We are the children of concrete and steel
This is the place where the truth is concealed
This is the time when the lie is revealed
Everything is possible, but nothing is real
– Vernon Reid, Type (Living Colour)
“Art is my outlet, connection, retreat, my pleasures jumbled with my pain, art is my therapy”. – Scarecrow
A scarecrow in the traditional sense is a figure made up to resemble a human being set up to frighten crows and other birds away from a field where crops are planted. A scarecrow may be frightening, but it’s not literally dangerous. The same can be said for works of art that exceed the boundaries of our imagination, erase them altogether, or simply remind us that no matter how horrifying the world is – it is our lack of inner vision and reflection that makes it all the more ugly. A bomb destroying a tent of doctors, pregnant women and sick children is loathsome. But to not acknowledge this horror inside of us to begin with is even worse. To turn away, ignore, pretend – is the greatest of sins. And in our times we are all in collusion, we’re all guilty of seeking refuge away from not only the horror but anything that may make us tick and writhe as deeply feeling human beings. Only art can sustain man’s senses and humanity in a rapidly eroding society that is full of aggression and hostility towards all things affirming, conscious, loving, honest, celebratory, and rebellious. The governments of the world no longer need to lift a finger to oppress or imprison: we do this for them – to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters around the world. The tiny moments we don’t are often initiated by taking in a work of art or allowing ourselves to be humbled.
The work of an artist aptly named Scarecrow (Cro Dadi) does both.
Cro’s painting A Joyful:
Upon seeing it, I immediately felt that it was as if someone, something, somehow – fell in between the hard resilient lines of a chalk drawing and a tenuous floating dream…What is most compelling about Cro’s work, aside from its seemingly effortless quality (great art is like breathing my wife always reminds me, no matter how dense it always leaves the impression that its creator is one with the work, that they could literally not do anything other than the work itself) is the fact that there is so much going on. But it’s rendered ‘simply’. I use ‘simply’ in the Charles Mingus sense – Mingus always wanted complex aspects of life succinctly reduced into sober and clear notions and feelings, so this way no matter how cacophonous or multitudinous a work of jazz might be, its meaning would always shine through– for the spaces within it would allow light in. Sometimes we don’t see the rationale or the thought behind complex works that may look like a mess to an untrained (or “un-initiated”) eye. But there is a crack in everything as Leonard Cohen tells us. And that is how the light (art) gets in.
These artworks are eternal vistas into a whole other world, a complex web into a deeper understanding of ourselves…
For several months I kept an outsized, zoomed-in rendering of this piece above as a screensaver. Blown up, the flower in the center of the image comes to resemble a strange creature, an insect perhaps, or is it a tragic face awash in water behind bars? It may be sad, but it is not a despairing image. It is an affirming one. And it is all the more affirming that a living artist created it and that a living artist can still breathe life into a canvas.
Art in general – great art, in particular – always rejuvenates some aspect of the human condition while illuminating the parts we may have forgotten — but when a contemporary living artist who still breathes and sweats on the planet as we all do – manages to cut through the gel that is beginning to harden upon the crust of the zeitgeist – it is something we should celebrate. When art can still give chills it is cause for celebration. Especially since it is wrought by an artist who has not been bought by the establishment or some venal Capitalist gallery whose prime objective is to remove the artist from the very people who initially inspired or understood his work, to begin with.
Scarecrow is an Outsider Artist. Not just because he has no formal training, but because he has, what he creates, what it means to create, and who his audience is. (If you go on online or visit his Facebook page you will be astounded to see the variety of people taken by his work and his fan base is a genuine arsenal of individuals including myself who can only, without blinking an eye, give in to this modest phenomenon that has captured our hearts and minds). He’s an Outsider Artist because his values are outside the realm of corporate art galleries and his reasons for creating have nothing to do with being jaded or cynical. He’s truly independent because (unlike the “Independent Filmmakers” – an innocuous term) he has an and catalogs and sells his own artwork himself, without the bureaucracy or pettiness of a curator or agent. No one has held his hand or tried to broker high-end deals for him at any of the Art Basels. No. That would be beneath him. And while those people give him their money – it is the support of the near-to-the-ground people of all colors and stripes – that Cro’s own network of support has been built upon. And while he is humble about this, it is no small task. The Cro appreciates the people who have taken the time to write him, comment on his artwork, share one of his images, purchase one of his paintings, and gaze into one of his drawings…He does what he does for reasons no NYC gallery or sneering art dealer would ever understand. Artists everywhere should take note and follow his example.
Ever so loud was his silence…
There are many creative people on this planet, but very few are artists. There are many paintings and novels and plays being done — but very few of them are works of art. There are far too many deluded wanna-be Rappers and Actors. And sadly there are numerous creatures on this planet who have usurped and perverted the term “artist” to such an extent that the real artists no longer want anything to do with “art” or “the arts” for fear of losing themselves, becoming infected by the dilettantes and the culture of irony that has made its mark on our world. (Scarecrow himself has stated that instead of the hackneyed term “artist”, he thinks of himself as a Creative Portal, a conduit in which endless creative expression flows. This intrigues me because if memory serves me right, the great theater director Peter Brook once wrote that even the term “Director” should be replaced by something else, it was not only inaccurate – but a frustrating term to begin with!)
Nevertheless, having something to say is the fundamental ingredient for being an artist, but having a compulsion to express it is what seals your fate.
The Scarecrow is such an artist.
Born in Harlem in 1965, the artist lovingly referred to as Cro Dadi (that’s how he signs his work) – is an autodidact and a self-healing individual who came to art through a burst of pain. In 1997 he had a terrifying brush with death and nearly saw the other side as a result of a car accident. “The torch was lit” as he proclaimed in his Artist’s Statement on Tumblr.
The more he created the healthier he got. And as his health improved, so did his desire…to be…more creative.
Gordon Parks stated it is a ‘choice of weapons’ in what we choose to fight with. Some of us turn to guns, some the Bible, others the instruments of creativity. And Scarecrow himself knows this well. For it was pens, pencils, paint crayons, markers and scissors. And saying it this way – this litany takes on an almost biblical implication. He painted, he drew, he cut, he blurred. And people liked the work and people bought the work. And the curse of the car accident became a blessing, unlocking a well of creativity and vision…giving birth to the Scarecrow: an artist who would defy the demons of his world with a combative and compassionate art.
A near-twenty year span of creativity consumed him and with every day objects – pens, pencils, paint, crayons, markers and scissors – the Cro expresses the impressions and textures he remembers from his earlier NYC days. The swirls, the dynamic movement, the urban luster of those heady days of Pop Art’s last sigh and Hip-Hops golden age: somewhere in his veins is the pulse of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Krs-One. Running parallel through his arteries is Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol. These are his bare bones influences and they helped to liberate what he had held inside. Cro Dadi is a prime example of an artist being born out of his responses and unique sensitivity to the stimulants of his environment and the aesthetic responses of a particular atmosphere – which can go on to shape and influence how one filters and sees the world and processes their own experiences internally.
” I never even considered being formally taught about art…just traveling the boroughs of NY exposed me to all that creativity had to offer… My New York experience manifests itself through my art. Abstractly I assign, define and interpret color, shape, line, space and time.” — Scarecrow
LITERARY ACTION PAINTING
What is most interesting to discover is that Scarecrow is actually mostly known for his “conversation peace” collection of collage works and the when the opportunity arises for a live performance, in high volume with inexplicable velocity scarecrow redefines the words Art and Show. After seeing his work or a live performance, Scarecrow really makes you “re reevaluate” that item so common to us all, a pen.
— from Tumblr
While I myself have never been blessed to witness one of Scarecrow’s live ‘Art Shows,’ it must be noted that his works have a literary dimension which defies the separation between word and image and which imbues his own artwork with a literal poetic alliance: his titles are poems themselves. And while not actual haikus, they work on the soul in a very similar way. Swift, like jackknives in the air, they are direct without giving up their mystery. The title of one of his masterpieces:
“Start of a sleepless nite
instantly sets the tone and mood and yet works so powerfully on its own, simply as a phrase. I quite like how the title itself feels like the mood being expressed. Neurotic lines, a spindled tone. The drawing itself is a black ink orchestra of faces, half-faces, eyes all enmeshed over figures and musical signs, notes, what have you…But even if one were blind, one could appreciate the emotional and intellectual scope of Scarecrow’s work just by hearing one of his title’s read aloud. This endows his work with a different dimension, a new sort of cub-ism in some respects.
“My art is as an act of protest against the preconceived notions of what art is…” — Scarecrow
THE ONE THEY
BY THEIR HAND
I THUS STAND
Scarecrow’s works are like the expressions of objects going through crisis or celebrations (he uses “meltdown” in titles as quickly as he’ll inject “playground”); they exist in states of extremes (as all art should, despite the west’s misunderstood alliance with notions of subtlety) and they come alive as nervous breakdowns, epiphanies, psychedelic confessions, and electric rays and squiggles that exist in the night – as if neon signs had exploded into the air and then re-assembled themselves to not advertise for vacancies but partitions of the soul. His art consoles and provokes; it is unapologetically Black American and righteous and it seeks to do many things at once.
Scarecrow’s collages are haunting and literal revelations: they present jagged and ripped shards of paper and the images beneath them. Morphed faces, obscuras, blunted perceptions, crunched-in, pushed-down, crackling stories that announce themselves in an urbane blast of truth. I’ve always seen collages as the city man’s version of the countryman’s wood-carvings. Cro’s collages are more akin to some torn notebook rather than an effete presentation of multi-layered artworks. In the best tradition of collage art (one of the hardest things to do in my unschooled opinion), Cro gives you a few moods and ideas at once. Like the best jazz a great deal is implied but the message is quite overt. There are overriding themes in his collages and of course his texts (which, in case I have not made it clear, are now becoming almost as famous as his paintings themselves) help to define his works and the impulses behind them.
Reflections of a Past Self
“So much blues earned/Without an instrument to play” – Cro Dadi
Before “recycling” became fashionable Scarecrow, for years, was using found objects as a catalyst for his art…
Some of Scarecrow’s work has a stop-motion effect. His Bo Diddley, collage, for example, proudly proclaiming the rock and roll revolutionary’s evolution from a “nothing into an American something” is a prime example of this near-animation effect. Everything from the ragged microphone patch to Diddley’s now-iconic cigar box homemade guitar – registers the ‘down home’ tradition of Do-it-yourself-frame-by-frame manual illustrative-filmmaking and a sort of nostalgia that may very soon end up becoming part of the American Establishment’s property. The Powers That Be – corporations, governments, architects of the New Mass Media Pop Culture Zeitgeist and their offspring who now run museums — will, one day, take all the owned memories of artists such as Bo Diddley and will try to pretend as if rebels like Diddley did not actually create himself. Success stories are often re-woven by the establishment; but its the artworks created by the outsiders and the underdogs that best cultivate, capture, retain, and reiterate the majesty and importance of men like Bo Diddley. For only an outlaw artist can pay real homage to an outlaw musician:
ROCK ROLL SOUL
TO AN AMERICAN
Perhaps Cro’s best works, however, are his seemingly most urgent ones. A solitary masterpiece like “Insomniacs Playground,” has this quality as well as his pen and ink marker pieces such as “Stained People Through Stained Glass” which has an immediate power and enough for the eye to linger upon repeatedly, allowing Cro’s perception of stained people (the afflicted?) to become ours.
I could not help but see the colorful mélange of figures as mangled birds as witnessed through a kaleidoscope. And this is such an integral part of experiencing and understanding an artwork: allowing our perceptions to change and then becoming one with the artist’s work. Even if what we see isn’t intended. It’s still a correct assessment of his vision. For when all is said and done, it is myself I learn about when viewing a work of art. Even when I think I’m learning about the creator himself.
“Is it 5 o’clock yet?”
[On] Dec 31 2015
will be retiring
Thank you all for your continued support throughout
There is always something humbling and mysterious when an artist – perhaps even at the peak of their powers – removes himself from the spotlight. Or respectfully washes his paintbrush and leaves them to dry – and to be doused by someone else. The reasons for retirement can sometimes be as enigmatic as one’s suicide or why people fall in love with the people they do.
But it is also so delicately conscious and generous because when an artist says goodbye – he is letting you know in his own way that he may no longer have much to share with you. He may have things he wants to express – man will always express – but he may not necessarily share them. And that’s okay, too of course. Because he has already given himself to you. Sometimes an artist needs to keep a piece of himself in his own pocket.
Nervous systems are passed along through every canvas, and there is a time when that must stop. Whether it is because the Artist wants to move on or spend concerted energy on family or raising animals or building a woodshed or feeding the poor or devoting himself to a God in a whole other way or…picking his fingernails. It doesn’t matter. Remember Miles Davis retired several times. And his final retirement was due to the fact that he “couldn’t hear the music” inside his head anymore.
A new & final phase has begun for the Cro: a harmonious collaboration with Jerry Ray Orr, a fine artist in his own right, proving again that two artists can jointly create a singular piece. They recently had a successful joint-exhibition in North Carolina (birthplace of Romare Bearden). One of the hardest things to do for a painter or a novelist is to create a work with another artist of the same medium. Collaboration is much more common and welcomed in music or theater — but the “lonely arts” such as painting or photography or poetry are not as open to collaboration and this is partially based on the dynamic and construct of those arts itself. The lonely artist, no matter what type, is confessional. And his pain or joy or struggle is often entirely his own or his own perception or reflection of something outside of him. He doesn’t need or necessarily want help in transmitting his vision – he simply wants to vomit and be done with it. Collaboration, however, even when painful is less grief-stricken and assertive if done in the right way. When it isn’t, wars break out and lives (sometimes literally) can be lost. It is not child’s play. And yet – it requires a child’s devotion…to play.
As someone who has gratefully accepted his strengths as a collaborator and the desire to work in conjugal with someone I trust (in my case, creating directly with my wife) — I look upon Cro and Orr’s collaborations as signs of love and hope. Although sleeker than his solo material, this new work is emotionally robust and penetrating and just might even contain more elements than Cro’s solitary pieces; on one hand this is to be expected as Orr brings a new energy – the buzz of the Rastafarians and the texture of pop cosmology of great graphic novels and illustrations. Their collaborations are thicker, palette almost denser, colors bolder – and it reminds me of both the great children’s books, comic poster art, and some of the classic LP sleeve art of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And as poorly stated as I have just expressed that, I mean it with all my heart. There is something nostalgic about the new work’s visual muscularity…yet something forward-looking. For it is not mere sentiment or kitsch they are after or concerned with. It is the four corners of the mind. They still want to make sure you shed a light on at least one of them…
As we approach
The 31 days of October
Beware of the things…
That go bump in the night
Cause while Mingus composed it. And Henry Miller wrote it. Nobody drew it…quite like the Cro.
“And when the clown cries, the towel dries/All the smeared blood & crimson lies/Clowns don’t cry. They merely wipe their faces with the colors that dripped & smeared/ the silence left after laughter/Clinging in their eyes.” – Dennis Leroy Kangalee
And with that, good people, I leave you with the Cro’s forever motto:
Like what you like
Share what you love
Be a blessing
That you too
Are truly blessed
Cro Dadi resides in Orlando, Florida and can be found on Facebook. Please visit his page, explore his art work. He encourages anyone – anywhere – to reach out and connect.\ https://www.facebook.com/cro.dadi
Prints of Things That Go Bump in The Night are available at http://fineartamerica.com
Visit Scarecrow’s Tumblr archive: http://crodadi.tumblr.com/
Listen to the Artist in JB Webb’s Interview:
Mtume Gant’s short film Spit is an impactful 16-minute Hip Hop sonata on one hand and a slightly precious, if not heartfelt, cinematic reflection on maturity, art, responsibility, and the decisions we all have to make as artists.
For some of us, the only option is death. Literally, figuratively – you can interpret it any which way you want but the film’s thrust is about the crisis an artist goes through when unable to traverse or curtail the capitalist values and business mania of the zeitgeist that sees his work, culture, and spirit as nothing but fodder. The story of the artist being chewed up and spit out is not new – in fact, if there are any myths that still ring out in our world – this is one of them. What is admirable however, is how Gant presents this struggle and how personal of a journey it becomes.
Gant’s strong directorial debut Spit follows Jeremiah “Monk-One” Sinclair (Gant himself) an underground NY Hip Hop artist, as he reaches conclusion to let his passion go because the pain of suffering as an artist is ultimately worse to him that the quotidian nightmares of civilian life or the cosmic rat race that nips at the artist’s heels.
Employing a first person POV (Gant has announced his admiration for Tarkovsky’s The Mirror) that gets shattered in moments of naked honesty such as the most moving moment in the film where, before a literal mirror, Monk-One tries to explain to his girlfriend Cassidy (Suzette Azariah Gunn) that he can no longer rely on her to support him and in just two minutes, a dialogue about love, trust, responsibility, and the existential crisis of black men come into full effect. Scenes of this nature are rarely seen – anywhere. And as one who has a particular interest in the revealing of our wounds and pathologies, I applaud the honesty between Gant and Gunn – in what is essentially a duo in the mirror; a dialogue of double-consciousness…and a soliloquy to the audience.
Spit is a ‘power ballad’ and it draws on multiple conventions more associated with musical techniques than recognizable cinematic expression. But only because it is a “Hip Hop film” in terms of aesthetics – spiritually. I want to state here that I firmly believe it is an “expressionistic hip-hop power ballad” – because it all takes place inside Monk-One’s head. (The idea of sampling is also very prevalent. Monk-One “samples” his memory for context and pieces it all together for understanding.)
The rhythms, the vibration, the spare self-referencing, and the political consciousness all acknowledge the tight prism of true ‘conscious’ hip-hop as folk art and self-expression. It is not an ersatz hip-hop film like 2013’s commercial atrocity The Great Gatsby (yes, the director Baz Luhrmann tried to bamboozle people into believing that it contained a hip-hop aesthetic film because he got Jay-Z to do the soundtrack!) nor is it a film that exploits the cross-cutting beats and rhythms of classic hip-hop in the way that, say, Darren Aronofsky used hip-hop as a frame of reference for his wonderful debut film Pi (1998).
Those films are referenced to give one an idea of what Spit is not. First off, those very different movies were done and conceived by white directors. This is important to state because often when black artists are dealing with their own “folk arts” there is a tendency to coddle and patronize its audience as if they are tourists. An example of this is just about any “culture” event taking place at any embassy on American soil or having anything to do with presenting something for a Western Audience. Thankfully, Spit does not purport to make one understand anything about hip-hop nor does it try to appeal to the white gaze (a lesser and insecure African-American director would do that, in hopes of not “alienating” white mainstream viewers or the blacks who have been led to believe that Kanye West’s persona and music are representative of “true hip-hop.”) It is a drama that turns a stringent coming of age ritual into a severe rumination on art, vocation, and identity in the 21stcentury. (As an aside, if there is a film that I had to refer Spit to it could be Larry Clark’s [the African-American director, not the exploitive-schlock-White American photographer who made Kids] 1977 Passing Through. A movie about a jazz musician struggling with his demons. Both Spit and Passing Through share a thematic and emotional core, however different.)
Through a taut assembly of scenes reiterating the overriding theme of honoring one’s gifts (in the case of Monk-One’s artistic talents), personal family crisis (Che Ayende and a solicitous Erica Chamblee self-consciously staged to great effect emulating Monk One’s POV – as they relay the fears and hopes of his parents), monologues exploring the relationship of purity and art (or analog Vs digital in the case of Lameen Witter’s droll cameo as Fingers) and an explosive diatribe against the corporatization and perversion of hip-hop music – wonderfully performed with a very palpable frustration by Lance Coadie Williams, who plays Fryor, Monk-One’s manager; a figure caught in a “No Exit” situation; Williams’ burning eyes captured in a funky hem-hawing long take imbues the scene with tremendous soul that makes up for weaker moments in the film, rendering them benign) the script is intelligent and personal and does not weigh itself down or cut its own knees off by wallowing in clichés or sentimental tripe or counter-revolutionary vulgar language and self-hating dialogue that I’m sure mainstream festivals and the State Department itself would have preferred. The lyrical screenplay reveals itself plainly in its coming-of-age moments when it digs deep into lingering questions such as: What do fathers pass on to their sons? What is fear? What does it mean for Black Men, in particular, to be responsible?
The uncomfortability of Spit resides in that last particular question – not because it criticizes or tries to flagellate in front of an audience, but because Monk-One is a highly conscious individual. He knows exactly what his problems are, have been, will be – and the intellectual knowingness of his character puts a damper on any kind of Hallmark resolution or “Sundance” ghetto chic story. In a Black context, Spit is a step forward because its characters are just that – characters. Shades of colors. And by allowing scraps and fragments to reveal behavior, they become real. And that is always the challenge for the dramatist. Real people are not the issue. It’s expressing truth – that’s where we often falter. In both a Black context and a national one, truth is still the number one problem with independent cinema – which prefers to relay Hollywood lies and Liberal-media-sanctioned sentiments over the raw and strange truth of individual lives.
In the context of cinema at large, Spit (which I declare to be a Hip Hop sonata – because a sonata must be played as opposed to the Latin cantata – which is sung; so in this way – a musical piece can be broken down and expressed on a screen. In essence, the song is broken down and “played” out cinematically as opposed to being a song) takes a small, but powerful step forward in the realm of non-linear cinema, because it does have something to say. Its formal qualities do not overwhelm its human desire to want to genuinely say and express something. Either “experimental” dramas allude to twenty other movies or they commit themselves to being abstract in a jokesy-vaudeville way. Americans have a problem taking themselves seriously. (An aside: All those who prefer their stories of struggle or “hip hop” celebrations in the Hollywood sense will reject Spit on the basis that it is too naked or too dark – one of the greatest ironies coming from the “Hip Hop community” which traditionally championed the raw truth, but which has done virtually nothing to support this film…they’re too busy heralding Straight Outta Compton I suppose.)
Spit is a tragedy. One cannot be shocked by its ending. The film progresses towards an ending that an audience mature enough and deep enough will understand. Bleak endings are necessary. Sometimes we have to step back. Or even, simply, waive the white flag and give up. Artists suffer for their art, for the people they speak for, and for their own un-reconciled demons and desires often torn and ripped out of so many years of dreaming and conceiving, doing and daring…sometimes we run out of steam. As the director himself stated to me, “People are always miffed how artists can find such joy in art but struggle so much with existence. But if we choose a different pathway where does that lead us?”
And that is what Mtume Gant’s movie spits.
Update: As of August 28, 2015 Spit has screened in several national film festivals, notably Aspen Shortsfest and Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival. It will be screening soon in the Harlem International Film Festival. It was a recipient of a San Francisco Film Award.
Dennis Leroy Kangalee (“As an Act of Protest,” Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World,”) is a poet & filmmaker living in NYC. He is the co-founder of New Poet Cinema. Mtume Gant starred in Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s production of Amiri Baraka’s “The Toilet” at the Here Theater in 1998. It was their first collaboration in the theater.
“One of the homes in which Beethoven resided in Vienna, Austria, the music capitol of European Music at that time, was called the “Schwarzspanierhaus,” the “House of the Black Spaniard.” Beethoven is said to have had some directly known African ancestry. In parts of Europe, it is a common and known secret to refer to Beethoven as “Black Beet”. I only learned this when I lived in Germany.
It was not as astounding to discover this as it was to learn that Alexander Pushkin was Black – I discovered that when I was 16 in Moscow, celebrating Christmas 1992. (In fact, we stayed at the same hotel George Bush had just left – how bizarre is that?) I was studying for 2 weeks with one of my Acting teachers Marat Yusim – a Russian born director himself – at the Moscow Art Theater (Roman Victuc, Oleg Tabakov were teaching) and it seemed like a year. I mean that positively. Our Russian guide was bowled over and embarrassed that WE did not know that Pushkin was a literal Black Russian.
I will never forget that trip, it left an indelible mark on me. Some travel to the Motherland continent to get another, deeper sense of their identity and Black roots. Me? I traveled to Russia! And I came back a changed young man. I discovered The Velvet Underground, cigarettes, Jean Genet, Melvin Van Peebles first film “Story of a 3 Day Pass,” and a great love for Maxim Gorky.
I left America thinking I wanted to be a star, and returned committing myself to the pursuit of art. I had found my own God inside. In January, 1993 I began work on the very first play I would ever direct.
Everyone thought I was crazy.
They still do.
“I don’t make black exploitation films,” Parks stated to the The Village Voice, the very year I was born, in 1976.
After working at Vogue magazine, a 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway,poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of activists, artists, and athletes. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” (Lee D. Baker, 1992, Transforming Anthropology)
One of the most underrated and rarely mentioned filmmakers is Gordon Parks – whose genius as a visual artist and photographer often hijacks the attention away from his dramatic works and his cinematic expeditions. His powerful photo-essays,his dignified pictures of urban and rural working class life, his career as a Life magazine photographer (the very first African-American on their staff!) alone has left an indelible mark on the 20th century and modern culture alone (find his haunting “Crisis in Latin America”/Poverty/Flavio series, “American Gothic,” or some of the Harlem photographs he took, or his iconic depiction of Ingrid Bergman in Italy, peering back out of the corner of her eye as three villagers admonish the affair she was having with Roberto Rossellini)
He is on my mind today because I overheard some moron in the Time Life Building (which still hosts Parks’ haunting portrait of Ingrid Bergman) – ignorantly yelp that he was the “Father of Blaxploitation cinema”. In my younger, meaner “old days” I’d have started to yell and promptly given it to this kid straight between the eyes. But I’ve learned to ease into these situations, finesse it, try to charm the actual situation before…setting it on fire.
I had to explain to this young man that black filmmakers did not create “Blaxploitation” cinema and if they did they certainly would have come up with a better term.
I had to explain that because of the box-office success of Melvin Van Peebles powerful Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and Gordon Parks own cop thriller Shaft, white Hollywood executives and producers took note of this, saw dollar signs, and instantly jumped on the “craze” that was emanating out of protest music and black consciousness in art, literature, and theater in the early 70’s – spilling over into film. It was only natural that film would be influenced.
But instead of truly honoring the intentions of such grave filmmakers and writers (Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, etc) — many of these filmmakers were lucky if they made one personal film of their own that ever saw the light of day. And even when merely “hired,” they never resorted to exploitation or sided with the racism of the establishment by further peddling stereotypes and all kinds of bizarre images of African Americans that the seventies mainstream began to feverishly churn out (as if it were a return to the sickening images and propaganda published about blacks during the height of chattel slavery).
Not one black film writer or director or “artist” was involved in, promoted, or benefited from Hollywood’s exploitation of “black anger”, fashion, sexuality, or music. Instead white producers wrote garbage and “pimped” black men and women into portraying white fantasies and racist caricatures; often watering down the righteousness of the previous 1960’s visceral rage. And often – we allowed this to happen.
Some directors, like Michael Schultz, found ways to transcend Hollywood’s attempts at gross exploitation of the African American audience and community at large– check out his heartfelt, coming of age story Cooley High, and his hilarious Car Wash, — two films the bridge a universal satire/slapstick rooted with social commentary. Incidentally, Roger Ebert praised Car Wash comparing it to MASH. But despite the film having received a Golden Globe nomination and a nomination for Cannes 1977 Golden Palm — it was still considered a “bad” movie with mediocre reviews. What’s even stranger about the screenplay for Car Wash is that it is credited to Joel Schumacher (yes, the man who directed St. Elmo’s Fire and all the early 1990’s Michael Keaton-BATMAN movies. Don’t ask.) I have heard from at least four people that Schumacher’s simply plotted out the movie and all dialogue was improvised and rehearsed and honed by Schultz. (Schultz is a theater director and so this would not have been alarming for him to do as he came from a heavy ensemble and actor-oriented background. Look him up: he directed Waiting for Godot in 1966 at Princeton and directed for the Negro Ensemble Company. He is noted for having directed Lorraine Hansberry’s To be Young Gifted & Black, the most successful Off-Broadway play in 1968!)
Interesting to note – like one of our greatest playwrights – August Wilson – Schultz, too, was Black and German. I sometimes even wonder if this does not account for their conscientious and laborious way of working; taking two great work-ethic traditions and blending them into one to singularly express unique POV and varied experiences of the African American community. That’s what I expect from high-brow academic “cinema” magazines and essays to be writing. Not promoting salacious and atrocious lies depicting Gordon Parks as the “Father” of Blaxploitation Cinema, making him “easy” and “pat” for Movie academics and white kids in the suburbs. IMDB is so disrespectful and perverse – they attribute Parks’ Shaft to Blaxploitation while even acknowledging the quote that starts this very essay!
Getting back to Gordon: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once praised him as being a “black genius,” – he iterated Park’s race because the interviewer obviously had no clue who he was (can you imagine?)…For those of you who don’t know much about Parks either – treat yourself to one of his autobiographies “Fires in the Mirror”, “A Choice of Weapons”, borrow a book of his photos from the library, or at least watch the documentary on him Half Past Autumn (produced by Denzel Washington, in fact one of Denzel’s most sincere contributions to cinema).
“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his ‘The Learning Tree’ was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial.”
– Roger Ebert
Parks’ films seem boring today to a lot of the film establishment and are unnoticed or shoved aside by the independents because they are not formally aggressive and – aside from the ‘sexy’ Shaft and his gun-cop-adventure movies – are rather slow moving. His personal movies are not loud or stylistically excessive – they capture moments, like his photographs. You can feel his colors, his environments, etc. They are distinguished – as he was – and they reek of cigar smoke and well kept sweaters. And they build and have a slow, gentle impact. They are not provocative, but they resonate. They are not fast and extravagant, but they are deep and conscientious. The Learning Tree of course is a perfect example – powerful due to its lean and delicate nature and how it depicts more complicated aspects of racism and reveals that everything is not what it seems. And yet…regarded as a strange anomaly. At the height of the civil rights revolution, the movie seemed tame and in a certain sense was, understandably, disregarded by the more progressive African-American arts community that were re-establishing and re-assessing how best to move on and create in America. Some believe it is because Parks was telling a story set in the 1920’s and the accepted racism of that area did not strike a chord with the revolutionaries and the activists of the time who, in 1969, wanted nothing to do with any memory of the 1920’s…they wanted to destroy all that had abused and humiliated the preceding generation and their very own. The Learning Tree, although well done, seemed “conservative” and passe at the end of the tumultuous sixties.
The Learning Tree has supposedly had little impact upon later African American artists and is seldom discussed as a significant work of art, despite Congress’ inclusion of it in their national registry as an “American treasure.”
Parks’ Leadbelly is an excellent ‘biopic’ (and I hate biopics) and a film that meanders somewhat tracing the life of this blues legend in a confident and understated way. Parks was a director who used understatement and slow-pacing in his own way, sometimes his films feel like they are trying to find themselves as it were — but while Schultz was definitely a better craftsmen, Parks was a better artist.
Even his minor works reveal something about the painful side of life — his version of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is under-cooked, but better than the overrated Steve McQueen version. But of course no one will mention this. Parks made his version for American Playhouse in 1984 with Avery Brooks. His version has more gravity and heart than McQueen’s. And yet he doesn’t push for it…McQueen pushed heavily for emotion and yet – I felt nothing after watching his film. There was a disturbing laissez faire quality the movie had and all I was left with was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beautifully weeping eyes – with nothing behind them. At all. Those eyes should have given Rene Falconetti’s (see Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc!) a run for her money and they didn’t. And that’s why ultimately I was angry at McQueen: he pushed and choreographed so much melodrama – that all we were left with were soap suds.
Did you know that it was the great original movie maverick himself, John Cassavetes, who demanded that Warner Brothers give Parks money to make an adaption of his own book, “The Learning Tree” into a movie? Parks recounts this in his autobiography. I’m always amazed when biographers of Cassavetes never bring it up: it took a lot of guts to go to bat for an “unknown” Black director in Hollywood in 1968! This warrants serious rumination. Who would do this today?
Filmmakers are a selfish bunch, a part of us has to be cause we’re always nervous about financing our work, we often get derailed trying to organize our projects, we’re very competitive with other filmmakers (a good thing), etc. – but we seldom go to bat for other filmmakers. And understand that Cassavetes was no Richard Burton or Marlon Brando, mind you – he never had that Hollywood power. Ever. And so he had a lot to lose – but he also had a reputation for being argumentative, righteous, intense, and “artistic.” This was a filmmaker who wrote and direct his own dramas at home, using his closest friends, and shooting films like a jazz musician. Pure, unfettered feelings and emotions and thoughts – barely with a “story.” It takes genius to recognize genius and this example proves it. If there were two mavericks in Hollywood or American cinema at that time, it would be Parks and Cassavetes. Parks did not have the flair or showmanship that Van Peebles had and Cassavetes did not conform to genre or give audiences what they wanted the way some of his smarter contemporaries might have (Altman, for example) but they both created a very personal body of work. And a very important one.
A final interesting fact: Did you know that the great Gordon Parks — the pipe smoking, distinguished man of letters, music, civil rights, film, photography…was also Candace Bushnell’s boyfriend when she had fled Texas to live in NYC. He was 58. She was 18. According to Bushnell, she was too young to be in a real serious relationship with a genius, but declared Parks was “great” and that her mother thought Parks was the most charming man she’d ever met. Bushnell would, of course, go on to write and create Sex and The City. The only thing that disturbs me about all this is that Carrie Bradshaw always seemed too awkward and self consciously nervous to be around a man like Gordon Parks. It bothers me that Bushnell never tried to truthfully render a relationship between her characters and an African American man liked Parks. That would have been edgy. But her experience with Parks and Studio 54 was in the 1970’s. Her Sex & The City is like the 1970’s without the radicalism, intellectualism, politics, or danger. The 1990’s in NYC was interesting, yes – but if you remembered the show Sex & The City than you probably weren’t living it. And if you were – it wasn’t necessarily devoid of radical politics. When those incongruous worlds meet, it certainly makes for great drama. I’m mystified why it scares so many people.
Anyway, there you have it. Don’t ever say I didn’t give you any interesting gossip!
Lastly, please remember: it is this charming, elegant man — this High School dropout — named Gordon Parks, who lived life on his own terms, and tried hard to create a rich and varied artwork that would resonate with people who took just a little time to care and who were craving aspects of their own reflections..or society’s illness.
His films warrant a closer reading and “remastered” viewing.
“…’Killer of Sheep’ was made the same year ‘Star Wars’ was released — and has not been seen ever since. While brothers are applauding the heroes from a galaxy far, far away – they’re completely inured to their fellow brethren right in their own backyards. The same was true nearly 15 years later when Wendell B. Harris was virtually paid to NOT make any movies. One look at his magnificent ‘Chameleon Street,’ and everyone knew that a powerful voice had arrived. And this scared everybody. I always found it disturbing that that the Black Entertainment Complex had not welcomed him — the man had won Sundance, after all — in the years when Sundance actually meant something. They did not appreciate him they rejected him. (Maybe they just didn’t know what to make of him…let’s not forget that old Satchmo himself was terrified of Charlie Parker.)
…In the early 1970’s, Huey P.Newton wrote a stunning essay and review of Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary ”Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasss Song”and hailed it as a new vanguard cinema for black people – an example of real artistic-political storytelling that the oppressed could appreciate. Huey wrote that he hoped this would inspire a whole revolutionary genre of black pictures. Instead, Hollywood saw they could make money by having a brother on screen and decided to further the ante by “gambling” on pictures like ‘Shaft’ (by Gordon Parks, ironically, whose brilliant “The Learning Tree” has been forgotten even though it was the first major Hollywood movie by a black Writer and Director! Of course, the rest is history and like they have done to Rap music – everything caved in; the Blaxploitation era arrived and all the racist, stereotypical ‘skin flicks’ flooded the world and artists like Bill Gun, Burnett, and even Van Peebles himself vanished into thin air. No wonder Huey P.Newton died in a crack house: he had no movies to go see…”
— from “Towards a Black New Wave & Notes from the Underground,”
(Harlem, August 26, 2000)
(copyright 2000, 2014 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee)
“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”
– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) ,
upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicans and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.
Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)
And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.
The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.
Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)
I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)
Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.
Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.
Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.
The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)
We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?