Visual Liberation is a way of watching films through a Marxist/Fanonian lens.
They are films and interpretations of those films that champion the fight against the Hollywood celebrations of racism, misogyny, and all other talismans of capitalism. This radical approach to filmmaking is a pedagogy that has been in development since 2000, exemplified in the film As an Act of Protest and surveyed in essays and articles since then, including the 2001 “Notes from the Underground” manifesto, a radical response to the Danish Dogme 95 movement. The first Visual Liberation film program was held in a self-titled festival at the Brecht Forum in 2002, in New York City.
Visual Liberation is both a curriculum that can be implemented in educational institutions as well as an approach to life and creating art. Its goal is in freeing both the audience and the artist in however the “political message” is being relayed by the author/director. In art, the how is as vital as the what. So-called “political films” in the mainstream have forgotten this.
Visual Liberation dismantles the notion that film is hierarchical and inherently fascistic and must be a Nationalist tool. While Audre Lorde is correct to declare one can’t eradicate the system with the instruments the system created, it is also worth noting how those instruments are played and used. Filmmakers can have agency and invigorate an alternative culture and view of both cinema and what it means to be socially conscious.
Through bare-bones intimate casual reflections, this “sermon,” or midnight ramble, is an explicit and personal oral rendering of written essays by Dennis Leroy Kangalee (DLK) reminding Leftist artists what it means to imbue their ideologies in narrative films, positing that “protest cinema” should be on par with American protest music and to help enable the battle against the Left’s cultural quandary and the damage done by American mainstream movies.
Pedagogical, personal, political and always poetic – this is the beginning of a new way of watching cinema.
The podcast is available now on Anchor and Spotify!
We saw the electricity finally that had been there all this time as if a current had exploded right in front of us demanding to be seen and not necessarily heard…but acknowledged. Its joy had returned. As if the television went from Black and white into technicolor. And all that time we held our breathes foolishly, as if we were not going to make it. And we realized we were 44 not 14 and that was a beautiful thing… because although we’d seen the lower depths we could at least now imagine the greatest heights. And that was good enough. And if colors can remind you of that- or even your own reflection in the mirror (finally) well damn it you’ve kicked the insides of the snipers who await silently with the cops in your head ready to arrest your bliss at any moment. You won. And you can’t believe it. Cause you could never simply admit that you were worth more than the world you entered wanted you to believe.
A link to my latest essay, “The End of the Imagination” — an updated, refurbished, and almost completely re-written exploration I had begun to explore in 2016. This is an essay one am not only proud of…but, sadly, one that seems to crystallize how I feel now and how I have felt for a long time. Thank you to Brian Alessandro and Lupe Rodarte for once again having the courage to publish work that is challenging, personal, and radical.
“The critic discusses the medicine, the artist administers it. It is neither the job of the creative artist nor the creative critic to make you feel good. It is not our job to provide hope, but truth. The artist gives you truth at all costs. The critic – merely interprets and records what is before him and tries to illuminate certain things we prefer to keep in an artist’s shadow. Or his closet.
Once you have usurped true creativity with an eye towards consumerism and advertising culture you have turned your back from the North Star and have settled on the ethos of Madison Avenue. When banks become proselytizers of culture instead of the individual artist you are in a wasteland.
And wastelands are living death brought to realization by inability to imagine.”
A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that that makes it explode….
“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”
– Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)
When all is said and done
you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried. Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING. And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience. The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee. Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels. There is no more time for games. This ends it all. Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world. And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.
It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.
After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.” As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang. It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him. It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,” it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it. Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protestis a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do: it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.
The Assassination of the of the Conscious Black Filmmaker & The Sins of White Journalists – pt. 1
In 2015 I was invited to participate at a Discussion on Black Futurist Art, Ferguson, and Racism with other black educators, artists and independent arts advocates. Disappointed with the same old tired clichés about African-American existence in America and the struggle to combat racism effectively, I declared to everyone’s chagrin that “If Black lives matter then we should support our living artists.”
I was then – and remain now – a staunch believer in the fusion of radical activism and radical artistic expression, I wholly believe that the key to beginning any progressive step towards a better, deeper, and more fully realized humanity resides in the vision of the artist. It’s up to the activist to make the vision practical. But a lot of people don’t like to hear this or confront this because it puts a lot of responsibility at their feet, the naked truth is always hard to confront.
Black lives matter only when white people say they do. In America, Black lives are only mourned never celebrated. Our victimization has become fetishized, our willingness to take action against oppressive and Fascistic behavior has been reduced, and our culture – the defining qualities of our own folkways – has been given up, sold off and “shared” (that is how it is described) by the entire world. Our pain, suffering, and trauma has taken on such inter-stellar resonance that nobody actually responds to Black peoples oppression the way they should. While the Jews always retained control of their own horrifying memories, Blacks still in 2020 have to ask for permission. Permission to tell our own accounts, to share both acts and facts, and to illuminate our past torment.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when white journalists try to assert authority over the experience of Black suffrage and reshape it as a “morality play” for white mainstream audiences. This not only continues to imply that the “human experience” is NOT universal — unless relayed by a white person, specifically a white male — but that no one will care about America’s racist history or the trauma endured by Blacks unless White writers bring attention to it. It’s a catch 22 situation and a tradition as well.
Regardless of any good intention White journalists, patrons, teachers, critics and those manning the boat of ‘Cultural Importance’ have always appropriated and used the history, talents, art, folkways, and ideas of Black Americans — often developed in spite of their bondage and condition as political prisoners in the United States.
Pop culture is a perfect example and while I don’t have the wherewithal to go down the rabbit hole of the sordid history of Culture Vulture-ism in American popular entertainment and art (Al Jolson’s terrifyingly racist deification of Black-face performing, White pop acts co-opting Black rock & roll, MTV vaudeville acts like New Kids On the Block or Justin Timberlake – the list goes on and on) — it has to be stated that white journalists love a good “story” about racism that they can share because it not only puts them into a moral center they feel they can own it puts them in a position to make money off a political situation that their forebears have created. In a perverse way it is brilliant. Whites write books and make loads of money on the Lecture Circuit giving their two cents about racism and enacting a disingenuous concern; feigning outrage over the Terrorism and sadism their the founding fathers committed — all the while ignoring the philosophical, academic, artistic and political contributions Blacks have mined on the very same subjects. And while we look for allies, Fugazi White Liberals look for angles.
The establishment is venal not cause it is prejudiced against certain groups or exploits others or glorifies torture or hates women. It is corrupt because it rewards White people who steal “the Black man’s thunder” and those who peddle and hustle the underbelly of the American empire in the name of “social awareness” and history.
The racist paternalism inherent in publishing and academia actually leads the rest of the culture in this regard, it helps to dignify that maltreatment black musicians and screenwriters for example by trying to legitimize the spiritual grand larceny and cultural embezzlement that white journalists and historians gear up to commit. They are base cultural tourists who, under the guise of education, commit intellectual imperialism.
If America is a cultural melting pot (it is) and if the keys on the piano are black and white (it is) — than the majestic fusion of these differences can unite to celebrate their singular existences as well as their similarities and THIS is how we learn. But that is an idealized intercultural society whilst we live in a racist multicultural society that is mandated by the very people we all claim we hate – but who themselves happen to claim that they are our friends.
I can speak for myself, I don’t need a white man to do it for me.
Christopher Everett blew the lid off the history and story of the Wilmington holocaust in 2015 when his groundbreaking independent film Wilmington On Fire – a documentary – hit the streets and theaters after the most successful screening in the Cucalorus Film festival’s entire history. Since then the film has been taught in major universities, used as part of cultural-enrichment sensitivity training course for North Carolina police officers, was discussed by Congress in a hearing on reparations, Everett himself has become a well noted independent film guru, the founder of his own distribution/production company and something of a new wave folk hero in North Carolina. So how could this NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (and graduate of North Carolina University) David Zucchino not know who Christopher Everett is or about Wilmington On Fire which came out nearly 5 years before Zucchino’s book Wilmington’s Lie was published?
How could mainstream publications and outlets pretend they don’t know who inspired Zucchino and what initiated the genesis of his desire to research the occurrences of 1898 in Wilmington?
Simple. Cause Everett’s Black (and conscious, which is always threatening to the establishment) he is easy to rationalize away. He is also a Black radical filmmaker who conscientiously views and uses cinema as a liberation tool. Period. And he knew that simply taking the lid off this part of history was revolutionary in itself. White people cannot have or accept Blacks who see truth not as a profession but as a calling — to ever be the at vanguard of mainstream education or knowledge or aesthetics; for a treason or sin to be understood it must be conveyed through a white man’s eyes. And mouth.
It is the same thinking, albeit a slightly different context no less insidious, that White music producers had when they stole Black music and rendered more “intelligent” and “safer” palpable soft-core pop versions of Black rhythm and blues songs for White Americans to consume. They live a xerox reality, not a doubled one as the oppressed do but a low grade facsimile of the ideas and feelings that were first uttered and created as a result of Black suffrage.
From Amazing Grace to Big Mama Thornton’s hollers to the way brass instruments were played to how the guitar became a tool of liberatory audio terrorism to nearly every recognized slang word of the past 90 years to fashion to sports — Blacks have ignited ideas before the white man ever conceived and later packaged and sold them. This includes our perspectives and realizations of history, our uncovering of truths.
Whites who cling to the Establishment – like the people of color who cherish it — are not willing to admit their crimes and for all I know they may not even see their crime. Blacks have been erased and ghettoized literally and figuratively in the USA for 400 years. I can’t expect 400 words or hours of my ranting to resolve this.
Christopher Everett hails from Laurinburg, NC and is a phenomenal filmmaker and film producer. A tenacious and conscientious producer, he doesn’t believe in the exploitative and wasteful capitalist approach to film production. I refer to him as my generation’s Roger Corman, although his cultural contribution will far exceed Corman’s. Time will prove me right. Because he does so much everyone think Everett has a lot of money. They seem to ignore the fact that he, like virtually every other peasant in the world (I use that term affectionately) – HAS to get up every morning and pay the rent. In addition to holding down a full-time job with Full Frame Festival in North Carolina (the first African-American ever to do so) he organizes different ideas and approaches to the world and to art; he tries to find new ways he and his artist friends can make a living, he tries to figure out trends and how to create ones, forging ideas upon other filmmakers and the general public whenever he has access to them. Like me, he is an outsider and loner by birth, unlike me — he is a Cinematic MC, an impresario of sorts. He is currently at work on two separate documentaries, a narrative; he produces art shows, cultural events; he works in conjugal with NY based filmmakers Brian Alessandro and Vagabond; he spent a whole year restoring and re-contextualizing my 2001 controversial drama As an Act of Protest — granting it new fresh screenings, introducing it to a whole new generation and enabling the film to be declared a “cult classic.” This got him into trouble (the movie, which is about the psychological effects of racism & police brutality and the Black impetus to revolt was literally banned by the Giuliani administration in 2002) but he never looked back. When I asked him why he wanted to do this, he took umbrage. “Come on man, your film is important, it needs to be seen and re-evaluated,” he remarked in his cool low-key Laurinburg drawl. And he painstakingly worked to transfer the original movie from its PAL European source to North American NTSC so that we could make DVDs. He used his own money and lost money on me several times. His belief in me, in cinema, in ideas, in wanting to help the Black community en masse is astounding and humbling. He works in the trenches cause that is where he is most comfortable and most honest. He deplores Hollywood hucksterism as much as he despises phony Academic intellectuals who make money off revisiting the pain incurred by Black Americans. These are part of the reasons why the Establishment will not accept or support him. And they are also part of the reason why the so-called independents and the “everyday Joes” don’t support him. Everyone is afraid.
I don’t care about White people who won’t take three seconds to consider my point of view here, I’m concerned with the Blacks who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and do nothing but make excuses for “well-intentioned” White academics, foolishly believing that these “good Caucasians” are actually trying to help bring awareness about racism. White Americans do not need to be told about their racism or their racist past. They know it like a lion knows its own roar.
There are and will be more people who defend Zucchino’s actions as there will always be those partial to ivory tower transgressions and those that love to mention The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as the “greatest American novel ever written.” Not cause they understand or appreciate the warnings and meanings implicit in the book because, simply, they want Black Americans to feel and see themselves as invisible. Once this is accomplished they can own your suffering, your ”narrative” as the zeitgeist prefers to say. There is no narrative because there was no author, only savagery and treachery that grows like a virus. Racism itself is a kind of virus, a poison. These words are the continued kindling in the search for an antidote.
What is important to remember here, however, is the racist patriarchal sense of entitlement and the gross indecency that the bourgeoisie display when itching for a new hustle. Of course what better way than to crib from the Black American community? Zucchino is well-heeled and rubs shoulders with all the right people in the Literary and Journalism world, I would bet too that he has never had to self publish or take a financial hit when considering what and where to publish. Conversely, Everett is a working-man, a proletariat filmmaker — he comes from a hard working North Carolina family that has has had its ups and downs like everybody else and he has known the face of poverty and struggle as an artist and cultural historian unlike Zucchino. Everett made Wilmington On Fire at great risk to his own personal health, I highly doubt Zucchino could say the same of his book-writing. Has Zucchino received death threats or ever been concerned about his family due to the truth he dared to disclose about American racism? I doubt it.
So let’s not be fooled. We as Black people need to stop begging for the White establishment and all the organizers of the Ivory Tower to notice or pay attention to us. We need to pay more attention to ourselves, we need constantly support ourselves. That in and of itself is the very first step towards a cultural renaissance, a step towards self-transformation. How does one ascertain the criterion of the cultural gatekeepers? It’s not who they promote. It is who they don’t.
White people see you clearly. That’s why they can delete you. One has to exist in order to be erased or moved or forgotten. To ignore is a verb. It is not passive. Like betrayal or murder it causes lacerations unseen that float out into the ether…someone always knows what you did. Why. And how.
And while ghosts may not stop Zucchino from continuing this sick charade, my words can at least act as a warning as a traffic sign might. However in Zucchino’s car — in the universe he drives in — “Deer Crossing” is synonymous with “Artist Expressing” or “Black Man Walking.” And in that world the sign prompts you to drive faster and not slow down.
So let’s just move on and cross Christopher Lamont Everett off the list. Another Black man killed. Who cares? Isn’t that why we exist anyway?
This is a reprint and slightly different version of an original essay published June 1st, 2016. It has been re-posted here again as a result of the conscientious effort to dismiss Christopher Everett and his extraordinarily bold and revolutionary film-making and cultural contribution to the education of the history of USA, specifically the state of North Carolina. Because he is Black, Everett’s miraculous accomplishments with this film alone — it brought to national attention the post American Chattel Slavery-racism of the past that always lurked in the USA, it found its way into Congressional hearings on reparations – yes! – and is even used to try to ‘teach’ and inform the Police Officers in North Carolina what Black Americans have endured just in that one state alone. David Zucchino, a White American award winning journalist (whatever that means) – has a new book out (“Wilmington’s Lies”) that for the white mainstream — supposedly reveals this little known travesty and holocaust of American history — and the subject itself is treated as if no one had known or explored this incident before. Once again, the Black man gets no credit – and not only that…but WE don’t do anything about it. Zucchino himself refuses to acknowledge, credit, cite or discuss Everett’s film Wilmington On Fire despite the fact that nearly everyone on the street knows that Zucchino has not only seen the film and viewed it, but that it instigated his own investigation into the history of Wilmington and the racist coup and bloodshed that transpired in 1898. Everett is proud that he has helped to agitate other historians and journalists and writers — and yet instead of seeking an alliance, they choose to pretend Everett and other Black independent researchers and artists who do controversial and dangerous work — don’t exist. Well that’s funny to me. I am sure the IRS and the good people of Wilmington know Mr. Everett and his film exists. I know the Universities of North Carolina and throughout the United States know that Mr. Everett and his film exists.
White people constantly and consistently base their sociological explorations, historical investigations into race and racism, and their understandings and approach to music and understanding — off of the sweat and blood already spilled by Black activists, artists, laborers, and the Beautiful Unknowns who have simply exhausted their own humanity into model templates for “good citizenry” and yet…who gets the acknowledgment, kudos, support, critical attention, financial support and mainstream attention? The Independents, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the revolutionaries fail every time this happens. Shame on us.
— Dennis Leroy Kangalee, May 20, 2020
A meditation on Christopher Everett’s revolutionary documentary film Wilmington On Fire
Christopher Everett’s independent film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning movie about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning. With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…
Malcolm X used to bemoan Black America’s pathological loyalty to the Democratic Party. This perverse agreement to remain supportive of the Democrats was sealed of course with President Johnson’s skillful passing of the 1964 Civil Rights act, the landmark piece of legislation that deemed discrimination of any kind illegal in the USA. What is most ironic, of course, beyond the fact that since then non-Black immigrants have actually used the gains of that bill and the Civil Rights movement in general – to benefit their own stance, corroborate white racism, and ascend the ladder within America culture. Oppressed people of any stripe are always quick to forget that they are quite often the beneficiaries of another people’s suffering. (Johnny Cochrane interestingly makes note of this in his autobiography Journey to Justice when he describes how the former LA community of west of Main Street went from being a Japanese-American middle class neighborhood to a New Black Middle Class enclave post WW2).
I struggle to understand Jews who do not see the actions of Israel as being evil and draconian in terms of how they regard and oppress the Arabs and Africans of the occupied territory once known purely as Palestine. Do we all suffer from our own selective memory, our own bludgeoning “cops in the head”, our own mangled perception of what is right, wrong, and how we benefit or not or fit in or not?
What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the heralding of Lyndon Johnson and his “progressive” administration for putting forth the Civil Rights Act, blah blah blah…Johnson was a politician, not a moralist. He would have sold his own mother if it had meant power. Despite his obvious support of the Civil Rights Act he was staunchly racist and a serious cartoon-example of a “good old boy” white Southern cracker. His recorded conversations reveal how natural it was for him to refer to blacks as “Niggers” constantly in conversations held in the oval office (you can hear these recordings on YouTube). Jim Garrison, who charged the United States government in a coup d’état against President Kennedy implied that Johnson himself was even marginally involved in the JFK assassination, so what on earth would convince people he cared about Black people simply because he patronized us and realized he was already in a losing battle…America had to make legislative changes in the 1960’s – the pressure was too much to bear as we the far left was gaining major strides in this country and throughout the world and a Black men protecting himself at all costs against the cruelty and hate of his government would not go unheeded. It is pressure and resistance that always creates legal changes and it either hits you in the wallet or in the head. The dollar or the bullet.
Are we “a virus in shoes” as the late great Bill Hicks once proclaimed? I think we are. Whether we are killing animals or each other, Man is interminably doomed and his shameful celebration of malevolence only continues to prove that while there may not be a god – there is certainly a devil. And he weaves and works his way through the actions of human beings in a way that is profoundly shocking and mysterious. Why? Because, supposedly, everything is all about money. Or the subjugation of one group over another. Throughout history and psychology, all things, all of our spiritual carbon footprints could be whittled down to either of these causes, often both, as Capitalism is a complex duet of both avarice and racism. We are pathetic.
Let’s get back to the checkered past and moral confusion of the Democrats. What a fascinating and morbid history our political parties have purely in terms of their formation, definitions, and self-preservation. For it was on November 10, 1898 North Carolina Democrats enabled a White Mob to engage in a massacre that left at least 100 Blacks dead (the exact number is somewhere between 60 and in the hundreds – the records are murky about this for obvious reasons). For some reason it was the political affiliation alone that stood out to me when learning this information in Christopher Everett’s new and revealing documentary Wilmington On Fire.
First of all, I had no clue that Wilmington was at one point one of the most cosmopolitan centers in all of the USA, in fact one of the biggest and most economically inspired cities in the world before 1898.Wilmington On Fire does a fantastic job relaying all of this information. It was one of the most diverse cities with (yes!) black-owned and white-owned shops side by side in downtown Wilmington. The Black middle class was so successful, some even had their own butlers and pianos. This puts a whole new twist on the 19th century Black life doesn’t it? In fact, what most of us can’t admit: there were more powerfully linked and healthier connections amongst black businessmen and their communities well before the official rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation laws in the USA. This warrants serious rumination.
Obviously this kind of “renaissance” and “progress” of humanity offended racists and white supremacists to their very core, many of which were staunch members and supporters of the Democratic Party. Republicans back then still had the air of liberalism attached to their party.
But meanings and their associations’ change and context – always context! – will always be the end all-be all. Still, it is no less alarming that Americans have a skewered view of the past, identities, and supposed meanings. Perhaps if we regarded political parties as complicated as we have begun to regard our sexual identities or proclivities we may see that there is more to “politics” than meets the eye; more to the values of a political party than its typically regarded associations.
Does it not amuse you that Hollywood actor Wendell Pierce insanely defends the likes of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats legacy? While once again context is vital here, had the actor done this to a Trump supporter, I wouldn’t even mention it. I would casually admire the act for what it’s worth, shrugging off yet another ploy and performance from our nation’s true capital: the throes of Hollyweird.
Even if an actor of Pierce’s modest-stature (commercially speaking) is so disgruntled by a Bernard Sanders supporter or another candidate – he should take time to remember that political parties mean, essentially, nothing. Pierce should spend time putting weight or interest behind Christopher Everett’s excellent movie opposed to paying the state $1,000 bail as a result of his fractious encounter with a Sanders supporter.
About the infamous 1898 massacre of Wilmington’s black businesses and citizens, Christopher Everett’s directorial debut is an unpretentious, direct, and minimalist portrait of the coup d’état created by the white North Carolina Democratic Party in an attempt to broker the lives and future of Wilmington and eventually the entire state – ensuring the legacy and rebirth of a rekindled and acknowledged form of legally sanctioned racism, 35 years after the civil war and the USA’s official outlaw of slavery. As Dr. Umar Johnson fluently explains, after the Civil War in 1865 – a cloud hung over the Ex-Confederate Southern white men who couldn’t bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost a war – not to President Lincoln or the Yankees up North but to their own former slaves! We forget or choose not to remember that Black Americans fought against some of their former slave owners as Union soldiers. And the Union never would have won the Civil War had it not been for the Black soldiers who fought for themselves… and on behalf of the Union.
In retaliation and exasperation, white supremacists who governed the Democratic Party in North Carolina sought to retaliate and officially install a racist system that had been supposedly eradicated some 30 years prior as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates’ dream to restore White unity and Black servitude reached such a grizzled mania that an impassioned yet calculated plot to excise the Black businesses and citizens of Wilmington completely. Independent researcher Kent Chatfield shows us copies of WB McKoy’s pamphlet of 1897, The White Government Union a constitution and bylaws created by the North Carolina Democratic Party whose sole aim was to instill white supremacy government.
The film opens with Ness Lee’s powerful track, “Voice of The Regular People” produced by Illastrate with sampled echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s inimitable falsetto heard wailing, “I’m going to war to find my brother!” is well used here and the closing number of the film has one of the best uses of anthemic protest music that I can think of in any movie since Children of Men’s closing with John Lennon’s “Free The People.” The closing number by James Diallo (produced by Michael ‘Sarkastix’ Harris) in this case is the original and haunting, “It’s a Massacre” – a moody atmospheric poetic hip hop tune that is as defiant and soulful as the film itself. The rest of the music is sparsely and confidently scored by Matthew Head.
We learn in Wilmington On Fire that the White Government Union was a more urbane and far more treacherous terrorist organization than its backyard cousin the Ku Klux Klan for example. These were men who were out for blood, had serious connections and money, and were not going to stop until they removed all Black power-brokers, cultural influence, and existence in Wilmington, North Carolina. The White Government Union’s de-facto militias – known as the “redshirts” – once again, unlike the Klan did not hide their faces and acted like savage storm-troopers upon the African-American community and, as the Nazis did, acted in accordance with some of the most strategic and wicked propaganda put forth by white racists in Wilmington in order to stir up hate and fear against the Blacks. Their vile use of rape as a fear tactic and as a way to protect the white purity of the white woman is on par with the mechanisms later used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Who knows? I imagine Hitler and his henchmen being the history fanatics that they were no doubt impressed and inspired by the methods used by the White Government Union.
Wilmington On Fire was made to enlighten, inform, and arouse interest in not only a slice of American history, but also a deeply troubling event that has been swept under the carpet and seldom mentioned. A touchstone of racism and quite honestly one of the multitudinous events that has occurred to Black people in North America alone that helps make-up the Black Holocaust – a stream of harrowing events that Western academics and historians continually downplay in favor of the gargantuan numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust in the confines of Nazi death-camps. Still, if it were a numbers game they would lose. According to SE Anderson, somewhere between 15 and 60 million Black lives were destroyed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade alone. And the horror continues to this day. Each isolated act of terror makes up another patchwork in the terrible mighty quilt known as Modern Culture As Created by the Anglo in What Is Now Known as The United States of America.
Yet, many African-Americans still find it hard to reconcile their past in this country alone. Randall Robinson in his excellent book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks mentions his exasperation via a casual discussion he had with author Walter Mosley with Blacks’ seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their tortured past by downplaying and literally disabling the commercial business of such well-intentioned films like Beloved based on the Toni Morrison classic. Because it deals with slavery they ignored it. That’s probably even truer for the greater mainstream’s embarrassing avoidance of the entire work of genius Haile Gerima. And while pop culture has embraced a Disney-fied, eroticized, and gleefully sanitized “ANTEBELLUM SLAVE & SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS” movie genre (Miss Burning to Clara’s Heart to The Help to 12 Years a Slave, etc) – most of the serious art films or documentaries go unnoticed or un-appreciated because of their innate passion or style or singular vision. Sometimes it’s because of all three – whether it’s serious protest dramas like Nothing But a Man or later radical Black-helmed pictures like Sam Greenlee & Ivan Dixon’s TheSpook Who Sat By The Door – there’s always a distinct difference in the independent filmmaker’s vision and those seeking to exploit, pander, or simply fulfill a Liberal-checklist of obligations for some media company to fulfill. This must always be taken into account when you watch any film, especially a documentary: Ask, “Is this necessary?” And then ask, “Would this director be willing to suffer for giving us this information?”
Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.
Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.
By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a white brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…
If film can be an art and a weapon – the documentary is an often thrilling and deadly weapon in the arsenal, at times a best kept secret. For all documentaries seek to make its audience confront something. If narrative directors infused their scripts with this lesson – how much more dynamic and dangerous dramatic pictures would be!
And yet documentaries have become a particular and strange new pornography in our culture. It has become obvious to me that over the past decade a large number of filmmakers who fancy themselves as “progressive” and “Liberal-loving” humane freedom fighters have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money in making documentaries – but not truly advocating any direct social change. They are carefully crafted movies that give facts and tons of information about terrible events or current happenings – and yet don’t actually implore their audiences to do anything. It is not necessary for a film to scream its message to its audience, quite often even the most graphic documentary doesn’t have to do that…and yet it doesn’t hurt if a documentary is a bit forward and incendiary even to its own viewer. Wilmington On Fire toes this line – it is up front about how it feels and how its director regards his subject.
And what I like most about it – is that it is a “simple” American story. By focusing in on his own state’s history and legacy, Everett combines the ideal Pete Seeger coaxed us to consider: think globally, but act locally.
You don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to collect data on terrorism – often all you need to do is investigate your own state or cities history. The United States was founded upon terrorism: where have we all been?
Film As Resistance
“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”
– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller
When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly begin to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.
What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.
The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?
Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.
Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?
No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.
The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.
His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.
So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.
I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.
Create your own. Don’t join. Ever. When you seek to join you aim to give up freedom and possibilities that you have not yet even tested or given any attention to. If the world is so interesting and so compelling why are so many people , especially artists, in a rush to join organizations, festivals, groups, committees, schools, etc – that do nothing but coerce them into giving up their own off beat for the steady hum-drum of the Zeitgeist Parade? If you’re lonely and are seeking “understanding” or allies after years of pounding pavements or digging trenches then either consider getting a dog…or joining yourself first. Allies will come. And I do believe in miracles. But you must first cherish the loneliness, the outsider within. It may be the only honest thing in your life. But for the love of man or animal or cloud or tree – please don’t sell out…in order to buy in.
It was the type of beauty that makes an artist jealous or an atheist create a religion.
The woman’s face seemed to say “Handle With Care”. Her features were etched with a loving poise as if the brush across her face said to its own bristles: “Check this out.” Her lips had the sculpted and untouched look of a marble statue or a grandmother’s china set. Majestic, but almost too sterile. But so real that you knew if you touched it, you could break it. The delicacy of her face hosted a pair of bright cavernous eyes. They seemed deep and endless, a Xanadu unto herself. And just as lonely, perhaps. Her hair waved and nestled around her head. And her collarbone, too, seemed unloved and therefore all the more inviting. Her breasts hung and bobbed naturally, barely hidden beneath a thin wisp of loose cotton. The Maestro’s mouth twisted dumbly and his eyes ached. He felt bad about every negative comment he had ever made about women. Or life.
He watched her cross the street and saw the poetry in her gait, her bent head, tired arms. What he had always read about in dance books is what this woman was. The purity of her movement–was a great deal to take because it championed the “Beauty of a Better Tomorrow” philosophy in today. Her demeanor was confident, but mortal. And her curved marble lips were not pursed for her victim; they were curled up for grace. A shift of one minor muscle and it would have read as a smirk. All that beauty, like the blanket of stars at night, swimming through this sea of contempt, unpleasantness, and bitter digitized Eleanor Rigby’s of the world.
Seen, but not valued.
Hated because it lived and breathed.
Scorned because she was beautiful, but not wealthy.
Single, but not lonely.
Happy, but not ignorant.
And it was in the way she bent down to adjust her shoes that the trembles started and pain swelled…
He had to do something; he was still dizzy from his episode minutes earlier. He sucked on his dwindling saliva and hummed. Her tiny ballet shot adrenaline-razors through his veins.
Her shoes: tattered, worn, and dejected. But treated like the hands of Moses. She was so casual that it frightened him. The cardboard around her feet were folded and molded like moccasins. The shoestrings were made of wire like un-done hangers. If it hadn’t been for sanguine stretching for August, the stitches, like crimson thorns stuck in benign berry–he would have never noticed…And that is what continued to pain him.
Her refusal to crumble in between the pitied streets of a broken cabaret city and a metropolis frozen in spirit, caught between two different chords–minors and majors clashing and bending like fists in a boxing ring twirling with the sprays of sweat drooling on the grooves and in between the rich peoples’ collars, made him sad. And he looked and he could feel the threads of yesterday’s train pulling and hooting at some lonely distant region of his brain. Her old fashioned elegance reminded him of those black and white movies from the 1940’s and instantly his parents, who always appeared larger in his memory, came to him with comforting compassion and an immense yard of broken TV’s, each gripping its thwarted dream…
He revolted when he imagined the pain of her footsteps,–but like everyone else with a battered soul, shot nerves, and no hope–all he could do was stare and stand motionlessly. At least he gave her full attention. She removed all her clothing and ejected a rolled up ball of tissue in between her legs to help stop Aunt Rosa’s mighty flow. Sadder than an unemployed man’s footprints in the snow on New Year’s Eve.
Sadder than a subway ride on a Sunday afternoon.
Sadder than people who believe that hunger isn’t murder.
Sadder than a last minute pack or an eviction notice in the strange cool air of the summer solstice.
Sadder than a cemetery with gum on its fence.
And sadder than the boys who know who their fathers are–but have no desire to be like them.
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.”