Category Archives: Hollwyood Racism

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Black Film & The Underground Spirit: 2

Che Ayende (Luis Laporte) as the conflicted actor Cairo in

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

“…’Killer of Sheep’ was made the same year ‘Star Wars’ was released — and has not been seen ever since. While brothers are applauding the heroes from a galaxy far, far away – they’re completely inured to their fellow brethren right in their own backyards. The same was true nearly 15 years later when Wendell B. Harris was virtually paid to NOT make any movies. One look at his magnificent ‘Chameleon Street,’ and everyone knew that a powerful voice had arrived. And this scared everybody. I always found it disturbing that that the Black Entertainment Complex had not welcomed him — the man had won Sundance, after all — in the years when Sundance actually meant something.  They did not appreciate him they rejected him.  (Maybe they just didn’t know what to make of him…let’s not forget that old Satchmo himself was terrified of Charlie Parker.)

…In the early 1970’s, Huey P.Newton wrote a stunning essay and review of Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary ​”​Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasss Song​”​and hailed it as a new vanguard cinema for black people – an example of real artistic-political storytelling that the oppressed could appreciate. Huey wrote that he hoped this would inspire a whole revolutionary genre of black pictures. Instead, Hollywood saw they could make money by having a brother on screen and decided to further the ante by “gambling” on pictures like ‘Shaft’ (by Gordon Parks, ironically, whose brilliant “The Learning Tree” has been forgotten even though it was the first major Hollywood movie by a black Writer and Director! Of course, the rest is history and like they have done to Rap music – everything caved in; the Blaxploitation era arrived and all the racist, stereotypical ‘skin flicks’ flooded the world and artists like Bill Gun, Burnett, and even Van Peebles himself vanished into thin air. No wonder Huey P.Newton died in a crack house: he had no movies to go see…”

— from “Towards a Black New Wave & Notes from the Underground,”
(Harlem, August 26, 2000)

(copyright 2000, 2014 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Schrader, Scorsese, Film, & Racism

“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”

– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) ,
upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970's American Cinema

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970’s American Cinema

This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicans and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.

Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)

And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.

The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.

Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)

I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)

Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.

Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.

Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.

The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)

We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Flowers for Gunn: Remembering an Outlaw Artist

If John O. Killens was the soldier of darkness, James Baldwin the prophet of darkness, then Bill Gunn was the prince of darkness…
– Ishmael Reed, Airing Dirty Laundry (1990)

Bill Gunn: A revolutionary writer & filmmaker

Bill Gunn: A revolutionary writer & filmmaker



After reading Tambay Obenson’s reaction to Spike Lee’s vampire film, Da Blood of Jesus, a part of me sighed in accordance with Obenson’s exasperation as he simply implored audiences to just see Ganja & Hess instead.

Obenson is one of the most honest and dynamic critics and supporters of independent filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, that I have ever read. He does not mince words and he expects a lot from filmmakers. His honesty is refreshing.

I have not seen Da Blood of Jesus and I doubt if I will for some time. I already wrote last month when I went public with development plans for Octavia that I felt it was odd that Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee had both released vampire films as I was just about to start one. I thought I might have gone the way of “fashion.” But of course I realized that vampire films and vampires themselves are as different to dramatists as the gangster or romance genre might be. Everyone has their own idea of vampirism and what that could mean. And that’s a good thing.

However, I write this because Obenson knows cinema and he’s right to acknowledge one of the greatest films ever made: Ganja & Hess. A film so overlooked that most people are unfamiliar with it, and the ones that are think its some exploitation film. These people are shocked to hear its back-story that, already, has accrued a mythic status. And I’m often perplexed as to why more filmmakers don’t reference him or acknowledge his contributions publicly. What’s even more shocking is that Lee’s Blood is a remake of Gunn’s masterpiece and I find this all the more confounding. Instead of remaking a haunting delicate film into a virtuosic, ironic “art film,” why not simply acknowledge the original? Is a remake necessary? Spike Lee would have done us all a favor if he had simply written a monograph on Ganja & Hess and called it a day. The world needs to know more about Bill Gunn. And if artists want to pay homage to the masters, we should express what we know about life as opposed to cinema – and that would be enough…All the great masters express and teach us what they themselves know about life. And that’s what Gunn did.

Bill Gunn was a triple threat – an actor, writer, and a director. Chiz Schultz was familiar with Bill Gunn’s work,(he had written Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, for instance) and he produced Ganja & Hess in 1972 for a small amount of money. Gunn wrote a “double script” which led Kelly-Jordan distributors to believe he was making a “blaxploitation” picture — but instead made his own personal film. He was not out to “sell” blackness or capitulate to stereotypes for a buck. He wanted to make his own “cinematic poem.” One must understand the sheer guts it took to do this, to play the “spook who sat by the door” and say “yes, yes, yes” to the money men and run off and make a serious work of art that did not care or concern itself with any of the commercial interests of the filmmaking business enterprise. That’s righteous!

When Kelly-Jordan requested an exploitive commercial re-cut Gunn threw a chair through the window leading Kelly-Jordan to call him “crazy.” Gunn quipped, “I have more craziness in the top draw of my bureau than you will ever imagine.”

Now that took balls. If a white man had done that, they’d have branded him “passionate.” Because it was an African-American – a brilliant one at that – they had to dub him “crazy.”

Well, I always felt at home with Gunn’s fervent vision and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing. He is another example that filmmakers must be personal and unique in the way that a musician or painter is.

Directors Haile Gerima and Mario Van Peebles gave me permission to be angry and politically upfront, the absurdist Wendell B. Harris inspired me to be cerebral, but it was the “The Mighty Gunn” who affirmed my aversion to orthodoxy, who inspired my work to reflect the non-linearity, the odd rhythm, the surreal tones of life’s phases (past, present, and future), and who made me realize that a vampire film does not have to be sensational. Like Antonin Artaud, Bill Gunn knew the horror is not what is imagined, but in what is real. And Gunn’s vampire film is horrifying because of the layers and themes it weaves and does not resolve – colonization, cultural displacement, addiction, etc. Bill Gunn inspired a legion of underground and avant-garde painters and dramatists to be as strange as they actually were. The freedom in that alone is revolutionary. And quite dangerous to the Powers That Be since no system has been as aggressive in their approach to homogenize black artists as much as Hollywood.

I can immediately see how Ishmael Reed (who published Bill’s work and produced his Personal Problems) and Gunn may have connected as artists – as they both eschew rules and are informed by a multitude of things, bearing a collage aspect to their work. It was this that I always identified with as an artist and in the case of Gunn – his unabashed mixing of the impenetrable with the aggressively obvious. It was as if he blew his trumpet and muted at the same time. Those tones not only resonate within Ganja & Hess a film that will leave you haunted well after having watched it (even if you don’t like it) but are also implicated in his writing. After all, the man was a poet of the theater. I encourage everyone to read his brilliant “Rhinestone Sharecropping,” a chilling, Kafka-esque account of a black screenwriter’s experience in Hollywood and the hell that swallows him up. The actual ‘vampires’ in Bill Gunn’s book are the rich gangsters who of course don’t view themselves as racist and are quick to drain the artist of his soul and integrity. They need soul and integrity to suck on…because they don’t have any of their own.

My vampire film shall be quite different, as it should be, but I hope it bears the uniqueness and honesty that Gunn’s brought forth. My vampire is an outcast, a marginalized “alien” caught in between her past and future, as well as America’s. My vampires are artists – some are even literal artists. But they are all sensitive – almost too sensitive. And there is no blood that can sustain them. For man’s blood is tainted. Including Jesus’. And there is nothing to be addicted to – except truth. And that is what ultimately kills.

The fact that punk music as an artistic ethos plays a part in my work is no coincidence. All those who dare to be honest and to be themselves are “punk.” And Bill Gunn was creating his crowning achievements with the actual rise of punk and hip-hop; the first known black punk band Death were recording only two years after Ganja & Hess had been made. And Gunn died at the end of the 1980’s – when Hollywood’s Suits had already returned with a vengeance against all of the creativity set forth even by their own “establishment” pop star directors like Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola nearly a decade before. (The Empire did, in fact, strike back didn’t it?)

In memory of Bill Gunn, I post this remarkable letter written to the NY Times in 1973 as he was defending his art and trying to teach a few lessons in the process. Of course they probably had no idea why he was so “ornery” and they probably smirked and called him “just another bitter crazy black man.” And of course not even the great liberal East Coast critics could admit that THE ONLY AMERICAN FILM SHOWN IN CRITICS WEEK AT CANNES IN 1973 WAS “GANJA & HESS.” (Not other classics like Mean Streets. Not Serpico. But Ganja & Hess. Now that says something!)

I’m not shocked. Of course they labeled him “crazy.”
Somehow they don’t, and never will, understand not only the Black consciousness of the Diaspora, but the genius inherent in a handful of living artists. Why? Very simple: the establishment prefers their artists dead.

I love you Bill.

*
This is the text of a famous letter sent to the NY Times from Bill Gunn in 1973. Gunn was the legendary director of the cult classic “Ganja & Hess”, “Stop,” and the post-modern domestic drama “Personal Problems.”

To the Editor: (NY Times)

There are times when the white critic must sit down and listen. If he cannot listen and learn, then he must not concern himself with black creativity.
A children’s story I wrote speaks of a black male child that dreamed of a strong white golden haired prince who would come and save him from being black. He came, and as time passed and the relationship moved forward, it was discovered that indeed the black child was the prince and he had saved himself from being white. That, too, is possible.

I have always tried to imagine the producers waiting anxiously for the black reviewers’ opinions of “The Sound of Music” or “A Clockwork Orange.”
I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country – for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism.
One white critic left my film “Ganja and Hess,” after 20 minutes and reviewed the entire film. Another was to see three films in one day and review them all. This is a crime.

Three years of three different people’s lives grades in one afternoon by a complete stranger to the artist and to the culture. A.H. Weiler states in his review of “Ganja and Hess” that a doctor of anthropology killed his assistant and is infected by a blood disease and becomes immortal. But this is not so, Mr. Weiler, the assistant committed suicide. I know this film does not address you, but in that auditorium you might have heard more than you were able to over the sounds of your own voice. Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review.

If I were white, I would probably be called “fresh and different. If I were European, “Ganja and Hess” might be “that little film you must see.” Because I am black, do not even deserve the pride that one American feels for another when he discovers that a fellow countryman’s film has been selected as the only American film to be shown during “Critic’s Week” at the Cannes Film Festival, May 1973. Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.

I am very proud of my ancestors in “Ganja and Hess.” They worked hard, with a dedication to their art and race that is obviously foreign to the critics. I want to thank them and my black sisters and brothers who have expressed only gratitude and love for my effort.

When I first came into the “theatre,” black women who were actresses were referred to as “great gals” by white directors and critics. Marlene Clark, one of the most beautiful women and actresses I have ever known, was referred to as a “brown-skinned looker” (New York Post). That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken a good 250 years.

Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling black theater and film creativity with white criticism. Maybe if the black film craze continues, the white press might even find it necessary to employ black criticism. But if you can stop the craze in its tracks, maybe that won’t be necessary.

Bill Gunn
Author and director of “Ganja and Hess”
New York, 1973

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Fetishization of Lupita Nyongo & the Dilemma of Black Actresses in Hollywood…

The Fetishization of Lupita Nyongo & the Dilemma of Black Actresses in Hollywood…

This article helped to give credence to my decision to move forward with my film project, “Octavia” — which was conceived to return to my protest art roots and theatrical background.  Urged by other writers who were supportive of my work, I wanted to create a role for a black actress that was at least as complex and interesting as my first cinematic character Cairo in “As an Act of Protest.”

This article only proves we are in a stranger, deeper dilemma as People of Color who may be involved in the Establishment Entertainment Complex or simply creating the advent of images under our own tables, with our own spoons.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  Even maniacal Mao knew it:  “All art is propaganda.  But not all propaganda is art.”

I tell you: the creepy, insidious, patronizing, misogynistic racism of Hollywood in 2014 should outrage us.  But how can it?  We’re all slaves at the end of the day — shackled in mental slavery — and resistant to defining who we are on our own terms.  I mean that for EVERYBODY.  Hollywood and traditional Broadway, first and foremost, take their cue from Nazi Germany & the African Holocaust in the sense that they “break things down” and create TYPES…Didn’t von Verschuer do the same thing? And remember this if you read the article:  There is something bittersweet when African-Americans win awards given by a racist industry. Even more bizarre: Hattie McDaniel, who won the Oscar for playing Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” – did more for black people in the sense of her willingness to acquiesce and suffer in Hollywood so that Halle Berry or any other flavor-of-the-month in the “rhinestone sharecropping” of Tinseltown wouldn’t have to.  The Hattie McDaniels existed so wouldn’t HAVE TO debase ourselves or be conflicted as “what role to accept,” or revert to the perfunctory sexually subservient creature on screen who fulfills old White Men fantasies (isn’t that what Halle did in “Monster’s Ball”? Be honest. If that film showed a Jewess fucking a Nazi guard, you think the B’nai B’rith would’ve allowed it? Worse: they’d have burnt the ashes of the print! And rightly so.) etc.

So is there any difference between the racial dynamics of 1939 and 2014 in Hollywood? We have not even come full circle.  We are simply walking backwards. And seemingly enjoying the long empty road of our demise.

Pathetic. 

Black dramatists and filmmakers and producers need to get their act together.

Instead of Denzel bemoaning the fact that he still doesn’t get scripts offered to him (can you imagine?) – he should seek out some poor struggling blind alley scribe who could write emotional majesties for him and allow him to move into a new phase of his professional acting, career. I like Denzel Washington as an actor (although I admit I prefer his hungry, lean days) and that’s why I must tough on him. I expect more. I’m glad he did “Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway recently.

But isn’t it ironic that Lorraine Hansberry’s philosophical artistic message is still not be heeded? “A classical people deserve a classical art form,” she said. Not insulting offers to play a role in “The Jungle Book.”

*

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Do Hollywood Executives Call Denzel Washington?

Don’t take it from me.
Read Cynthia McKinney’s article in Black Agenda Report.

A simple, clean, and objective confirmation of everything I always felt and knew that existed in the corporate artery of the Show Business world. I am not shocked nor am I outraged. I was always waiting for this type of information to leak…Hollywood has proved itself to be nothing but a chilling example of how racism has become acceptable. Period. It’s not the men in white hoods or some Confederate nut job or a zealous right wing Republican that I am afraid of. It’s the Hollywood Liberal who will play my music, date my women, produce my movies, and then denigrate me all day long behind my back. At least the Nazi’s didn’t shy away from they actually felt. Tinseltown’s biggest talent agency is run by the ghosts of Roy Cohn and “harmless” racists who believe that black people were put on this planet for their amusement.

I pity any dramatist, actor, or director who is felt compelled — like a rabid junkie unable to help himself — to seek acceptance, employment, or support from the American mainstream movie establishment. Pathetic.

And it begs one question: “What does Denzel plan to do about it? Or better yet…What will brother Steve McQueen have to say about this?”
Think he’ll get Brad Pitt to give me some answers?

Nah. Me neither.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: