19 by giving up poetry to become an arms dealer) but he waved his own white flag as I now do, as we all must learn how to do.
There is strength in concession. It is not surrender. It is admitting simply the truth. And sometimes the bad guys do win.
The good ones.
Read his words. If he doesn’t make you want to form a theater of revolt than I don’t know who will. Read his essays. If you don’t tremble inside it’s not cause you don’t understand his brilliant use of language or the intensity of his visions — it is, perhaps, because you are too far removed from your imagination or your soul. Sometimes both.
I hope to convert you immediately, but that is highly unlikely. Antonin Artaud is dense and mysterious, alchemical and concrete, surreal and quotidian, spiritual and political. To read Artaud is unlike any other experience, he is one of the few poet-philosophers of our time who actually embodied his ideas, whose imaginative thrust outdid the corpuscles of his own body.
His words live and breathe on the page even if they could not find their way on the stage. Proving to us all that: the art is not in the “final product.” It is in the germ.
Excerpts below from “The Theater and the Plague” by Antonin Artaud, from The Theater and Its Double, 1938. (Translation from French by MC Richards, Grove Press, 1958)
“Once a plague is established in a city, the regular forms collapse. There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration. Pyres are lit at random to burn the dead, with whatever means are available. Each family wants to have its own…”
“The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit. And at that moment the theater is born. The theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit. “
“But whereas the images of the plague, occurring in relation to a powerful state of physical disorganization, are like the last volleys of a spiritual force that is exhausting itself, the images of poetry in the theater are a spiritual force that begins its trajectory in the senses and does without reality altogether. Once launched upon the fury of his task, an actor requires infinitely more power to keep from committing a crime than a murderer needs courage to complete his act, and it is here, in its very gratuitousness, that the action and effect of a feeling in the theater appears infinitely more valid than that of a feeling fulfilled in life.
Compared with the murderer’s fury which exhausts itself, that of the tragic actor remains enclosed within a perfect circle. The murderer’s fury has accomplished an act, discharges itself, and loses contact with the force that inspired it but can no longer sustain it. That of the actor has taken a form that negates itself to just the degree it frees itself and dissolves into universality.”
“If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized.
Like the plague the theater is the time of evil, the triumph of dark powers that are nourished by a power even more profound until extinction.
In the theater as in the plague there is a kind of strange sun, a light of abnormal intensity by which it seems that difficult and even the impossible suddenly become our normal element…”
“The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation. It releases conflicts, disengages powers, liberates possibilities, and if these possibilities and these powers are dark , it is the fault not of the plague nor of the theater, but of life…”
And the intoxicating, nearly impenetrable, closing paragraphs which never cease to raise the hairs on the back of my neck:
“The theater like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure. And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. Similarly the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction. It invites the mind to share a delirium which exalts its energies; and we can see, to conclude, that from the human point of view, the action of theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling man to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world; it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the sense; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.
And the question we must now ask is whether, in this slippery world which is committing suicide without noticing it, there can be found a nucleus of men capable of imposing this superior notion of the theater, men who will restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas we no longer believe.”
The Assassination of the of the Conscious Black Filmmaker & The Sins of White Journalists – pt. 1
In 2015 I was invited to participate at a Discussion on Black Futurist Art, Ferguson, and Racism with other black educators, artists and independent arts advocates. Disappointed with the same old tired clichés about African-American existence in America and the struggle to combat racism effectively, I declared to everyone’s chagrin that “If Black lives matter then we should support our living artists.”
I was then – and remain now – a staunch believer in the fusion of radical activism and radical artistic expression, I wholly believe that the key to beginning any progressive step towards a better, deeper, and more fully realized humanity resides in the vision of the artist. It’s up to the activist to make the vision practical. But a lot of people don’t like to hear this or confront this because it puts a lot of responsibility at their feet, the naked truth is always hard to confront.
Black lives matter only when white people say they do. In America, Black lives are only mourned never celebrated. Our victimization has become fetishized, our willingness to take action against oppressive and Fascistic behavior has been reduced, and our culture – the defining qualities of our own folkways – has been given up, sold off and “shared” (that is how it is described) by the entire world. Our pain, suffering, and trauma has taken on such inter-stellar resonance that nobody actually responds to Black peoples oppression the way they should. While the Jews always retained control of their own horrifying memories, Blacks still in 2020 have to ask for permission. Permission to tell our own accounts, to share both acts and facts, and to illuminate our past torment.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when white journalists try to assert authority over the experience of Black suffrage and reshape it as a “morality play” for white mainstream audiences. This not only continues to imply that the “human experience” is NOT universal — unless relayed by a white person, specifically a white male — but that no one will care about America’s racist history or the trauma endured by Blacks unless White writers bring attention to it. It’s a catch 22 situation and a tradition as well.
Regardless of any good intention White journalists, patrons, teachers, critics and those manning the boat of ‘Cultural Importance’ have always appropriated and used the history, talents, art, folkways, and ideas of Black Americans — often developed in spite of their bondage and condition as political prisoners in the United States.
Pop culture is a perfect example and while I don’t have the wherewithal to go down the rabbit hole of the sordid history of Culture Vulture-ism in American popular entertainment and art (Al Jolson’s terrifyingly racist deification of Black-face performing, White pop acts co-opting Black rock & roll, MTV vaudeville acts like New Kids On the Block or Justin Timberlake – the list goes on and on) — it has to be stated that white journalists love a good “story” about racism that they can share because it not only puts them into a moral center they feel they can own it puts them in a position to make money off a political situation that their forebears have created. In a perverse way it is brilliant. Whites write books and make loads of money on the Lecture Circuit giving their two cents about racism and enacting a disingenuous concern; feigning outrage over the Terrorism and sadism their the founding fathers committed — all the while ignoring the philosophical, academic, artistic and political contributions Blacks have mined on the very same subjects. And while we look for allies, Fugazi White Liberals look for angles.
The establishment is venal not cause it is prejudiced against certain groups or exploits others or glorifies torture or hates women. It is corrupt because it rewards White people who steal “the Black man’s thunder” and those who peddle and hustle the underbelly of the American empire in the name of “social awareness” and history.
The racist paternalism inherent in publishing and academia actually leads the rest of the culture in this regard, it helps to dignify that maltreatment black musicians and screenwriters for example by trying to legitimize the spiritual grand larceny and cultural embezzlement that white journalists and historians gear up to commit. They are base cultural tourists who, under the guise of education, commit intellectual imperialism.
If America is a cultural melting pot (it is) and if the keys on the piano are black and white (it is) — than the majestic fusion of these differences can unite to celebrate their singular existences as well as their similarities and THIS is how we learn. But that is an idealized intercultural society whilst we live in a racist multicultural society that is mandated by the very people we all claim we hate – but who themselves happen to claim that they are our friends.
I can speak for myself, I don’t need a white man to do it for me.
Christopher Everett blew the lid off the history and story of the Wilmington holocaust in 2015 when his groundbreaking independent film Wilmington On Fire – a documentary – hit the streets and theaters after the most successful screening in the Cucalorus Film festival’s entire history. Since then the film has been taught in major universities, used as part of cultural-enrichment sensitivity training course for North Carolina police officers, was discussed by Congress in a hearing on reparations, Everett himself has become a well noted independent film guru, the founder of his own distribution/production company and something of a new wave folk hero in North Carolina. So how could this NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (and graduate of North Carolina University) David Zucchino not know who Christopher Everett is or about Wilmington On Fire which came out nearly 5 years before Zucchino’s book Wilmington’s Lie was published?
How could mainstream publications and outlets pretend they don’t know who inspired Zucchino and what initiated the genesis of his desire to research the occurrences of 1898 in Wilmington?
Simple. Cause Everett’s Black (and conscious, which is always threatening to the establishment) he is easy to rationalize away. He is also a Black radical filmmaker who conscientiously views and uses cinema as a liberation tool. Period. And he knew that simply taking the lid off this part of history was revolutionary in itself. White people cannot have or accept Blacks who see truth not as a profession but as a calling — to ever be the at vanguard of mainstream education or knowledge or aesthetics; for a treason or sin to be understood it must be conveyed through a white man’s eyes. And mouth.
It is the same thinking, albeit a slightly different context no less insidious, that White music producers had when they stole Black music and rendered more “intelligent” and “safer” palpable soft-core pop versions of Black rhythm and blues songs for White Americans to consume. They live a xerox reality, not a doubled one as the oppressed do but a low grade facsimile of the ideas and feelings that were first uttered and created as a result of Black suffrage.
From Amazing Grace to Big Mama Thornton’s hollers to the way brass instruments were played to how the guitar became a tool of liberatory audio terrorism to nearly every recognized slang word of the past 90 years to fashion to sports — Blacks have ignited ideas before the white man ever conceived and later packaged and sold them. This includes our perspectives and realizations of history, our uncovering of truths.
Whites who cling to the Establishment – like the people of color who cherish it — are not willing to admit their crimes and for all I know they may not even see their crime. Blacks have been erased and ghettoized literally and figuratively in the USA for 400 years. I can’t expect 400 words or hours of my ranting to resolve this.
Christopher Everett hails from Laurinburg, NC and is a phenomenal filmmaker and film producer. A tenacious and conscientious producer, he doesn’t believe in the exploitative and wasteful capitalist approach to film production. I refer to him as my generation’s Roger Corman, although his cultural contribution will far exceed Corman’s. Time will prove me right. Because he does so much everyone think Everett has a lot of money. They seem to ignore the fact that he, like virtually every other peasant in the world (I use that term affectionately) – HAS to get up every morning and pay the rent. In addition to holding down a full-time job with Full Frame Festival in North Carolina (the first African-American ever to do so) he organizes different ideas and approaches to the world and to art; he tries to find new ways he and his artist friends can make a living, he tries to figure out trends and how to create ones, forging ideas upon other filmmakers and the general public whenever he has access to them. Like me, he is an outsider and loner by birth, unlike me — he is a Cinematic MC, an impresario of sorts. He is currently at work on two separate documentaries, a narrative; he produces art shows, cultural events; he works in conjugal with NY based filmmakers Brian Alessandro and Vagabond; he spent a whole year restoring and re-contextualizing my 2001 controversial drama As an Act of Protest — granting it new fresh screenings, introducing it to a whole new generation and enabling the film to be declared a “cult classic.” This got him into trouble (the movie, which is about the psychological effects of racism & police brutality and the Black impetus to revolt was literally banned by the Giuliani administration in 2002) but he never looked back. When I asked him why he wanted to do this, he took umbrage. “Come on man, your film is important, it needs to be seen and re-evaluated,” he remarked in his cool low-key Laurinburg drawl. And he painstakingly worked to transfer the original movie from its PAL European source to North American NTSC so that we could make DVDs. He used his own money and lost money on me several times. His belief in me, in cinema, in ideas, in wanting to help the Black community en masse is astounding and humbling. He works in the trenches cause that is where he is most comfortable and most honest. He deplores Hollywood hucksterism as much as he despises phony Academic intellectuals who make money off revisiting the pain incurred by Black Americans. These are part of the reasons why the Establishment will not accept or support him. And they are also part of the reason why the so-called independents and the “everyday Joes” don’t support him. Everyone is afraid.
I don’t care about White people who won’t take three seconds to consider my point of view here, I’m concerned with the Blacks who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and do nothing but make excuses for “well-intentioned” White academics, foolishly believing that these “good Caucasians” are actually trying to help bring awareness about racism. White Americans do not need to be told about their racism or their racist past. They know it like a lion knows its own roar.
There are and will be more people who defend Zucchino’s actions as there will always be those partial to ivory tower transgressions and those that love to mention The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as the “greatest American novel ever written.” Not cause they understand or appreciate the warnings and meanings implicit in the book because, simply, they want Black Americans to feel and see themselves as invisible. Once this is accomplished they can own your suffering, your ”narrative” as the zeitgeist prefers to say. There is no narrative because there was no author, only savagery and treachery that grows like a virus. Racism itself is a kind of virus, a poison. These words are the continued kindling in the search for an antidote.
What is important to remember here, however, is the racist patriarchal sense of entitlement and the gross indecency that the bourgeoisie display when itching for a new hustle. Of course what better way than to crib from the Black American community? Zucchino is well-heeled and rubs shoulders with all the right people in the Literary and Journalism world, I would bet too that he has never had to self publish or take a financial hit when considering what and where to publish. Conversely, Everett is a working-man, a proletariat filmmaker — he comes from a hard working North Carolina family that has has had its ups and downs like everybody else and he has known the face of poverty and struggle as an artist and cultural historian unlike Zucchino. Everett made Wilmington On Fire at great risk to his own personal health, I highly doubt Zucchino could say the same of his book-writing. Has Zucchino received death threats or ever been concerned about his family due to the truth he dared to disclose about American racism? I doubt it.
So let’s not be fooled. We as Black people need to stop begging for the White establishment and all the organizers of the Ivory Tower to notice or pay attention to us. We need to pay more attention to ourselves, we need constantly support ourselves. That in and of itself is the very first step towards a cultural renaissance, a step towards self-transformation. How does one ascertain the criterion of the cultural gatekeepers? It’s not who they promote. It is who they don’t.
White people see you clearly. That’s why they can delete you. One has to exist in order to be erased or moved or forgotten. To ignore is a verb. It is not passive. Like betrayal or murder it causes lacerations unseen that float out into the ether…someone always knows what you did. Why. And how.
And while ghosts may not stop Zucchino from continuing this sick charade, my words can at least act as a warning as a traffic sign might. However in Zucchino’s car — in the universe he drives in — “Deer Crossing” is synonymous with “Artist Expressing” or “Black Man Walking.” And in that world the sign prompts you to drive faster and not slow down.
So let’s just move on and cross Christopher Lamont Everett off the list. Another Black man killed. Who cares? Isn’t that why we exist anyway?
This is a reprint and slightly different version of an original essay published June 1st, 2016. It has been re-posted here again as a result of the conscientious effort to dismiss Christopher Everett and his extraordinarily bold and revolutionary film-making and cultural contribution to the education of the history of USA, specifically the state of North Carolina. Because he is Black, Everett’s miraculous accomplishments with this film alone — it brought to national attention the post American Chattel Slavery-racism of the past that always lurked in the USA, it found its way into Congressional hearings on reparations – yes! – and is even used to try to ‘teach’ and inform the Police Officers in North Carolina what Black Americans have endured just in that one state alone. David Zucchino, a White American award winning journalist (whatever that means) – has a new book out (“Wilmington’s Lies”) that for the white mainstream — supposedly reveals this little known travesty and holocaust of American history — and the subject itself is treated as if no one had known or explored this incident before. Once again, the Black man gets no credit – and not only that…but WE don’t do anything about it. Zucchino himself refuses to acknowledge, credit, cite or discuss Everett’s film Wilmington On Fire despite the fact that nearly everyone on the street knows that Zucchino has not only seen the film and viewed it, but that it instigated his own investigation into the history of Wilmington and the racist coup and bloodshed that transpired in 1898. Everett is proud that he has helped to agitate other historians and journalists and writers — and yet instead of seeking an alliance, they choose to pretend Everett and other Black independent researchers and artists who do controversial and dangerous work — don’t exist. Well that’s funny to me. I am sure the IRS and the good people of Wilmington know Mr. Everett and his film exists. I know the Universities of North Carolina and throughout the United States know that Mr. Everett and his film exists.
White people constantly and consistently base their sociological explorations, historical investigations into race and racism, and their understandings and approach to music and understanding — off of the sweat and blood already spilled by Black activists, artists, laborers, and the Beautiful Unknowns who have simply exhausted their own humanity into model templates for “good citizenry” and yet…who gets the acknowledgment, kudos, support, critical attention, financial support and mainstream attention? The Independents, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the revolutionaries fail every time this happens. Shame on us.
— Dennis Leroy Kangalee, May 20, 2020
A meditation on Christopher Everett’s revolutionary documentary film Wilmington On Fire
Christopher Everett’s independent film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning movie 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 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 white brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; 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 begin 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.
Create your own. Don’t join. Ever. When you seek to join you aim to give up freedom and possibilities that you have not yet even tested or given any attention to. If the world is so interesting and so compelling why are so many people , especially artists, in a rush to join organizations, festivals, groups, committees, schools, etc – that do nothing but coerce them into giving up their own off beat for the steady hum-drum of the Zeitgeist Parade? If you’re lonely and are seeking “understanding” or allies after years of pounding pavements or digging trenches then either consider getting a dog…or joining yourself first. Allies will come. And I do believe in miracles. But you must first cherish the loneliness, the outsider within. It may be the only honest thing in your life. But for the love of man or animal or cloud or tree – please don’t sell out…in order to buy in.
In 2017 I had the pleasure of meeting filmmaker Travis Pearson. His film “America Street” about two brothers Sota and Buck and the trauma experienced by formerly incarcerated Black Men who attempt to re-enter mainstream society haunted me and moved me in a way few modern movies do. Below is the original essay/review I wrote for the film’s DVD/Blu Ray release.
Diffused and muted on a wet Charleston day. That’s the abiding and earthy feeling of what Travis Pearson’s America Street most imbues in me when I think about it. That and the bittersweet horror of trying to “get back” home when home has become an abstract and ephemeral place, literally and metaphorically…
From the poor Southern vernacular and slang of Sota to the salt-of-the earth homilies of the Mother to the need for work and ‘the waltzing matilda’ having lunch under “America Street” sign to a random lesson on the 1739 Stoner Rebellion and the imagining of Harriet Tubman as an American Joan of Arc to the conception of Daddy Bucks — too poor to afford a ‘war’, although he’s a soldier nonetheless (if Chaplin’s Tramp and waif were a black and humorless 37-year old ex-con he’d be Bucks) Pearson’s beautiful neo-realist approach contains a rawness and honesty seldom seen in American pictures where exploitation is not the aim. Especially in films concerning black Americans and Southern or rural culture.
The film is not a tourist film for white audiences nor does it pander to its black audiences and that is why it succeeds as an honest portrait of the underdog, the maligned, and the heartbroken. It eschews all bourgeois patronizing of the working class and ex-convicts who try re-enter society (all too common in cinema) and the judicial problems of the black underclass because its director identifies with his characters. Pearson is an artist whose vision is genuine and unflinching as he makes you deal with cold hard realities. Even homosexuality is relayed in a way a far more courageous (and less stereotypical) than mainstream fare like Moonlight.
Like a shattered stained glass window, America Street is a mirror of a fractured society – one that wants to be whole but doesn’t have the resources to put itself back together again. A gritty, well-made drama with honest performances that seeks to celebrate and indict aspects of not only Charleston life but American society – America Street is replete with its hypocrisies, injustices, and confusion. When Bucks vocalizes it is like a yelp from the back of his throat that explodes. And that’s exactly what the film does: it’s explodes and does more than “pack a punch.” It makes you find both your heart and your mind. It entertains as well as enlightens. And that is all we can ask our artists who try to go into the places we choose to ignore.
— Dennis Leroy Kangalee
NYC April 28, 2018
You can learn more about Travis Pearson and Avidaya Films by visiting his Facebook account or Tumblr:
It was the type of beauty that makes an artist jealous or an atheist create a religion.
The woman’s face seemed to say “Handle With Care”. Her features were etched with a loving poise as if the brush across her face said to its own bristles: “Check this out.” Her lips had the sculpted and untouched look of a marble statue or a grandmother’s china set. Majestic, but almost too sterile. But so real that you knew if you touched it, you could break it. The delicacy of her face hosted a pair of bright cavernous eyes. They seemed deep and endless, a Xanadu unto herself. And just as lonely, perhaps. Her hair waved and nestled around her head. And her collarbone, too, seemed unloved and therefore all the more inviting. Her breasts hung and bobbed naturally, barely hidden beneath a thin wisp of loose cotton. The Maestro’s mouth twisted dumbly and his eyes ached. He felt bad about every negative comment he had ever made about women. Or life.
He watched her cross the street and saw the poetry in her gait, her bent head, tired arms. What he had always read about in dance books is what this woman was. The purity of her movement–was a great deal to take because it championed the “Beauty of a Better Tomorrow” philosophy in today. Her demeanor was confident, but mortal. And her curved marble lips were not pursed for her victim; they were curled up for grace. A shift of one minor muscle and it would have read as a smirk. All that beauty, like the blanket of stars at night, swimming through this sea of contempt, unpleasantness, and bitter digitized Eleanor Rigby’s of the world.
Seen, but not valued.
Hated because it lived and breathed.
Scorned because she was beautiful, but not wealthy.
Single, but not lonely.
Happy, but not ignorant.
And it was in the way she bent down to adjust her shoes that the trembles started and pain swelled…
He had to do something; he was still dizzy from his episode minutes earlier. He sucked on his dwindling saliva and hummed. Her tiny ballet shot adrenaline-razors through his veins.
Her shoes: tattered, worn, and dejected. But treated like the hands of Moses. She was so casual that it frightened him. The cardboard around her feet were folded and molded like moccasins. The shoestrings were made of wire like un-done hangers. If it hadn’t been for sanguine stretching for August, the stitches, like crimson thorns stuck in benign berry–he would have never noticed…And that is what continued to pain him.
Her refusal to crumble in between the pitied streets of a broken cabaret city and a metropolis frozen in spirit, caught between two different chords–minors and majors clashing and bending like fists in a boxing ring twirling with the sprays of sweat drooling on the grooves and in between the rich peoples’ collars, made him sad. And he looked and he could feel the threads of yesterday’s train pulling and hooting at some lonely distant region of his brain. Her old fashioned elegance reminded him of those black and white movies from the 1940’s and instantly his parents, who always appeared larger in his memory, came to him with comforting compassion and an immense yard of broken TV’s, each gripping its thwarted dream…
He revolted when he imagined the pain of her footsteps,–but like everyone else with a battered soul, shot nerves, and no hope–all he could do was stare and stand motionlessly. At least he gave her full attention. She removed all her clothing and ejected a rolled up ball of tissue in between her legs to help stop Aunt Rosa’s mighty flow. Sadder than an unemployed man’s footprints in the snow on New Year’s Eve.
Sadder than a subway ride on a Sunday afternoon.
Sadder than people who believe that hunger isn’t murder.
Sadder than a last minute pack or an eviction notice in the strange cool air of the summer solstice.
Sadder than a cemetery with gum on its fence.
And sadder than the boys who know who their fathers are–but have no desire to be like them.
Angela Davis and Jean Genet in conversation, New York City 1969 at an Arts Festival. (Photo by Robert Cohen, circa 1969 – from page 69 of Art of Protest by TV Reed)
The spring of 1969: as the Paris rebellions failed, a conference about the Black Panthers Theater took place in Oakland, which ended in an argument about the direction the theater should take – which by this point was in demise due to FBI infiltration...Angela Davis and Jean Genet confer before embarking on two separate routes to the same ultimate destination.
ANGELA DAVIS: If only I could only revolt as well as you create plays
JEAN GENET: No, if only I could write as elegantly as you revolt…if my words were as dangerous as your eyes I would not have the urge any longer to dream of a future. Instead I’d be living it.
AD: Yes but I was endgaming to the end of our imagination; I picked up a gun while you could still pick up a pen.
JG: The pen is not mightier than the sword. It’s just more scary.
AD: If our words and actions were one we wouldn’t have to have this discussion. We could overturn society’s injustice with the swivel of a gun and the precision of a play and so…the world would not be a stage it would be our sun. And the sun is merely a star.
JG: But unfortunately for a star to exist one must be surrounded by darkness.
AD: “Let’s make new light out of love and erase all the darkness that comes with it.” (I read that somewhere last year. I think it was Bullins or Jackmon who wrote it; Huey had it painted on the back wall of one of Fred’s theater spaces in Chicago.)
JG: Is that act one or two?
AD: It’s the whole play
Or when the play –
JG: ceases to to be a play.
— Teeming Towards Triple Threats: Revolution in Radio Drama for a Podcast Age Vol. I
Stay tuned for further information regarding transmission and production of the recorded podcast series: “Rebel Radio: Audio Works for a New Age” – coming this fall in conjugal with Speller Street Films LLC.
Like my own cinematic revolutionary attempt made in the turn of the century As an Act of Protest, Machetero sought to blow the mind like a grenade and rouse the ‘logic-of-the-soul’ as to the horrors, complexities and simplicities inherent in our human duties as a result of colonization and racism.
“Machetero is about terrorism and terrorists, how they are defined and by whom…It is a film about the cyclical nature of violence that is perpetuated by those who choose to oppress and those who no longer wish to be oppressed.” – Vagabond
The PAN-Latino/Indigenous and Black struggle and yearning for liberation are conjoined like Siamese Twins. We both share a Leftist view of the world from our inherent understandings of the Caribbean (we are both West Indians, my family largely from Trinidad – his from Puerto Rico) and while our direct influences and approaches have been different (I come from classical theater, Vagabond hails from the fine arts world), we share a view of the world and what love is through our appreciation of DIY punk ethos, rock & roll, and those who think way outside the established academic norms. We are also New York natives who tried to inject ourselves and our generation with the dust-mites from our & the previous generation’s approach to growing up and exploring the world around, both good and bad, and while we may have faltered to get our generation fully on board — our attempts have been righteously and fantastically executed. High quality cinema with no money; priceless ideas and talent…verve and conviction. That’s where Vagabond is coming from and he could not operate any other way.
“Success is getting someone else to believe in you. Not you believing in yourself.” – Vagabond
Over the years, I have come to learn a lot from Vagabond, and he is one of the few born in the bone filmmakers still in the trenches, trying to make sense of radicalism and meaning, the poetry in science fiction…and the immorality of mere “happiness.” He is a romantic and a film-addict. And like all addicts he simply seeks to reconcile himself with this urge to get his “fix”….so he can fix the mind.
Machetero is a punk-rock-garage band-movie that Abel Ferrera might have drooled over in his youth if his punk sentiments were as blisteringly politically avant-garde as they may be ‘controversially’ social. In splendid rawness and just the right balance of stylistic panache, Vagabond moderates his work with a documentary sobriety and yet a “other-worldliness” presentation very much rooted in his own personal brand of science-fiction which has always had an enormous inspiration for him I feel, where as I have only looked upon sci-fi as a curiosity but never understood it in my bones. I come from Method Acting and drama and was a devotee of the Theater of the Absurd; he uses our ‘space oddities’ and the world’s political landscape as a towering backdrop; his externals are my internals. I use dialogue the way he visually creates atmosphere…perhaps we both meet somewhere in the middle where surrealism and radical ideas converge? He needs to make films, I need to write words. He opts for the moving image, whereas I want to halt or destroy it. He understands the pictorial, I relate to the textual. We both love sound. As traditionalists, he’d like Scorsese, I’d prefer Cassavetes. He can paint and draw, I am colorblind. But we both appreciate poetry, rawness and having guts verses having might. We are both for the underdog and no matter what despise Goliath.
With an excellent soundtrack and bold photography, the movie also features an outstanding cast: the always charismatic Isaach de Bankolé , the superbly honest Not4Prophet (of punk-band Ricanstruction) as well as gently Naturalist performances by Kelvin Fernandez and Dylcia Pagan that help to both round out and sharpen the film’s layered acting styles, given more complexity to the movie’s stylized neo-realism.
The movie was hailed by socially conscious artists such as Chuck D and Sam Greenlee. It has had international critic support and yet remains largely maligned and dismissed here at home, in NYC. I personally have known people who simply can’t get on board with our mode and style of filmmaking – and so our own artwork become ghettoized and blacklisted. Machetero is a victim of a whole other virus that we won’t get into at this very moment.
Machetero is one of the great films of the digital revolution and the cinematic one…and part of a movement that was largely missed. A defining film of my generation, it was the A side to my worthy B side of our shared “cinematic” single and sheds beautiful light and time and space on those profoundly disturbed by injustice and obsessed with fixing it.
Here is the Link to the insightful 2013 announcement when Machetero had finally received a dignified DIY screening in NYC’s Lower East Side: