Especially the ones with vision. I don’t have vision, at best I’m a dim light bulb flickering in someone’s basement. But I’ll tell you this: the filament in my bulb was anointed with the blood and energy of yours; and what I’ve learned in this concrete jungle, this new age urbane artistic wasteland is to keep not someone’s dream alive – not even my own – but to keep booring holes thru parasols and allow any bit of truth to seep through.
The took you cause they thought they owned you–perhaps they did, perhaps You made your own deal with the devil, who am I to say. There are certainly no angels to consort with
— but now creeping into the end of the first quarter of the 21st century we will discover one day that
The saints were those who became mistaken martyrs – not because of someone else But because of us And all who let ourselves down Keep crushing those fingers, Keep crushing those cray-ons My soul too needs something to wear.
“Great paintings shouldn’t be in museums…Great paintings should be where people hang out. You can’t see great paintings. You pay ½ a million and hang one in your house and one guest sees it. That’s not art. That’s a shame, a crime…it’s not the bomb that has to go, man. It’s the museums.”
-Bob Dylan, August 1965
Interviewed by Nora Ephron & Susan Edmiston
At 9 West 57th street home of the Solow Art & Architecture foundation sits some of the most impressive famous modern art works known from Miro to Matisse…
Adjacent to the lobby on the left hand side 25 feet behind the large glass window hangs one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s later paintings, Parts that he created in 1984. Appearing like a blurred collage, it is a bold dark red painting hosting a drawing of cooked chicken that appears pasted to the canvas, implying the tenets of his earlier street art or a pasted billboard. Next to it – are charred fragments, his idiosyncratic scribblings, a flame and then to the right of the canvas one his cryptic texts in which the word SNAKES can be made out. The yellow and blue streaks added another layer to the image, granting it a strange tension it might not have otherwise…
But I’m no art critic or expert and I don’t need to be. I’m simply relaying what I see and feel.
Seeing a Basquiat live is quite impressive. Not unlike the awesome effect of a Rothko (one of which hung in Christie’s window all summer long during an auction)
In the Solow gallery, the lights come on at 8am and you are immediately impressed.
And then disappointed when you are realize you are not allowed to enter the foundation’s gallery so all the art work hangs on a white lonely wall collecting 5th Avenue dust at best and perhaps a strained glance. With artwork with an estimated value of TWO HUNDRED MILION DOLLARS – donated to a private foundation of which the New York Real Estate mogul Sheldon Solow is the ONLY MEMBER of – this is a bunker that was created as a TAX SHELTER and since public accessibility is simply out of the question…it actually raises the stature and interest in these artworks because if they cant be seen by some everyday bum poet like me – it must be an important collection…You can make a private donation to the foundation but under no circumstances can you see the artwork up close and in person…you have to try your best to squint pass the glass windows and make out what you can of the Basquiat and Miro’s hanging in there.
Like forgotten bodies on a crucifix. Which is what most art becomes anyway..there are more eyes that have laid upon a man hanging than a great painting…Lynchings have probably, cumulatively, brought together more people for free in public spaces – than great art work. And lynchings, too, in the end made money. They pressed postcards of black men having been lynched. People collected these.
I’ve always been curious about death and galleries such as the Solow Foundation , may be , in fact, where souls go to die. You have to have had a soul in order to die. And most artwork – even their creators are malevolent – had souls…and continue to have them…they just eternally linger beneath dust and broken light. Like vampires who can’t die.
But you don’t have to be John Berger to know that the statement Mr. Solow is making is simply: “I own this. You do not. And never will. ”
Far away from the public and his audience: a Basquiat hangs twenty feet away from the glass window in the lobby of the Solow Building. A painting surrounded by…uninhabited space…dust that will never fall upon a human shoulder…and light unbroken by a bobbing head or footfalls that go to kneel before the holy altar of powerful art. Do not weep for empty churches – for they at least can rejuvenate one. Even an atheist can gain sense of his soul in an empty church. But it must be empty. It’s the cordoned off, hostile emptiness of a gallery or museum or “personal” foundation that should make us weep…
Imagine if your lover hung on the wall, waiting for you.
The unchecked crimes we commit against each other…
Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once proclaimed that tracking shots are a question of morality. I would add: so is deciding what and how to steal. Donald Glover, the producer and founder of the FX television show Atlanta may not agree. In fact, he probably doesn’t. But it is fair and easy to say that while his Emmy award may ease his conscience, the fact that he stole concepts, visual motifs, dramatic themes, mood, and execution from Mtume Gant’s short film White Face for his episode 6 of Atlanta(“Teddy Perkins”) should be regarded as base fact, not mere coincidence and not something rooted in point-of-view. Worse, Glover’s crime is tantamount to Mortal Sin in the art world – for while theft in society can be debatable depending on who is running the society, theft or to be more specific – the gross indecency of passing off someone else’s idea as their own and pretending as if it doesn’t matter is a grave act, not a minor transgression. In this case peccadilloes won’t chirp, they’ll morph into deeply wounded bellows and extol all that they have ingested. It’s no misdemeanor I’m writing about it, it’s a rather serious offense. I was so wound up about it I could not sleep last night. I had watched the Atlanta episode twice and I have seen White Face a total of six times in my life. So I am very familiar with what I have seen, in fact I read the script years ago when Gant was writing it…and what I experienced watching the “Teddy Perkins” episode was a mixture of revolt, disgust, horror, anger, and deep deep sadness. Not that it matters. Because nobody cares, especially since both artists involved are Black men. You see, in the 21st century zeitgeist we are supposed to believe that the only real crimes of humanity that are committed specifically against Black people are by powerful White Men or police officers. No, there is no such thing as immoral acts, lies, or “artistic crimes” committed by Blacks against Blacks or Artist against Artist. No, those are privileged crimes. One has to work there way up in order to file a claim or make a complaint. No, at the lower levels all we can do is protest that someone (usually white) won’t hire us or allow us through the pearly gates. And even if the crime is committed against you – on your own turf, you have no say. Welcome to the Brave New World. We have entered the land of no return. We are through the looking-glass, folks. Black is white, white is black, up is down, down is up…and everything is up for grabs. We are in trouble. And I don’t say this lightly.
TOP: Glover’s rendition in Atlanta Episode 6 “Teddy Perkins” (2018) of a shadow profile of Black Man in White Face engulfed in a series of projections.
BOTTOM: Still from Mtume Gant’s original “White Face” (2017) in which the main character dons white-face and screens footage of Fascist speeches and gatherings.
“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
– Pablo Picasso
Yes, but when one steals – one should not know where one got it from! The issue is not stealing as an artist, but covering up what you stole! Picasso is referring to not being coy and simply taking something you like and making it your own, subordinating it’s character to your very own whereby through some cosmic osmosis the very thing you took or tried to capture – becomes your very own. It becomes, in many ways, even your identity. To be influenced is one thing, we’re all influenced. My god, I can’t count how many artists have directly influenced (and inspired) me as a writer, director, or performer. But ultimately my style emerges as a synthesis of those that triggered something in me…and those I did consciously outright steal from I put my own spin on whatever it was that I was taking from them. Artists aren’t saints that’s for sure, nor should we be. When we take things from others, they become our own. Any unconscious pathological thief understands this and would even admit this if he was aware of what he was doing. They become ours. Because they have gone through a transformation.
Not so in the case of creative people and bad artists who outright imitate a riff or a visual motif and yet don’t build upon it, making something better out of it or add to its meaning. If I steal your car and make you see a home out of it then I’ve done something transcendent. This often happens when men or women “lose” or have their partner “stolen” from them: suddenly that person emerges as something frightfully “other” as something different. Perception has been altered.
This should be the case when an artist steals from another. First, I should not have any clue where you “got” it from. And if I do – you’d better improve upon the original. Comedians know about this, which is why they lose a lot of points when they detect where another comedian got his material from or who he outright stole from. That’s where it gets very tricky. TS Eliot proposed, “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it is torn.” (Emphasis is mine)
And this is where we reach an important conundrum: is the work utterly different from that which it is torn? That’s a sweeping question. And challenge. And filmmakers, in particular, seem to have no clue how to answer this or engage in this discussion because they do not feel they have to. Because since Post Modernism has overwhelmed our approach to life – most artists, particularly, those born after 1983 or so – believe that since there is no objective order in life, that facts don’t matter or even exist. Tell that to a starving child or a victim of war.
The debate over sampling in hip-hop, for example, still runs heavy and could be construed as an example of postmodern ideology (not creativity) gone amuck: “No one is truly the author of anything” and “Well, everything came from someone else anyway so it doesn’t really matter who is credited or where I got this lick from,” etc. and while that is a different discussion altogether – there is a correlation that can be made because in this Post-Modern age a whole generation of people don’t believe that anything can rightfully belong to an artist. As great as the internet is, for another example, it also single-handedly destroyed the image. It high-jacked the power of singular photographic images, stripped photographers of their identity (and work) – I cannot tell you how many times I have come across an arresting image online that neither credits the photographer or mentions where the photo came from. It is appalling and damaging and this free-wheeling copy and paste approach to art and creativity is having a corrosive effect. And I say this as one who deeply admires collage and photo-montage, a truly dead art form in and of itself. Bearden and Saar are two of my personal favorite artists because they made new meanings out of their collation and consciously found objects. They built and expressed and pushed…True art is psychedelic, in its original meaning: mind-expanding.
Atlanta TV show creator Donald Glover STOLE VISUAL ELEMENTS AND THEMATIC IDEAS inherent in White Face and did not transcend anything that Gant powerfully gave us or explored. In fact, Gant’s own employment of white face (a radical hallmark in the Black protest art tradition from Charles Wright to Douglas Turner Ward!) goes beyond the expected and becomes something genuinely new – not only in its haunting mise-en-scene but in the aesthetics utilized by Gant and cinematographer Frankie Turiano. These guys were ripped off!
Legally, you can’t copyright an idea. But you can be sued for the execution of an idea if it follows and apes the original model. And Atlanta episode 6 “Teddy Perkins” is guilty of this. Copyright infringement supposedly protects this notion and should technically be used in Gant’s claim. But while I am no legal advisor and can’t definitively state if Gant may have a legal case to pursue – I do know there is certainly an ethical one that needs to be addressed first! It’s not the supposed ideas that Glover wanted to explore in Teddy Perkins, it’s how he went about it. I don’t care if he was commenting on the lost marbles of Michael Jackson or the price of fame or the American madness intrinsic to musical genius – none of that has an iota to do with Gant’s White Face and is not the reason I am livid. I’m livid because Glover used the precise techniques, style and dramatic themes to employ his own story. He took the frame but knocked the picture out. He took the skeleton and tried to re-arrange it with his own flesh. That’s akin to using the same melody and chord changes of one song but using my own lyrics so I superficially change the meaning of the song. It’s still not successful as “art” because the original will always be referenced and while I may be able to do that (sampling and rhythm track borrowing) – the song is still rooted in the original framework. In fact, I would be drawing more attention to the original. Sometimes that’s the aim. Successful pop songs from Puffy Combs’ “I’ll Be Missing You” — his groovy mawkish re-contextualization of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” (with Sting’s blessing and co-credit) to Robin Thicke’s amoral, illegal and shameless “Blurred Lines,” which stole Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” (a US Jury decided this in 2015) – have either stolen or legally borrowed from an existing work of art. This is nothing new. But it is a funky emblem glaring on the lapels of TV producers and filmmakers, video editors, and advertising strategists more and more as time goes by. The difference between the pop music world and the pop movie world is that in the movies, directors are never called out for their indiscretions. And rarely are they sued!
The growing millennial perception is that “Everything is point-of-view. There is no actual truth.” Any sane person will argue that is simply not the case and to try and turn the psychology of being an artist into a lame defense for stealing someone’s work and NOT acknowledging or paying for it – is not only unconscionable it is unforgivable. Because it equates the artist with the mentality of the Capitalist menace who has no problem identifying himself as the walrus as he leaves the carpenter empty-handed and drained of resources. It is a pathology associated with the narcissist, the sociopath, and the corporate gangster. It exceeds mere thievery. When the ivory tower artist steals it’s because he can, not because he needs to.
Although the plot or storyline is different – that is merely a deviation and distraction from the guts that was ripped apart from Gant’s White Face. Thematically, alone, Atlanta Episode 6 “Teddy Perkins” takes its cue from White Face. It employs a Confederate flag visual (Gant wears a Confederate jacket in White Face) and it stumbles into the psychological territory of parenting: in Gant’s film, the issue of how he and his sister were raised comes to a fore, revealing Black self-hatred and the creepy lashings of colonialism. This is where the works diverge ideologically: Glover is not politically radical and has no inclination to explore the Fanonian aspects of self-hatred but he sticks to the pat reasoning of how Teddy Perkins was raised. That alone is enough. Gant’s Charles Rodgers is so hung up on how his mother raised him, he tries to even explain to his sister why he is the way he is. Dramatically, in this case, the two works are just too similar, from a psychologically narrative view, to ignore. Even the emphasis on the tone of speech and the overly conscientiousness of the character’s vocal twitching is enough of a similarity. It was extremely hard for me to not keep referencing White Face in my head several times in the 40 minutes of Atlanta…And the two pieces, as dissimilar as they are ultimately as “personal” works (if that word can be prescribed) – are not separate enough in visual/dramatic presentation and this has done Mtume Gant’s art a major disservice and has left him with the burden of proof. For Glover is innocent until proven guilty and as easy as it is for me to pass judgment and give my final decree – it is not easy now to undo the damage done and curtail the premature and erroneous praise Glover has received for what many consider to be a dazzling and disturbing dramatic television episode. Disturbing it is. It is extremely disturbing. In the same way that pedophilia, malpractice, pimping, and plagiarism are disturbing.
Let’s turn to the visual aesthetics.
Shots – actual duplication of frames – were stolen to exploit the very same psychological state of Mtume Gant’s Charles Rodgers in White Face; they were directly imitated shots but also a kind of ‘Xerox of context.’ Glover is guilty of conceptual copycat-ism, a hair between vulgar imitation and plagiarism. Both employ a Black actor in white face (different storyline) but both share the same exact rendering of certain “states of being” on screen. I reiterate: If I repeat a shot-by-shot sequence from a motion picture but alter the context, the meaning alters. I’ve stolen the language but have created my own meaning.
When I copy an artistic work and consciously labor to retain its aesthetic quality – even if the political ethos or “story” is different – I have still stolen and committed a highly immoral act. Because I’ve made a bad attempt at capitalizing on and rendering a similar mood as the original which was not mine, to begin with. And when details boil down to the similarities between White Face and Atlanta Ep.6 – one finds oneself adrift not only in a sea of sharks but crawling through high cotton. It is painfully apparent that Glover and his director Hiro Murai had seen White Face, which was shot in June 2016, and premiered publicly in April 2017 nearly six months before Glover had gone into production for season two of Atlanta. He copped the overall concept and execution from White Face, simple as that.
In White Face, Gant has his character speak into a tape recorder, DP Frankie Turiano obsessively captures Gant in profiles against PROJECTIONS of political rallies, etc. and Gant’s Charles desires to be a fascistic version of Donald Trump and screens Fascist footage in his goal to become a “white knight of the new order.” With just a heftier budget, director Hiro Murai copies and executes the same motifs: he has Glover’s character in white-face as Teddy Perkins tape recording his voice (in what is more like a gag), emanate on-screen in profile against projected cinematic flickers, and sit in a love-seat amidst a noirish reeling projector that evokes the gently smoky atmosphere and surreal noxious tone of White Face. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wrongly assume Gant was either guest directing in a self-referential manner or that Glover & Murai were consciously giving a nod to the originality of Gant’s vision, but they weren’t! They were simply stealing a good idea. The tragedy here is that they lacked the finesse and creative muscle to do anything new or challenging with the idea, to make a new context out of the leitmotifs Gant and Turiano created. Mind you, Gant and Turiano worked with their minds and creativity – their budget probably amounted to what Glover pays Kraft services per day. The convention is easy to copy but not easy to come up with! Donald Glover and Hiro Murai ripped off the most original and daring American independent film of 2017 and they have to own up to it. And neither the shadow of Glover’s Emmy or his bank account can protect him from this truth.
LEFT: Mtume Gant’s White Face (2017) RIGHT: Donald Glover’s Episode 6 of Atlanta (2018)
It is not uncommon for filmmakers to reference each other and when it is done it is called an homage. That, like government, is one of the necessary evils that must be endured. In film-making, it is understood and there’s an unstated agreement to this.
Homage is fine, if not a bit perfunctory with a lot of movie and TV creators, but again – it is something one can swallow, even appreciate despite being a bit annoying or shrill as when a major Hollywood director like Brian De Palma spends millions of dollars on kitsch and nearly 3 quarters of his movie career emulating the style or tones of Hitchcock’s psychological terror. Or when he successfully pulled off both a coup and homage to Eisenstein in the Untouchables with the baby carriage going down the stairs…
But there’s no agreement to the unsubtle and brazen co-opting of an artist’s work by a corporate entertainment network or TV program.
There is no coincidence, good or bad, and there is no luck when art is concerned. Even the mistakes are on purpose, which is why art is an adult’s playground. It is rough and every single thing is done for a reason. Likewise in any creative endeavor, everything is on purpose and a result of a conscientious decision. These decisions in art are a man or woman’s lifeline, their language. Their way of communicating with the external world what their soul feels and SEES on the inside. It is not up for grabs negotiation or sale. And it is certainly not warranted to be fodder and gold for dramatic concepts or cinematographic conventions for television shows that purport to be examples of “Black excellence” (oy vey) and rules of thumb for “artists of color who want to tell their own marginalized stories” or some such nonsense they would like us to believe.
Well, when you have an Emmy and a network’s money behind you surely you are not “marginal” and have no interest in doing anything remotely daring or else you wouldn’t get the funding. My generation tends to bemoan that no good films are emerging out of America anymore especially amongst the millennials and while they are right they don’t stop to remember that the great or hell, even just the very good ideas are out there — they are just not being funded!
But comfortable ivory tower TV producers don’t have any scruples or conscience when it comes to attaining ideas— you see this is what the pop establishment always suffered from and why it has nefarious individuals seeking out and finding work, styles, ideas and that terribly annoying word “content” – that can be stolen from poor artists with no litigious power. Hell, White musicians did this to Black musicians all throughout the 20th century alone! But what about the Black artists who were/are part of the establishment and made their money off the so-called Black suffrage of the moment instigating the idea that they are somehow trail blazers for Blacks in the entertainment world or a mouthpiece for marginalized Black artists? In 2018, every Ivory Tower Black Movie Maker thinks he or she is Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. (If that is the case, I’m curious now, who is Emmett Till or Assata Shakur?) This is how far gone we are into the Netherlands of psychosis – where limp and lithe movie people actually compare themselves to community organizers, religious leaders, social rebels, and political radicals.
What we have is rampant bare hypocrisy by the producers of Atlanta and to not acknowledge Gant’s movie and its influence on Donald Glover’s conception of this episode 6 is heinous and cowardly. It is counter-revolutionary and in Black street lingo another mere slice of Hollyweird’s “tricknology.” On par with Hollywood’s fetishization of Black “cool culture” and resistance and what they contorted into a consumer delight almost half a century ago: Blaxploitation.
But Glover or Murai would most likely never concede or admit to anything I have brought up because, sadly, they represent the opposite side of the coin. Gant’s White Face was art from below and was intended for audiences willing to toe the line and while it has been received positively by numerous people of all races – most of them are rabidly political leftists of the old tradition and/or Black dissident outsiders who crave such challenging works. Glover and Murai de-radicalize the foundation that Gant and Turiano built their film’s visual punch upon, thereby rendering it for a mainstream audience, which is code for preparing a dish for the “white gaze” digestive tract. Just one more sin in a litany of crimes.
Many popular “artists” in Hollywood eat well but are undernourished in their imagination so they must steal ideas to supplement the meekness of their own and to somehow sustain a healthy diet. They use real artists as their pawns and stepping stones and most of us, pathetically, accept the abuse because we foolishly believe that “one day” we will be duly recognized or supported or employed by these very same people.
The New Wave of Black entrepreneurs and marketing strategists of the entertainment world have ushered in some of the worst Black American talent in front of and behind cameras in the last 25 years. They are charlatans! There are plenty of Blacks with money but there’s a deficit of innate talent (I can’t express how difficult it even is to admit this), giving rise to an impoverished class of Blacks who eat and dress well but are disabled in their capacity to visualize…This false self-righteous snarky generation of bourgeois Black excellence and social justice warrioring is insulting, patronizing, and degrading. They are money rich, creatively poor… imaginatively impoverished. These people are artistically bankrupt which is why they must steal from other, poorer artists. It is corporate communism. Those in comfortable chairs know they can always steal toilet paper from those who still sleep on hard benches. It is not that the nouveau-riche have no ideas of their own, it’s that they don’t trust themselves! And they can smell the authenticity and danger of an honest idea – doesn’t have to even be solely original – but it must be honest, that’s really what this is about – and they will swipe, lift, and grab that honest idea because it may be the only thing natural and organic in their well-heeled processed life.
The very notion of referring to Glover as a Method actor only proves that the millennials themselves have no clue as to what American Method acting is or where it came from. In AV News, on April 9th, 2018 Danette Chavez incorrectly wrote Glover “went method” for the “brilliant and unsettling” episode 6 of Atlanta. As one who studied Meisner, then later the more formal aspects of Strasberg’s approach to Stanislavski and even later came to love the duality and contrariness of the Brechtian approach to acting – I’d say that it is a sad day, indeed, when American actors no longer know who they are or where they came from. To be a Method actor is to use one’s own life experiences in a given part. In essence, to use oneself in a performance. It has nothing to do with how much make-up you put on. In fact, the less you adorn your physical body – the better as it is about behavior and how much of your own soul you are willing to bare. Method acting is psychologically taxing and can be damaging. It is one of the reasons why the British traditionally scorned it and why Pre-1945, American actors such as Bogart were simply mystified by it as a process.
But let’s get back on track:
This maligning and stealing of and from independent artists, who have no financial power of their own, has to stop. There was a time in the art world that such a situation would lead to a major beat down and in some terrible cases death! An artist has to be willing to die for his decisions and back them up. Ask any martial artist: don’t start what you can’t finish. Glover and the FX producing team have to answer for this.
You don’t play with another man’s work – especially when it is all he has. I have discoursed and fought for independent artists for nearly 20 years and in all my time as an artist, I have been an advocate of the non-corporate artist and his importance as a visionary. You want powerful, aggressive, idiosyncratic, haunting visions? Well, support the artists who suffer for them. Support the artists who dig their heels in, crawl through the mud of their mind, plumb their own depths and mine their own emotional landscapes. The artists who explored the uncharted regions of their own psychological countries and try to share their discoveries with you. For it is the undiscovered country that lives within us that we explore and yet are afraid of and it is where the truth of all art stems from. Even bad art. Not everything is great. But everything must be honest. Why the emphasis on honesty? Because art is a lie that reveals truth. And it takes a lot of courage to say a lie…that reveals truth.
It takes even more courage to share a vision that may be prophetic or even just damn profound. Profundity lies in the truth we know to be actual, to be real within the sphere of human interaction and occupation. It is often we truth that makes us laugh, cry, or scared. We may not like it – but it will often do one of those three things. If the hairs on your neck stood when you saw the Atlanta episode, they would have saluted when you saw White Face. Sadly, though, I feel that White Face will forever carry the burden of having to be cast amongst the shadow of Atlanta and regardless of how powerful of a movie it is, it is clear now that you can’t watch White Face without now regarding its imitator, Episode 6 “Teddy Perkins.” Its fate has been sealed in pop culture at least for the next several years. How do we rectify this? I’m not certain there is a way, in fact, we can’t. You can’t throw someone in the deep end of the pool when he’s been introduced to water as being shallow and up to his knees. Any psychologist will tell you, you will diametrically alter the balance of and to the person’s relationship to water instantly when you do that. And in most cases, it will turn the person away from water altogether, if not actually traumatize them. Which is why, I reiterate, art is an Adult world. It is not for children and it is not for the impostors who run it. While the entertainment industry has always been a venal and coarse world, it is not one that preys on the arts in hope of devouring all that makes art venomous and dangerous. It is there to tame and seduce art. In 1928 Hollywood had no interest in theater and the modern art movement, by 1958 it still had a hostile attitude towards “art” (which was always a dirty word) and yet it managed to make its peace with contemporary playwrights and modern ideas (isn’t it phenomenal that Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet, for example, all started off in TV?) but after the 1970’s – when Pop art bled into the fragmented greedy Reagan 80’s – television, marketing, advertisements, fashion, and the culture wars all fomented into a bizarre cocktail that was created to titillate instead of illuminate; patronize instead of entertain and (worst of all) supposedly “educate” instead of humble. That is why modern TV shows now be they reality docs or sitcoms or dramas all seem to proclaim themselves as IMPORTANT and intelligent and “in the know.” Because they want to fool themselves into thinking that they are not only ARTISTS representing the people but true ROLE MODELS! Well, if you get your art or role models from mainstream American Television you are in more trouble than you may know and I pity you – but this is not an attack on the audience, regardless of how ignorant or abused they may or may not be. This is a line in the sand, just another I can add to my collection and a challenge to the Blacks in the Arts and Entertainment industry who are quick to complain and blame either the “White Man” for lack of “diversity” or those that claim Black Lives Matter. I’ve said it before if Black lives matter then we should support our Black artists. Not the highly paid Black art robbers who pilfer and warp good ideas, pass them off as their own and don’t extend a hand to their brother or sister in the gutter. If a white man ripped off Mtume Gant’s White Face or any other indie cult film – we’d be up in arms, even those of us unfamiliar with underground films. But the fact that it was a “Black” TV show and a Black American creator/producer who committed this crime we acquiesce to Big Money and give the brother a “pass,” because, you know, he did win an Emmy and we have to show “support.” Hm. Very disturbing. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense hated Black Nationalists for this very reason. They believed to simply support someone in a high-ranking tier because he or she was “Black” was dangerous. It’s the content of that person’s character that makes one revolutionary or simply humane. Another division, a new one is being formed – you can feel the fault lines emerging…
But it’s fine. We, the artists, remain low to the ground anyway since that’s where all the poets are, below the table…After 20 years of creating in the gutter and supporting other artists (of all stripes) who are in the gutter receiving their own magisterial visions and prophecies, like Shamans cast out of their tribe, I don’t intend to magically have my methods of madness and technique of talent altered to fit a mainstream mode and enter the greater landscape of the establishment’s Great White Way or Hollywood. (Besides if we’re not creating in the gutter where will the Establishment get all its ideas from? Who will they steal from?? Certainly not each other…because then they would be forced to create something honest. But I suppose there’s only so many scripts about rappers, golf courses, cheating bankers, confused gay children, and award dinners that you can write…)
I always believed the artist should go his or her own way. Create his own system or be enslaved by another man’s. William Blake. I always believed that Big Entertainment could exist with Small Art. And that an organic relationship could potentially unfold. It only made sense that in the sixties and early seventies Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, regardless of what you may think of them, gave huge amounts of money to non-popular or mainstream artists to express themselves. Melvin Van Peebles to Ivan Dixon are a good example. Dixon always said he could never have the inner docility to negotiate with Hollywood. Cosby and Poitier could. But who in 2018 is helping the truly independent voice of Black cinema today?
We cry about diversity, but there isn’t any. There are more Blacks on Western TV and Movies than ever before and for the most part, they are all the same. (Yes, for every Michael B. Jordan there is a Jessie Williams, but despite their physical differences – they are still the same person to me. They all think the same. Perhaps it’s because they are both so straight-jacketed by the system, their own proclivities as actors or intelligent men can’t come through. Williams loves making grand acceptance speeches…but his work as an actor is abysmal!) Once in a while, an interesting Black person or voice may emerge (usually British I must admit) and yet their individual qualities get subsumed and washed out and they become homogenized “Black” actors. There are no freaks, as we used to say at Juilliard, and that is the problem. The “freak” of nature was usually the best or most interesting actor cause he had things he wanted to get off his chest. And he deviated from the norm. Jeffrey Wright and Roger Guinevere-Smith may represent the end of that “type” in the formal entertainment business. But certainly, Donald Glover does not and is not an actor or dramatist taking a risk for us. Instead of developing and confronting challenging ideas – he’s simply stealing them. Because it is easier. The same reason everyone writes poetry instead of learning how to play the violin: it is easier.
No one is supporting the Black dissident dramatist, or the radical Black punk band or the serious Black tragedian who has no interest in playing another conflicted cop or a drug dealer or a funnyman sidekick or uppity lawyer — but in developing roles that suggest the deepest and darkest layers of his humanity. Who is supporting the off-beat Black poet who does not write about being “Black” all the time, but decries the confounding never-ending nightmare of capitalism or the endless cycle of figuring out how to pay rent or stay sane in a world that doesn’t seem to value much?
Who is ready to fund a film about Black people who aren’t trying to prove their lives matter to white people – but themselves? Or that there is more to them than being acknowledged by white people or spinning on their head and trying to create a hip-hop empire? (All white people, by Hollywood standards, believe that ALL Black Americans want their own hip-hop empire by the way)
What Black Emmy Award winner or Oscar winner is ready to get in the saddle with the Black independent film movement that’s been its own fragmented runaway train for the past 40 years?
Bottom line here to the producers of FX: artists need to be paid. If you like an idea or concept, approach the artist or author of that work and get permission and then write a check! Because money is all you can offer us. Money and ACCESS to money. You need to publish an official public apology, write Mtume Gant a check or in the very least offer him a credit and a guest-director’s job because the brother needs the work and is trying to fund his next project. If you can’t do any of those three things – may God or the Devil (I know you believe in at least one of them) – have mercy on your souls. I just don’t know how you sleep…
It is obvious that we have reached the end of the imagination, obvious that so many things now are re-hashed and rebooted and recycled – that not only are we the children of Warhol, as I declared when gentrification itself had come to define the new New York – we’re like Hamlet running around in circles, wondering what to do next, how to survive when the odds are against us: what to do when something is rotten in the state of Denmark?
Again, there is no straight answer to this but Glover’s crime has opened up a whole can of worms and a conversation that must be broached. And I stand here before you demanding that the Black artists and producers crazy enough to read all this take up the challenge August Wilson issued back in 1995 with his groundbreaking manifesto “The Ground On Which I Stand” (look it up), and instead of complaining about either diversity or Hollywood or the establishment ethos, let’s work together and start hashing out some things. The reason why there is no actual “revolutionary” progress in our time, despite the fact that everyone thinks that a protest march is revolutionary (mercy on us all) is because there is no longer a healthy correspondence between Establishment Artists and Dissident Artists. James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison were both Establishment Artists and never once did Baldwin or Ellison steal or plagiarize Amiri Baraka or Henry Dumas…(In fact Ellison, sad little man, continuously evaded Dumas’ outreach for many years, resulting in a pathetic end of a literary relationship that simply…never was…We can learn a lot from this troubling example).
And so why do I care?
I don’t know, really. Why do you care when a mate of yours has been wronged or a comrade blacklisted or a family member wounded or an idea you cherish denigrated? If anyone reading this has any inking of who I am then you will know that the ONLY straight and narrow I ever walked was my marriage and my art. And while I lost my marriage, I did not lose the clutches of my soul. And I remain devoted (much to my detriment) to the culture of Black Conscious Artists and an interest in progressive dynamic new film-making. However, this, of course, is really about being loyal to those who have fought with me in the trenches. How could I not support my fellow artists who have grown and taught me as much as I have taught and challenged them? You’d expect nothing less from Miles and Coltrane or Big Boi and Andre 3000 so don’t wince when you see how angry I’m getting. Perhaps it’s because you’re not used to passion or loyalty in the dramatic arts. In the film world, it’s considered uncouth. Like wailing at a funeral. I’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen to support my art but I would never rip off another artist. And to do it to another Black artist in the midst of the BLM and the New World Zeitgeist of Identity Politics and Safe Spaces well that just proves whose values you truly regard and how hypocritical Hollywood Liberals are.
To think we as artists are misunderstood is a misnomer. We are just hated because we have the ideas. We’re the voices. And the establishment will always be jealous of those with the voices.
They know what we’re up to, what we’re thinking, what we believe in…and it scares them.
The same way Orson Welles and John Cassavetes terrified the Hollywood establishment is the same way Chameleon Street director Wendell B. Harris (my generation’s Orson Welles, by the way) intimidates the Black Hollywood establishment and is a mere curiosity to the new ones (if they are even conscious enough to know who he is). But those calling the shots, opening doors, closing doors, and most importantly – footing the bill for artists in TV and Movies – they know. They all know. The maverick is never misunderstood, he is simply despised. Hated because the powerful know what he would be able to do if he was not trying to hold up is roof with one hand and his pants with the other. They know what he could accomplish with the camera if he could be free…and encouraged to spread his wings. They know what he would do if he had just a little bit of money to play with…if he had access to a larger audience. He would incite the liberation of imaginations, souls, and minds. And that’s how all revolutions start. And that is why nothing, no progress or leaps forward emotionally, spiritually, culturally, artistically, or scientifically will ever really be made in our current landscape until a civil war amongst the “creative classes” is declared.
Until then, I leave you with this:
“Nothing counts in this world except the immortal spirit of everything ever created. The soul of everything ever made. Only three or four out of every hundred will ever know what we are talking about. At most, four. But the others will have their revenge. They will let us starve to death.”
It is the hanging man, son. Don’t say you saw it. Don’t see him. Lie, if anything. But to see
is to be
And lord knows the hanging man
There is a Philip K. Dick story “The Hanging Stranger” that sums up our problem in 21st-century pop culture, academia, and so-called cultural establishment which is this: we claim the emperor’s wearing clothes…when he’s not even an emperor.
In Dick’s story, only the conscious can see “the hanging man” whose bloated body twists in the town square
And so the aliens who have taken over must remove them one by one. They know you’re a conscious person simply if you panic and recoil in horror at the sight of a hanging person. The minute you mention it is the minute you are persona non grata. And you will be swiftly terminated. It is a phenomenal metaphor to the blacklisted genius or simply the truth-seeking artist. It is anyone who does not follow the rules, marches to his own beat, and knows – but can’t prove – that the system is not only rigged but insidious.
It’s what’s occurring right now at this very moment in formal activism, it’s what’s already destroyed institutes of higher learning. And it has killed – if not erased completely – organized art.
There is a Nina Simone recording which sums up Dick’s story in music.
The song, Everyone’s Gone To The Moon, written by the oddball British songwriter Jonathan King, is a bizarre rendering of a world losing its grip on consciousness and ‘morality’ for lack of a better word. As if we’re through the looking glass and up is down, bad is good, etc. This is a gross simplification but the point is that by the end of the song the singer wonders if everyone has gone to the moon instead of the sun as she might prefer – so what will happen to us/to life as we know it?
It was a junkie who first told me that the song was simply about getting high and what would happen if everybody junked out. Of course, the great irony in all this is that most gravely ill junkies or hardcore abusers are addicts who know that the world they are living in is not upside down, but right-side up in a world turned upside-down. People released from jail sometimes have a better perception of this because they see life as clear John Berger clearly explained it – the 21st century is nothing but one massive prison system.
Simone’s interpretation of Everyone’s Gone to the Moon is a freaky and majestic absurdist turn. In her high priestess wail, she is sincere and yet there’s a faint sound of nonchalance in her voice, almost – almost– as if she doesn’t have the strength to care. It is haunting because she’s alone. Everyone around her has decided to not see the hanging man.
What does this mean?
Our casemate has been infiltrated, we may not have much of an arsenal, but at least we had our own embrasures through which cinematic torpedoes and art could be launched.
“The only difference between art and God being dead is that God was not necessary, yet he could not exist without art. God came from the caves, from the plays around the fire…But art cannot exist in a time or context where money is God and where we all believe WE were created in God’s image or some such nonsense… Still, Marx may have gotten it wrong. Religion is not the opium of the masses. Perceiving ourselves to be special is.”
How Terrence Nance’s 7 Minute Corporate Video Nearly Drove Me To Suicide
While there does seem to be a disturbing trend of butchering the spirit and art of some of the 20th century’s greatest African-American artists (Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis) – one can only wonder what the pathology of this is and who is pulling the strings. Or rather who is doing the bidding.
Like any good serf serving the Lord of the Manor, one must be mindful and take great care not to break the vow of bondage to the Great Masters who out of the great goodness of their heart provide land for the dutiful serf to live off and prosper from.
In Feudal England they said that a serf owned “only his belly”—even his clothes were the legal property of his lord—and yet the serfs had it even better than the slaves. On rare occasions, a well-to-do serf might even be able to buy his freedom. If he knew what to do with it. That could easily be applied to our Black ‘Hollywood Sharecroppers’ as Bill Gunn called them or simply as corporate bootlickers as they truly are, all suffering from Knee-Grown Celluloidis.
Never heard of it? It is a common disease that permeates most Black actors, screenwriters, producers, and directors in Hollywood and in the tentacles of the so-called ‘Independent Film’ world that claims it has nothing to do with Hollywood. Enabled by venal corporate sponsorship, the cretinous barnacles that grow out of this bizarre merger are usually movie directors and ‘media makers’ from a traditionally oppressed class (people of color, women, gays, etc) [notice how “Jews” are never formally included in this groups and yet are quick to acknowledge their history on the sick end of anti-Semitism] who willfully do everything in their power, using their tenuous and limited talent to uphold a point-of-view that is not only diametrically opposed to the subject they are commenting on and showing but also a perception that helps to keep them in bondage.
While there are many cases to discuss and though it would be beneficial to study the history and estimate the orbit of this mental disorder (which has gotten worse over the past 100 years despite the capitalist success of Blacks in Entertainment and Media) — I want to set my sights on that malignancy that has begun to erode consciousness, artistic progress, and even good entertainment: the 21st century ‘Media Content Maker’ as branded by the Facebook generation and the companies of the world that have followed suit in their mission to make the world believe that it is the Power and Privilege of the Company Man to incur filmmakers to make propaganda for their customers to consume or grant permission to express oneself in accordance with one’s brand or even to decide who and what is an “artist.” If Napoleon Bonaparte had indeed ordered his men to cut off the noses of the Egyptian sphinxes, today he would merely hire a colored movie director in fulfillment of his regiment’s diversity pledge and once branded a corporate content maker, the director would cinematically delete his own nose and stream the deadened cartilage live on Facebook. And he would get a handsome fee to do this. Because his next contract would be to turn the camera in on Toussaint L’Ouverture and were he to do that for Napoleon…well, he wouldn’t have had to muster a plan to arrest and betray L’Ouverture and no literal bloodshed would ever have been spilled. No Anglo-French blood anyway. Because then it would have gone two ways: either the Blacks would have been so brainwashed they would have let their colonized feet follow the orders of France…or these brother and sisters would have said to the Knee Grow With a Camera: “How dare you,” and proceeded to end his life. Revolutions, like decolonization, is hard business folks and it does not take place nicely or quietly. And there is always collateral damage. However in the west’s point of view, in the Empire’s chambers: it’s the conscious or the poor (take your pick) who are merely spoils of war.
I want to put the hypocrites, charlatans, sell-outs, betrayers, and Establishment Players in the cross hairs of my pen and allow my finger to not only twitch but get heavy. Or even lazy. As lazy would also define the artistic ambitions of these Black Filmmakers who consciously or unconsciously trounce and denigrate Black mythology, legends, achievements, culture and folk art for the Lord of the Manors dictating this imperial gastric tumor metastasizing over our lives: the racist spectacle of media, marketing, and movies.
Today we focus on Terrence Nance.
The director of The Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Swimming in Your Skin Again — makes self-consciously arty-films for white Liberals and their oiky-toiky white hipsters who love regarding such Black filmmakers as their “awesome” friends and love to dance with their Afros patronizing them in any way possible to ensure these Blacks don’t ever flex a conscious muscle or dignified stance to boor through their own well-preserved white gaze. Nance exists now in order to maintain and secure the frame around the lens that captures the white gaze, without which white Liberals would be a mess. Preening as they enable the “cool” Black director (“cool” is now code for not intimidating) into their fold, glad he is doing something “different from the Black gutter poets or avant-garde Leftists, he makes the white hipster milieu (Art for Art sake nonsense) as well as their corporate parents comfortable with meretricious and fetishized Black-body images and empty conversations about Black People. Because Black people exist solely on camera for the comfort of the grotesque white gaze and a Liberals checklist (dreadlocks-check, au-naturale naked sister-check, shot of brother’s high buttocks-and dragging feet-check, sexually ambivalent-check, nerdy brother-check, etc)
The man who is one of the MOST FUNDED “ARTISTIC” INDIE DIRECTORS of my generation is not only a hollow mask (it takes a lot to be a hollow mask) but a smug filmmaker who has done a great job exploiting his blackness, urbane milquetoast blackness, and everything having to do with “Blackness”– on the surface. He insists that to be artistic and intellectual is to poke fun at Black bodies/personas and not take them seriously – on behalf of white benefactors and worse…his colonized mind. He exists to bring “Blackness” to the dead white art crowd (the whites lost their own way a long long time ago – somewhere in between the demise of REM, their embracement of Harmony Korine and the rise of Spike Jonze), to the legitimate commercial marketing industry, and to Brand companies jonesin’ for the New Brooklyn, who missed out on Spike Lee (who branded himself anyway and therefore didn’t need anyone to do it for him) and would not know how to make heads or tails of Left-Wing Bushwick filmmaker Mtume Gant, fearful of a genuine artistic sister like Cauleen Smith, or who have never even heard of that old riddle wrapped up in an enigma in Xanadu’s lair Wendell B. Harris (still to this day the greatest unchampioned living American filmmaker of ANY COLOR)
Nance has no “politics” (which is the most dangerous form of political stance to take), he has no vision for cinema (not one person I have asked or spoken to can tell me what he is actually doing other than trivializing cinema and ‘Black’ identity), he has no angst (a filmmaker must be Apollonian in order to achieve his goal – patience and fortitude like a sculptor is necessary, but he must possess a gargantuan amount of emotional depth, he must contain Dionysian impulses within him – because THAT is what moves us and stuns us), and simply he has nothing to say.
Terrence Nance has nothing to say. And it’s not just him. It’s 90 percent of our artists – high or low, famous or underground – having absolutely nothing to say about anything. The creative act, the impulse to make a film, to do anything artistic must come from an act of risk and fear of what might happen if I tell the truth. Period. No risk, there can be no attempt at consummating an incredible relationship. Therefore he can’t even break your heart because you can’t invest in him emotionally or intellectually anyway. What he can do, however, is disrespect, toy, and laugh at you.
A balloon has more contained virtue than any of Nance’s films.
And it is time we start to speak out, debate against, and challenge these assumptions that are being wielded and tossed off like yesterday’s prophylactic or a Poland Spring bottle cap — they’re thrown about and simply accepted. We know its trash and we accept it. Shit has more use – at least it can rejuvenate a patch of grass.
Terrence Nance may be more pernicious than the Hollywood Establishment’s patronization of Barry Jenkins (a talented filmmaker whose trajectory I am nervous about) and could be on par with the dangerous lauding of Jordan Peele’s ‘Buzzfeed’ backward- thinking of Get Out – but it is probably more in sync with the sinister rise of Lin Manuel’s Great Racial Cross Dressing of the Great White Way as both Nance and Manuel are the recipients of not only corporate America’s money but the torrid desire of white liberals who want to make sure that no racial progress, development, truth or artistry will be promoted or get through to the mainstream window without capitulating to the great demands put upon them. In short: No ‘colored’ filmmaker with any personal vision, radical politics, or new aesthetic sensibility (could you imagine a combination of ALL THREE) will ever be money or support to preach the poetry of his soul.
He or she will however be given every opportunity to humiliate, desecrate, and gleefully piss over any conscious Black ideas or sentiments. Even better if you’re willing to pervert the legacy of a great Black popular artist. This is not an opinion. This is a fact. I no longer have opinions as I am an inauthentic man living in an inauthentic time.
As a Nowhere Man you become more and more consumed by the ineptitude of those around you, the betrayal of the avant-garde, the failure my own generation was part of – our conscientious decision to make sure we did NOT surpass even the tepidity of Spike’s films or incorporate the artistic anarchism of Robert Townsend or merely the dramatic flair of the Hughes Brothers. All at one point mainstream filmmakers! There was a time when these cats at least for a moment enabled the young Black director who wished to find his feet in the sand of this awful desert we wander through, finding our way…
It is a fact that the Emperor has no clothes. But it is also a fact that there is no Emperor. Why this need for an emperor in the first place is disturbing. In the arts the Kings announce themselves. Corporate America and film festivals do not do it for you. However, I am deluding myself. Because nowadays they do!
There is shameful acceptance and complicity in our cultural and spiritual demise. The goal of 21st century Neo Liberalism and American Media is to not just homogenize a whole new generation of artists (we did that one ourselves) it is to pimp blackness and reap the benefits of all the Johns who come in to visit the brothel. There are certain things though that not even a Madame would permit.
The meretriciousness of Nance’s films is one of them.
But if Tribeca, AT&T (would you trust anything connected to AT&T?) and Atlantic Rethink say he is worth it – than by God, he must be!
Jimi Could Have Fallen is a 7-minute insult.
With its slinky Black-bourgeois hipsterism and self-satisfied faux ‘modern’ ballet routines, shock-a-jock avant-garde winking, terrible music and horribly re-created pseudo-psychedelic music (the Partridge family could have done a better job making an acid rock soundtrack) and absolutely ridiculous song referencing (Jimi in a literal ‘purple haze’ in one inane sequence), the video looks like a joke about an avant-garde freak and is handled with such a knowing tongue-in-cheek manner that everything about Hendrix, his music, and Seattle go under…In essence, this is 7 minutes of comic-book masturbation in service of an even more absurd contract with Seattle Visit. And while masturbation may feel good, it does not produce life. Nor does it pretend to.
What’s incredible is that the video simply fails in its own commercial goal: to incur tourists to visit. Now, I don’t know much about tourism except for the fact that I despise tourists and everything they have come to represent. (But so did Jacques Tati.)
Why he didn’t just show: “This is where Jimi Hendrix first played guitar” and then flash to where Tom Hanks yearned for Meg Ryan then show us “This is where Quincy Jones first played in the college band” (Seattle University) then cut to show where the City Council convene (majority of which are women by the way!) and then cut to where Bill Gates launched Microsoft—you get the point. That kind of kitsch would have made sense for a tourism video.
Jimi Could Have Fallen is something else. Like his prior work Swimming in My Skin, it is much more inane, sinister, and troubling.
The video seems to cynically purport through its unabashedly snarky Candyland approach that no one would even want to visit Seattle unless they had a mindset of a five-year old. If a five-year old were to watch the video, I could see how the notion of clamoring out to some back alley in hopes of finding a guitar in a garbage can might turn him on. And then he could traipse around with it – with his hipster dad saying “Oh, cool, little Marcus- isn’t this, like, awesome??” and the mother would take photos to text back to her friends in Portland (who thought they were in Williamsburg) and they’d even eat donuts and skip around foolishly like mad-dogs who’d gotten shot with a poisonous dart, getting delirious. So he might be successful if he’s trying to coerce that five-year old boy and his ironic hipster parents. Outside of that I am a bit lost. For not even a group of single women out to take Seattle by storm would be convinced nor would some retiree in Denver who is looking for a bit of a change since his wife has passed and wants to seek out the progressive changes and left-leaning iconography of Seattle – from its initial history of disgraceful treatment of Indians and Asians to tech companies to grunge music and self publishing to the vanguard of LBGTQ movements. Nance should have just done a simple tourist trap commercial. When I first heard about this nonsense, that’s what I thought it was. So I didn’t care. When a filmmaker I profoundly respect demanded I watch it (he didn’t tell me Nance made it or I would have avoided it all together) because it was centered around Jimi Hendrix I took a perverse interest. And then I got scared cause I knew what would soon follow.
If the Osmond’s had been Black and mated with members of the Monkees TV show and were locked in a dungeon with underage Black poseurs from the suburbs who dream of being in fashion magazines and were doused with innocuous ironic white bread marginalia and were written up into a script by Wes Anderson — you would have Jimi Could Have Fallen. (What’s worse, Anderson would have done it better – ARGHHHH!!!!)
Terrence Nance’s cinematic slaughtering of Jimi Hendrix alone should have OUTRAGED all the Black people who believe that Black lives matter. But I suppose the electric son of Seattle does not. And anyway (ahem) they’re too busy using their new credit cards.
The video makes a mockery out of the musical legacy and journey Hendrix went on and the complicated inner landscape he tried to show us. Hendrix was a true poet of music. He was humble, shy, and deep thinking. His music was profound, galvanizing, and wistful. All we learn or are led to believe from watching Nance’s 7 minute burp is that Hendrix was a kooky, loosey-goosey brother who was a little different and didn’t take life serious at all and even had a blast joining the army cause he was a paratrooper and soared through the sky. The film ends with this image and of course is a subtle nod to the United States armed forces. Who can be the last to claim brother Jimi away from his tortured Black psychedelic self, the Jimi who played guitar the way Parker blew on his saxophone, the Jimi who made sonic-powered blues and set his guitar on fire offering it up to the Gods. Townsend destroyed his guitar, Hendrix sacrificed his. That’s deep. That’s Jimi. Maybe that’s a part of Seattle too. But that’s not this little film.
If Nance wanted to cinematically destroy a Black life why not take a stab at Barack Obama — a 5-minute portrait of a pathological Black American Corporate Killer playing the drones as well (if not better) than Hendrix played guitar could have been worthwhile.
Why do we allow Blacks to kill on behalf of the United States of America, why do we enable and support corporate killing of women and children? Why do we get titillated at the idea of a drone but have no interest in finding out truly why Paul Mooney was banned from the Apollo, why Ralph Ellison rejected Henry Dumas’ literary advances, why –?? Oh wait, you will say, this was a SEATTLE TOURIST PROJECT! Yes, right. So in that case I ask the obvious:
Terrence, why not make a short honoring Chief Seattle?
Or better the connection between Hendrix and Native Americans?
Oh no, once you do that you’re fucked. You would get caught in a web that inextricably linked your funders to the DAPL perhaps. (Does it matter? WE ARE ALL IN COLLUSION). But I suppose Seattle Visit wouldn’t appreciate that as they may be comfortable having paternally recognized their Indians legacy and Chief Seattle and what-not but they’re not interested in actual people’s lives or meaning unless it makes them money. Good money. “Happy money.” (What’s sick is that in NYC while the African Burial Ground got deleted from our modern urban history New York made a ton of money off the deaths of people in 9/11 and happily sells this to tourists. They actually consider this to be “happy money.”)
If I was asked to make a film for Visit Seattle, I would start with Chief Seattle and perhaps the history of the Suquamish Tribe and end with Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” over re-creations of Seattle’s anti-Chinese riots of 1885 and we’d see Starbucks coffee exploding in all four corners of the screen. What, you don’t think that would help tourism? Trust me, if Starbucks financed my tour of the locations of the Seattle Anti-Chinese Riots of 1885 and at each location of the riot there were a Starbucks plaque — believe me, SOMEONE would make money and TONS of tourists would come. But I suppose my understanding of people and business and what they want is different from Nance’s. Which is why I can only carve words as Nance can only belch images instilled in him by a banker.
For only an unimaginative person could really imply that Jimi was an alien (they say that about the ancient Egyptians too), not of this earth and therefore just some cool aberration of humanity, his work is “cool” but not real or secular and has no gravity, a little too naively weird and baroque for its own good cause it’s just so freaking “out there” and sixties, yeah…This ignorant and pervasive maligning attitude is why Hendrix is easily an accepted marginal Black cultural figure. But hey if artists like Hendrix, Michael, and Prince were in fact from outer space – believe me a cat like Jimi didn’t fall from the sky. Bowie may have fallen, but Jimi was pushed. Cause no cosmic Brother would even play around up there knowing that he might fall. No one would want to fall into our solar system or onto this planet. Look around yourself. Would you want to be here if you didn’t have to be? _
The corporate tour is 7 minutes. But it felt like 7 days. Probably cause I kept pausing it every 9 seconds. By 4:14 I began to get nauseas. And I felt a suicidal relapse might be imminent. (I immediately called a filmmaker comrade and told him to please stay on the phone with me as I sweated through the remaining 3 minutes of this tourist tail-watching. He said he would but he didn’t have time for my ‘gentrified minds’ antics as he was playing chess and I quickly began to get very jealous. I need a hobby. Badly.)
From the silly twists and dumb dancing to the geeky-tones of a bad flashback sequence from a TV show (making the triteness of That 70’s Show seem almost poetic by comparison, in fact I found myself looking for Ashton Kutcher somewhere in the frames) to the constant unwillingness to celebrate Hendrix’s soulful rock musicianship – recasting his guitar prowess in the guise of a Brady Bunch Blues song due to his Wonder Bread donut fixation (are you fucking kidding me?); Nance does what I never thought possible: he de-funks Jimi.
Yes. That’s right.
He removes every funky, fantastic, down-home psychedelic impulse (Jimi was mind-expanding before he ever heard of LSD), and humble mischief associated with Jimi. He becomes as white men who run banks want him to become: fey, weak, goofy…tame.
Could you imagine Sly Stone or James Brown or Michael Jackson de-funked?? I often think it’s glad most of our phenomenons are gone because we have reached a point where nothing means anything any more. And it’s sad and excruciating to endure. It’s getting harder to get up everyday and face this world that believes “nothing matters anyway.” Or “It’s a just tourist flick, relax.”
I don’t think I can relax about this. Because this is a social disease, it is becoming an epidemic. I don’t know the solution as I am far too gone in my own hell to even propose a re-evaluation of the diagnosis. But the symptoms are plain and clear: remove depth, depoliticize Blackness, make us corny and ironic and make us as enchanting as Mickey Mouse. But do not – DO NOT – infer Black consciousness (which is not the same as political beliefs by the way, folks) and DO NOT add dignity.
The problem here is a cultural one and one that resides within the test and context of values and trust. White folks who grant arts money need to trust that you will put THEIR values and THEIR mission on screen. Most of us don’t think about it this way because we have been so colonized. So naturally what we feel is “theirs” is also “ours” and we have no problem accepting this. And they can tell by the way you walk, talk, and look. I don’t mean your facial characteristics; I use look as a verb – as in how you actually aim your eyes when they address you. If the eyes dilate, you’re good to go. You don’t even have to say anything. They’ll trust you immediately and give you the satchel of money to make your next atrocity on the screen.
We complain about Chicago but Black people kill Black people every day in so many other ways. We do it unnecessarily, and we do it at the behest of an Order That Demands We Become Even Greater At Subjugating Ourselves Than They Could.
I don’t believe in murder, but I do believe in revenge.
And I believe in defense. And I certainly believe in punishment. God knows I have learned my own lessons by smashing into walls. And I stand now as one for Nance and all who follow him. And if they don’t stop, there is always another option. Or, as scientists say, you don’t disprove your opponents. You simply wait for them to die.
However I may die well before Nance. Because if I continue to be subjected to such toxic cinematic energy and such colonized coonery passing off as cinema or the creativity of an “important” filmmaker – I may extricate myself all together.
I’m an old soldier in an even older war. And I have given up so many things, waved far too many flags for Black people in all aspects of society and all tiers of the establishment to understand that the arts and consciousness are in dire straits; I have done my part and I can die with a clean conscience. I only wonder what the charlatans think when they go home. How, Brother Nance, do you sleep at night?
Angry? I’m infuriated. Which is one of the only two reasons one should pick up a pen in the first place.
But I will play the Capitalist game with you, I will humor you and ask the gentle reader:
If my writing in front of you is less worthy than Mr. Nance’s 7 minutes of video – if my argument and response to Nance’s nonsensical corporate video doesn’t merit such outrage or possesses less worth than Nance’s exploitation and silliness than I will stand corrected. I would not only offer a retraction and public apology, I’d fall on my goddamned sword!
And remember at one time millions of Seattle’s indigenous Original Peoples lived, breathed, fought, created, and had their own lives some 4,000 years before the white man and then the colonized Knee-Grows with cameras messed it all up. Just keep that in the back of your mind.
And ask: In all honesty Terrence, would you have done this to Kurt Kobain? (Courtney Love would never allow it, that’s why – and while he may live long with his disease, having Courtney Love on your back would surely number your days) Hell if you wanted to desecrate a Seattle musician – why not show Kenny G? You could have extinguished his cultural importance instead of maligning Jimi Hendrix’s spirit! But I suppose the brand company would not want that huh? No, Jimi is much sexier than Kenny G could ever have been. And there’s nothing to defang, for Kenny G had no venom or soul in his music. So how can we take the most radical, theatrical, innately musical, and mind-expanding musician of the 20th century and water him down even more?
As if it wasn’t bad enough that we (Black people) turned our backs on Jimi once before huh?
Artaud asked us to reconsider who killed Van Gogh. That his suicide was a political one implemented by the forces of society – that it was a kind of dual homicide. We could say the same about Jimi Hendrix – an accidental overdose is an oxymoron. All drug takers and even the heaviest junkie knows what will kill him. Or if it could. I’m not gonna speculate on Jimi’s death wish (if he had one) but I know the brother was leaving a phase of his life and trying to enter a new one musically. And I know there’s no way Jimi ever got over having to leave America (“Black” America) to become himself in Britain (“White” England). Miles Davis was the visionary who knew Hendrix had to be collaborated with – he knew the brother was beyond genius. But it was too late.
And now it is too late again. From John Ridley’s abominable movie on Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin still wakes up in cold sweats from having participated in that) to Nance’s cute corporate Hallmark cartoon on Jimi falling from the sky…All for a tourist board.
“We steered away from traditional travel videos because we wanted to create content that people could watch in their everyday lives, or when they’re seeking entertainment,” states Ali Daniels, VP of marketing at Visit Seattle. “We want them to go to the Space Needle, but also to see how we make amazing whiskey here.” Hm. That says it all. Something tourists could watch when seeking entertainment. Because Jimi was all about entertainment, right? Just another geek for the freaks at the end of the day. All the better that he is dead. Cause everyone knows there’s no better way to get someone to visit a place than to promote the fact that a wild-Black-outlaw artist is dead.
Just remember it was an African-American Indian-man, an artist who had to leave his home to get recognition, and a heavy drug user whose life is being advertised for a Tourist Board’s City campaign. It’s pitifully hilarious. In fact we should be thanking the barbiturate makers and dealers for Hendrix having a way out to begin with! And if he HADN’T overdosed – Nance would not have made this shameful corporate crime. If that is not sick I don’t know what is. Except for Terrence Nance buying into this foolishness. A conspiracy he offered his soul to be part of, but there was no Faustus knock at the door or a convincing Cassius looking over his shoulder.
I’m angry cause Nance does this on purpose. If he is as untalented as his films prove to be than he would not be getting all this funding. It is all by strange design. He gets funding cause he’s willing to go along with someone else’s agenda. He allows this and knowingly creating meretricious works and corporate commercials that have about as much soul as a dollar bill. In fact, a dollar has more blood on it. Terrence should know this. He’s receiving enough of them.
Aime Cesaire wrote, “Beware…of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator.” I assume Guy Debord would have agreed. Well brothers and sisters who dare to hold on to your consciousness and sanity: Welcome to the 21st century Society of the Spectacle! Tucked within our living breathing pages of Brave New World is a new flock of House Slaves deliberately and proudly wearing their status as corporate provocateurs as a badge of courage, pinning their Capitalist diplomas upon the lens caps of their movie cameras. Terrence Nance is a Master of Ceremonies at the new big top carnival, he sets up the tent and cracks his whip hoping to seduce all the Mr. Jones’ into America’s “post-racial” Neo Liberal-Ballad of a Thin Man-freakism. I can only imagine what will happen when the Royal London Hospital Museum hire him to help tourists come view the Elephant Man’s bones. Good thing it’s only a replica they have on public display. Maybe then Nance will feel more comfortable when not dealing…with the real thing.
A slightly different version of this essay first appeared on Shoot to Kill.
I want to make it clear that I do not have a romantic view of humanity. I don’t think we are God’s gift to the planet. In fact, if there was a God I don’t think it would create a species as deranged and undignified as we are. That being said, it is important to state this because one of our only great accomplishments or aspects (“accomplishments” might be too big a word) is our stretch for truth and beauty and understanding in our self-expression. Our art.
I often wonder how difficult it is to create something lasting or worthy if one has a high level of dislike for the human race. I struggle with this every day: my desire to be part of humanity, to help or ignite other homo-sapiens becomes put to the test when I note the present day’s atrocities committed by my fellow brethren and then neurotically re-acknowledge our terrible history on this planet, always coming up short on the side of creation and transcendence despite our maniacal compulsion to thank or make a God as a way of explaining not only our mysteries but the few beautiful contributions and achievements we have made as a species on this particular plot of land hanging in the solar system. (Who knows how greater of an impact the work of a Matisse or a Billie Holiday would be allowed to have in another galaxy?)
I will never be a great artist simply because I don’t have one of two essential ingredients: The Talent and the Ability to Forgive Man’s Contempt for His Brother. Talent wise there is nothing I can do, the challenge is to make the best out of what I was given. It is a combination of what you are blessed with; innate vision, craft (technique), discipline, desire, taste, as well as laziness, empathy, stubbornness, and where you fall on the Richter scale between Truth and Appeal.
The notion that man is inherently good, however, or is too ignorant to see what he is doing to himself is one that I never accepted. And even as a young artist, it is a notion I was never fully at home with.
Actors are taught: “You can never play someone you don’t fully respect.” I don’t know if I fully believe that and quite frankly it is a very dangerous idea that one can’t fully render a portrait of another’s soul if they don’t find something within him to “like” thereby demystifying his cruelty (if playing a psychopath or colonialist or pedophile for example) and making him more “human.” What we all refuse to see is that the choices we inherently make as creative artists represents where our hearts lay (“whose side we are on”) and that of the interpretive artists such as an actor or illustrator for a book is actually even a bit deeper if only because of the challenge they are often confronted with: how do I humanize this warped rapist I am playing?
Well now by referencing the term “human” we instantly have a problem. Because it is not as if personification is something we have to do – the subject is a human being why do we need to conscientiously remember that? Would a painter of trees have to constantly remind himself – “that is wood we are seeing, yes, strong resilient bark”? Absolutely not!
But when a Caucasian illustrator needs to prep himself by committing to depict the glorious ‘humanity’ of the African Man we have a problem. He should naturally see us as his fellow human; he should immediately be aware of the fact that we are all composed of positive and negative individual traits. But because he is not endowed with enough intrinsic “awareness,” and not enlightened – he must find a way in. He must work hard to remove the layers of his own self-inflicted racism and brainwashing that his own people have created: mass media. Amiri Baraka wrote that the Africans of many countries once referred to it as the “White Man’s magic.” Indeed, television, newspapers, radio, movies, and now the cosmic terror of the Internet – certainly are. But how did we get in this situation in the first place?
Man – regardless of race – would never have been in this conundrum anyway if he had never created such accouterments of culture which such a draconian hatred for certain members of our species of which he seeks to prey upon, warp, and call upon to enact his most debased desires. Formal slavery was just the tip of the iceberg: the true horror resides in what the European & Arab enslavers were thinking in the first place – and the gross, pervasive, insidious after-effects of such an idea. What I am trying to say is that only a human being could scheme so devilishly, could bring his thinking and feeling into such an unnatural and low state his entire civilization rests upon the destruction of a group or various groups of his own species. This is something Man has willfully created and condoned. Man is not an animal. He is a monster. And I propose we look first for reasons why we shouldn’t hate him when creating depictions and composing our art.
A meditation on Christopher Everett’s extraordinary debut film about an 1898 massacre that rocked America
Christopher Everett’s debut film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning documentary about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning. With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…
Malcolm X used to bemoan Black America’s pathological loyalty to the Democratic Party. This perverse agreement to remain supportive of the Democrats was sealed of course with President Johnson’s skillful passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the landmark piece of legislation that deemed discrimination of any kind illegal in the USA. What is most ironic, of course, beyond the fact that since then non-Black immigrants have actually used the gains of that bill and the Civil Rights movement in general – to benefit their own stance, corroborate white racism, and ascend the ladder within America culture. Oppressed people of any stripe are always quick to forget that they are quite often the beneficiaries of another people’s suffering. (Johnny Cochrane interestingly makes note of this in his autobiography Journey to Justice when he describes how the former LA community of west of Main Street went from being a Japanese-American middle-class neighborhood to a New Black Middle-Class enclave post WW2).
I struggle to understand Jews who do not see the actions of Israel as being evil and draconian in terms of how they regard and oppress the Arabs and Africans of the occupied territory once known purely as Palestine. Do we all suffer from our own selective memory, our own bludgeoning “cops in the head”, our own mangled perception of what is right, wrong, and how we benefit or not or fit in or not?
What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the heralding of Lyndon Johnson and his “progressive” administration for putting forth the Civil Rights Act, blah blah blah…Johnson was a politician, not a moralist. He would have sold his own mother if it had meant power. Despite his obvious support of the Civil Rights Act he was staunchly racist and a serious cartoon example of a “good old boy” white Southern cracker. His recorded conversations reveal how natural it was for him to refer to blacks as “Niggers” constantly in conversations held in the oval office (you can hear these recordings on YouTube). Jim Garrison, who charged the United States government in a coup d’état against President Kennedy implied that Johnson himself was even marginally involved in the JFK assassination, so what on earth would convince people he cared about Black people simply because he patronized us and realized he was already in a losing battle…America had to make legislative changes in the 1960’s – the pressure was too much to bear as we the far left was gaining major strides in this country and throughout the world and a Black men protecting himself at all costs against the cruelty and hate of his government would not go unheeded. It is pressure and resistance that always creates legal changes and it either hits you in the wallet or in the head. The dollar or the bullet.
Are we “a virus in shoes” as the late great Bill Hicks once proclaimed? I think we are. Whether we are killing animals or each other, Man is interminably doomed and his shameful celebration of malevolence only continues to prove that while there may not be a god – there is certainly a devil. And he weaves and works his way through the actions of human beings in a way that is profoundly shocking and mysterious. Why? Because, supposedly, everything is all about money. Or the subjugation of one group over another. Throughout history and psychology, all things, all of our spiritual carbon footprints could be whittled down to either of these causes, often both, as Capitalism is a complex duet of both avarice and racism. We are pathetic.
Let’s get back to the checkered past and moral confusion of the Democrats. What a fascinating and morbid history our political parties have purely in terms of their formation, definitions, and self-preservation. For it was on November 10, 1898, North Carolina Democrats enabled a White Mob to engage in a massacre that left at least 100 Blacks dead (the exact number is somewhere between 60 and in the hundreds – the records are murky about this for obvious reasons). For some reason, it was the political affiliation alone that stood out to me when learning this information in Christopher Everett’s new and revealing documentary Wilmington On Fire.
First of all, I had no clue that Wilmington was at one point one of the most cosmopolitan centers in all of the USA, in fact one of the biggest and most economically inspired cities in the world before 1898.Wilmington On Fire does a fantastic job relaying all of this information. It was one of the most diverse cities with (yes!) black-owned and white-owned shops side by side in downtown Wilmington. The Black middle class was so successful, some even had their own butlers and pianos. This puts a whole new twist on the 19th-century Black life, doesn’t it? In fact, what most of us can’t admit: there were more powerfully linked and healthier connections amongst black businessmen and their communities well before the official rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation laws in the USA. This warrants serious rumination.
Obviously this kind of “renaissance” and “progress” of humanity offended racists and white supremacists to their very core, many of which were staunch members and supporters of the Democratic Party. Republicans back then still had the air of liberalism attached to their party.
But meanings and their associations’ change and context – always context! – will always be the end all-be all. Still, it is no less alarming that Americans have a skewered view of the past, identities, and supposed meanings. Perhaps if we regarded political parties as complicated as we have begun to regard our sexual identities or proclivities we may see that there is more to “politics” than meets the eye; more to the values of a political party than its typically regarded associations.
Does it not amuse you that Hollywood actor Wendell Pierce insanely defends the likes of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats legacy? While once again context is vital here, had the actor done this to a Trump supporter, I wouldn’t even mention it. I would casually admire the act for what it’s worth, shrugging off yet another ploy and performance from our nation’s true capital: the throes of Hollyweird.
Even if an actor of Pierce’s modest-stature (commercially speaking) is so disgruntled by a Bernard Sanders supporter or another candidate – he should take time to remember that political parties mean, essentially, nothing. Pierce should spend time putting weight or interest behind Christopher Everett’s excellent movie opposed to paying the state $1,000 bail as a result of his fractious encounter with a Sanders supporter.
About the infamous 1898 massacre of Wilmington’s black businesses and citizens, Christopher Everett’s directorial debut is an unpretentious, direct, and minimalist portrait of the coup d’état created by the white North Carolina Democratic Party in an attempt to broker the lives and future of Wilmington and eventually the entire state – ensuring the legacy and rebirth of a rekindled and acknowledged form of legally sanctioned racism, 35 years after the civil war and the USA’s official outlaw of slavery. As Dr. Umar Johnson fluently explains, after the Civil War in 1865 – a cloud hung over the Ex-Confederate Southern white men who couldn’t bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost a war – not to President Lincoln or the Yankees up North but to their own former slaves! We forget or choose not to remember that Black Americans fought against some of their former slave owners as Union soldiers. And the Union never would have won the Civil War had it not been for the Black soldiers who fought for themselves… and on behalf of the Union.
In retaliation and exasperation, white supremacists who governed the Democratic Party in North Carolina sought to retaliate and officially install a racist system that had been supposedly eradicated some 30 years prior as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates’ dream to restore White unity and Black servitude reached such a grizzled mania that an impassioned yet calculated plot to excise the Black businesses and citizens of Wilmington completely. Independent researcher Kent Chatfield shows us copies of WB McKoy’s pamphlet of 1897, The White Government Union a constitution and bylaws created by the North Carolina Democratic Party whose sole aim was to instill white supremacy government.
The film opens with Ness Lee’s powerful track, “Voice of The Regular People” produced by Illastrate with sampled echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s inimitable falsetto heard wailing, “I’m going to war to find my brother!” is well used here and the closing number of the film has one of the best uses of anthemic protest music that I can think of in any movie since Children of Men’s closing with John Lennon’s “Free The People.” The closing number by James Diallo (produced by Michael ‘Sarkastix’ Harris) in this case is the original and haunting, “It’s a Massacre” – a moody atmospheric poetic hip hop tune that is as defiant and soulful as the film itself. The rest of the music is sparsely and confidently scored by Matthew Head.
We learn in Wilmington On Fire that the White Government Union was a more urbane and far more treacherous terrorist organization than its backyard cousin the Ku Klux Klan for example. These were men who were out for blood, had serious connections and money, and were not going to stop until they removed all Black power-brokers, cultural influence, and existence in Wilmington, North Carolina. The White Government Union’s de-facto militias – known as the “redshirts” – once again, unlike the Klan did not hide their faces and acted like savage storm-troopers upon the African-American community and, as the Nazis did, acted in accordance with some of the most strategic and wicked propaganda put forth by white racists in Wilmington in order to stir up hate and fear against the Blacks. Their vile use of rape as a fear tactic and as a way to protect the white purity of the white woman is on par with the mechanisms later used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Who knows? I imagine Hitler and his henchmen being the history fanatics that they were no doubt impressed and inspired by the methods used by the White Government Union.
Wilmington On Fire was made to enlighten, inform, and arouse interest in not only a slice of American history but also a deeply troubling event that has been swept under the carpet and seldom mentioned. A touchstone of racism and quite honestly one of the multitudinous events that has occurred to Black people in North America alone that helps make-up the Black Holocaust – a stream of harrowing events that Western academics and historians continually downplay in favor of the gargantuan numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust in the confines of Nazi death-camps. Still, if it were a numbers game they would lose. According to SE Anderson, somewhere between 15 and 60 million Black lives were destroyed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade alone. And the horror continues to this day. Each isolated act of terror makes up another patchwork in the terrible mighty quilt known as Modern Culture As Created by the Anglo in What Is Now Known as The United States of America.
Yet, many African-Americans still find it hard to reconcile their past in this country alone. Randall Robinson in his excellent book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks mentions his exasperation via a casual discussion he had with author Walter Mosley with Blacks’ seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their tortured past by downplaying and literally disabling the commercial business of such well-intentioned films like Beloved based on the Toni Morrison classic. Because it deals with slavery they ignored it. That’s probably even truer for the greater mainstream’s embarrassing avoidance of the entire work of genius Haile Gerima. And while pop culture has embraced a Disney-fied, eroticized, and gleefully sanitized “ANTEBELLUM SLAVE & SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS” movie genre (Miss Burning to Clara’s Heart to The Help to 12 Years a Slave, etc) – most of the serious art films or documentaries go unnoticed or un-appreciated because of their innate passion or style or singular vision. Sometimes it’s because of all three – whether it’s serious protest dramas like Nothing But a Man or later radical Black-helmed pictures like Sam Greenlee & Ivan Dixon’s TheSpook Who Sat By The Door – there’s always a distinct difference in the independent filmmaker’s vision and those seeking to exploit, pander, or simply fulfill a Liberal-checklist of obligations for some media company to fulfill. This must always be taken into account when you watch any film, especially a documentary: Ask, “Is this necessary?” And then ask, “Would this director be willing to suffer for giving us this information?”
Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.
Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in a legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.
By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; as a white youth he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…
If film can be an art and a weapon – the documentary is an often thrilling and deadly weapon in the arsenal, at times a best kept secret. For all documentaries seek to make its audience confront something. If narrative directors infused their scripts with this lesson – how much more dynamic and dangerous dramatic pictures would be!
And yet documentaries have become a particular and strange new pornography in our culture. It has become obvious to me that over the past decade a large number of filmmakers who fancy themselves as “progressive” and “Liberal-loving” humane freedom fighters have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money in making documentaries – but not truly advocating any direct social change. They are carefully crafted movies that give facts and tons of information about terrible events or current happenings – and yet don’t actually implore their audiences to do anything. It is not necessary for a film to scream its message to its audience, quite often even the most graphic documentary doesn’t have to do that…and yet it doesn’t hurt if a documentary is a bit forward and incendiary even to its own viewer. Wilmington On Fire toes this line – it is up front about how it feels and how its director regards his subject.
And what I like most about it – is that it is a “simple” American story. By focusing in on his own state’s history and legacy, Everett combines the ideal Pete Seeger coaxed us to consider: think globally, but act locally.
You don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to collect data on terrorism – often all you need to do is investigate your own state or cities history. The United States was founded upon terrorism: where have we all been?
Film As Resistance
“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”
– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller
When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly beginning to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.
What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.
The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?
Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.
Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?
No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.
The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write-up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.
His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.
So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.
I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.-
The award-winning documentary 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
Bold and beautiful, “Akata” is a cool understated slice of revolutionary cinema.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
– Franz Kafka
David Bowie iterated the same sentiment, differently, in his spooky lament Ashes to Ashes (1980) and interestingly enough this existential reclamation of breaking through in order to be recognized/released, in a quite different context, is the gestalt moment of Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s haunting short Akata.
Akata echoes Kafka’s maxim more literally, though no less poetically: his hero smashes the ice – or in this case glass – in order to be affirmed and to be freed. If only for a moment. The 13 minutes leading up to this Fanonian climax is from a world many of the metropolitan Black artists know well and it is a crippling, hypocritical, and insidious one. It is the professional ‘Art World’ – the nucleus of all that is wrong in our “progressive” culture, all that is wrong with White Liberalism, and all that is wrong with the west.
If you are looking for evidence and sources of our problems, evade the American politicians and stop looking for bombs and the creatures that make them. Look no further than the art institutions and the scenes they give birth to. So venal you’d think you’d slipped into either the boiler room of a hedge fund or the back alley of a Public Education fundraising meeting. Simply: they’re all out to get you. And your humanity. And the hero of Akata is no exception. He’s willingly offered himself to be taken and denigrated until it becomes too much for him. The hypocrisy, institutionalized racism, and slow-burn yearning in Yeboah’s film is wonderfully rendered in a tone both personal and communal. Shot on Super 16, the film is a strong synthesis of the French New Wave and the Classical African Militant filmmaking of Djibril Diop Mambety. But it is also wholly new and fresh and features an effective improvised jazz score by David Boykin, non-professional actors (imbuing this gently surreal film with dignified awkwardness) and an ending as arresting as proverb.
The theme of the Artist struggling to get home is both actual and symbolic and it rendezvous’ with the political realities of a Black man not being able to get a cab, an Artist reconciling that his work may be “worth more” than his life, and the everyday nightmares that often reveal insights in our neurosis.
Akata superbly captures the solitary inner life of a frustrated creative being, the matter of fact loneliness of the artist, and the tender side to wanting to connect and completely re-structure the world and one’s place in it through the use of hands (craft). The Artist paints, greets and accepts a business card, and smashes a window all with his hand. He is forced to give up the brush and make a fist. The artist as unwilling resister to the oppressive culture or even, dare I say it, literal revolutionary is a clear and inherent characteristic of our Revolutionary Black New Wave cinema or ‘Rebel Cinema’ as we sometimes refer to it. A symbiosis of Afro-bleakism and romantic challenge to nihilism and acceptance of unjust norms.
Like other films about the revolutionary plight of the artist (As an Act of Protest, Spit) the equation of the Black conscious artist struggling to go beyond his work and into a society where he can have an impact is implied rather than explored and there’s room for numerous interpretations…but an infinite amount of epiphanies.
Enduring one humiliation after the next just to get to his own art-show, the Artist is also the last to leave the exhibition and, despite the accolades, becomes another frighteningly common archetype: the artist who may be wanted for his work – but not for who he is. The White Art World in particular are fundamentalist believers of “I can experience you through your work (wow!) yet will deny your existence (in actual life).” I don’t want your humanity, just your art. The biblical trajectory of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a classic example.
In life, the budding artist is most vulnerable before he blooms and right after. The setting sun on possibility, the shadows that gather in late evening are enough to commit any struggling artist for the rest of his life. Assuming he lives past his Baptism of Fire.
Akata is perhaps the most delicate of all these rebel films because it’s the most poetic. Its subtleties are not only embedded in the technique of the film (and become more pronounced with each viewing) but because it comes across like a diary entry (read more about the personal inspiration in the Q & A). Unlike the theatrical nature of most narrative movies, Akata remains singular in that its style is severely synced with its director’s raw and sensitive approach to cinema: unfiltered and unacademic. Yeboah distills swiftly and doesn’t waste time getting heady when he shoots, he prefers to let the moment and the feeling of the mise-en-scene guide him. It is a jazz approach that has served him well. Director of Photography Marcin Szocinski gives a warm, painterly creamy look that at times goes soft and racks focus as we ourselves try to make out what is “happening.” Or rather, the themes develop as Jarcin finds what Yeboah has laid out of for us. Szocinksi’s sensual and wonderfully ‘nomadic’ approach to shooting is not only an approach that benefits Yeboah’s instincts it serves Akata well because of the stately roguish nature of the film.
What struck me about the Artist’s dilemma in the film is He hasn’t a friend in the world. Because no one who loves another would allow that person to be anxious about how they are going to get home. But in the concrete jungle, in the colonized wilderness People of Color have gotten lost in and rushed to be part of – there is no home to travel to, only one that can be possessed spiritually. Akata makes it clear to me: we can never go back home. We must create a new home, conceptually and literally. There can be no return or looking back. If one needs help getting home – then that means that person didn’t have a home to begin with. Like a stray feral creature sifting through the trees, constantly on the prowl. Is it going to or from?
And then it all comes together in some kind of cool post-colonialist afterthought: we arrive at the film’s revolutionary gestalt moment and what transpires is coolly transcendent and chilling.
Akata is a mesmerizing film and an important one that must be added to our arsenal.
A picture lives by companionship…It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling.”
– Mark Rothko
Born in Ghana, Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, Djibril Diop Mambèty and Fela Kuti. A trajectory marked with a poetics of refusals, the cinema is his weapon of choice.
That being said Yeboah has been very cautious as to who he shares his art with.
He will only share the film with audiences genuinely interested. He has given up on any notion of commercial success, being popular, or reaping the benefits of a system that routinely exploits and straight-up pimps Black actors and directors via Hollyweird. He does not care about the “foolishness and coonery” he feels has become the new American Norm for Black people – as viewers and creators. His only wish is to keep creating and making his own cinema, regardless of how long it will take. But he balks at the idea now of begging people to look at his work. And while he is a classical filmmaker (meaning he still believes in ‘pure cinema’ and the impact of projecting a motion picture on a large screen VS the TV or computer), he does not want to constantly humiliate himself by hoping someone will take an interest in seeing his films.
They don’t have to understand or even like his work, but they should possess and innate desire to be vulnerable and open to what the artist wants to give. In the 21st century, that is not only one of the biggest problems of cinema (people unable to know how to “view” a movie as the nature of the audience/viewer has changed not only due to the self-satisfied generation of young adults who feel there is nothing they don’t know since life for them is a google at the tip of their fingers) – it is also a general idea that pervades our times ever since Guy Debord’s nightmare of the spectacle became our everyday waking reality. In an age now where everything is up for sale and everything is a movie how does the average watcher of media, consumer of images – allow himself to metabolize a personal independent film in a genuine way? Do they even care?
When you view someone’s film – it is you who becomes Muhammad or Moses or whomever you wish to equate the eyes of a prophet; you are digesting a message from God. All the artist asks is that you respectfully broach the idea of even considering to look at his work.
Secular art is not merely earthly or “profane,” it is a deeply spiritual. It is not religious because it does not link itself to merely one religious belief, it is like Theater – the holiest of the holy: a glorious secular humanism. Without a God or a bible.
Below is an excerpt of a telephone interview I conducted over the phone with Yeboah upon my viewing of the final cut of Akata.
Q & A
My own last name “Kangalee” is a Bengali-Senegalese hybrid, a kind of Black-Indian mash-up. This is quite common in Trinidad but I’d assume the Siddi of India had probably carried the name. It means “wretched” or “the dispossessed.” Go figure! It’s haunted me ever since I accepted my name. And while I never see a word or name doesn’t connect to any given situation we are in – I am curious what the title of your film refers to. What does ‘Akata’ mean?
It denotes ‘a wild cat that does not live at home’.
Yes! That adds a whole other layer to the film…
…And some West Africans use of the term could denote ‘the wild ones’, which is how we perceive some of what appears very wild to us – with our brothers. Its origins could be traced to Fante (Ghana) and Yoruba (Nigeria) . The word ‘akata’ is me experiencing my wild cat self as I’m perceived.
When did you start writing and developing the film?
The film as an idea must have firmed between 2013-2014. Prior to that it was just a feeling. I could never hail a cab like anyone else who wasn’t black. One time I almost disappointed a client at the Race Center at the University of Chicago. It almost made me cry when she finally picked me up after a very embarrassing emotional call “… they won’t stop for me.” Tears came to my eyes when I said those words.
Reminds me of when he says, “I just want to go home.”
This is one of those moments you seek their attention by breaking the glass. The act is only intended to achieve visibility, they walk and drive right through you, till you break the glass and become visible. It’s to their shame that they would only acknowledge you when the tension in your muscles is released. I dress spiffy and all but, still a nigger. My friend Ade wears glasses and possesses an intellectual and harmless demeanor so he assists me in the dead of winter to stop a cab to move two suitcases to my new home, I would step back out of the picture so they may stop for what we both perceive as a less threatening figure than mine. Still not working…and these cabs are almost always driven by nonwhites…Racism is internalized by nonwhites who have bought into the dominant narrative.
When I first saw that moment – I had a knee-jerk reaction and thought “What is this fool doing? Why does he care about being acknowledged by this white man? When will we learn!?” But then just as fast – you have him enter the zone, he breaks through and enters demanding some kind of spiritual awakening. Not for the white man. But for himself. I’ve studied the ending several times to figure that out. It’s a beautiful moment…What’s your approach to actors and casting? I’m always curious how directors with a non-theatrical background execute this.
Well, as you know I prefer non-actors. They give me something new. As a director, I see my characters in people on the sidewalks, coffee shops and in everyday life. I randomly asked Reginald Eldridge (the Artist in the film) after encountering him a few times at events we kept bumping into each other. Met up with Cheryl Pope – who plays his lover in the film on the same day we met on social media. I declared to them: “You’re going to be in my film.” Both are practicing artist-teachers.
Their comfortability with each other was impressive especially as two people who just met and are playing lovers on-screen for the first time. Their ease put a lot of professionals to shame. But that’s also how you shot it – you didn’t direct their intimate scenes with one iota of fetishism. That’s a feat in itself because most bedroom scenes or sex scenes exist to simply titillate the viewer or expose the director’s own hang-ups. You learn a lot about someone by how they stage a sex scene. Tell me about your cinematographer, Marcin Szocinski.
Marcin is the sexiest Polish DP alive. Like me, we don’t appreciate Digital. This is how it started. We are about process and not just product. Grainy Super 16 feels like you are making a meal you care about to share with your loved ones and family. We used only available lights and shot really fast to avoid any trite trappings by overthinking any moment in the film. Just be! The idea that you can’t erase or have multiple takes of a scene is what I swear by film. You immortalize the mundane by making each moment rare and not repeated. Digital forces you to move towards a perfection that only makes the film comparable to host of TV type films.
Why did you refrain from letting us hear the Artist declare “I just want to go home.” Is it because you knew we already understood what he was saying and felt – tonally – that it was simply more effective without hearing him under the jazz score?
It was a beautiful mistake! I accidentally imported a version of the draft edit without the synched audio for the image. The other version had it. Depending which version you saw, you’re right, you deduced something different. You can read into or out of – a film.
See, that’s like jazz music itself. Charlie Parker said if you make a mistake, repeat it. Then do it again. And people will assume that’s what you intended all along and soon you’ll have created a whole new language. You find a lot when you edit, as it should be. One thing I did notice in the final cut was that you cut one of the best “pure cinema moments” – the great pan-back shot of the empty hall when the artist leaves the building. It’s gone! It gave the film a nice idiosyncratic edge. That I remember when I first saw it – I thought it was a brilliant touch. What made you want to cut it out?
I recut the entire film, I got him out of his apartment quicker than the earlier draft, cut a few more shots short. The film was made in a period when I moved house, between cities and just a lot of shifting elements in my life, sometimes I wasn’t sure which version I had. I may have actually edited the actual film just once, that’s who I am, don’t want to mess withthe cinematic spontaneity too much. I only came back to cut out stuff without moving around shots.
“Africa, help me to go home, carry me like an aged child in your arms. Undress me and wash me. Strip me of all of these garments, strip me as a man strips off dreams when the dawn comes. . “
“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”
– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) , upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicians and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.
Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)
And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.
The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.
Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)
I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)
Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.
Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.
Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.
The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)
We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?