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.”
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.
“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?