“Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!” – Intertitle from The Birth of a Nation
During the recent Olympics, national pride was at an all-time high, especially when medals, preferably gold, were won by Team USA. Such patriotism was also evident at the conclusion of The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) when “order” was restored by the heroically portrayed Ku Klux Klan. What does BOAN share in common with Team USA? Both present the façade of an ideal America. Team USA earned bragging rights for winning the most medals, however, their accomplishments did not indicate America’s dominance in the world. If the Olympics were based on health care and education test scores, America would find itself ranked too low to get anywhere near the medal podium.
Being proud of one’s country is commendable, especially with objectivity. In BOAN, the aforementioned concept of “liberty and union” did not include the recently emancipated blacks who were characterized as irresponsible and dangerous. Their subjugation was deemed necessary for the nation’s well being. Unfortunately, that same mindset is reflected in current voter ID laws that are expected to disenfranchise many poor, minority and the elderly voters. The justification is voter fraud, however, the real reason is much more sinister. I believe these machinations, which include the birthers and the Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign finance, are in play to prevent the reelection of President Obama. Deeper still, the enmity towards the President stems from an unjustified sense of entitlement, fear of revenge, and suppressed feelings of guilt.
“I believe that the white man has done a great injustice to the black man in this country by having kidnapped our people and brought us here and down to the level we’re on today and today instead of approaching the factors that their original mistake has created, instead of approaching these factors objectively and realistically, their greatest sin that they’re doing now is trying to pretend that they never committed a crime, that they never did any wrong.” – Malcolm X
Racism continues to haunt America because this nation has yet to atone for the immoral and inhumane institution of slavery from which it greatly profited. There’s much to learn from other countries like Rwanda in this regard. In Kinyarwanda, a recent film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a truth and reconciliation commission was set up after the civil war. The commission provided a safe place for those who had been brutalized and lost loved ones to face their oppressors and detail how they had suffered. Their persecutors were then encouraged to empathize with their victims by facing the impact of their crimes. With forgiveness and unity as the main objective, Rwanda’s truth and reconciliation commission was designed to benefit both the tormented and tormentors.
I often wonder how America would have benefited from a truth and reconciliation commission immediately following the Civil War. Would this have resulted in greater compassion and more respect for the lives, properties and rights of others? Or would there still be need for euphemisms like manifest destiny, making the world safe for democracy and justifiable homicide? Would “liberty and union” include everyone equally? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. However, it is certain that America’s unwillingness to regard itself objectively prevents the nation from reaching its full potential.
“He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s words encourage and challenge us to seek the truth at all times. For without truth, there can be no reconciliation.
“The nation [the founders] envisioned and created was a white supremacist nation. Meaning, it was founded on the notion that whites should rule, that whites had superior ability to rule, that the nation should be a white republic, and that people of color surely should not have equal rights with whites.” – Tim Wise
When The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) was released 97 years ago in 1915, it was heralded for its technical innovations and was the first film screened at the White House. However, many – including the NAACP – protested BOAN’s degrading black stereotypes, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and its racist propaganda dressed up as historical representation. Despite its controversies, BOAN is a valuable part of my film collection. It is a movie that I watch and refer to regularly. The hegemonic worldview expressed in BOAN is still very relevant, unfortunately, and offers great insights about the ongoing pervasiveness of American racism, even more so in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
BOAN dramatizes the Civil War and its consequences from the perspectives of two families – the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. Life in the South before the war was depicted as idyllic. Whites reigned supreme while blacks were carefree and content in their subservient roles. After the war, however, the defeated Southerners fell under the rule of “carpetbaggers.” They also found themselves vulnerable to the newly freed slaves who outnumbered them, had voting rights, violent tendencies and the audacity to pursue white women. The Southerners responded to this threat to their existence by forming an underground vigilante group to restore “order” to the South, and hence the Ku Klux Klan was born.
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained…will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
Jefferson’s quote reflects the inconsistencies on which this nation was founded – contradictions that have yet to be meaningfully recognized. On the one hand, this slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged the “injuries” inflicted on blacks due to racial discrimination. On the other hand, however, Jefferson rationalized that it was in America’s best interest to deny blacks equal rights and protections under the Constitution in order to avoid retaliation and anarchy.
“I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that [President Obama] had.” – Arizona Governor Jan Brewer
As if taking a cue from Jefferson, BOAN depicted the newly emancipated blacks as irresponsible, brutal and out of control. The abuse of their newly acquired political power left whites disenfranchised and helpless to do anything about it. Left to their own devices, blacks were well on their way to taking over the nation. That is until the Ku Klux Klan rode in and saved America. Using intimidation, coercion and violence to oppress blacks, the Klan’s methods were deemed necessary to preserve the nation. The end justified the means. Could this be why an unarmed man can be shot 41 times and his murderers set free? Perhaps this explains why a man who was outnumbered and beaten savagely on videotape was perceived as the aggressor. Is this why Trayvon Martin, armed only with a cell phone, Skittles and ice tea, was shot to death and his assailant, George Zimmerman, has so far avoided murder charges by claiming self-defense? Adding insult to injury, it has been reported Zimmerman “suffers” from PTSD – as if that’s any comparison to being DEAD.
“It’s time this generation learned the difference between a villain and a hero.” – J. Edgar Hoover
The irony of quoting Hoover on this topic aside, the concept of heroes and villains works well in fiction. In BOAN, the villainous blacks are returned to a submissive position by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s savior status is denoted by the superimposed images of Christ and a Klansman in the final minutes of the film. Therefore, it stands to reason, according to BOAN, that if the Klan is godly, then blacks are the direct opposite. However, in real life using the “good versus evil” rubric to assess others often leads to tragic consequences. Dehumanizing and demonizing one’s opponents and/or those with whom you are unfamiliar results in a delusional sense of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to consider different points of view. Peaceful resolutions are replaced by ongoing conflict and domination.
“If you’re black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college but molested you.” – Chris Rock
America likes to see itself as the land of freedom, justice and opportunity – a harmonious, multi-cultural melting pot. That is not my reality though I yearn for that ideal. In my America, racial discrimination and stereotyping are constant companions. Racism does not always involve physical violence, although its emotional toll can be just as destructive over time. Its more subtle forms include low expectations, backhanded compliments and hasty assumptions.
History informs me that demanding Zimmerman’s arrest is not enough. Based on the way this case has been handled so far and the efforts to criminalize Martin, the state of Florida is incapable of conducting a fair trial. This case must be prosecuted on the federal level. There also needs to be a major shake-up in the Sanford Police Department. Resignations/terminations are not sufficient. The conduct of the police and state attorney’s office should be thoroughly investigated. Negligent law enforcement officers must be prosecuted and their pensions should be revoked. Maybe then they will value the rights of everyone they are supposed to “serve and protect.” Finally, looking to the future, now is the time to push for legislation about racial profiling with specific guidelines and consequences applicable to both law enforcement officials and civilians.
Frank Costello: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – The Departed
The Ku Klux Klan’s hoods versus Trayvon Martin’s hoodie – who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Whether it’s on the screen in BOAN or in real life, the designation of heroes and villains is not absolute. There are many shades of gray. The real dilemma is not in the “hero” and “villain” designations; it is in the desire to categorize them in the first place. After all, the concept of heroes and villains is relative. Much depends on which end of the proverbial loaded gun you find yourself on.
What will it take for this nation to be reborn?
TO BE CONCLUDED
“The Rebirth of a Nation – Part 2: Truth and Reconciliation”
Ten years ago, on the same evening that Sidney Poitier was presented with an award for lifetime achievement, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Academy Awards for their respective leading roles in Training Day and Monster’s Ball. Though I had mixed feelings about their stereotypical roles –Berry as a tragic, dependent sex object and Washington’s portrayal of a corrupt cop – I still enjoyed seeing them honored. In particular, despite the overly exuberant presence of Julia Roberts, Washington’s acceptance speech is what made the evening memorable for me. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Roberts. After all, given the same opportunity, I too would have draped myself all over Washington like a cheap suit.
“Two birds in one night, huh?” – Denzel Washington
Washington began his acceptance speech by referencing Berry who had just won. Unlike Berry who was tearfully grateful, Washington was cool, confident and in control. Washington’s manner indicated that he recognized his self worth and talent with or without the award. The only emotion Washington showed was his acknowledgement of Poitier who looked on proudly. Maybe Washington’s previous disappointments with Malcolm X and Hurricane tempered his enthusiasm and expectations. Perhaps he had come to realize that actors are not always recognized for their most outstanding roles. Or it’s possible that Washington chose to keep his real feelings private. Whatever the reason, Washington showed a healthy respect for the award without appearing to need its validation.
With the Academy Awards about to begin shortly, I find myself emotionally torn once again. I am rooting for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to be recognized for their fine work while hating The Help, a film that trivializes the pervasive evil of America’s racism. Will there be another memorable moment tonight? I’ll be watching and hoping…
More than 15 years ago, I enthusiastically endured the Friday night multitude in Times Square to experience Jerry Maguire. As a fan of Tom Cruise and writer/director Cameron Crowe, my high expectations were more than met. The film was well written, well-acted, and the laughs came early and often. I was particularly moved by the loving and supportive interplay between Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his wife Marcee (Regina King). Fully realized, multidimensional black characters are so rare, unfortunately, that such portrayals continue to be a welcome surprise. I also enjoyed watching the friendship develop between Rod and Jerry (Tom Cruise). Theirs was a relationship devoid of clichés and stereotypes. Or was it?
The pivotal “Show me the money!” scene dramatizes the differences between Rod and Jerry. As the head of a close-knit family, Rod is shown in the kitchen with his wife, brother and son. He is physically present and emotionally available. Though on the phone discussing business, Rod supervises his son’s behavior and guides him to remove his plate from the table. His family’s needs and wishes are Rod’s top priorities. Jerry, on the other hand, is in his office isolated from others both physically and emotionally. Jerry is concerned only about himself as he desperately struggles to retain his clients after being fired.
On the surface, Rod and Jerry need each other to salvage their respective careers. As always, however, the subtext is way more interesting. As you view the scene, imagine that Rod is in the same room with Jerry and positioned directly behind him. Note Rod’s pelvic thrusts to the rap music and Jerry’s defeated posture. What do you see? Does the scene reflect any racially divisive fears, beliefs and/or stereotypes? How does this affect the scene’s dynamics?
“My girlfriend is black, and I’ve learned a lot about racism including the fact that it hasn’t gone away, especially in American business. But on a social level there’s less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let’s put another hero up there.” – George Lucas
Red Tails, the action drama about Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, opened in theaters nationwide today. George Lucas’s herculean efforts to get the film made – which included personally financing the project to the tune of $93 million – are well documented. Over the past few weeks I have received numerous messages via e-mail, Facebook and radio strongly urging support of this film during its opening weekend. This is supposed to send an unmistakable message to Hollywood power brokers to make more “positive” black films. Really? I think not. Begging through the box office – as proven time and time again – is not an effective way to get more racially balanced, multi-dimensional and realistic images from the film industry. Also, despite the film’s historical significance and Lucas’s good intentions, Red Tails is not worthy of the cause célèbre status that has been bestowed upon it by many in the African American community.
“I’m making it for black teenagers. They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does.” – George Lucas
Of course everyone should know and claim their history, but it is the height of paternalistic arrogance for Lucas to determine what that should be for black teenagers. Red Tails was historically shallow and predictable in a cartoonish way. More attention was given to the action scenes than to story and character development. There was no sense of the black pilots’ familial ties, experiences in America, or expectations and hopes. Their motivations – beyond patriotism – were unclear. Other possible motivating factors, such as making their communities and loved ones proud and/or expanding career options, were not explored. One of the pilots carried a photo of black Jesus which was very progressive for the 1940s. Unfortunately, that pilot crashed and was badly burned. I leave you to interpret that subtext for yourself.
The pervasiveness of racism à la Jim Crow was watered down when dealt with at all. One such scene took place in the segregated officers’ club. The Tuskegee Airmen were invited in by the white officers and treated to drinks after a successful mission. One of the Tuskegee pilots, Smoky (Ne-Yo), chose to share an oft-told, corny joke about color. The gist of the “comic” story was that whites turn various colors depending on their emotions, yet they call black people colored. The white and black officers shared a laugh. Kumbaya! This unrealistic, contrived, feel-good moment glossed over the complexity of racism. During the Jim Crow era, I find it hard to believe that black officers would enter a segregated officers’ club, even if invited. They would create their own gathering space to relax and let loose. If they did take that risk, however, they certainly wouldn’t tell a joke about whites while there. However, in Lucas’s world, all is well over a beer. How does this fanciful nostalgia benefit black teenagers? I have no idea.
“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions]. I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.” – George Lucas
So now the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks sees himself as the savior of black films? Lucas means well but he just doesn’t get it. Nor do the others who have rallied around Red Tails as if its fate determines the future of black film production. Let’s be clear, if Red Tails nosedives at the box office, it will not be because it has a predominantly black cast or lacked publicity. It will not be because we do not support films with “positive” black images. Nor will it be due to lack of interest in the courageous Tuskegee Airmen. It will be for one reason and one reason only – it is a bad film. Period. I must confess that it has been fun watching Lucas, who has profited greatly through the Hollywood system, recreate himself as an outsider for the purpose of promoting this film.
“Long-term power is more important than short-term money.” – Warrington Hudlin
Once upon a time, we had independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams who made films specifically for black audiences. Hollywood noticed their popularity and made their own, more expensive versions of black films. Black audiences, favoring the splashier productions, abandoned the independent films and have been at Hollywood’s mercy ever since. Hollywood is not changing, but we can by no longer settling for whatever is tossed our way. We can actively seek and support independently produced movies that are entertaining and offer a variety of images and stories.
Brothers and sisters, fret not. Starting next month, all six of the Star Wars movies will be theatrically re-released in 3-D. Whatever fate befalls Red Tails, George Lucas is going to be alright. What about us? When will we finally accept that it is a waste of time to solicit an industry that misrepresents us over and over again? Soon, I hope.
As we head into the movie awards season, many critics have compiled their best and worst lists for 2011. Due to the subjective nature of the selections, one critic’s gem is sometimes another critic’s dud. Who is to say what is truly best and worst? It’s really all a matter of opinion. I prefer, however, to focus on what and why some films are unforgettable to me as opposed to ranking them. Here is my countdown of 2011’s most memorable movies – for reasons ranging from good to bad to notorious:
- The Tree of Life – Two hours of my life I’ll never get back; convoluted and overrated.
- Jumping the Broom – This should have been a movie on Lifetime – great looking cast, but shallow and predictable.
- The Help – Imitation of Life meets Steel Magnolias. That’s all.
- The Skin I Live In – Not my favorite Almodóvar film, but a thought-provoking examination of identity.
- J. Edgar – This eagerly anticipated Eastwood/DiCaprio collaboration proved to be a major disappointment. How? By favoring flashbacks over a linear narrative, safely skimming the surface in regards to the extent Hoover’s constitutional violations destroyed lives and movements, and therefore missing the opportunity to draw parallels to current domestic and foreign policies.
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Fifty is the new 35. Thanks to the physically fit Tom Cruise and his daring stunts, I now look forward to turning 50.
- Trust – Though much is borrowed from Ordinary People, this film about an online sexual predator is a must-see for all teenagers and parents.
- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – Taking in a Friday matinee with a theater full of truant teenagers was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a very long time.
- Incendies – A wonderfully told, haunting story that stays with you long after the last frame.
- Kinyarwanda – Though specific to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, its themes regarding forgiveness and unity are universal and timeless.
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – Ironically, my most memorable movie moment of 2011 was courtesy of an Angela Davis interview from the 1970s. Davis’s insightful response resonated deeply in my soul as she articulated what I am often too emotional and/or frustrated to clearly express. In doing so, Davis held up a mirror through which we can see ourselves as we truly are. For that I am grateful.
What are your most memorable movies of 2011 and why? Please share.
Happy New Year!
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