Category Archives: Theater & Performance

The Rebirth of Resistance…

Timely and more relevant now in its 15th year anniversary (and decade in gross obscurity) Speller St. Films is bringing As an Act of Protest into the zeitgeist of the 21st century to prove that the film was a terrifying prophecy and a grim acknowledgment of where race relations, culture, and police brutality is headed if we continue to deny the realities of both the past and the present.

AAAOP1.jpg

With the acquittal of the Minnesota police officer that unjustly killed Philando Castile, movies bearing a genuine social consciousness revealing our political climate are needed now more than ever. Not bright-light-Hollywood Drone– productions. But hand-made cinematic ‘Molotov cocktails.’ A Protest Cinema.

On July 15th Raleigh Film Underground will host Speller St Films’ revival screening of As an Act of Protest, pledging all proceeds towards the restoration of the movie so the film can see an eventual DVD release. Gritty, powerful and provocative movies can remind us of the power of drama and the impact artistic foresight has.

This is the film the Black Lives Matter movement should be learning from. Not a superhero movie, but a film about the real desperation of trying to address the problem that something is “rotten in the state of Denmark.” If the new generations of activists want to advance theories, techniques, dialectics, and problem solving within the web of social diseases and political oppression ‎in America, they can start by dusting off the artworks that were created for them to be inspired by and to challenge. 

All revolutions need art. And this is just one example.

Spread the word.

***

July 15th, 2017 – 7 PM, Tickets are $10 (cash) at the door

Raleigh Film Underground at Kings – 14 Martin Street, Raleigh, North Carolina

Visit actofprotest.eventbrite for advance tickets

Contact spellerstreetfilms@gmail.com for more information.

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My Latest Poem For The Screen: ‘Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World’

And the world is oh so brutal…

“Tubman, Turner, Truth…”

POETRY.  MUDRAS.  MEMORIES.  

Numa Perrier as the 'Awareness Addict' haunted by America's sins...

Rebel internally in order to reconstruct the world externally.

Mesh the words, the worlds, the pain, the laughter…find where the horror lives and exorcise it. But always breathe.

Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World is a whisper in the dark.  A long slow murmur that exemplifies the spiritual condition of being at war with one’s self…and the merciless racism that exists — in past, present, and future tenses.  This film is the interpretation of a poem whose feeling and zone of consciousness is one on its last leg trying to break through the icy surface of all that oppresses.

Click here or on the image below to see the trailer…

New Poet Cinema's new film...

a poem for the screen by Dennis Leroy Kangalee

 

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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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Beethoven, Pushkin & African Ancestry…

“One of the homes in which Beethoven resided in Vienna, Austria, the music capitol of European Music at that time, was called the “Schwarzspanierhaus,” the “House of the Black Spaniard.” Beethoven is said to have had some directly known African ancestry. In parts of Europe, it is a common and known secret to refer to Beethoven as “Black Beet”. I only learned this when I lived in Germany.

Schwarze Deutsche: Ludwig Van Beethoven

It was not as astounding to discover this as it was to learn that Alexander Pushkin was Black – I discovered that when I was 16 in Moscow, celebrating Christmas 1992. (In fact, we stayed at the same hotel George Bush had just left – how bizarre is that?) I was studying for 2 weeks with one of my Acting teachers Marat Yusim – a Russian born director himself – at the Moscow Art Theater (Roman Victuc, Oleg Tabakov were teaching) and it seemed like a year. I mean that positively. Our Russian guide was bowled over and embarrassed that WE did not know that Pushkin was a literal Black Russian.

Alexander Pushkin, Moscow

Alexander Pushkin, Moscow

I will never forget that trip, it left an indelible mark on me. Some travel to the Motherland continent to get another, deeper sense of their identity and Black roots. Me? I traveled to Russia! And I came back a changed young man. I discovered The Velvet Underground, cigarettes, Jean Genet, Melvin Van Peebles first film “Story of a 3 Day Pass,” and a great love for Maxim Gorky.

I left America thinking I wanted to be a star, and returned committing myself to the pursuit of art. I had found my own God inside. In January, 1993 I began work on the very first play I would ever direct.

Everyone thought I was crazy.

They still do.

*

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Mtume Gant: Remembering “As an Act of Protest”

Fellow filmmaker and colleague for nearly 20 years, Mtume Gant, has written a touching commemorative piece for my 2001 cult film “As an Act of Protest,” which recently received a revival screening in Chicago via Floyd Webb’s Black World Cinema…Click the link below to read his liner notes for this “retrospective” which will be included in the DVD package at the end of this year. 

Maverick Intentions: By Mtume Gant 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee's "As an Act of Protest" starring Che Ayende

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “As an Act of Protest” starring Che Ayende

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A Cinematic Protest Returns to the Screen!

Thursday, November 6, 2014 @ 7:00pm!

” The Best Black Film of The Year!”  – Kam Williams, 2002, The NJ Herald

After more than a decade, the 2002 cult classic AS AN ACT OF PROTEST will finally get its Chicago ‘premiere’ at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater, 201 West 87th Street, courtesy of Floyd Webb and Black World Cinema.

A cinematic “line in the sand against racism,” it is provocative, disturbing, and emotionally arresting at times – this is a movie unlike any other made in the early part of the 21st century as it signified a new type of “protest art” within the dramatic arts, linking the political consciousness of 1960’s-1970’s radical theater with the cinematic urgency and simplicity of the “Dogme 95″ Digital Video revolution in world cinema.

Hopefully we can get some folks in the windy city to brave the weather and get a chance to see Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s seldom seen “missile from his youth”!

'As an Act of Protest' design by Benn Starr (2014)

‘As an Act of Protest’ design by Benn Starr (2014)

Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 7pm, Adm. $6.00

Black World Cinema @

Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater
210 W 87th Street

Additional information:

Click here for video excerpts or more information on the film itself.

Contact: Black World Cinema, 9 W Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602

Curated by: Floyd Webb, floydwebb@gmail.com

Visit http://aaaopfilm.wordpress.com/screenings/ for more information. 

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Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s Cult Classic Heads to Chicago in November…

On Thursday, Nov 6, 2014 @ 7pm:

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s cult classic

“As an Act of Protest” finally screens in Chicago!

Dennis Leroy Kangalee's cult classic "As an Act of Protest" (2002)

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s cult classic “As an Act of Protest” (2002)

After more than a decade, my first feature film “As an Act of Protest” will finally get its Chicago ‘premiere’ in November, courtesy of Floyd Webb and Black World Cinema. And special thanks to the German and French audiences who were cheeky enough to make PAL bootlegs (the only remaining format available!) enabling an editor here in NYC to slowly re-assemble the footage after a transferring all the video back to NTSC.  Laborious and crazy as it was, it was well worth it since now a new generation has re-discovered one of my most personal and favorite artworks.

It means a great deal to me because this little film never received proper care or attention in the USA in the aftermath of 9/11 and the strange reactionary years that followed.  At one point, no art house or independent theater  in NYC would screen it without being threatened or harassed by local police precincts. The movie actually played to more southern audiences and college universities than north-eastern ones!  Now, with the unfortunate spike in police brutality incidences and racist murders — certain corners of our country are beginning to re-discover and assess “As an Act of Protest,” a drama I made when I was 24 years old, mad as hell, and crazy enough to express my confusion, outrage, and suspicion towards a hostile and racist establishment that governs us – not in a song but in a movie! To this day, it is still one of the best scripts I’ve ever written.  And in 2014, I still believe it stands up as a strong example of protest art in cinema. 

Hopefully we can get some folks in the windy city to brave the weather and get a chance to see this “missile from my youth” and hopefully it will inspire just one another artist to commit himself to speaking truth to power, protesting injustice, seeking ways of resistance, and expressing his or her feelings wholly.  In short, maybe in the gross horror eroding our false sense of stability (“sanity”) and enabling our new depravity — other young artists will decide to shoot a movie – instead of a gun – as a means of protest.  

ActNov

Thurs, Nov 6, 7pm, Adm. $6.00
Black World Cinema @
Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater
210 W 87th Street

http://blackworldcinema.net/blog/2014/09/23/thurs-nov-6-7pm-as-an-act-of-protest-dennis-leroy-kangalees-cult-classic/

Click here for more information on As an Act of Protest or to view clips! 

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Black Film & The Underground Spirit: 3

It all boils down to what is your weapon. If the pen is mightier than the sword, and I do believe it is, directors must respect their talents and their tools…It is very easy and horrifying to kill a man. It is much difficult and courageous to supplant a perversion with a transcendence; the true act of destruction carries the desire to create within it… You can only make a sex, drugs, and rock and roll movie so many ways. Within this barrage of images assaulting you – 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 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.
— from “Towards a Black New Wave & Notes from the Underground,”
(Harlem, August 26, 2000)

The Author, DL Kangalee, NYC, 2004 [photo by Nina Fleck]

The Author, DL Kangalee, NYC, 2004 [photo by Nina Fleck]

([copyright 2000, 2014 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee)

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Gordon Parks: Reflecting, Connecting, Learning…

“I don’t make black exploitation films,” Parks stated to the The Village Voice, the very year I was born, in 1976.

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

After working at Vogue magazine, a 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine.  For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway,poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of activists, artists, and athletes. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” (Lee D. Baker, 1992, Transforming Anthropology) 

***

One of the most underrated and rarely mentioned filmmakers is Gordon Parks – whose genius as a visual artist and photographer often hijacks the attention away from his dramatic works and his cinematic expeditions. His powerful photo-essays,his dignified pictures of urban and rural working class life, his career as a Life magazine photographer (the very first African-American on their staff!) alone has left an indelible mark on the 20th century and modern culture alone (find his haunting “Crisis in Latin America”/Poverty/Flavio series, “American Gothic,” or some of the Harlem photographs he took, or his iconic depiction of Ingrid Bergman in Italy, peering back out of the corner of her eye as three villagers admonish the affair she was having with Roberto Rossellini)

 

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

He is on my mind today because I overheard some moron in the Time Life Building (which still hosts Parks’ haunting portrait of Ingrid Bergman) – ignorantly yelp that he was the “Father of Blaxploitation cinema”. In my younger, meaner “old days” I’d have started to yell and promptly given it to this kid straight between the eyes.  But I’ve learned to ease into these situations, finesse it, try to charm the actual situation before…setting it on fire.

I had to explain to this young man that black filmmakers did not create “Blaxploitation” cinema and if they did they certainly would have come up with a better term.

I had to explain that because of the box-office success of Melvin Van Peebles powerful Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and Gordon Parks own cop thriller Shaft, white Hollywood executives and producers took note of this, saw dollar signs, and instantly jumped on the “craze” that was emanating out of protest music and black consciousness in art, literature, and theater in the early 70’s – spilling over into film. It was only natural that film would be influenced.

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

But instead of truly honoring the intentions of such grave filmmakers and writers (Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, etc) — many of these filmmakers were lucky if they made one personal film of their own that ever saw the light of day. And even when merely “hired,” they never resorted to exploitation or sided with the racism of the establishment by further peddling stereotypes and all kinds of bizarre images of African Americans that the seventies mainstream began to feverishly churn out (as if it were a return to the sickening images and propaganda published about blacks during the height of chattel slavery).

Not one black film writer or director or “artist” was involved in, promoted, or benefited from Hollywood’s exploitation of “black anger”, fashion, sexuality, or music. Instead white producers wrote garbage and “pimped” black men and women into portraying white fantasies and racist caricatures; often watering down the righteousness of the previous 1960’s visceral rage. And often – we allowed this to happen.

Some directors, like Michael Schultz, found ways to transcend Hollywood’s attempts at gross exploitation of the African American audience and community at large– check out his heartfelt, coming of age story Cooley High, and his hilarious Car Wash, — two films the bridge a universal satire/slapstick rooted with social commentary. Incidentally, Roger Ebert praised Car Wash comparing it to MASH. But despite the film having received a Golden Globe nomination and a nomination for Cannes 1977 Golden Palm — it was still considered a “bad” movie with mediocre reviews. What’s even stranger about the screenplay for Car Wash is that it is credited to Joel Schumacher (yes, the man who directed St. Elmo’s Fire and all the early 1990’s Michael Keaton-BATMAN movies. Don’t ask.) I have heard from at least four people that Schumacher’s simply plotted out the movie and all dialogue was improvised and rehearsed and honed by Schultz. (Schultz is a theater director and so this would not have been alarming for him to do as he came from a heavy ensemble and actor-oriented background. Look him up: he directed Waiting for Godot in 1966 at Princeton and directed for the Negro Ensemble Company. He is noted for having directed Lorraine Hansberry’s To be Young Gifted & Black, the most successful Off-Broadway play in 1968!)

Interesting to note – like one of our greatest playwrights – August Wilson – Schultz, too, was Black and German. I sometimes even wonder if this does not account for their conscientious and laborious way of working; taking two great work-ethic traditions and blending them into one to singularly express unique POV and varied experiences of the African American community. That’s what I expect from high-brow academic “cinema” magazines and essays to be writing. Not promoting salacious and atrocious lies depicting Gordon Parks as the “Father” of Blaxploitation Cinema, making him “easy” and “pat” for Movie academics and white kids in the suburbs. IMDB is so disrespectful and perverse – they attribute Parks’ Shaft to Blaxploitation while even acknowledging the quote that starts this very essay!

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

 

Getting back to Gordon: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once praised him as being a “black genius,” – he iterated Park’s race because the interviewer obviously had no clue who he was (can you imagine?)…For those of you who don’t know much about Parks either – treat yourself to one of his autobiographies “Fires in the Mirror”, “A Choice of Weapons”, borrow a book of his photos from the library, or at least watch the documentary on him Half Past Autumn (produced by Denzel Washington, in fact one of Denzel’s most sincere contributions to cinema).

“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his ‘The Learning Tree’ was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial.”
– Roger Ebert

 

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

Parks’ films seem boring today to a lot of the film establishment and are unnoticed or shoved aside by the independents because they are not formally aggressive and – aside from the ‘sexy’ Shaft and his gun-cop-adventure movies – are rather slow moving. His personal movies are not loud or stylistically excessive – they capture moments, like his photographs.  You can feel his colors, his environments, etc. They are distinguished – as he was – and they reek of cigar smoke and well kept sweaters. And they build and have a slow, gentle impact. They are not provocative, but they resonate. They are not fast and extravagant, but they are deep and conscientious. The Learning Tree of course is a perfect example – powerful due to its lean and delicate nature and how it depicts more complicated aspects of racism and reveals that everything is not what it seems. And yet…regarded as a strange anomaly. At the height of the civil rights revolution, the movie seemed tame and in a certain sense was, understandably, disregarded by the more progressive African-American arts community that were re-establishing and re-assessing how best to move on and create in America.  Some believe it is because Parks was telling a story set in the 1920’s and the accepted racism of that area did not strike a chord with the revolutionaries and the activists of the time who, in 1969, wanted nothing to do with any memory of the 1920’s…they wanted to destroy all that had abused and humiliated the preceding generation and their very own.  The Learning Tree, although well done, seemed “conservative” and passe at the end of the tumultuous sixties.

The Learning Tree has supposedly had little impact upon later African American artists and is seldom discussed as a significant work of art, despite Congress’ inclusion of it in their national registry as an “American treasure.”

Parks’ Leadbelly is an excellent ‘biopic’ (and I hate biopics) and a film that meanders somewhat tracing the life of this blues legend in a confident and understated way. Parks was a director who used understatement and slow-pacing in his own way, sometimes his films feel like they are trying to find themselves as it were — but while Schultz was definitely a better craftsmen, Parks was a better artist.

Even his minor works reveal something about the painful side of life — his version of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is under-cooked, but better than the overrated Steve McQueen version. But of course no one will mention this. Parks made his version for American Playhouse in 1984 with Avery Brooks. His version has more gravity and heart than McQueen’s. And yet he doesn’t push for it…McQueen pushed heavily for emotion and yet – I felt nothing after watching his film. There was a disturbing laissez faire quality the movie had and all I was left with was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beautifully weeping eyes – with nothing behind them. At all. Those eyes should have given Rene Falconetti’s (see Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc!) a run for her money and they didn’t. And that’s why ultimately I was angry at McQueen: he pushed and choreographed so much melodrama – that all we were left with were soap suds.

Did you know that it was the great original movie maverick himself, John Cassavetes, who demanded that Warner Brothers give Parks money to make an adaption of his own book, “The Learning Tree” into a movie? Parks recounts this in his autobiography. I’m always amazed when biographers of Cassavetes never bring it up: it took a lot of guts to go to bat for an “unknown” Black director in Hollywood in 1968! This warrants serious rumination. Who would do this today?

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Filmmakers are a selfish bunch, a part of us has to be cause we’re always nervous about financing our work, we often get derailed trying to organize our projects, we’re very competitive with other filmmakers (a good thing), etc. – but we seldom go to bat for other filmmakers.  And understand that Cassavetes was no Richard Burton or Marlon Brando, mind you – he never had that Hollywood power. Ever. And so he had a lot to lose – but he also had a reputation for being argumentative, righteous, intense, and “artistic.” This was a filmmaker who wrote and direct his own dramas at home, using his closest friends, and shooting films like a jazz musician.  Pure, unfettered feelings and emotions and thoughts – barely with a “story.”  It takes genius to recognize genius and this example proves it.  If there were two mavericks in Hollywood or American cinema at that time, it would be Parks and Cassavetes. Parks did not have the flair or showmanship that Van Peebles had and Cassavetes did not conform to genre or give audiences what they wanted the way some of his smarter contemporaries might have (Altman, for example) but they both created a very personal body of work. And a very important one.

1963 (Gordon Parks)

1963 (Gordon Parks)

A final interesting fact: Did you know that the great Gordon Parks — the pipe smoking, distinguished man of letters, music, civil rights, film, photography…was also Candace Bushnell’s boyfriend when she had fled Texas to live in NYC. He was 58. She was 18. According to Bushnell, she was too young to be in a real serious relationship with a genius, but declared Parks was “great” and that her mother thought Parks was the most charming man she’d ever met. Bushnell would, of course, go on to write and create Sex and The City. The only thing that disturbs me about all this is that Carrie Bradshaw always seemed too awkward and self consciously nervous to be around a man like Gordon Parks. It bothers me that Bushnell never tried to truthfully render a relationship between her characters and an African American man liked Parks. That would have been edgy. But her experience with Parks and Studio 54 was in the 1970’s. Her Sex & The City is like the 1970’s without the radicalism, intellectualism, politics, or danger. The 1990’s in NYC was interesting, yes – but if you remembered the show Sex & The City than you probably weren’t living it. And if you were – it wasn’t necessarily devoid of radical politics. When those incongruous worlds meet, it certainly makes for great drama. I’m mystified why it scares so many people.

Anyway, there you have it. Don’t ever say I didn’t give you any interesting gossip!

Lastly, please remember: it is this charming, elegant man — this High School dropout — named Gordon Parks, who lived life on his own terms, and tried hard to create a rich and varied artwork that would resonate with people who took just a little time to care and who were craving aspects of their own reflections..or society’s illness.

His films warrant a closer reading and “remastered” viewing.

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film "Shaft" (1970)

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film “Shaft” (1970)

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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)

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