Category Archives: Essay

Brian Alessandro’s Passionate Defense of a Cult Classic

The spiritual ascent in the final moments of As an Act of Protest

Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.

To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives. 

The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee, who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.

The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.

We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.” 

The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations. 

Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.

Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.

These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has. 

In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.  

Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.   

Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.

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The Poet & His Passionate Plague: Remembering Holy Madman Antonin Artaud & the Theater of Cruelty

A disaster is when you wake up tomorrow and everything you knew has changed; a nightmare is when you wake up and you have to justify and explain your anger to your oppressors as they beat you.    

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                                Artaud, late 1920’s                                                                                                                                             a nightmare is when you wake up and you have to justify and explain your anger to your oppressors as they beat you.   

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Kangalee, 2020

Unlike a plague a social cataclysm is far worse because the oil of the machinery keeps running.  Fascism rests on nationalism and maniacal adherence to preservation of racial identity and hierarchy and a defense of that order, it is a swift, direct and organized violence.  Massacres are surprising upswells of homicidal urges; genocides contain the celebration of racism and all its devilish rituals, they are capitalist perversions gone amok, they are conscientious slaughters that expect you to pay rent on the land you’re being executed on. When the bureaucracy is still in tact you don’t have Fascism (fascists don’t care for their enemies taxes) you have ‘Atrocity Exhibitionism’: murder in the first degree, things may feel chaotic where in actuality they are all well choreographed.  Even what we come to view as science, and nature and luck — all collide under the ominous shadow of State Carnage.  In the corners, swelling — are all the desires of artistic paroxysms which are waiting to explode, to actually combat and taunt the sword…with a pen. When a plague rears its head – it is a sign that something else is occurring.  It is here that the Theater has an opportunity to shine but quite often it doesn’t.  Not because it can’t but because the virus of racism usurps the potential for not only a catharsis, but the hope for a direct expression of the angst of the oppressed and all who find themselves crushed under the boot of the state.  The only way to fight it is to enact a catastrophe upon the plague itself.  And that is nearly impossible when a nation becomes a mass of spectators and collectors of awful visions as opposed to creators of them.  

Poverty porn. Lynch porn.  Snuff films.  Bulleted brains. Crucified throats. An asthmatic at midnight.  Skeletons at the door.  Take your pick.  

The New Millennium scourge now, although always uncertain, insistent and insidious, is more sophisticated than the pneumonic plague and more nefarious than the Capitalism of the 20th century cause it is one we enable with our knees…

(We have sowed the seeds

of Kitty

Genovese)

*

The responsibility is on us – it is on visionaries, artists, revolutionary Leftist activists, humanitarians, it is on good citizenry and that is something latent in many people because  the answer’s not going to come from a place that the government mandates or a site that the internet hosts.  It will not come from endowments from the sky or in the form of a Netflix series.  It will come from us.  Crisis, catastrophes, holocausts – are survived and illuminated by those untangling themselves from the web.  WE have to figure this out on our own, we have to move forward.

*

With the pandemic on the mind – and the reminder of white violence against black bodies clutching the spin of the world at the moment- amidst an alarming death toll —

— and the macabre glee that the media seems to encourage – a sort of digitized schadenfreude – my mind has constantly been dreaming and returning to the past and some of the hallmarks of my own creative inspirations…When I was most free, at my most dangerous dynamic and draconian.  When electricity still surged through my veins.

The work of Antonin Artaud deserves great appreciation in any time in this century, but particularly now because of the Corona Virus and the racism that has been unleashed as a result of it, intertwining themselves into a plague like no other – and because the theater itself is a dead organ which no one has the courage or the impetus to actually want to bury.

Artaud was a French surrealist (although he later broke with the surrealists) and was a maverick of the European arts scene in the 1930’s, he was noted as a superb actor (and acknowledged for his fierce classically handsome features: acute cheekbones and intense eyes) and appeared in Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as the Monk – easily one of the greatest works of 20th century art ever created.

Artaud-Dreyer

Artaud as the Monk in Dreyer’s overwhelming masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc

Artaud was an even better poet and writer; a brilliant thinker and the creator of the ‘Theater of Cruelty’, a theater he felt that would impel mankind to acknowledge his weaknesses and strengths and reinvigorate the human spirit to battle injustice, bourgeois malaise, Westernized imperialistic values, and re-connect not only the East and West – but the body and the spirit.  his theater was a physically demanding and emotionally violent one, a theater that relied on literal blood sweat and tears; a theater that was based on saliva and the serious intention of changing the audience – meaning the world.  He believed if the theater could act as a plague onto the audience – we would be healed.  If you could feel the horror of oppression on stage, actually feel it in your bones as an audience member – you would be forced to change society.   Confrontational, sweaty, and urgent; nearly impossible but blisteringly inspirational: Julian Beck & Judith Malina’s Living Theater (The Brig, Paradise Now), LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Theater (The Toilet, Dutchman, Slaveship)  and rock bands in the sixties like The Doors (“The End,” “When the Music’s Over”) —  were heavily influenced by Artaud and are probably the most practical examples of his nearly impenetrable ideas.  Even the heartbreaking eyes of Rene Falconetti who plays Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was no doubt influenced by Artaud’s notion of bodily insurrection: her eyes give us a revolution within her face, compelling the entire screen to protect and save her from her murder. 

For a mainstream example in 1970’s-80’s cinema, watch Pasolini’s Salo (or 120 Days of Sodom) or Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — the sheer force and commitment to revolt in Al Pacino and Judith Malina’s performances exude a sense of what Artaud hoped for his actors to convey.  Although accused incessantly of “agit-prop” and being “too angry” for middle-class cinephiles my own 2001 guerrilla movie As an Act of Protest , an ‘anti-Sundance Independent film’ contains a palpable rage and incurs an Artaudian spirit in the last quarter of the film, where I meld Franz Fanon and Antonin Artaud into a theatrical mise-en-scene which spreads on the screen like a spark kindling before an imminent insurrection against racism….by metabolizing Artaud’s wishful theatrical rage…we find our way to Fanon’s cathartic ending.  It is not mere revenge we are after, it is healing.  The erasure of trauma.

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Break on Through: The Doors’ Jim Morrison was heavily influenced by Antonin Artaud.

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The Living Theater’s anti-Military 1964 play “The Brig” was a crystallization of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. The government forced them off stage and out of the country…

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Hollywood Revolt: Artaud & Method Acting.  Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon”, fueling some of the greatest anti-police screen acting in the history of cinema…enough to incite a riot. 

Antonin Artaud is one of the Forgotten men relegated to the desks and journals of aesthete frauds and smug pretentious theater historians who, like the mainstream media’s imprisonment of the word liberation and revolution- try to keep Artaud confined to an intellectual ghetto know that has somehow traversed everything from so called experimental theater to pop new wave music.  Yet Artaud remains – for the most smug Baby Boomer theater historians – a chic prototype of the great mad poet who suffered in the asylum not to free the bodies and minds of the people – but to give credence and legitimacy to MFA and graduate students who choose to type about the past as opposed to writing/confronting our present and therefore create a future.  Artaud’s desire to overturn repressive systems, rebel against the hatred and imperialistic order of European governments, and wish to author a completely new language for the theater based on cries, screams, and shouts of the highest order is often met with mockery, denigration, and flippant irony suggesting that revolution of the body politic, human soul, and spiritual outreach is not impractical but amateurish and the result of a deranged mind.

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Artaud, the Actor about 1920 [from Jack Hirschman’s 1965 Artaud Anthology by City Lights Bookstore]

Antonin Artaud is a forgotten man because those who were most inspired by him died as he did, mainly, and those perhaps like me – those of us who swung and licked up the crumbs of the revolutionary cultural  feasts that exploded in the 20th century—have suffered badly exploring in the dark, often breaking our own legs as we attempted to find the stairway up to the bedroom but instead tolerated the crevice between the final step and the landing, unsure of what we might find if we went

All

The

Way

Like the man looking for his keys under the streetlamp ON THE OPPOSITE side of the street…we question and wonder, we stall and procrastinate. Like Hamlet, we retreat into our well plumbed brains holding on to the gasp that might just release that emotional molotov cocktail we are ashamed to throw.  Unlike Hamlet, we have to spend more time enacting the destruction of the oppressor, not debating it.

Artaud resonates because his hallucinations were not just real, but painfully genuine.

He was a drug addict who suffered before and after entering an asylum, a man who wrote perhaps the greatest essay on van Gogh and the real meaning behind suicide; the first Anglo European male surrealist to declare a new form of theater while simultaneously denouncing colonialism, brutality and racism, Western provincialism…and the deep deep holiness of the Original Peoples (read his Conquest of Mexico play which excoriates the Spanish conquistadores and devises a play in which in a psychedelic reversal of history:  the Indians righteously defeat the Spanish racists and I guarantee you will scratch yourself trying to figure out what happened to revolutionary anti-colonialist  people in the theater and why are there no Anglo-Western theater poets like this today?)

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Rage Against The Machine: An Artaudian moment in “As an Act of Protest” where the main character destroys the TV which frames his oppressor – The Fascist Mayor – as a virtual omnipotent entity.

He was a genius because he saw all that he could not somehow achieve and actually expressed that; he was a seer who had the temerity to recognize – in brilliant hallucinations- both his own abilities and desires as well as his limits and failures. Like Rimbaud he knew his death lay in the impractical reaches of his own art. Unlike Rimbaud he did not commit suicide of the mind or spirit (as Rimbaud did at 19 by giving up poetry to become an arms dealer) but he waved his own white flag as I now do, as we all must learn how to do.

artaud1

Artaud, after shock therapy treatments and his time spent in a Rodez mental institution. 1946

There is strength in concession. It is not surrender. It is admitting simply the truth. And sometimes the bad guys do win.

Or rather

The good ones.

Do.

Lose.

*

Read his words.   If he doesn’t make you want to form a theater of revolt than I don’t know who will.  Read his essays.  If you don’t tremble inside it’s not cause you don’t understand his brilliant use of language or the intensity of his visions — it is, perhaps, because you are too far removed from your imagination or your soul.  Sometimes both.

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My 1997 production of “Dutchman” jolted the MTV generation with this Artaudian rendition of Baraka’s masterpiece with Damon Gupton and Morena Baccarin (courtesy of HERE Theater, NYC)

I hope to convert you immediately, but that is highly unlikely.  Antonin Artaud is dense and mysterious, alchemical and concrete, surreal and quotidian, spiritual and political.  To read Artaud is unlike any other experience, he is one of the few poet-philosophers of our time who actually embodied his ideas, whose imaginative thrust outdid the corpuscles of his own body. 

His words live and breathe on the page even if they could not find their way on the stage.  Proving to us all that:  the art is not in the “final product.”  It is in the germ. 

*

Excerpts below from “The Theater and the Plague” by Antonin Artaud, from The Theater and Its Double, 1938.  (Translation from French by MC Richards, Grove Press, 1958)

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“Once a plague is established in a city, the regular forms collapse.  There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration. Pyres are lit at random to burn the dead, with whatever means are available. Each family wants to have its own…”

“The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit.  And at that moment the theater is born. The theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit. “

“But whereas the images of the plague, occurring in relation to a powerful state of physical disorganization, are like the last volleys of a spiritual force that is exhausting itself, the images of poetry in the theater are a spiritual force that begins its trajectory in the senses and does without reality altogether.  Once launched upon the fury of his task, an actor requires infinitely more power to keep from committing a crime than a murderer needs courage to complete his act, and it is here, in its very gratuitousness, that the action and effect of a feeling in the theater appears infinitely more valid than that of a feeling fulfilled in life.

Compared with the murderer’s fury which exhausts itself, that of the tragic actor remains enclosed within a perfect circle. The murderer’s fury has accomplished an act, discharges itself, and loses contact with the force that inspired it but can no longer sustain it.  That of the actor has taken a form that negates itself to just the degree it frees itself and dissolves into universality.”

“If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized. 

Like the plague the theater is the time of evil, the triumph of dark powers that are nourished by a power even more profound until extinction.

In the theater as in the plague there is a kind of strange sun, a light of abnormal intensity by which it seems that difficult and even the impossible suddenly become our normal element…”

“The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation.  It releases conflicts, disengages powers, liberates possibilities, and if these possibilities and these powers are dark , it is the fault not of the plague nor of the theater, but of life…”

And the intoxicating, nearly impenetrable,  closing paragraphs which never cease to raise the hairs on the back of my neck: 

“The theater like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure.  And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification.  Similarly the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction.  It invites the mind to share a delirium which exalts its energies; and we can see, to conclude, that from the human point of view, the action of theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling man to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world; it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the sense; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.  

And the question we must now ask is whether, in this slippery world which is committing suicide without noticing it, there can be found a nucleus of men capable of imposing this superior notion of the theater, men who will restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas we no longer believe.”  

                                                                                                    — Antonin Artaud, 1938 

 

 

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Morality is a Creative Endeavor…

A link to my latest essay, “The End of the Imagination” — an updated, refurbished, and almost completely re-written exploration I had begun to explore in 2016.  This is an essay one am not only proud of…The_End_of_ Imagination_1200x628 but, sadly, one that seems to crystallize how I feel now and how I have felt for a long time.  Thank you to Brian Alessandro and Lupe Rodarte for once again having the courage to publish work that is challenging, personal, and radical.

“The critic discusses the medicine, the artist administers it.  It is neither the job of the creative artist nor the creative critic to make you feel good.  It is not our job to provide hope, but truth.  The artist gives you truth at all costs.  The critic – merely interprets and records what is before him and tries to illuminate certain things we prefer to keep in an artist’s shadow.  Or his closet.

Once you have usurped true creativity with an eye towards consumerism and advertising culture you have turned your back from the North Star and have settled on the ethos of Madison Avenue. When banks become proselytizers of culture instead of the individual artist you are in a wasteland.

And wastelands are living death brought to realization by inability to imagine.”

http://thenewengagement.com/literature/the-end-of-imagination

 

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Notes from the Underground: Black Liberation & Rebel Cinema (2000)


“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 Paul Schrader , upon viewing Spike
Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
From Manthia Diawara’s book Black American Cinema
(p.194)

***

As an Act of Protest

The Anti-Spike Lee: “As an Act of Protest” promotes sweat, urgency, raw photography, theatrical acting and lo-fi production.  It was a bold gritty film that became the hallmark of revolutionary guerrilla film-making and represented a turn in independent Cinema in 2001. 

Guerrilla Filmmaking & Resistance 

Introduction to the original screenplay for the film As an Act of Protest

I wrote As an Act of Protest over a period of eleven sleepless nights.

It was completed at one a.m. on Friday, August 19, 2000.

The first draft was over 180 pages.

I had a sinus infection and this was also the morning I finally quit my “survival job.” The joke had been on me, though. Your day-job pays your bills, but it is your art that enables you to survive. It seems fair to say that over the past three years I have been doing just that: surviving. After staging various plays from the African-American canon throughout New York City’s feverish summers in Greenwich Village, the garment district, and in Harlem; and after dwelling in the melancholia that lingers in the air like a perfume in the midst of (and after) any of the recent police brutality or “racial incidences” (from Louima to Shaka Sankofa), and after turning to drugs for comfort since I’d been continuously alienated by some of my “living idols,” and several failed relationships with various women (long and short), and after cyclical family affairs that have always erupted and sometimes ended in police arrests, and after being a victim (yes,victim) of racial ploys and even brutal attacks causing me to feel like Joseph K – constantly finding myself “on the run,” from “them,” and after an honest, but failed, attempt to bring Ed Bullins’ play “Goin’a Buffalo,” (my ode to the American Dream) to the screen, I finally confronted myself. It had been at least three years since I really took a personal snapshot of my soul; I was always doing something to avoid the demons head on – trying to bury it in my art, always looking for a new play, always being busy.

Busy. Busy. Busy. After a while all you are doing is being busy. One mustn’t stage a play just to stage a play. Art for art’s sake is ridiculous. But if you allow yourself to stop, to refuel – then you realize we go up only to come down. And, once again, you are left to deal with yourself. Many lonely nights will force you to re-acquaint yourself with yourself. No sex. No drugs. No TV. No form of escape just naked introspection. He’s a real nowhere man living in his nowhere land…

Yes. That is what happens. When the camel meets the lion who meets the child – no matter how painful, you cannot escape it. And all three of you go at it in that four cornered room. It’s like going cold turkey when you have thoughts in your head that you know you have denied or repressed. Repression creates neurosis. It’s a dam that one has to break, and when the gates are flooded with these potentially dangerous honest emotions and ideas, the result is not unlike As an Act of Protest. I agree that most directors are frustrated writers. However in the theatre it is easier to create that common link; easy to bridge your own inclinations with the author’s if you really understand that author. In film, you are able to go even deeper into your own psyche. That is why, I suppose, it is voted as being the most definitive medium or form for the Director. Here I don’t have to compromise anything.

This is what attracted me to film in the first place, but also what scared me about it. To have bits and pieces of your self smeared all over the screen is some heavy shit. There’s nowhere to hide. It all hangs out. But if my favorite Hip Hop artists have used their styles of music to conquer their personal fears and espouse their political autobiographies – why can’t the new young black directors do the same? True auteurs should create movies about what they know, who they are, their interests, and about the strangeness of their lives. By looking at his movies, James Cameron does not strike me as particularly interesting. On the other hand, I watch Chameleon Street, and say to myself “Wendell Harris is a guy I’d like to have a cup of coffee with.” It’s all personal taste in the end (the most frustrating thing about art), but it proves that people will always appreciate honesty. We’re lied to way too much in our daily lives from the society we live in. Why pay ten bucks to have someone “lie” to you through bland, petty bourgeois, “entertainment”? That is the difference between Dead Prez and Busta Rhymes. The former does not lie, but the latter, unfortunately, basks in it. To create, to paint, or write, etc, – is to confess. You play both
parts: Priest and Sinner. And I would like to truly thank the people around me who allowed me to confess, to go inside and come back out when it was over – no matter how difficult, immature, tiring, arrogant, or abusive I may have been to them. I admit I am a brat.
I hate that part of me, but admit it nonetheless. Once I admit it, perhaps I can begin to change.

Fundamentally, that is what art does for its creator.
It helps to rehabilitate. And I hope I can stay strong, continue to be positive and not let them (you know who they are) get the best of me. Sometimes I feel like Cairo, the actor in As an Act of Protest. Obviously he’s part of me, all the characters are. I just hope those who feel as I do, who are as sensitive as I have become will not take that as a sign of defeat. It’s quite the opposite. Society wants to vaccinate us, cripple us emotionally. People actually didn’t understand why I was so fucked up the day of the Diallo verdict. Granted, I was not surprised at the outcome – but I was crushed, depressed even. Severely. And it has taken a toll on me. I just deal with it in a different way – I repress my anger, my frustration, which is why I am able to be so confrontational in the plays I stage or the scripts I write. There is a monkey on my back – and I am trying to get rid of it, you understand? Racism in all its forms is the most destructive force in the universe.
It has created men and women who suffer with it, of it, breathe it and are accustomed to it. It creates mad men. And everyone in America alone feels this sickness. And the ones who are the victims – suffer with it even more so than the carriers of the disease.

In 1995, I had a nervous breakdown while a drama student at the Juilliard Conservatory. I was nineteen years old. My mother, a strong, beautiful, but troubled woman, tried everything to get me better. I saw every therapist in New York, took every prescriptive drug in the book. Even spent two weeks in the ward at Paine Whitney Mental Health Clinic. Of course nothing worked. The problem was that the problems were not being confronted head on – I was at the whitest school in the world (where the teachers still brag about the good old days of Al Jolson! You want names? I can give them to you), I was torn between pursuing art and my dream of a new black theatre, which I was just discovering, and making quick money – which my family would have readily appreciated, but I was down. Deep down in the mire looking up thinking ”Why are there are no real established black art schools?” All my actor friends were stuck on that European classical-training crap and there was no talking to them. And these conservatory brothers actually called me “Militant.”
Militant? First of all at Juilliard I was doing Shakespeare  (not exactly the bastion of Black Nationalism) and second of all – anybody who knows me knows I am meek and mild. I have dated women of all races, am open to all kinds of positive influences and art and philosophies. I am quite layered. I am not into labels to begin with – “Militant,” “Nationalist,” “Communist,” “Revolutionary Democrat,” “Third World Revolutionary,” “Democrat,”
“Republican,” — that stuff means nothing to me.
I am a Human Being first and foremost. A Black Man second. An artist, third. That’s about as far as I take labels – strip things right down to their base that’s what I always say.

Anyway, at nineteen I found myself really wondering about my future and about the welfare of black people just in America alone. After I happily got kicked out of Juilliard (I swear I would have burned the place down anyway), I began to take time and really piece myself together. A sister I began to date once told me that if I really wanted to “do something” I should use my art to raise consciousness. Of course, nearly three years later when I ran into her in Columbus Circle, I scared her away when I told her my idea for As an Act of Protest:
a black actor who cracks up when his brother gets killed by white police officers, and the actor seeks revenge by killing the Mayor’s son – an ultimate “act.” She said I was crazy. To my face, she said I was crazy. This is a black woman who got on me for not being tough enough, who would not spend the night with me unless I ran out the grooves on a Bob Marley disc, and she’s now dressed in Donna Karan garb, hair straight as could be, and she’s telling me I’m crazy, that I hate the white man because they won’t give me a chance on Broadway.  I’m angry because I don’t have any “higher education,” no college degree, no nothing. She proceeds to say I have abandonment issues (which is the only thing that’s true here, I ain’t gonna lie to you) and that I should open my eyes to the New Black Renaissance taking place. The new Black Renaissance? I asked her what that was, where is it? And how come I wasn’t invited? You know what she did? She took out a magazine, it might have been Ebony I can’t remember, and beams at the cover which shows Puffy Combs and Jennifer Lopez and the headline says something about Martha Stewart “getting her groove on” in the Hamptons with Puffy Daddy and Jigga. “We’ve arrived,” she says.  The sister told me how I, if I wanted, could be living large in two years and then crosses the street to greet her white boyfriend, no younger than sixty, and a Lexus. Needless to say, this only continues to wrack one’s brain, brainwashed black people only continue to depress and mortify you. You realize how colonization continues to affect us. Also, you don’t know at times who you want to kill – the white racist pigs from Bush to Howard Stern or the sellouts like Robin Quivers or those “Institution Negroes.” This is enough to make you go insane. Enough for Nat Turner’s ghost (I swear) to visit me and talk to me at three a.m. when I’m stone cold sober for real. My thesis in Protest is that black young men and women need to be able to have as many outlets for these problems and ills they see and experience. In my film, one of the characters says “Black people don’t need therapists, we need our own conservatories.” It’s true. Very, very true. Take it from me. It is not the answer, but it will begin to help.

 

As an Act of Protest (2001)

Che Ayende (Luis Laporte) as the conflicted actor Cairo in “As an Act of Protest” (2001)

A psychiatrist at Paine Whitney asked me once to describe to him why I felt so paranoid, afraid of society, and “stuck on,” the race problem in America. Since I seemed so “paranoid and alienated,” he asked me if I had read Kafka. I told him I did and I told him if he could dig Kafka, how come he couldn’t understand my situation? In fact, more black people could probably understand Kafka and all these alienated white boys better than white people themselves. We don’t weep for them as these phony white intellectuals do, because we don’t have to. Any group of people who have the horror of slavery embedded in the back of their minds, in the recesses of their “ancestral remembrances,” you know that little portion of the brain that carries mother Africa in black people everywhere – don’t need to cry for anyone except ourselves. I told this young “hip” doctor that I felt like the Last Poets’ song “This is Madness!” He asked me who the Last Poets were. You see what I mean? Where’s the black hospital where we can run to in times of discouragement, times when you really understand the blues, and all that stuff.

Instead of Colin Powell cocktailing with Rudy Giuliani, he should be planning on ways of making sure that the younger brothers don’t end up screwed up like him! (I know, smile, though, we all gotta dream a little bit)

“…And Diana Ross
how can you be Supreme and sing songs of Black Love when your mouth is overrunning with the Sperm of the trigger.
And William Styron is going to commit suicide when he finds out that Nat Turner made love to his great great grandmother. And he has taken our most violent and militant leaders and
stuck lollipops up their asses to pacify their Black power farts. And he is beginning to assume that all of us were born under the sign Taurus the Bull because all we do is BULLSHIT!

This is Madness…
This is Madness…
All this madness is madness…
Madness this is…Please stop all this Madness!”

— The Last Poets

As an of Protest seeks to capture the essence of this poem. And if its madness around you, it is your duty to report on it.

Protest is also an attempt to re-ignite a new cinema.

I am a theatre director making a movie – that’s all it is. If I thought Protest could work as a play, I’d have staged it. Thus, I realized that the time had really caught up to me. It is well beyond the age of movies and mass media. It is a sort of “Age of Images.” For real. A kind of celluloid Halloween. A Neo-Icon-Figurine-Poseur-Fetishism.
Everything reeks of Entertainment Weekly or People magazine. More and more movies (from Hollywood ofcourse) look the same; even the so-called “independent film” movement has lost its luster. I mean, think about it: you can only tell a sex, drugs, and rock and roll movie so many ways. Within this barrage of images – TV, newspapers, films – the only way to compete and battle America’s freaky web of pop culture, blatant racism, not so blatant racism, and that beast called television (“the white man’s magic,”) is to align your own self behind a series of images, tie them to a missile, and set it off. And if constructed correctly, no matter how small, missiles will destroy.

“The theatre is dead.” The West has been saying that repeatedly over the past sixty years. They were wrong up till now. As an Act of Protest reflects some of this changing tide and I have tried to show its political implications. Because, in the end, after war, after our technological advancement folds in itself, the theatre will remain. It’s all around us.

 

A still from "As An Act of Protest" (2001)

Theatre is present in all life and the real new breed of American filmmakers need to turn a blind eye to the Reservoir Dogs of the American Beauties and find themselves. Express their thoughts for real. Black filmmakers, in particular, need to really wake up.
Spike Lee has always complained that cinema has not discovered its Miles Davis or Toni Morrison. He’s correct, but I do not know what he himself is doing to alter this besides producing “Black Hollywood” movies like The Best Man. The Best Man is, in artistic terms, what Diana Ross is compared to Billie Holiday. Yes, black folks need films showing us loving and fighting for and over each other – but that film does not even begin to come close to anybody I’ve ever seen or known in a relationship. Love is not simple or mundane as that movie. No, not all – it’s quite messy and very complicated. Black people will play Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” blast Wu-Tang’s most innovative tracks, and spout the poetry of Amiri Baraka or Sonia Sanchez and yet will still think that a film like The Best Man or Shaft is good enough for them. This strange affiliation and knowledge of directing, storytelling, and displaying of images must change. And I know there are a lot of talented, radical, sensitive people out there. But where are they? Certainly not behind the cameras.

As Hip Hop music (I’m not talking about Li’l Kim or Jay-Z here) evolves and moves into a whole new century, so does a new generation of consciousness and Black Art. Because contrary to the media and Eminem, hip-hop is, and always was, black expression. If white people have not found their own form, there new genuine styles, that is not our fault. And it will not be my responsibility to make them feel “included” in my world. When was the last time a cop or a white man in the street went out of his way to make you feel secure? That type of stuff doesn’t even occur in dreams. True Hip Hop is the highest evolution of the black
aesthetic: from the Spirituals to the blues to folk art and jazz to poetry and the Revolutionary Theatre; from be-bop to Rap. And somewhere in the middle of all this is Rock and Roll. Phew…(And they call us lazy)

In art, every genre/style will run its course, the band the Roots warn us of these traps. One can only take a style of art so far before the American System co-opts it, dilutes it down, bottle and sells it like Coca-Cola and soon what once was an expression of pain or joy becomes mass-produced and on sale like sneakers or cigarettes. Everything is up for grabs in the West and we all continue (black and white alike) to deny it. Look around you at the state of just about everything. ”You can’t think so much” – even this is a bold-face lie. How can we think too much about anything? We only use ten percent of our brains. We do not think enough that is the problem. You want freedom? Force yourself to find a way, never stop investigating…The same with art. If you don’t protect it (like your children) it will be taken from you, and then you will be forced to beg on your knees just to have an “opportunity” to have someone read your work.
What kind of nonsense is that? Why should I fight my way into Hollywood so some old white man can tell me if he wants to produce my script? As if he is going to tell me if I’m talented or not? How would he know? And shame on me if I do not listen to the encouragement of the Last Poets or my peers. What they say is real, is true. If I’m good, they’ll tell me. Not some old white man who runs some Hollywood Studio. And if I’m trying to win an Oscar that just proves how shackled my mind is from colonization. It’s a slave mentality. Miles Davis speaks quite eloquently about establishment awards in his autobiography. If you need more convincing, at least take it from him if not me…

So what else do I see? Well, I can see that theatre has been confined to the dusty annals of Conservatories and college programs and New York Times articles. Emerging black playwrights have never had it so hard. Unless, maybe, you are Suzan Lori-Parks or August Wilson no one will produce your full-length drama. And if they do, in some supposedly high brow theatre, your black play will be staged by a white director. That would be like Outkast begging David Geffen to produce their next album. Surreal? Read on, it gets worse.
In the states, the great black theatre directors, some perhaps by choice, have completely lost touch to the new ensuing generations because not only have they failed in coming together to sustain a Black American Repertory Theatre system, they have not had any cinematic ventures. Lloyd Richards, August Wilson’s famous director-collaborator, was not even allowed to adapt his landmark 1959 production of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to film. No, Hollywood had a white director do it. Why? Because they know the power of the image, of cinema. As we all know, it combines two essential ingredients imperative to any propaganda or mission statement: IMAGES (ideas) and MASS DISTRIBUTION. With film you have an opportunity to reach millions of people around the world. Like a novel. Just think of the movies available on videocassette. Your message, literally, can go on tour. It is a shame that the world (or just our country alone) does not recognize theatre-men like Gil Moses, Robert Macbeth, or Owen Dodson as major innovators and artists. Had they been able to direct films like white theatre masters such as Peter Brook or even Laurence Olivier, perhaps Gordon parks would not be the only “old” black filmmaker we know of in America.

There’s Oscar Micheaux, the great black film pioneer – but his name relates more to myth as opposed to actual work we can see since his films are pretty much out of print, lost, or destroyed. Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, and Ingmar Bergman were all theatre directors before they even thought about making movies. They conquered one form, then logically moved into another – spreading their wings that’s all.  Welles was my age when he landed in Hollywood to embark on the creation of his classic Citizen Kane.  The kid had never even seen a camera before, nonetheless know anything about montage or cuts or dubbing. I have had some ignorant people try to psyche me out by saying to me “Man, you can’t do a movie.  You’re a theatre director. You’re a stage man. What do you know about cinematography or editing? I bet you don’t even know who Lumiere was. You may be able to stage a play but that does not mean you can do a film.” That’s true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.  And if Welles was only twenty four when he made Citizen Kane then what is the difference between his youthful zeal, intelligence, talent, and desire to explore and say, Mos Def’s? Must I remind you that Michael Jackson was only twenty-four when he made Thriller? There is no difference here. I am a director, which in most quarters is a vague title. A lot of people don’t really understand a stage director or filmmaker. They equate it to an old white man’s medium. Which translates to: intelligence, sophistication, and “understanding of rules.”
Bullshit. Complete bullshit. I realized this when staging “Blues for Mister Charlie” at the National Black Theatre in 1999. A theatre rep from Lincoln Center refused to believe that such a young black man could direct a three and a half hour play and have it be a critical and financial success (whatever that means). If I were forty, she would have believed it.
Or, if I was homosexual perhaps or blind and deaf in one ear – they feel it would be more likely. Why?  Because it would mean to them that I was a little “off,” or different and this could account for my talent. If I made a hip hop record (which is what they prefer all young black male artists to do) than they would want to celebrate me. This is not good. Not good at all.

Where am I going with all this? What is my point? It’s
this: in order for a complete re-birth or renaissance, if you will, and I don’t use that word lightly – African American filmmakers need to get bold. All of us, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors. We need to get dirty. We need to be outrageous, unconventional, honest, clever, and as vicious as we have been in other art forms or musical genres. We need true Hip Hop films, aesthetically speaking. This could, ironically, even inspire a new theatre. But black auteurs need to look at ourselves for inspiration not Steven Speilberg, not the Coen Brothers, not Fellini. Admiring one’s work is one thing, using it as a model of a standard work from which to base your own work is another. Especially if its not someone from your own house. How could a black independent filmmaker way out on the fringe – look to Oliver Stone or Brian De Palma for practical advice or cultural support? Ideas he could get, even immediate inspiration, you may even learn something from any type of art – but then what? Something gets lost in the translation. It would be like Women using Men as a model on which to base parenting. Sure, we’re all fruits. But there is a difference between an apple and an orange. And what happens when you discover that your favorite Hollywood filmmaker has major split-racist tendencies or extreme right-winged proclivities in his movies. I appreciate honesty in art, and if you have hangs up show them in your films – but give me a break. That black film student will watch certain films and begin to really get depressed:
“Wow. Martin Scorsese has weird stuff about black people in almost all his movies. George Lucas merely makes fun of “colored” and Eastern peoples by converting Asian-African-rooted-type names into “fancy” futuristic Star Wars lingo: The degobah system? Obi-Wan Kenobi? Sounds vaguely Japanese, Middle Eastern with West Indian lilts to me. Allah must be shaking his head. It’s sick. I go into the video stores to buy more copies of the Godfather, Taxi Driver, the French Connection, Indiana Jones, The Deer Hunter, Saturday Night Fever, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Brasco, or even “light” Middle-class fare such as Chasing Amy or Jerry McGuire. Black people (or other people of color) are put down or killed off or severely mocked in any one of these pictures (we believe if they wouldn’t, then these films wouldn’t be gritty and “realistic”). Some of these movies are considered to be great works of American art. And some of them are – Coppola’s mysteriously cloaked The Godfather is not unlike a Shakespearean Tragedy play about a royal corrupt family. As brilliant as it is, shouldn’t I be spending more time watching Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess, which came out in 1973 and played in the theatres for only a week. The film is a classic and teaches me, an African-American, more about myself than Coppola or John Huston could. It’s also one of the most technically thrilling and artistically driven films I have ever seen. Spike Lee should spent his time on getting copies of Gunn’s work out on video as opposed to watching Knicks games and drooling over “dolly shots” in his movies. However, even Spike wants us to all believe that he is the only legitimate black filmmaker.

Poor Charles Burnett, the maker of the cult classic Killer of Sheep. This milestone came out the same year as Star Wars 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 backyards. 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 black audience could appreciate.  Huey wrote that he hoped this would inspire a whole revolutionary genre of black pictures. Instead, the white people of 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 White Man’s Nigger-Propaganda-movies 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.

How does one battle this? Well, if Charlie Parker walked into a room and all he heard was some ucky-ducky brass version of lily white tunes like “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?” and the standard Top 40 pop music before jazz, he’d walk over to the white band, pull the saxophone player by his neck and say in that English accent that he was known to have mocked “If I hear this shit one more time I’m a go insane. Somebody betta play that instrument and somebody betta play that shit right. Fuck these chords and lame rhythms, we better come up with our own ways of playing before we lose our souls like these white cats playin’ this shit.” You find your own way of playing the instrument. That’s it. An incident like this changes the course of history and brings black people into themselves again. You have your way of handling the camera, I have mine. Consciousness and talent is all I ask for. Of course Genius wouldn’t hurt either.

Black Americans along side, if not more than, (yes!) William Shakespeare have contributed more than any other group or individual to the English language than anyone in history. Even News Broadcasters try to sound “hip” on television. It’s absurd. It’s not a question of getting angry, it’s a matter of doing something constructive. We created Rap music with a cardboard box and some words, man! Like mighty magicians, we always created something out of nothing. Didn’t need this, didn’t need that. Didn’t need some big studio, eighteen guitars, twenty-four track recorders, thirty different percussion instruments or drums. Just a beat and our minds. Do you realize we have sent thousands upon thousands of dazzling messages into the night this way? So, how can a black filmmaker do the same thing? How can I learn to do in my art what the Last Poets, Public Enemy, Run DMC, Tupac Shakur, Outkast, Common, or Dead Prez have accomplished in their field?
Where is the key? What are the means I must have to do this? It’s right in front of us. We live in it: the digital age.

The answer is Digital Video.

DOGMA 95 & DIGITAL VIDEO

Every so often a movement in art comes along that clears the decks and allows the lion in us to roam.
Explore.

Enables us to see differently and experience something – otherwise too familiar – in a completely different context and allows the artist to re-define his way of working. Like Peter Brook’s classic treatise on theatre “The Empty Space,” the Danish filmmakers’ concept of Dogma 95 has introduced a fresh and new way of making movies. Conceived in 1995, the aim of Dogma 95-films is to “strip cinema naked.”  Meaning the goal is to “force the truth out of characters and settings,” by using the bare essentials of cinema: a hand-held digital video movie camera, natural light, on location sound, and real sets. To some degree this “actors cinema” (the focus here) is not new, of course, for John Cassavetes and even early Martin Scorsese championed these ideas decades ago. However, what Dogma 95 has achieved is remarkable. By just using a digital camera, a bare bones crew, no special effects, and an ensemble of daring actors (called “Liberators,” in the Black Revolutionary Theatre) they have proven that quality, not quantity is what counts. No string-budget films can now be made by using digital video (which have amazing resolution and splendid transfers when blown up to 35mm. Even your man, George Lucas is shooting his next Star Wars movie completely on digital).

Thomas Vinterberg’s stunning digital feature The Celebration is a perfect example of this vanguard cinema. Do you see what has happened here? The writer no longer needs a computer or typewriter – he can make his literary masterpiece with just a pad and pen!
Digital video and the Dogma 95 concept has empowered and enabled filmmakers all over the world who grew up thinking they needed Hollywood money and equipment – to produce their own personal feature films. All you need is a camera and a story. Guerilla filmmaking. The tide is slowly turning…

If Rap artists could get down with just two turntables, black directors – left out and fighting against the system, must quit their whining and look to digital video. Unless you want to spend years raising money to shoot on 35mm, which gets more expensive by the day, you’ve got to be practical and praise the lord that you now have the means. Power to the People, a poor man’s cinema verses the White Capitalist Power Structure-Epi-Center of the Western World. Why more African American filmmakers are not using this new technology to make their statements is beyond me. Like with our music, we need to assault cinema, tear it up, break it down, blow on it, scratch it, make it spin on its head. It’s there for us to redefine yet we are so colonized we continue to believe that White is better; that we have to compete with Hollywood’s standards of assembly-line filmmaking: Special effects, fancy lights, script convention. It’s as if we want to make bad movies as good as they do and neglect our very existence or representation in the process. If you have a million dollars at your disposal, perhaps we could have another (slightly different) discussion. Thus, take what you can learn – but don’t emulate what is not you or for you. Nina Simone had no desire to want to be the “next” Judy Garland. Similarly, Saul Williams was not trying to copy TS Eliot by rote.

So simple, yet so difficult. Those chains are hard to break. Sometimes I forget I even have them on. So the Dogma 95 films are now on the cutting edge and films worldwide are being produced on digital. Now, I ask “Where do the New Wave of Black Filmmakers really fit in here?”

THIRD CINEMA 2000

In the 1960’s, a film theory called Third Cinema was created in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These “third world filmmakers,” such as Indian master Satyajit Ray and African griot Haile Gerima joined to form Third Cinema in an effort to “transform society by educating and radicalizing the film audience through subversive cinema.” (Definitely sounds like what Miles Davis, Coltrane, or RZA from Wu-Tang did with music or sound itself). Adhering to the philosophy that all film is ideological, they experimented with film as a weapon against the cultural imperialism of Hollywood. Like a Katherine Dunham dance or one of Baraka’s plays. In Africa, specifically, filmmakers were inspired by the writings of Frantz Fanon and Marxist film criticism and formulated new revolutionary film theory that radically re-interpreted the relationship between film, the viewer, and the director. Third cinema characterizes traditional film directors of the West as agents of capitalism who “sell” to promote their passive audiences movies that promote colonial stereotypes and consumer-society values.

Latino filmmakers such as Fernando Solanas and Ocatvio Gettino produce “films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the system.” In present day United States of America, we make Hip Hop records that are incendiary and hold back on nothing. We need films to go along with these albums. I wanna see a film that’s as bold as the Aquemini album. Unfortunately, Umar Hassan still has it right: Niggers are scared of revolution…

Revolutionary cinema must resist the temptation to be “clean,” or sterile like the movies from Hollywood and television shows. The radical Hip Hop cinema of this new century must not limit itself to mere “denunciation,” or appeal simply for reflection, it must be a summons for action. Some of the techniques written into Protest in fact are examples of Third
Cinema: fusion of documentary with fiction and use of unresolved endings that are traditionally used to invite audience discussion. Our African brothers such as filmmaker Souleyman Cisse’ have been very successful at this.

By using the Dogma 95 techniques and the political and cultural urgency of Third Cinema, I am declaring As An Act of Protest a THIRD CINEMA 2000 picture and the first of its kind for the New Wave of Black Filmmaking in the Twenty First Century. These are the principles:

1. Your film must be shot on digital video (or Super
16mm).
You can only use standard 35mm if you easily have the money in your budget. (But to shoot on film and lose financing during post production and editing is ridiculous and can now be avoided at all costs!)

2. Your film must seek to be honest and revealing. How screwed up are Human Beings? Don’t answer it, ask it.
Exposure of the ills of our society, the racism, sexism, poverty, war, problems of communication between men and women various forms of prejudice must be attacked and criticized. These are the ingredients of humanity; what separates us from Animals are our emotional, psychological, spiritual, sexual, and political problems. We create these horrors. The
animals you so admire – don’t.

3. Your film must be a narrative “feature” film. Focus
on character driven stories that are surrounded by topical events of our time. If your film is a period piece, do not forsake authentic emotions and real situations for “real costumes” or period set pieces.
The Actor must be at the center of your film and you must exhaust all ways of getting true, raw, performances. Stop at nothing in order to reveal real moments of pain or joy in the lives of your characters. Never sacrifice a good performance for a “cool” shot or hip lighting. Use improvisation as a technique.

4. Ignore script convention: you don’t need to always
have the standard 120 pages of script, arcs, denouements, plot points, etc,. You are the author of your film and must make a film you would want to see, not what some screenwriting book advises that you make us see. The script must be written by an African American, if not you, and if it’s a collaboration at least one of the writers must be black. Likewise, lead characters must be black or of African Ancestry.

5. Your film must stress emotional and political
volatility, the confusion, and stress, and horror of living in whatever conditions you wish to explore – housing conditions, interracial relationships, the collision of Pop stars and real working people, capitalist terrain, etc,. You always have two goals:
to serve the socio-political message and to create emotionally laden stories through use of deep, complicated characters. Drama and Political Messages.
One must not overwrought the other.

6. Welcome various styles and ideas in one film. Like
life, it should capture aspects of the multi-faceted events of our daily lives, no matter how bizarre, funny, or sad. Also, do not be afraid of using varying musical styles to stress altering moods.

7. You must understand and use Hip Hop as a frame of
reference for the conception of your film. Meaning, you are, in essence, making a Hip Hop film and must apply its familiar characteristics: Bravado, Righteousness, Defiance, and Heart.

8. Explore ambiguity, minimalism, and excess at
various intervals of the film. Embrace unresolved endings.

9. Do not pander to your audience and you MUST NOT
show gratuitous jokes, nudity, drug use, or violence – unless that is the subject of your work. Do not try to appeal to pop culture or make attempts at being hip.
Trust yourself and your intelligence.

10. Understand that, before anything else, you are a
GRIOT and your main concern is to move,
enlighten, politically arouse, and teach your viewers.
Never stop challenging. And work with as many different types of people on your crew: a variable of energies is important during production.

Note: “Griot” must precede Director’s name if credits are employed. For example, “The Movie” Directed by Griot John X.

On stage it is important to “spill the blood” and fill that empty space. In cinema, it is important for black directors to use a camera the way the great musicians played their instruments or approach filmmaking as influential novelists did with the written word. There is so much to be explored. As many different types of black people there are throughout the world – that is how many ways of filmmaking there are. Dare to fail.
Find the jazz in you. Play your riffs, find your flows. And when you are finished, create your own way of taking a bow.

* * * *

Thanks to Amiri Baraka for writing “Dutchman,” Woodie King, Jr. for your landmark book “Black Theatre:
Present Condition,” one of the major influences that got me off my ass, the work of James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Lorraine Hansberry, Antonin Artaud, and Spike Lee – as well as John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, Raoul Peck, Bill Gunn, Wendell B. Harris, Euzhan Palcy, Haile Gerima, and Robert Bresson – for the brutal honesty in their work.

Thanks to the Last Poets – Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan. Your albums have astonished and provided me with inspiration throughout my short life. Umar and Dun, thank you specifically for our many telephone conversations and your honest words of wisdom and support. Umar, it was fate that brought us together at the Lenox Lounge on 125th street. Life does that and at the strangest moments, you meet the people who you have admired and you find that after having met them and re-reading their work, you admire them even more.
You have encouraged me as a writer and I have appreciated all of your comments and thoughts on my work.

Special Thanks to Rick Schmidt’s now classic book “Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices,” Steve Kahler in Florida for making me a true believer in DVD, Ray Carney, the people of Harlem, Ali Lynch for understanding, Haile Gerima’s stunning university speech on filmmaking, the music of Dead Prez and all “conscious” Hip Hop: the Language of the Underground Railroad.

Dennis Leroy Moore
(aka: Dennis Leroy Kangalee)
August 26, 2000
Harlem, NY

This was the original introductory note included in the very first draft of As an Act of Protest four months prior to the shoot.

An edited version was later read as a speech at the Oberia Dempsey center.

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Where Paintings Go to Die

“Great paintings shouldn’t be in museums…Great paintings should be where people hang out.  You can’t see great paintings.  You pay ½ a million and hang one in your house and one guest sees it.  That’s not art.  That’s a shame, a crime…it’s not the bomb that has to go, man.  It’s the museums.”

-Bob Dylan, August 1965

Interviewed by Nora Ephron & Susan Edmiston

A lonely Basquiat hangs on 57th Street…

At 9 West 57th street home of the Solow Art & Architecture foundation sits some of the most impressive famous modern art works known from Miro to Matisse…

Adjacent to the lobby on the left hand side 25 feet behind the large glass window hangs one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s later paintings, Parts that he created in 1984.  Appearing like a blurred collage, it is a bold dark red painting hosting a drawing of cooked chicken that appears pasted to the canvas, implying the tenets of his earlier street art or a pasted billboard.  Next to it – are charred fragments, his idiosyncratic scribblings, a flame and then to the right of the canvas one his cryptic texts in which the word SNAKES can be made out. The yellow and blue streaks added another layer to the image, granting it a strange tension it might not have otherwise…

But I’m no art critic or expert and I don’t need to be.  I’m simply relaying what I see and feel.

Seeing a Basquiat live is quite impressive.  Not unlike the awesome effect of a Rothko (one of which hung in Christie’s window all summer long during an auction)

In the Solow gallery, the lights come on at 8am and you are immediately impressed.

And then disappointed when you are realize you are not allowed to enter the foundation’s gallery so all the art work hangs on a white lonely wall collecting 5th Avenue dust at best and perhaps a strained glance.  With artwork with an estimated value of TWO HUNDRED MILION DOLLARS – donated to a private foundation of which the New York Real Estate mogul Sheldon Solow is the ONLY MEMBER of – this is a bunker that was created as a TAX SHELTER and since public accessibility is simply out of the question…it actually raises the stature and interest in these artworks because if they cant be seen by some everyday bum poet like me – it must be an important collection…You can make a private donation to the foundation but under no circumstances can you see the artwork up close and in person…you have to try your best to squint pass the glass windows and make out what you can of the Basquiat and Miro’s hanging in there.

Like forgotten bodies on a crucifix.   Which is what most art becomes anyway..there are more eyes that have laid upon a man hanging than a great painting…Lynchings have probably, cumulatively, brought together more people for free in public spaces – than great art work. And lynchings, too, in the end made money.  They pressed postcards of black men having been lynched.  People collected these.

I’ve always been curious about death and galleries such as the Solow Foundation , may be , in fact, where souls go to die.  You have to have had a soul in order to die. And most artwork – even their creators are malevolent – had souls…and continue to have them…they just eternally linger beneath dust and broken light.  Like vampires who can’t die.

But you don’t have to be John Berger to know that the statement Mr. Solow is making is simply: “I own this. You do not. And never will. ”

Far away from the public and his audience: a Basquiat hangs twenty feet away from the glass window in the lobby of the Solow Building. A painting surrounded by…uninhabited space…dust that will never fall upon a human shoulder…and light unbroken by a bobbing head or footfalls that go to kneel before the holy altar of powerful art. Do not weep for empty churches – for they at least can rejuvenate one.  Even an atheist can gain sense of his soul in an empty church. But it must be empty. It’s the cordoned off, hostile emptiness of a gallery or museum or “personal” foundation that should make us weep…

 Imagine if your lover hung on the wall, waiting for you.

   

 

*

 

 

Originally written for Kangalee’s Cave – © DLK – Revised May 17, 2019 

 

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Coda for My Shadow

The world is becoming more acquainted with the names of dead Black Men as opposed to living ones

We’ve been tamed and perverted

into caring

when a Black Person gets murdered

uttering liberal platitudes and marching

instead of fighting for them – when they are alive. We’re all in collusion. Black men, in particular, like Christ or the Artist, are preferred dead. They’re easier to love and remember then. We prefer to mourn the dead rather than praise the living. While it is true most people on the planet — living or dead — don’t deserve an after-thought in the cosmos, there are still uniquely luminous individuals among us,

quite often they are loners or at the end of the line

or perhaps they startle when entering the café

or mesmerize when crossing the street,

sometimes it’s their words or voice we remember

or the scent of their clothes.

But it is safe to say that these people are never in positions of power. When they are — their murders sting, but they don’t surprise. Instead, we pretend we’re shocked when a harmless child or a struggling beaten down member of the Proletariat get killed. But all along we were just riding beside that Police Car, dispatching ourselves to the Fascists and believing in the sacrifice of our own

rather than the annihilation of a system

that seeks to destroy the Colored Man

with text, on screen, over radio, and in flesh.

Imagine a world where there will be no more funerals because there will be no more soil left to cover the bodies of the exterminated.

 

[The splendid painting “The Proud Father” above is by the South African painter, Gerard Sekoto, 1947. ]

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Love N Roll

Remembering Sibyll Kalf, artist-musician-mensch-dreamer-gypsy-extraordinaire.
 
1967-2016

The quirky perennial outsider Sibyll Kalff

The quirky perennial outsider Sibyll Kalff

The death of a friend made me realize not how fleeting life is or how precious moments are, but how little time we actually shared enjoying ourselves.
She was aloof, eccentric, and at times utterly mysterious.  A fellow outsider artist, we’d hear from her, correspond intensely over several weeks…and then not again until years later.  Always in waves.
Through her I was introduced to the work of poet Robert Mitchell (rest in peace) and Lynda Crawford, who was one of the first (if not the first) American editor to publish my poetry in North America (Manhattan Linear poetry magazine/site).  Nina and I met Sibyll online in 2005 while living in Berlin, slowly emerging from our own hell and getting involved in a whole new phase of living, feeling, and being. She read some of my poetry, admired Nina’s photography and began to send us recordings of her music and sound poetry – many of the songs, in fact, with texts by Robert Mitchell.  We fell in love with Sibyll’s spirit.  She, in her own idiosyncratic way (she would always share our art work with whomever she’d come in contact with in Cologne and in return we’d do the same) represented the Last of the Romantics. She was peripatetic as we were and always seeking, searching for the next landing on that great mountain we all climbed – or tried to: Transcendence.  Her death sent chills up my spine because the last art-work she sent to us recently was a hand-made notebook she wanted me to use for some new poems I was intending to write and send back to her.  I never did.  Another collaboration that will never take place.
Sibyll, you were relentless in your optimism — or rather in your insistence on being hopeful in the face of all that life’s ugliness and daily unnecessary cruelty flings at us…But that’s also how we as artists burn out.  The desperation for something better, for a life in flow, for some harmony in and out of all that we do…Sometimes it never comes.  When good spirits fall to their knees – it is not they who lose out. It is the rest of the people in the universe who never got a chance to experience just a glimmer of what you share with some of those lucky enough to have been in your orbit – however briefly.
Thinking about the child-like rawness and the lovely crudity of your art-work, of course my mind goes back to the heart and soul of rock and roll which you loved so much…and in particular the punk of NYC’s old hey-day.
Sibyll, I know you yearned to return to the Big Apple. But trust me, NYC did not deserve your death. While a person’s death doesn’t matter as much as their living — there are constellations of energy in thie life that simply do not warrant our impassioned pleas or cries of resistance. New York has not been the city you first visited in the 1990’s in nearly 20 years and maybe it was good in a way that you never returned to see the mess and disappointment it became.  It, and the world, has changed so much, too quickly — that the promissory notes you clutched tightly became worthless.  And maybe you sensed that something around you too was just simply not worth it.  And I don’t blame you. Your courage is inspiring.  I hope your exit was joyful, wherever you bowed out…and I hope you keep them honest in the artistic pursuits beyond the stars or the molten lava.  Wherever delicate and beautiful souls like you go.
This song is for you, darling.
The Jim Carroll Band: “People Who Died”

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White Supremacy and the Democratic Party’s Dark Past

A meditation on Christopher Everett’s new film Wilmington On Fire

Christopher Everett’s new independent film “Wilmington on Fire” is a stunning movie about the racist massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina at the end of the 19th century when a mob of whites burned down Black businesses in downtown Wilmington and either killed or exiled its Black citizens, threatening death to some of the Black property owners if they even thought about returning.  With a passionate cast of interviewees, Wolly McNair’s arresting visual reproductions of some of the events, a stellar soundtrack produced by Sean ‘Oneson’ Washington, and a jam-packed history and humanities lesson in a sobering 90 minutes, this is a wholly personal and consciousness-expanding documentary told in a direct, unpretentious, and intimate way about a genocidal act whose impact still reverberates today…

White American racists shoot Black American citizens of Wilmington, NC on November 10, 1898 in one of the swiftest acts of genocide in American history. [Courtesy of Speller Street Films; artwork by Wolly McNair]

White American racists shoot Black American citizens of Wilmington, NC on November 10, 1898 in one of the swiftest acts of genocide in American history. [Courtesy of Speller Street Films; artwork by Wolly McNair]

 

Malcolm X used to bemoan Black America’s pathological loyalty to the Democratic Party.  This perverse agreement to remain supportive of the Democrats was sealed of course with President Johnson’s skillful passing of the 1964 Civil Rights act, the landmark piece of legislation that deemed discrimination of any kind illegal in the USA. What is most ironic, of course, beyond the fact that since then non-Black immigrants have actually used the gains of that bill and the Civil Rights movement in general – to benefit their own stance, corroborate white racism, and ascend the ladder within America culture. Oppressed people of any stripe are always quick to forget that they are quite often the beneficiaries of another people’s suffering. (Johnny Cochrane interestingly makes note of this in his autobiography Journey to Justice when he describes how the former LA community of west of Main Street went from being a Japanese-American middle class neighborhood to a New Black Middle Class enclave post WW2).

I struggle to understand Jews who do not see the actions of Israel as being evil and draconian in terms of how they regard and oppress the Arabs and Africans of the occupied territory once known purely as Palestine. Do we all suffer from our own selective memory, our own bludgeoning “cops in the head”, our own mangled perception of what is right, wrong, and how we benefit or not or fit in or not?

What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the heralding of Lyndon Johnson and his “progressive” administration for putting forth the Civil Rights Act, blah blah blah…Johnson was a politician, not a moralist. He would have sold his own mother if it had meant power. Despite his obvious support of the Civil Rights Act he was staunchly racist and a serious cartoon-example of a “good old boy” white Southern cracker. His recorded conversations reveal how natural it was for him to refer to blacks as “Niggers” constantly in conversations held in the oval office (you can hear these recordings on YouTube). Jim Garrison, who charged the United States government in a coup d’état against President Kennedy implied that Johnson himself was even marginally involved in the JFK assassination, so what on earth would convince people he cared about Black people simply because he patronized us and realized he was already in a losing battle…America had to make legislative changes in the 1960’s – the pressure was too much to bear as we the far left was gaining major strides in this country and throughout the world and a Black men protecting himself at all costs against the cruelty and hate of his government would not go unheeded. It is pressure and resistance that always creates legal changes and it either hits you in the wallet or in the head. The dollar or the bullet.

Are we “a virus in shoes” as the late great Bill Hicks once proclaimed? I think we are. Whether we are killing animals or each other, Man is interminably doomed and his shameful celebration of malevolence only continues to prove that while there may not be a god – there is certainly a devil. And he weaves and works his way through the actions of human beings in a way that is profoundly shocking and mysterious. Why? Because, supposedly, everything is all about money. Or the subjugation of one group over another. Throughout history and psychology, all things, all of our spiritual carbon footprints could be whittled down to either of these causes, often both, as Capitalism is a complex duet of both avarice and racism. We are pathetic.

White racists stand amidst the carnage and destruction they proudly create in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 [courtesy of Speller Street Films, artwork by Wolly McNair]

White racists stand amidst the carnage and destruction they proudly create in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 [courtesy of Speller Street Films, artwork by Wolly McNair]                         

                                                                             *

Let’s get back to the checkered past and moral confusion of the Democrats. What a fascinating and morbid history our political parties have purely in terms of their formation, definitions, and self-preservation. For it was on November 10, 1898 North Carolina Democrats enabled a White Mob to engage in a massacre that left at least 100 Blacks dead (the exact number is somewhere between 60 and in the hundreds – the records are murky about this for obvious reasons). For some reason it was the political affiliation alone that stood out to me when learning this information in Christopher Everett’s new and revealing documentary Wilmington On Fire.

First of all, I had no clue that Wilmington was at one point one of the most cosmopolitan centers in all of the USA, in fact one of the biggest and most economically inspired cities in the world before 1898. Wilmington On Fire does a fantastic job relaying all of this information. It was one of the most diverse cities with (yes!) black-owned and white-owned shops side by side in downtown Wilmington. The Black middle class was so successful, some even had their own butlers and pianos. This puts a whole new twist on the 19th century Black life doesn’t it? In fact, what most of us can’t admit: there were more powerfully linked and healthier connections amongst black businessmen and their communities well before the official rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation laws in the USA. This warrants serious rumination.

Obviously this kind of “renaissance” and “progress” of humanity offended racists and white supremacists to their very core, many of which were staunch members and supporters of the Democratic Party. Republicans back then still had the air of liberalism attached to their party.

But meanings and their associations’ change and context – always context! – will always be the end all-be all. Still, it is no less alarming that Americans have a skewered view of the past, identities, and supposed meanings. Perhaps if we regarded political parties as complicated as we have begun to regard our sexual identities or proclivities we may see that there is more to “politics” than meets the eye; more to the values of a political party than its typically regarded associations.

Does it not amuse you  that Hollywood actor Wendell Pierce insanely defends the likes of Hilary Clinton and the Democrats legacy? While once again context is vital here, had the actor done this to a Trump supporter, I wouldn’t even mention it. I would casually admire the act for what it’s worth, shrugging off yet another ploy and performance from our nation’s true capital: the throes of Hollyweird.

Even if an actor of Pierce’s modest-stature (commercially speaking) is so disgruntled by a Bernard Sanders supporter or another candidate – he should take time to remember that political parties mean, essentially, nothing. Pierce should spend time putting weight or interest behind Christopher Everett’s excellent movie opposed to paying the state $1,000 bail as a result of his fractious encounter with a Sanders supporter.

*

The Movie

About the infamous 1898 massacre of Wilmington’s black businesses and citizens, Christopher Everett’s directorial debut is an unpretentious, direct, and minimalist portrait of the coup d’état created by the white North Carolina Democratic Party in an attempt to broker the lives and future of Wilmington and eventually the entire state – ensuring the legacy and rebirth of a rekindled and acknowledged form of legally sanctioned racism, 35 years after the civil war and the USA’s official outlaw of slavery.  As Dr. Umar Johnson fluently explains, after the Civil War in 1865 – a cloud hung over the Ex-Confederate Southern white men who couldn’t bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost a war – not to President Lincoln or the Yankees up North but to their own former slaves! We forget or choose not to remember that Black Americans fought against some of their former slave owners as Union soldiers. And the Union never would have won the Civil War had it not been for the Black soldiers who fought for themselves… and on behalf of the Union.

In retaliation and exasperation, white supremacists who governed the Democratic Party in North Carolina sought to retaliate and officially install a racist system that had been supposedly eradicated some 30 years prior as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates’ dream to restore White unity and Black servitude reached such a grizzled mania that an impassioned yet calculated plot to excise the Black businesses and citizens of Wilmington completely. Independent researcher Kent Chatfield shows us copies of WB McKoy’s pamphlet of 1897, The White Government Union a constitution and bylaws created by the North Carolina Democratic Party whose sole aim was to instill white supremacy government.

The film opens with Ness Lee’s powerful track, “Voice of The Regular People” produced by Illastrate with sampled echoes of Curtis Mayfield’s inimitable falsetto heard wailing, “I’m going to war to find my brother!” is well used here and the closing number of the film has one of the best uses of anthemic protest music that I can think of in any movie since Children of Men’s closing with John Lennon’s “Free The People.” The closing number by James Diallo (produced by Michael ‘Sarkastix’ Harris) in this case is the original and haunting, “It’s a Massacre” – a moody atmospheric poetic hip hop tune that is as defiant and soulful as the film itself. The rest of the music is sparsely and confidently scored by Matthew Head.

We learn in Wilmington On Fire that the White Government Union was a more urbane and far more treacherous terrorist organization than its backyard cousin the Ku Klux Klan for example. These were men who were out for blood, had serious connections and money, and were not going to stop until they removed all Black power-brokers, cultural influence, and existence in Wilmington, North Carolina. The White Government Union’s de-facto militias – known as the “redshirts” – once again, unlike the Klan did not hide their faces and acted like savage storm-troopers upon the African-American community and, as the Nazis did, acted in accordance with some of the most strategic and wicked propaganda put forth by white racists in Wilmington in order to stir up hate and fear against the Blacks. Their vile use of rape as a fear tactic and as a way to protect the white purity of the white woman is on par with the mechanisms later used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Who knows?   I imagine Hitler and his henchmen being the history fanatics that they were no doubt impressed and inspired by the methods used by the White Government Union.

Activist & Radio Host Larry Reni Thomas declares sadly “Wilmington – the town – is synonymous with racial violence.” Thomas ceaselessly fights on behalf of descendants of the victims of the 1898 Wilmington riot.

Activist & Radio Host Larry Reni Thomas declares sadly “Wilmington – the town – is synonymous with racial violence.” Thomas ceaselessly fights on behalf of descendants of the victims of the 1898 Wilmington riot. 

                                                                           *

Wilmington On Fire was made to enlighten, inform, and arouse interest in not only a slice of American history, but also a deeply troubling event that has been swept under the carpet and seldom mentioned.   A touchstone of racism and quite honestly one of the multitudinous events that has occurred to Black people in North America alone that helps make-up the Black Holocaust – a stream of harrowing events that Western academics and historians continually downplay in favor of the gargantuan numbers involved in the Jewish Holocaust in the confines of Nazi death-camps. Still, if it were a numbers game they would lose. According to SE Anderson, somewhere between 15 and 60 million Black lives were destroyed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade alone. And the horror continues to this day. Each isolated act of terror makes up another patchwork in the terrible mighty quilt known as Modern Culture As Created by the Anglo in What Is Now Known as The United States of America.

Yet, many African-Americans still find it hard to reconcile their past in this country alone. Randall Robinson in his excellent book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks mentions his exasperation via a casual discussion he had with author Walter Mosley with Blacks’ seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their tortured past by downplaying and literally disabling the commercial business of such well-intentioned films like Beloved based on the Toni Morrison classic. Because it deals with slavery they ignored it. That’s probably even truer for the greater mainstream’s embarrassing avoidance of the entire work of genius Haile Gerima. And while pop culture has embraced a Disney-fied, eroticized, and gleefully sanitized “ANTEBELLUM SLAVE & SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS” movie genre (Miss Burning to Clara’s Heart to The Help to 12 Years a Slave, etc) – most of the serious art films or documentaries go unnoticed or un-appreciated because of their innate passion or style or singular vision. Sometimes it’s because of all three – whether it’s serious protest dramas like Nothing But a Man or later radical Black-helmed pictures like Sam Greenlee & Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door – there’s always a distinct difference in the independent filmmaker’s vision and those seeking to exploit, pander, or simply fulfill a Liberal-checklist of obligations for some media company to fulfill. This must always be taken into account when you watch any film, especially a documentary: Ask, “Is this necessary?” And then ask, “Would this director be willing to suffer for giving us this information?”

A screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina proved to be the most attended film screening in the festival’s 21 years of existence. A huge deal for a guerrilla film project. Poster designed by Marcus Kiser.

A screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina proved to be the most attended film screening in the festival’s 21 years of existence. A huge deal for a guerrilla film project. Poster designed by Marcus Kiser.

*

Documentaries, like narrative movies, do have a point-of-view. And because they are not dramas or crafted fictions – it does not mean that they are less entertaining and/or less subjective. All truth in art is beauty and contains a POV. It is not the events being reported that is debatable. That is fact. But the HOW they are being related is where the truth of a subject comes into play.

 

Ken Burns’ obnoxious and smug documentaries and explorations of American life are often comfy and bold history lessons. He gives us tons of FACTS…but no genuine HEART. His movies are ultimately shallow and soulless despite their technical perfection. His speakers themselves come off indulgent and sanctimonious. Burns’ clean and sterile mannered PBS approach may have helped to kill and generalize the documentary in the past 25 years but it also helped to usher in legion of filmmakers trying to reclaim power and truth from the establishment – each in their own way.

By contrast, Everett’s “talking heads” comprise a wonderful cast of characters, if you will. From the nervy and dutifully concerned Kent Chatfield (a white brilliant researcher whose rational deductions and drove of information would make Oliver Stone weep; he grew up hearing older men recount their passed down recollections of how whites massacred blacks in 1898) to the regal Dr. Lewin Manly (a beautifully grave man who reminds one of Thurgood Marshall and is a direct descendant of Wilmington’s Black newspaper mogul, Alex Manly, whose Daily Record printing press was arguably the main target in the massacre) to compassionate and dynamic community activists like Daawud Muhammad. But all those interviewed come off extremely intelligent and understandably concerned about the effects of this horrible event and its aftermath 118 years later…

Passionate independent researcher Kent Chatfield provides an abundance of chilling facts, records, and documents equating the North Carolina Democratic Party of the 1890’s with pure hatred.

Passionate independent researcher Kent Chatfield provides an abundance of chilling facts, records, and documents equating the North Carolina Democratic Party of the 1890’s with pure hatred.    

 

If film can be an art and a weapon – the documentary is an often thrilling and deadly weapon in the arsenal, at times a best kept secret. For all documentaries seek to make its audience confront something. If narrative directors infused their scripts with this lesson – how much more dynamic and dangerous dramatic pictures would be!

And yet documentaries have become a particular and strange new pornography in our culture.  It has become obvious to me that over the past decade a large number of filmmakers who fancy themselves as “progressive” and “Liberal-loving” humane freedom fighters have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money in making documentaries – but not truly advocating any direct social change. They are carefully crafted movies that give facts and tons of information about terrible events or current happenings – and yet don’t actually implore their audiences to do anything. It is not necessary for a film to scream its message to its audience, quite often even the most graphic documentary doesn’t have to do that…and yet it doesn’t hurt if a documentary is a bit forward and incendiary even to its own viewer. Wilmington On Fire toes this line – it is up front about how it feels and how its director regards his subject.

And what I like most about it – is that it is a “simple” American story. By focusing in on his own state’s history and legacy, Everett combines the ideal Pete Seeger coaxed us to consider: think globally, but act locally.

You don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to collect data on terrorism – often all you need to do is investigate your own state or cities history. The United States was founded upon terrorism: where have we all been?

*

 

Film As Resistance

 

“Yes, I’m for the compensation for the victims and ancestors of this riot mainly because our ancestors fought long and hard for what they had – to be taken away from them because of color…In some form or fashion, they (the state of North Carolina) should compensate.”

– Faye Chaplin, great granddaughter of victim Thomas C. Miller

 

When George Zimmerman recently auctioned off the 9mm pistol he used to kill Trayvon Martin in no less a cold-blooded way– the overall reaction was simply “Oh, he’s nuts. Ignore him. Just another American story.” And while that is quite true, our tacit agreement with the racist establishment and the “American Way of Life” is one that is rapidly begin to drown us all – it is corroding any sense of sanity we have for one reason only. It provides no closure.

What kind of closure? A closure that results in the killing of one’s oppression (be it person or system), the slaying of one’s dragon in order for us to be as Joseph Campbell famously declared the hero of our own life.

The bloodbath that occurred in Wilmington 1898 – the men and women and children fighting for their lives literally as a result of a racist attack bears spiritual resemblance to all that follows later in the 20th century from the wrongly-accused-of-rape-Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to the fire hoses on blacks in Mississippi to lynchings (take your pick) to Rudolph Giuliani’s reign of terror on Black men in NYC in the 1990s to the bizarrely perfunctory executions of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. And in all this – one must ask where the resistance lies. Why do we take it? And do we truly feel that man will change and if so how long must we wait?

Perhaps Beckett was right: the absurdity of waiting for anything to happen is our biggest tragic quality. We wait. And we wait. And we believe the waiting will remove the pain.

Throughout all this waiting is the argument for reparations paid to the descendants of the victims of this atrocity. Descendants such as Faye Chaplin, whose great-great grandfather was Thomas Miller – a generous and successful entrepreneur in Wilmington who not only worked well paid jobs but ran his own businesses. Chaplin estimates the property, money, and legacy destroyed could easily amount to millions. And while she is probably right the moral conundrum that Wilmington On Fire presents is not the reparations debate – although that is a central problem and something I myself would like to see. The centerpiece however is, as independent researcher Kent Chatfield proclaims clearly, that the state of North Carolina was involved in a massive coup and act of terrorism that to this day they have not widely conceded, admitted, acknowledged and taken steps towards restitution. Why? Because the same white racism that the North Carolina democrats employed and enabled with venal glee in 1898 is the very same racism and mode of thinking that governs not only North Carolina, but our entire society today. Racism and its tactics may have grown more sophisticated and clever, but its results and impact are the same and, quite possibly, even more dangerous today – in a world where it is becoming less clear as to who or what exactly can help you fight injustice and precisely…what that even means. Look at how we reacted to a force majeure like Hurricane Katrina. Would our collective response had been any different if we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had been choreographed on purpose?

No, sometimes pure straight resistance does. Why no one has cracked and tried to kill the psychotic Zimmermans or launch a full-on offensive upon Police stations or even judicial offices that govern and enable the egregious racism, the devilish actions of the sociopaths that swear allegiance to the false gods and hateful order of this country – is beyond me. Resistance comes in many shades.

The making of this film is Everett’s own act of resistance, his own rebellion. His own artistic defiance: I am making this film whether you want me to or not and I am not doing it to get into Sundance or for a distribution deal or for a glitzy write up in the Times. I’m doing it because I have to.

His elegantly minimalist approach to filmmaking serves him well.

*

So do we learn from the past? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say yes, but the work of any artist is always an affirming one, is always hopeful – because the act of creation is always positive proof that something can be learned and digested from our sins. One is not driven to make write a book or compose a song purely for the hell of it unless they are cynical craftsmen looking to cash-in on a trend perhaps or the latest cause. But a filmmaker disclosing painful truths, like the great muckrakers of the past, or the crusading shaman is akin to the African griots who are desperately trying to heal and put forth knowledge.

 

I commend Christopher Everett and encourage everyone to see Wilmington On Fire and then see how it may apply it to their own lives. And if you don’t know, then I suggest you watch it again.

Speller Street Films L.L.C. will host two public screenings of “Wilmington on Fire” at 1PM and 4PM on June 18, 2016 at Williston Middle School Auditorium, 401 S 10th St, Wilmington, NC 28401. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit Williston Middle School students.

Tickets are $10 at the door and can be purchased in advance at www.wofwilmington.eventbrite.com

Visit http://www.facebook.com/wilmingtononfire

Follow on Twitter: http://twitter.com/wilmington1898 

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So Sad When the Daws Pick at a Scarecrow

An appreciation of an Outsider Artist

 Scarecrow A new work 9.26.15

     ________

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)

Scarecrow5

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.

“Art is my outlet, connection, retreat, my pleasures jumbled with my pain, art is my therapy”.                       – Scarecrow

Crayon Meltdown, 2014

Crayon Meltdown, 2014

1

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…

A JOYFUL

Overjoyed

Watercolor

Playground
CRO
ENJOY

A JoyfulFor 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…

Ever so Loud was his Silence

(October, 2014)

2

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
Insomniacs playground”

Insomniacs Playground, 2015

Insomniacs Playground, 2015

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

BLESSED 
TO BE
 
CHOSEN
BY
 
SELECTIVE
ANGELS
THE ONE THEY
PROTECT
AND SOLELY 
BY THEIR HAND
I THUS STAND
BLESSED 
AND 
ERECT
CRO

A New Work, 2015

A New Work, 2015

*

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.

12108754_1049467888418093_3956734314050865179_n

Reflections of a Past Self
“So much blues earned/Without an instrument to play” – Cro Dadi

Pianoless Man, 2014

Pianoless Man, 2014

*

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:

BO DIDDLEY
ROCK ROLL SOUL

INNOVATOR

FROM NOTHING 

TO AN AMERICAN

SOMETHING

Bo Diddley, 2013

Bo Diddley, 2013

*

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.

VIEWING 
STAINED
PEOPLE

THROUGH
STAINED
GLASS

Stained People Through Stained Glass [pen, ink, marker, 2015]

Stained People Through Stained Glass [pen, ink, marker, 2015]

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.

*

The artist and his mask

The artist and his mask

________

“Is it 5 o’clock yet?”

SO MANY MOODS AND ATTITUDES INTERTWINED/BUSY IS THE WORKPLACE ENDURING A NINE TO FIVE [Pen ink crayon marker watercolor, 2014]

SO MANY MOODS AND ATTITUDES INTERTWINED/BUSY IS THE WORKPLACE
ENDURING A NINE TO FIVE [Pen ink crayon marker watercolor, 2014]

3

Pen and Ink, 2015

Pen and Ink, 2015                                            

________

 

[On] Dec 31 2015

Scare Cro
will be retiring
from
Visual art

Thank you all for your continued support throughout
With love

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.

Dynamic Duo: Cro & Orr working eyeball to eyeball…

Dynamic Duo: Cro & Orr working eyeball to eyeball…

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

Cro Dadi & Jerry Ray Orr, 2015

Cro Dadi & Jerry Ray Orr, 2015  

*

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

One of Cro’s Dalicasso watercolors, 2014

One of Cro’s Dalicasso watercolors, 2014

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

Remembering too

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

The Scarecrow himself...[photo: Everett Spruill]

The Scarecrow himself…[photo: Everett Spruill]Prints of are available at

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBFlKmnkxYU

Lyrics from “Type” by Vernon Reid, from the Living Colour album Time’s Up © 1990         The title for this essay ‘So Sad When the Daws Pick at A Scarecrow’ came from the song “SoHa” by Dennis Leroy Kangalee, © 2011 from the performance poem Gentrified Minds.
© October 15, 2015 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee
Black Rebel Publications/New Poet Cinema, LLC
Nina Fleck, Editor
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SPIT: A Hip Hop Sonata

A scene from Mtume Gant's debut film

A scene from Mtume Gant’s debut film “SPIT.”

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.

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