Monday, September 29, 2008

Spike makes New Classic Joint

Last evening I had the pleasure of checking out Spike Lee's new film, Miracle at St. Anna. Like most, I was eager to see how my man Spike would capture the stories of African American soldiers in World War II (WWII). All types of questions swirled around in my mind about scope and span of such a project. As a historian, I was even more anxious to see how Spike would tackle such a complicated subject--the "Double V Campaign" meaning victory aboard against Hitler and victory at home against Jim Crow policy that was the rallying cry for African Americans during WWII. To date the only movie that I thought even attempted to capture this topic with any sophistication was A Soldier's Story (1984) directed by Norman Jewison.

I purposely never watched any trailer for Lee's new film, nor sought to find out which notable actors were involved in the project, if there were any at all. Additionally, I didn't know until after I got home from the theater that the movie was adapted from the novel of the same name by celebrated writer (and musician) James McBride. I did not even see Spike on Oprah last week either (not that I would have watched). I wanted to go into the theater with a tabula rassa other than my historical knowledge of the period and African Americans place in it.

In a New York Times interview, Lee said that he had always wanted to make a WWII epic and with the backing of Walt-Disney (yes, you read right, I couldn't believe it either) he certainly had the budget to do so. I wondered if Lee would find actors to give the story the life that Howard Rollins, Jr., Adolf Caesar, Denzel Washington, and comedians Robert Townsend and David Alan Grier did almost twenty-five years prior in the film adaptation of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-Prize winning play. I wondered if Spike Lee's love of his signature 360-degree camera angles would get in the way of telling a story that would engross and capture the viewer, like a reader of fine poetry. Could Terrance Blanchard create a score for this film that would not get in the way of the actors performances like a delicate pianist accompanying a soloist? Blanchard had done so in Lee's HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina, entitled, When the Levees Broke: A Requim in Four Acts (2006), but still I wondered what I would see and hear.

I thought that 2000's Bamboozled was Lee's crowning achievement dealing with race and the sociopathic nature of America, her history of hate, and how entrenched and damaging racialized stereotypes are. His biopic of Malcolm X (which I'm still waiting for Denzel to get an Oscar for) was Lee's towering success at not just a historical film or particular historial figure, but some of the best damn acting on screen. I really began to think, "Spike how are you going to top yourself?"

To my amazement and satisfaction he did just that. Before I started writing this post I searched over twenty blogs and checked out a number of reviews, which were quite scathing and dismissive of the film. However, I expected that. When Malcolm X (1992) was released, I remembered how it was glanced over as well. Most said the movie was too long and yet it did not prevent blackfolk from leaving church early (like my family did) to see it when it was released. Understand though that this epic is about 160 minutes in length, but I did not realize it until Iooked at my watch when I was watching the ending credits.

There were a few reviewers that saw what I amazing achievement for not only Spike Lee, but movies generally. Lee was able to tell a number of intertwined stories simultaneously that did not just hark solely on the issue of race, which most tend to expect from Lee. Nor was it solely about the cruelty of war. The Miracle at St. Anna illustrates the complexities of the human condition whether it is the senseless murder of innocents by German forces, or the beauty of the compassion for an orphaned Italian boy by an African American soldier from the rural American South who had "never been so close to a white person."

Spike Lee castes his camera's lens on all aspects of war and life in general. With the help of several great actors, such as Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and the unforgettable work of Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi, Miracle at St. Anna reminds one of the beautiful fragility of life, the courage to hope and dream, and to simply live when times say that dreaming and living are impossible. Historically speaking, Lee picks up where A Soldier's Story left off...his adaptation of McBride's novel brings voice to the voiceless and attention to those that have been so long ignored.

That being said, PLEASE GO SEE FOR YOURSELF and support Bro. Spike!

(Spike Lee and writer James McBride at film debut)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's never too late.

I post this in memory of my grandmothers, the late Mrs. Rosie Mae Mitchell and the ninety-six years young, Mrs. Ilene Wells (who wears her Obama pin proudly). Speaking with the latter, my grandmother constantly speaks of how thankful she is to be alive during this moment. This story on CNN speaks to the historic nature of this election. I urge those who see anyone wearing one of those jackleg Obama shirts (i.e. shirts bought from the flea market, corner store, etc.) to ask that person(s) are they registered to vote. We must not allow time and opportunity, or the self-defeating attitudes outlined in the so called "Willie Lynch" letter to keep us from the polling places.

We must remember Frederick Douglass' words, "Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will."

Monday, September 22, 2008

"Somebody Please Help me!": The imagined Middle Class

It has been hard to watch the ominous financial crisis sweep through the American landscape. It has prevented me from even blogging at times because it is so frustrating to see. Years of unregulated greed have finally come back to haunt Wall Street and the nation. About a year ago I was speaking to my father and I told him that the way the American markets were moving was eerily similar to things I remembered reading about the economic disaster that hit America in 1929. Then I predicted that there would be a depression, not merely a recession that we saw in the early 1990s--if our investing habits and the lack of regulation did not change. I prayed to God that I would be wrong. I still hope I'm wrong.

Before I proceed, let me say from the outset that I am not an economic historian and would love to hear from those who specialize in such fields. My commentary is informed, however, largely by the economic and social history I am familiar with. I write as student of American history and as a concerned citizen.

So now here we are standing at the edge of an economic void of unseen proportions, and the federal government is scurrying along at a frantic pace to inject an economy with some sort of relief. The $700 billion plan to buy up distressed mortgages will affect the next three generations of Americans. Not only this, but what will be the associative effect on the already crumbling value of the dollar? At this point I don't think anyone knows exactly.

As part of my Sunday morning ritual, I typically try to watch CBS Sunday Morning, hosted by Charles Osgood. This Sunday, social commentator Ben Stein said that we "avoided disaster this time," but I do not believe that things will end that quickly. As the saying goes, "things will get worse before they get better." There are deep seeded problems with the American economy that stimulus checks and tax breaks will not solve. This economic crisis is far from over.

There used to be a commercial on television (that was suspiciously taken off the air) that showcased a family living the so called "American Dream," but that dream was better understood as a mirage of insurmountable debt. Such socio-economic delusions of grandeur created an economic monster that fed upon itself. The notion of a middle class in this nation is what scholar, Benedict Anderson called an "imagined community."

Anderson writes in his his classic text, that nationalism creates imagined community, "because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail...the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship." That same comradeship can be extended to notions of race and class in this country. In his stand up routine, "Never Scared," Chris Rock argues that there is not a white man in the audience that would trade places with him even though he is relatively well off. Let's be honest, Chris Rock is a millionaire. Rock points out that due to the psychological wage of whiteness, a white man is going to see how far it [whiteness] will take him.

The Lending Tree commercial depicts a white man who seems to be living the good life. His children are in "good schools". He lives in a "good neighborhood." He drives a "good car." However, the lie is that he is drowning in a towering wave of debt to keep up the facade and his membership in this "community." His middle-class ideology is propped up upon the frivolous and indeed dangerous patterns of lending and speculation that have continually marred this nation's economy even during the antebellum era.

The leader of the current regime in America, President Bush says "Investors should know that the United States government is taking action to restore confidence in America's financial markets so they can thrive again." Confidence. That is the name of the game and that confidence has been shaken to the core. It may not look like it now, but just remember Black Monday back in 1987 (October 19). Let us see what the month of October has in store for Wall Street.

I'm not alone in my thinking. Robert Reich, currently a professor at UC-Berkeley, was Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton. He mentioned that "This [financial crisis] could be comparable to the Great Depression in terms of just its effect on financial markets."

$11,315,000,000,000...(the new debt)...why do I hear Diddy in the back of my mind saying, "Take that, take that!"

Thursday, September 18, 2008

From Iron Man to Al Jolson

Recently I decided to check out a new movie by Ben Stiller called, Tropic Thunder. The premise if the film is four or five well known actors have been selected to make the mother of all war movies, where the backdrop for the film is Vietnam. The comedy includes names such as Jack Black, Stiller, a surprise cameo by Tom Cruise, but what was most intriguing or disturbing to me was Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of an Australian-born method actor who goes through some sort of procedure to to darken his skin to play one of the main characters who is African American. This is why initially when I heard of the film I protested seeing it. I thought to myself, "are they really going to do black face in the twenty-first century?"

The answer of course is "yes". Downey trades in his high tech suit of metal from Iron Man to "play the dude who is disguised as another dude!" To add to that there is a brother in the movie who is a popular rapper that is reminiscent of the Boondock's Gangstalicious (see clip below). Thus, the rapper is a hyper sexual, super thug on television and on "wax", but in real life the artist is secretly homosexual.

After thinking about the movie for a minute, I am going to give it up to Ben Stiller for attempting to create a smart, edgy, comedy that is creating some very complicated satire of the Boondocks, South Park variety with maybe a few more layers. Of note is the identity crisis that Downey's and Stiller's characters go through. But, I wonder if Stiller's audience got so hung up on not going "full retard" (reference used for actors who play mentally handicapped persons in films like Rain Man or Forest Gump) to notice the larger commentary he was making about the film industry and popular culture generally. I do not think those who view this film will pick on such themes. However, I could be wrong. Which gives me hope that Obama can still be elected.

Go register to vote and then get twenty others to do the same.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Declinging signficance of race and waffles?

Don't tell me for one minute that race still doesn't matter. Check out the response by the creator of such a racist product. They have no clue nor do they care to address their ignorance of not just what is printed in relation to Obama, but the larger issue of how what they call "satire" is part of a minstrel legacy of racialized stereotypes to dehumanize African Americans.

I'm going to go to Paul Mooney on this one. Remember when the "California Raisins" were popular back in the 1980s? Well lets get some marshmallows and put John and Cindy McCain on them. Oh, and don't forget about Palin too. I bet that the creators of the "Obama Waffles" would not find that so damn funny.

Friday, September 05, 2008

They do more than give socio-political commentary

I've been wanting to post this for a while. Check out Drs. Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and even talk show host Tavis Smiley at the recent DNC convention. Aside from their socio-political commentary they can appreciate good music. Let's hope they don't have a critique about how Frankie Beverly and Maze were not honoring the spirit of the black freedom movement. I won't say more than that...this video speaks for itself. PRICELESS!

Palin's Politics of Pimping her daughter...

Check out CNN political commentator and radio host, Roland Martin, go off about Governor Palin and the politics of race, abortion, and why the Democrats need some attack dogs (among other things). I'll share my thoughts later. Enjoy Bro. Martin!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Immediacy of Now

Last week we celebrated forty-five years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his historic speech entitled, "Normalcy Never Again," more commonly known as "I Have a Dream". This oration is easily the most recognized, recited, celebrated, and often inappropriately evoked address of the twentieth century. Both liberal and conservative alike have claimed King's "Dream" for themselves, and all the while none truly capturing the essence of the check that he tried to cash on behalf of the dispossessed of this so called democracy.

Standing firmly entrenched the historical moment was Senator Barack Obama. As he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president he symbolized the next phase of the black freedom movement's continuing legacy as well as the forward progress of the American system holistically. As I watched the speech with my mother I wondered just how Obama would do, what would he say, and more importantly how would he say it. I was not looking for an "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon or a lecture on race (again). As Obama got into the speech I was keenly aware of his every word. What jumped out at me was the way that he used King's refrain "Now is the time..." throughout. He poignantly and poetically spoke about how a "Georgia minister" had come to Washington demanding equality. He firmly established his policy initiatives to his detractors and was noble and enigmatic in his delivery. I along with my mother was proud. So too were those black folk I saw in the barbershops and churches in my home won in St. Louis.

My eighty-five year old, great-uncle Edward Mitchell (my grandfather's older brother) affectionately called, "Unc" by my entire family, mentioned that after seeing Obama's acceptance speech he hoped that God will allow him to see Obama as president. "A black man as president!" he shouted,

"If de' Lawd allow dat' he can gone 'head and take me home."

However, for some of us, that, like those who wanted more from his wife Michelle, was not enough. Not moments after his speech the members of black intellegensia rose to demonstrate their disdain and disbelief at the Senator's words. In particular, Drs. Cornel West and Julianne Malvaeux were quite outspoken in their criticism of the speech with Tavis Smiley. Dr. Malveaux boldly proclaimed that Obama had "perpetrated a white wash of our [African American] history." She went further to exclaim, "...the meaning [of the moment] has been squandered." Prof. West chimed in by emphatically stating that Obama was trying to "escape from history." The two of them even went so far as to mention how previous speakers moved them to tears.

Their biggest issue, however, seemed to be the fact that Barack Obama did not mention King by name. Was that too much to ask (in their minds)? They added that even Hillary Clinton, the patron saint of Negroes, mentioned Harriet Tubman's fight against slavery. Ultimately, they both were disappointed in Brother Barack. They were not alone in their view. Others across black and normative media and in the blogoshphere and even folk I spoke with agreed with the two intellectuals. Jesse Washington, an Associated Press national writer penned a piece entitled, "Obama avoids race on King's "Dream" Anniversary."

I must part ways with the two scholars on this issue, and those that agree with their assessment of Obama's speech. As a historian, I understand their argument and feel where they are coming from, but ultimately their disappointment is misplaced. They are missing the point. When King delivered his famous "Drum Major Instinct" sermon, which was also used as his eulogy, King spoke about not mentioning where he was educated or the numerous awards that he received, because it was not important. What was important was that he "tried to help somebody." He understood that the dream or the goal of the movement was bigger than him. Now with Barack Obama, his place in history is bigger than him just as the moment is. The fact that he did or not did mention Fannie Lou Hamer or Megar Evers in his speech is dismisses the larger significance of the moment. It does not escape from history as West argued.

Even when King delivered "Normalcy Never Again" there were so called Negro leaders who spoke out against him, even more so after his "Beyond Vietnam" address a year before his death. We need to understand that this moment in our collective history is part of a larger continuum that does not place one person above anything else. King, like Harriet Tubman and the many who have sacrificed for the cause of freedom are symbols of this movement to the beloved community. Thus, this struggle is not about one particular person or scholar (West and Malveaux) is abou the totality of the experience toward justice and equality. Even if Obama had mentioned King by name, the black intellgensia would have found something else to complain about.

Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of what is truly important. We can criticize and critique Obama all we like, but what are each of us doing to help realize the goal of liberation? For that matter out of the thousands of dollars West commands to speak for couple hours, how does he walk the path begin to challenge black folk to see the larger picture?

The biblical Israelites were allowed to see countless miracles where Moses was a vessel of God's will. Yet, they still turned away from God and Moses' warnings to worship a golden calf. If Obama parts the waters of opportunity that allow for him to be the first black president of the United States of America, how much work are we willing to do to free ourselves? How many of us that wear Obama tee-shirts we got from the flea market or barbershop are registered to vote? Obama cannot do it alone. If you disagree with his speech, fine. Do not however, do the work of those hate filled fearful whites (and their negro servants) by tearing him down. Let us leave the messianism and the trivial notions of what is or is not a "perpetual white wash" of our history and look for how we can help address the immediacy of now.

I wish both Cornel West or Julianne Malveaux could talk to "Unc" to explain just what this moment and these times represent. The "now" is much more than one speech but a continued and sustained effort toward progress.

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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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