history, Kinyarwanda, race relations, The Birth of a Nation, Truth & Reconciliation

The Rebirth of a Nation — Part 2: Truth and Reconciliation

Team USA at the 2012 Olympics

“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

“Men with vengeance in their hearts need guidance not encouragement.
It is more about the legacy we leave for those behind us.”

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.

 

 

 

Academy Award, cinema, diversity, Eddie Murphy, Film, film industry, Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood, Lena Horne, Louis Gossett, motion picture industry, Movies, Oscars, PS 22, race relations, Sidney Poitier, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Everything You Need to Know About the Oscars — Part 3: The Illusion of Inclusion

PS 22 Chorus at the Oscars

And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true…” – lyrics from “Over the Rainbow”

In a highly ironic and revelatory twist, the 83rd Academy Awards concluded with a performance of “Over the Rainbow” by Staten Island’s PS 22 Chorus.  At first glance, it appeared that the Oscars and the film industry valued youth and ethnic diversity.  However, with nary a person of color honored and The King’s Speech as the night’s big winner, that carefully presented picture of inclusion was nothing more than an illusion.  While some viewers gushed over the chorus’s “inspirational” performance, all I saw were white honorees smiling down benevolently at the group of predominantly Black and Latino singers.  Once again, I was reminded how little the Oscars and the film industry have progressed in regards to diversity.

“You look very appealing to a younger demographic.” – Anne Hathaway

Attempting to boost sagging ratings by attracting a younger audience, the best picture nominees were expanded from five to 10 in 2009.  The rationale was that more viewers would watch if popular films (translation: box office mega hits like The Hangover) were contenders for the top prize.  Demographics and ratings also influenced the selection of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as this year’s co-hosts.  The Social Network emerged as an early frontrunner for best picture.  However, reminiscent of the old bait-and-switch, The King’s Speech – a 1930’s period drama about Great Britain’s royalty (white, privileged and beyond wealthy) – triumphed over the more contemporary and youth-driven Inception and The Social Network.  Viewers who tuned in expecting a youth-oriented program discovered instead that it was business as usual.  The values and preferences of the Academy’s older voters prevailed.

“When they first came to me and said that they wanted me to present the award for best picture, my first reaction was to say, No!  I’m not going because they have not recognized Black people in the motion picture industry.” – Eddie Murphy

I remember watching the Oscars that night in 1988 and feeling very bored and disconnected.  Two things prevented me from channel surfing – the misplaced remote control and my comfortable chair.  Instead I flipped through magazines as the show dragged on and on.  Then Eddie Murphy came out to present the Best Picture Oscar and took the show to another level.  Crackin’ and fackin’ – mixing humor and truth – Murphy broke from the script and shared why he was reluctant to be there.  Suddenly, I felt better.  Not only did Murphy say something I could relate to, he had the audacity to express it at the program’s climactic moment.  His comments, particularly the timing, drew some criticism, but Murphy gained my deep admiration for his truthfulness.

“[My manager] said, ‘What are you talking about?  Black people win Oscars.’  I said Black actors and actresses have won Oscars throughout the 60 years.  Hattie McDaniel won the first one.  Then Sidney Poitier won one and Lou Gossett won one…” – Eddie Murphy

Although additional black actors have won Oscars over the last 23 years, not much has changed systemically regarding diversity and how movies are green lighted.  Similar to the suggested influence of youth, ethnic diversity in the film industry is superficial.  Blacks and other minorities are still often portrayed stereotypically and/or in limited ways – when they’re visible, that is.  There were no people of color – insignificant or otherwise – to be found anywhere in The King’s Speech or among the nominees this year.  Instead the children from PS 22 were brought out to sing about rainbows and infinite possibilities.  The message was loud and clear:  Hollywood prefers to look inclusive without actually being that way.

This year’s memorial homage to Lena Horne also reflected the film industry’s brand of diversity.  During Horne’s heyday in the 1940’s, her musical numbers were filmed as segments that could be easily removed for segregated southern audiences without affecting the plot of the movie.  In other words, though Horne was in the movie, she was not an integral part.  Lena Horne’s isolation continued as she was “honored” individually with an introduction by a very grateful Halle Berry.  Horne was praised for her perseverance; however, a real tribute would have acknowledged the racial discrimination that Horne and other actors of color endured.  Instead of compensating for the unfulfilled potential of Horne’s film career, the tribute demonstrated the industry’s denial and/or unwillingness to address its inequities.

“And I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but, hey, what the heck.  I’ve got to say it.  Actually, I may not be in trouble because the way it’s been going, we get one about every 20 years.  So we ain’t due for one until about 2004, so this may all be blown over.” – Eddie Murphy

What will it take to see genuine diversity in Hollywood?  Change will not happen voluntarily or by moral persuasion.  Nor does the film industry take kindly to any type of critique.  Eddie Murphy was the front-runner for his 2006 supporting performance in Dreamgirls – having won all the major awards up to that point.  When his name was not pulled from the sacred envelope, many blamed the apparent snub on the ill-timed release of Norbit.  While Norbit didn’t help, I believe it was his candid observations back in 1988 that kept the golden statuette out of his grasp.  Murphy was well aware that his remarks could affect his chances of ever winning an Oscar, however, he underestimated how long it would take for it to be “blown over.”

“I have no regard for that kind of ceremony.  I just don’t think they know what they’re doing.  When you see who wins those things – or doesn’t win them – you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is.” – Woody Allen

Will I watch the Oscars again next year?  Probably.  Old habits die hard.  I won’t be watching to see what or who is considered the best.  Those are decisions I can make for myself.  We are all capable of making those choices.  My interest in watching will be what’s going on in the film industry in regards to trends, innovations and political maneuvering.  I confess there’s a part of me that still hopes for some progressive changes.  However, I know better than to hold my breath.

1960's, American Dream, Civil Rights, Documentary, history, King Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery to Memphis, race relations

A Tribute Fit for Dr. King

Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten.  A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present.

 Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)

Though I have attended numerous programs honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including panel discussions, political forums, dramatic presentations and church services, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis remains my favorite way to remember him.  I used to look forward to watching this documentary on the local PBS station every year.  Due to issues with the King estate, however, the broadcast rights became unavailable and the film disappeared.  Fortunately, the uncut, 185-minute version is screened occasionally – especially around the King Holiday and now throughout Black History Month.

King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis chronicles Dr. King’s life and the civil rights movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to his assassination in 1968.  Watching the nonviolent protests that I had previously only heard and read about, I couldn’t and still cannot even begin to imagine the courage, commitment and self-control of those – many whose names we will never know – who willingly faced racial hostility in the forms of verbal and physical assaults, incarceration and sometimes death.  Recalling those warriors for justice and their sacrifices keeps in perspective how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

The documentary also offers glimpses of Dr. King not usually seen by the general public.  Insightful moments include Dr. King playfully saying, “Give me some sugar,” as he hugged a young admirer, and his humorous account of Rev. Abernathy praying with his eyes open during a riotous confrontation in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  It is particularly poignant to see Dr. King celebrate what would be his final birthday.

Whether it’s your first time or if it has been a long while, I strongly recommend that you see King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis.  If the film is not being shown in your area, the good news is that it is now available for purchase at http://afilmedrecord.com.  However you choose to view the film, it is well worth the extra effort.