White Supremacy and the Democratic Party’s Dark Past

A meditation on Christopher Everett’s extraordinary debut film about an 1898 massacre that rocked America

Christopher Everett’s debut film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning documentary about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning.  With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…

White American racists shoot Black American citizens of Wilmington, NC on November 10, 1898 in one of the swiftest acts of genocide in American history. [Courtesy of Speller Street Films; artwork by Wolly McNair]
White American racists shoot Black American citizens of Wilmington, NC on November 10, 1898 in one of the swiftest acts of genocide in American history. [Courtesy of Speller Street Films; artwork by Wolly McNair]
 

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.

White racists stand amidst the carnage and destruction they proudly create in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 [courtesy of Speller Street Films, artwork by Wolly McNair]
White racists stand amidst the carnage and destruction they proudly create in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 [courtesy of Speller Street Films, artwork by Wolly McNair]                         
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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.

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The Movie

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.

Activist & Radio Host Larry Reni Thomas declares sadly “Wilmington – the town – is synonymous with racial violence.” Thomas ceaselessly fights on behalf of descendants of the victims of the 1898 Wilmington riot.
Activist & Radio Host Larry Reni Thomas declares sadly “Wilmington – the town – is synonymous with racial violence.” Thomas ceaselessly fights on behalf of descendants of the victims of the 1898 Wilmington riot. 

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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 The Spook 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?”

A screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina proved to be the most attended film screening in the festival’s 21 years of existence. A huge deal for a guerrilla film project. Poster designed by Marcus Kiser.
A screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina proved to be the most attended film screening in the festival’s 21 years of existence. A huge deal for a guerrilla film project. Poster designed by Marcus Kiser.

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Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.

 

Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in a legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.

By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; as a white youth he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…

Passionate independent researcher Kent Chatfield provides an abundance of chilling facts, records, and documents equating the North Carolina Democratic Party of the 1890’s with pure hatred.
Passionate independent researcher Kent Chatfield provides an abundance of chilling facts, records, and documents equating the North Carolina Democratic Party of the 1890’s with pure hatred.    

 

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?

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Film As Resistance

“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”

– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller

 

When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly beginning to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.

What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.

The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?

Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.

Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?

No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.

The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write-up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.

His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.

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So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.

 

I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.-

The award-winning documentary will be screening in the following cities next week below.

Pittsboro, NC: Hosted by the Chatham County Democratic Party
Date: June 24, 2017
Time: 12:30pm
Admission: Free and open to the public
Location: Pittsboro Roadhouse & General Store (39 West St., Pittsboro, NC 27312)
Facebook Event Page

Brooklyn, NY: Weeksville Freedom Film Festival
Date: June 24, 2017
Time: 2:30pm
Tickets: Eventbrite
Location: Weeksville Heritage Center (158 Buffalo Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11213)
Facebook Event Page

Akata (Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah)

Bold and beautiful, “Akata” is a cool understated slice of revolutionary cinema. 

Loneliness of the artist: Nelson Eldridge as the Artist who struggles to get to his exhibit and back home in Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s bold understated revolutionary slice of cinema, “Akata.”
Loneliness of the artist: Reginald Eldridge as the Artist who struggles to get to his exhibit and back home in Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s bold understated revolutionary slice of cinema, “Akata.”

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

– Franz Kafka

David Bowie iterated the same sentiment, differently, in his spooky lament Ashes to Ashes (1980) and interestingly enough this existential reclamation of breaking through in order to be recognized/released, in a quite different context, is the gestalt moment of Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s haunting short Akata.

Akata echoes Kafka’s maxim more literally, though no less poetically: his hero smashes the ice – or in this case glass – in order to be affirmed and to be freed. If only for a moment. The 13 minutes leading up to this Fanonian climax is from a world many of the metropolitan Black artists know well and it is a crippling, hypocritical, and insidious one. It is the professional ‘Art World’ – the nucleus of all that is wrong in our “progressive” culture, all that is wrong with White Liberalism, and all that is wrong with the west.

If you are looking for evidence and sources of our problems, evade the American politicians and stop looking for bombs and the creatures that make them. Look no further than the art institutions and the scenes they give birth to. So venal you’d think you’d slipped into either the boiler room of a hedge fund or the back alley of a Public Education fundraising meeting. Simply: they’re all out to get you. And your humanity. And the hero of Akata is no exception. He’s willingly offered himself to be taken and denigrated until it becomes too much for him. The hypocrisy, institutionalized racism, and slow-burn yearning in Yeboah’s film is wonderfully rendered in a tone both personal and communal. Shot on Super 16, the film is a strong synthesis of the French New Wave and the Classical African Militant filmmaking of Djibril Diop Mambety. But it is also wholly new and fresh and features an effective improvised jazz score by David Boykin, non-professional actors (imbuing this gently surreal film with dignified awkwardness) and an ending as arresting as proverb.

The theme of the Artist struggling to get home is both actual and symbolic and it rendezvous’ with the political realities of a Black man not being able to get a cab, an Artist reconciling that his work may be “worth more” than his life, and the everyday nightmares that often reveal insights in our neurosis.

Akata superbly captures the solitary inner life of a frustrated creative being, the matter of fact loneliness of the artist, and the tender side to wanting to connect and completely re-structure the world and one’s place in it through the use of hands (craft). The Artist paints, greets and accepts a business card, and smashes a window all with his hand. He is forced to give up the brush and make a fist. The artist as unwilling resister to the oppressive culture or even, dare I say it, literal revolutionary is a clear and inherent characteristic of our Revolutionary Black New Wave cinema or ‘Rebel Cinema’ as we sometimes refer to it. A symbiosis of Afro-bleakism and romantic challenge to nihilism and acceptance of unjust norms.

Like other films about the revolutionary plight of the artist (As an Act of Protest, Spit) the equation of the Black conscious artist struggling to go beyond his work and into a society where he can have an impact is implied rather than explored and there’s room for numerous interpretations…but an infinite amount of epiphanies.

Enduring one humiliation after the next just to get to his own art-show, the Artist is also the last to leave the exhibition and, despite the accolades, becomes another frighteningly common archetype: the artist who may be wanted for his work – but not for who he is. The White Art World in particular are fundamentalist believers of “I can experience you through your work (wow!) yet will deny your existence (in actual life).” I don’t want your humanity, just your art. The biblical trajectory of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a classic example.

In life, the budding artist is most vulnerable before he blooms and right after. The setting sun on possibility, the shadows that gather in late evening are enough to commit any struggling artist for the rest of his life. Assuming he lives past his Baptism of Fire.

Bearing witness to the humiliation of the Black Man, the Artist, & the Conscious Self…who all await that ‘newspaper taxi’ to ‘appear on the shore…’

Akata is perhaps the most delicate of all these rebel films because it’s the most poetic. Its subtleties are not only embedded in the technique of the film (and become more pronounced with each viewing) but because it comes across like a diary entry (read more about the personal inspiration in the Q & A). Unlike the theatrical nature of most narrative movies, Akata remains singular in that its style is severely synced with its director’s raw and sensitive approach to cinema: unfiltered and unacademic. Yeboah distills swiftly and doesn’t waste time getting heady when he shoots, he prefers to let the moment and the feeling of the mise-en-scene guide him. It is a jazz approach that has served him well. Director of Photography Marcin Szocinski gives a warm, painterly creamy look that at times goes soft and racks focus as we ourselves try to make out what is “happening.” Or rather, the themes develop as Jarcin finds what Yeboah has laid out of for us. Szocinksi’s sensual and wonderfully ‘nomadic’ approach to shooting is not only an approach that benefits Yeboah’s instincts it serves Akata well because of the stately roguish nature of the film.

What struck me about the Artist’s dilemma in the film is He hasn’t a friend in the world. Because no one who loves another would allow that person to be anxious about how they are going to get home. But in the concrete jungle, in the colonized wilderness People of Color have gotten lost in and rushed to be part of – there is no home to travel to, only one that can be possessed spiritually. Akata makes it clear to me: we can never go back home. We must create a new home, conceptually and literally. There can be no return or looking back. If one needs help getting home – then that means that person didn’t have a home to begin with. Like a stray feral creature sifting through the trees, constantly on the prowl. Is it going to or from?

And then it all comes together in some kind of cool post-colonialist afterthought: we arrive at the film’s revolutionary gestalt moment and what transpires is coolly transcendent and chilling.

Akata is a mesmerizing film and an important one that must be added to our arsenal.                                                

A picture lives by companionship…It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling.”            

 – Mark Rothko

The Artist (Nelson Eldridge) looks out the window as he prepares for another day in isolation

Born in Ghana, Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, Djibril Diop Mambèty and Fela Kuti. A trajectory marked with a poetics of refusals, the cinema is his weapon of choice.

That being said Yeboah has been very cautious as to who he shares his art with.

He will only share the film with audiences genuinely interested. He has given up on any notion of commercial success, being popular, or reaping the benefits of a system that routinely exploits and straight-up pimps Black actors and directors via Hollyweird. He does not care about the “foolishness and coonery” he feels has become the new American Norm for Black people – as viewers and creators. His only wish is to keep creating and making his own cinema, regardless of how long it will take. But he balks at the idea now of begging people to look at his work. And while he is a classical filmmaker (meaning he still believes in ‘pure cinema’ and the impact of projecting a motion picture on a large screen VS the TV or computer), he does not want to constantly humiliate himself by hoping someone will take an interest in seeing his films.

They don’t have to understand or even like his work, but they should possess and innate desire to be vulnerable and open to what the artist wants to give. In the 21st century, that is not only one of the biggest problems of cinema (people unable to know how to “view” a movie as the nature of the audience/viewer has changed not only due to the self-satisfied generation of young adults who feel there is nothing they don’t know since life for them is a google at the tip of their fingers) – it is also a general idea that pervades our times ever since Guy Debord’s nightmare of the spectacle became our everyday waking reality. In an age now where everything is up for sale and everything is a movie how does the average watcher of media, consumer of images – allow himself to metabolize a personal independent film in a genuine way? Do they even care?

When you view someone’s film – it is you who becomes Muhammad or Moses or whomever you wish to equate the eyes of a prophet; you are digesting a message from God. All the artist asks is that you respectfully broach the idea of even considering to look at his work.

Secular art is not merely earthly or “profane,” it is a deeply spiritual. It is not religious because it does not link itself to merely one religious belief, it is like Theater – the holiest of the holy: a glorious secular humanism. Without a God or a bible.

“I emerged from the darkness on two legs…” Feet to walk, love, and return to one’s own home with.

Below is an excerpt of a telephone interview I conducted over the phone with Yeboah upon my viewing of the final cut of Akata.

Q & A

My own last name “Kangalee” is a Bengali-Senegalese hybrid, a kind of Black-Indian mash-up. This is quite common in Trinidad but I’d assume the Siddi of India had probably carried the name. It means “wretched” or “the dispossessed.” Go figure! It’s haunted me ever since I accepted my name. And while I never see a word or name doesn’t connect to any given situation we are in – I am curious what the title of your film refers to. What does ‘Akata’ mean?

 It denotes ‘a wild cat that does not live at home’.

 Yes! That adds a whole other layer to the film…

…And some West Africans use of the term could denote ‘the wild ones’, which is how we perceive some of what appears very wild to us – with our brothers. Its origins could be traced to Fante (Ghana) and Yoruba (Nigeria) . The word ‘akata’ is me experiencing my wild cat self as I’m perceived.

 When did you start writing and developing the film?

The film as an idea must have firmed between 2013-2014. Prior to that it was just a feeling. I could never hail a cab like anyone else who wasn’t black. One time I almost disappointed a client at the Race Center at the University of Chicago. It almost made me cry when she finally picked me up after a very embarrassing emotional call “… they won’t stop for me.” Tears came to my eyes when I said those words.

Reminds me of when he says, “I just want to go home.”

 This is one of those moments you seek their attention by breaking the glass. The act is only intended to achieve visibility, they walk and drive right through you, till you break the glass and become visible. It’s to their shame that they would only acknowledge you when the tension in your muscles is released. I dress spiffy and all but, still a nigger. My friend Ade wears glasses and possesses an intellectual and harmless demeanor so he assists me in the dead of winter to stop a cab to move two suitcases to my new home, I would step back out of the picture so they may stop for what we both perceive as a less threatening figure than mine. Still not working…and these cabs are almost always driven by nonwhites…Racism is internalized by nonwhites who have bought into the dominant narrative.

When I first saw that moment – I had a knee-jerk reaction and thought “What is this fool doing? Why does he care about being acknowledged by this white man? When will we learn!?” But then just as fast – you have him enter the zone, he breaks through and enters demanding some kind of spiritual awakening. Not for the white man. But for himself. I’ve studied the ending several times to figure that out. It’s a beautiful moment…What’s your approach to actors and casting? I’m always curious how directors with a non-theatrical background execute this.

Well, as you know I prefer non-actors. They give me something new. As a director, I see my characters in people on the sidewalks, coffee shops and in everyday life. I randomly asked Reginald Eldridge (the Artist in the film) after encountering him a few times at events we kept bumping into each other. Met up with Cheryl Pope – who plays his lover in the film on the same day we met on social media.   I declared to them: “You’re going to be in my film.” Both are practicing artist-teachers.

Their comfortability with each other was impressive especially as two people who just met and are playing lovers on-screen for the first time. Their ease put a lot of professionals to shame. But that’s also how you shot it – you didn’t direct their intimate scenes with one iota of fetishism. That’s a feat in itself because most bedroom scenes or sex scenes exist to simply titillate the viewer or expose the director’s own hang-ups. You learn a lot about someone by how they stage a sex scene. Tell me about your cinematographer, Marcin Szocinski.

Marcin is the sexiest Polish DP alive. Like me, we don’t appreciate Digital. This is how it started. We are about process and not just product. Grainy Super 16 feels like you are making a meal you care about to share with your loved ones and family. We used only available lights and shot really fast to avoid any trite trappings by overthinking any moment in the film. Just be! The idea that you can’t erase or have multiple takes of a scene is what I swear by film. You immortalize the mundane by making each moment rare and not repeated. Digital forces you to move towards a perfection that only makes the film comparable to host of TV type films.

Why did you refrain from letting us hear the Artist declare “I just want to go home.”  Is it because you knew we already understood what he was saying and felt – tonally – that it was simply more effective without hearing him under the jazz score?

It was a beautiful mistake! I accidentally imported a version of the draft edit without the synched audio for the image. The other version had it. Depending which version you saw, you’re right, you deduced something different. You can read into or out of – a film.

See, that’s like jazz music itself. Charlie Parker said if you make a mistake, repeat it. Then do it again. And people will assume that’s what you intended all along and soon you’ll have created a whole new language. You find a lot when you edit, as it should be. One thing I did notice in the final cut was that you cut one of the best “pure cinema moments” – the great pan-back shot of the empty hall when the artist leaves the building. It’s gone! It gave the film a nice idiosyncratic edge. That I remember when I first saw it – I thought it was a brilliant touch.  What made you want to cut it out? 

I recut the entire film, I got him out of his apartment quicker than the earlier draft, cut a few more shots short. The film was made in a period when I moved house, between cities and just a lot of shifting elements in my life, sometimes I wasn’t sure which version I had. I may have actually edited the actual film just once, that’s who I am, don’t want to mess withthe cinematic spontaneity too much. I only came back to cut out stuff without moving around shots.                                                                     

______

“Africa, help me to go home, carry me like an aged child in your arms. Undress me and wash me. Strip me of all of these garments, strip me as a man strips off dreams when the dawn comes. . “

    – Aime Cesaire

 

 

Scorsese, Shrader, Film & Racism

“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”

– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) ,
upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970's American Cinema
Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970’s American Cinema

This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicians and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.

Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)

And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.

The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.

Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)

I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)

Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.

Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.

Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.

The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)

We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?

[Originally published in 2014 via Passion of an Outsider Artist]

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