All responsibilities are thwarted when we concentrate on the tiny loans taken out on our life and the energy spent trying to be free
Like a cricket dancing beneath the glass —
Not realizing that every single shout and thrust of his body contributes to the demise of his legs which tremble not because he’s imprisoned
But because he can see through his walls.
It’s what we are missing and can’t attain that forever haunt us under Capitalism.
And art – a justifiable peaceful protest – is just a benign scream that tries to express the confusion of it all.
Berry Gordy told Marvin Gaye to not release “What’s Going On”. He told him it would ruin his career. Can you imagine someone telling you the greatest work of your life is not worthy? Could you imagine if someone said that about your children?
Elia Kazan refused to help Barbara Loden make her brilliant “Wanda” – which, in 1970, was ‘the first feature film written, directed, and starring’ a woman which was made independently and won the Venice Film Festival. Kazan was jealous, infuriated I suspect. I am convinced his refusal to have a beautiful woman who could write and direct better than he could – around him contributed to her breast cancer, of which she died of four years later…
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s original cut of his “The Passion of Joan of Arc” was found in a closet of a Norwegian psychiatric hospital in 1981. It is widely regarded as Dreyer’s masterpiece.
John Cassavetes first cut of “Shadows” was found in NYC MTA’s Lost and Found and the man who took it – only screened the film to see if it was original pornography. Eventually Ray Carney acquired it (much to Gena Rowlands’ dismay. She always said Cassavetes had dis-avowed the 1957 version, in favor of the second draft he edited in 1959.)
Vivian Maier’s lifeworks as a photographer was never assessed, seen, or appreciated until after her death in 2009. She was perhaps the penultimate Outsider Artist. In the Emily Dickinson sense. In fact, a year prior to her death John Maloof shared some of her work oline via Slattery: the premiere of her work! She is now regarded as one of the most compelling photographers of the 20th century. None of the people she was intimate with or whom she worked for ever knew she was an artist.
Lesson? Be careful of what you create, what you leave behind, and be aware of the possibilities lurking. Sometimes you have to look in the opposite direction to find what may be truly holy. Make dangerous choices. Stick to your guns.
Only you know what it is that you are doing.
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.
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.
Thurs, Nov 6, 7pm, Adm. $6.00
Black World Cinema @
Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater
210 W 87th Street
“I don’t make black exploitation films,” Parks stated to the The Village Voice, the very year I was born, in 1976.
After working at Vogue magazine, a 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway,poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of activists, artists, and athletes. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” (Lee D. Baker, 1992, Transforming Anthropology)
One of the most underrated and rarely mentioned filmmakers is Gordon Parks – whose genius as a visual artist and photographer often hijacks the attention away from his dramatic works and his cinematic expeditions. His powerful photo-essays,his dignified pictures of urban and rural working class life, his career as a Life magazine photographer (the very first African-American on their staff!) alone has left an indelible mark on the 20th century and modern culture alone (find his haunting “Crisis in Latin America”/Poverty/Flavio series, “American Gothic,” or some of the Harlem photographs he took, or his iconic depiction of Ingrid Bergman in Italy, peering back out of the corner of her eye as three villagers admonish the affair she was having with Roberto Rossellini)
He is on my mind today because I overheard some moron in the Time Life Building (which still hosts Parks’ haunting portrait of Ingrid Bergman) – ignorantly yelp that he was the “Father of Blaxploitation cinema”. In my younger, meaner “old days” I’d have started to yell and promptly given it to this kid straight between the eyes. But I’ve learned to ease into these situations, finesse it, try to charm the actual situation before…setting it on fire.
I had to explain to this young man that black filmmakers did not create “Blaxploitation” cinema and if they did they certainly would have come up with a better term.
I had to explain that because of the box-office success of Melvin Van Peebles powerful Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and Gordon Parks own cop thriller Shaft, white Hollywood executives and producers took note of this, saw dollar signs, and instantly jumped on the “craze” that was emanating out of protest music and black consciousness in art, literature, and theater in the early 70’s – spilling over into film. It was only natural that film would be influenced.
But instead of truly honoring the intentions of such grave filmmakers and writers (Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, etc) — many of these filmmakers were lucky if they made one personal film of their own that ever saw the light of day. And even when merely “hired,” they never resorted to exploitation or sided with the racism of the establishment by further peddling stereotypes and all kinds of bizarre images of African Americans that the seventies mainstream began to feverishly churn out (as if it were a return to the sickening images and propaganda published about blacks during the height of chattel slavery).
Not one black film writer or director or “artist” was involved in, promoted, or benefited from Hollywood’s exploitation of “black anger”, fashion, sexuality, or music. Instead white producers wrote garbage and “pimped” black men and women into portraying white fantasies and racist caricatures; often watering down the righteousness of the previous 1960’s visceral rage. And often – we allowed this to happen.
Some directors, like Michael Schultz, found ways to transcend Hollywood’s attempts at gross exploitation of the African American audience and community at large– check out his heartfelt, coming of age story Cooley High, and his hilarious Car Wash, — two films the bridge a universal satire/slapstick rooted with social commentary. Incidentally, Roger Ebert praised Car Wash comparing it to MASH. But despite the film having received a Golden Globe nomination and a nomination for Cannes 1977 Golden Palm — it was still considered a “bad” movie with mediocre reviews. What’s even stranger about the screenplay for Car Wash is that it is credited to Joel Schumacher (yes, the man who directed St. Elmo’s Fire and all the early 1990’s Michael Keaton-BATMAN movies. Don’t ask.) I have heard from at least four people that Schumacher’s simply plotted out the movie and all dialogue was improvised and rehearsed and honed by Schultz. (Schultz is a theater director and so this would not have been alarming for him to do as he came from a heavy ensemble and actor-oriented background. Look him up: he directed Waiting for Godot in 1966 at Princeton and directed for the Negro Ensemble Company. He is noted for having directed Lorraine Hansberry’s To be Young Gifted & Black, the most successful Off-Broadway play in 1968!)
Interesting to note – like one of our greatest playwrights – August Wilson – Schultz, too, was Black and German. I sometimes even wonder if this does not account for their conscientious and laborious way of working; taking two great work-ethic traditions and blending them into one to singularly express unique POV and varied experiences of the African American community. That’s what I expect from high-brow academic “cinema” magazines and essays to be writing. Not promoting salacious and atrocious lies depicting Gordon Parks as the “Father” of Blaxploitation Cinema, making him “easy” and “pat” for Movie academics and white kids in the suburbs. IMDB is so disrespectful and perverse – they attribute Parks’ Shaft to Blaxploitation while even acknowledging the quote that starts this very essay!
Getting back to Gordon: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once praised him as being a “black genius,” – he iterated Park’s race because the interviewer obviously had no clue who he was (can you imagine?)…For those of you who don’t know much about Parks either – treat yourself to one of his autobiographies “Fires in the Mirror”, “A Choice of Weapons”, borrow a book of his photos from the library, or at least watch the documentary on him Half Past Autumn (produced by Denzel Washington, in fact one of Denzel’s most sincere contributions to cinema).
“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his ‘The Learning Tree’ was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial.”
– Roger Ebert
Parks’ films seem boring today to a lot of the film establishment and are unnoticed or shoved aside by the independents because they are not formally aggressive and – aside from the ‘sexy’ Shaft and his gun-cop-adventure movies – are rather slow moving. His personal movies are not loud or stylistically excessive – they capture moments, like his photographs. You can feel his colors, his environments, etc. They are distinguished – as he was – and they reek of cigar smoke and well kept sweaters. And they build and have a slow, gentle impact. They are not provocative, but they resonate. They are not fast and extravagant, but they are deep and conscientious. The Learning Tree of course is a perfect example – powerful due to its lean and delicate nature and how it depicts more complicated aspects of racism and reveals that everything is not what it seems. And yet…regarded as a strange anomaly. At the height of the civil rights revolution, the movie seemed tame and in a certain sense was, understandably, disregarded by the more progressive African-American arts community that were re-establishing and re-assessing how best to move on and create in America. Some believe it is because Parks was telling a story set in the 1920’s and the accepted racism of that area did not strike a chord with the revolutionaries and the activists of the time who, in 1969, wanted nothing to do with any memory of the 1920’s…they wanted to destroy all that had abused and humiliated the preceding generation and their very own. The Learning Tree, although well done, seemed “conservative” and passe at the end of the tumultuous sixties.
The Learning Tree has supposedly had little impact upon later African American artists and is seldom discussed as a significant work of art, despite Congress’ inclusion of it in their national registry as an “American treasure.”
Parks’ Leadbelly is an excellent ‘biopic’ (and I hate biopics) and a film that meanders somewhat tracing the life of this blues legend in a confident and understated way. Parks was a director who used understatement and slow-pacing in his own way, sometimes his films feel like they are trying to find themselves as it were — but while Schultz was definitely a better craftsmen, Parks was a better artist.
Even his minor works reveal something about the painful side of life — his version of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is under-cooked, but better than the overrated Steve McQueen version. But of course no one will mention this. Parks made his version for American Playhouse in 1984 with Avery Brooks. His version has more gravity and heart than McQueen’s. And yet he doesn’t push for it…McQueen pushed heavily for emotion and yet – I felt nothing after watching his film. There was a disturbing laissez faire quality the movie had and all I was left with was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beautifully weeping eyes – with nothing behind them. At all. Those eyes should have given Rene Falconetti’s (see Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc!) a run for her money and they didn’t. And that’s why ultimately I was angry at McQueen: he pushed and choreographed so much melodrama – that all we were left with were soap suds.
Did you know that it was the great original movie maverick himself, John Cassavetes, who demanded that Warner Brothers give Parks money to make an adaption of his own book, “The Learning Tree” into a movie? Parks recounts this in his autobiography. I’m always amazed when biographers of Cassavetes never bring it up: it took a lot of guts to go to bat for an “unknown” Black director in Hollywood in 1968! This warrants serious rumination. Who would do this today?
Filmmakers are a selfish bunch, a part of us has to be cause we’re always nervous about financing our work, we often get derailed trying to organize our projects, we’re very competitive with other filmmakers (a good thing), etc. – but we seldom go to bat for other filmmakers. And understand that Cassavetes was no Richard Burton or Marlon Brando, mind you – he never had that Hollywood power. Ever. And so he had a lot to lose – but he also had a reputation for being argumentative, righteous, intense, and “artistic.” This was a filmmaker who wrote and direct his own dramas at home, using his closest friends, and shooting films like a jazz musician. Pure, unfettered feelings and emotions and thoughts – barely with a “story.” It takes genius to recognize genius and this example proves it. If there were two mavericks in Hollywood or American cinema at that time, it would be Parks and Cassavetes. Parks did not have the flair or showmanship that Van Peebles had and Cassavetes did not conform to genre or give audiences what they wanted the way some of his smarter contemporaries might have (Altman, for example) but they both created a very personal body of work. And a very important one.
A final interesting fact: Did you know that the great Gordon Parks — the pipe smoking, distinguished man of letters, music, civil rights, film, photography…was also Candace Bushnell’s boyfriend when she had fled Texas to live in NYC. He was 58. She was 18. According to Bushnell, she was too young to be in a real serious relationship with a genius, but declared Parks was “great” and that her mother thought Parks was the most charming man she’d ever met. Bushnell would, of course, go on to write and create Sex and The City. The only thing that disturbs me about all this is that Carrie Bradshaw always seemed too awkward and self consciously nervous to be around a man like Gordon Parks. It bothers me that Bushnell never tried to truthfully render a relationship between her characters and an African American man liked Parks. That would have been edgy. But her experience with Parks and Studio 54 was in the 1970’s. Her Sex & The City is like the 1970’s without the radicalism, intellectualism, politics, or danger. The 1990’s in NYC was interesting, yes – but if you remembered the show Sex & The City than you probably weren’t living it. And if you were – it wasn’t necessarily devoid of radical politics. When those incongruous worlds meet, it certainly makes for great drama. I’m mystified why it scares so many people.
Anyway, there you have it. Don’t ever say I didn’t give you any interesting gossip!
Lastly, please remember: it is this charming, elegant man — this High School dropout — named Gordon Parks, who lived life on his own terms, and tried hard to create a rich and varied artwork that would resonate with people who took just a little time to care and who were craving aspects of their own reflections..or society’s illness.
His films warrant a closer reading and “remastered” viewing.
“…’Killer of Sheep’ was made the same year ‘Star Wars’ was released — and has not been seen ever since. While brothers are applauding the heroes from a galaxy far, far away – they’re completely inured to their fellow brethren right in their own backyards. The same was true nearly 15 years later when Wendell B. Harris was virtually paid to NOT make any movies. One look at his magnificent ‘Chameleon Street,’ and everyone knew that a powerful voice had arrived. And this scared everybody. I always found it disturbing that that the Black Entertainment Complex had not welcomed him — the man had won Sundance, after all — in the years when Sundance actually meant something. They did not appreciate him they rejected him. (Maybe they just didn’t know what to make of him…let’s not forget that old Satchmo himself was terrified of Charlie Parker.)
…In the early 1970’s, Huey P.Newton wrote a stunning essay and review of Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary ”Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasss Song”and hailed it as a new vanguard cinema for black people – an example of real artistic-political storytelling that the oppressed could appreciate. Huey wrote that he hoped this would inspire a whole revolutionary genre of black pictures. Instead, Hollywood saw they could make money by having a brother on screen and decided to further the ante by “gambling” on pictures like ‘Shaft’ (by Gordon Parks, ironically, whose brilliant “The Learning Tree” has been forgotten even though it was the first major Hollywood movie by a black Writer and Director! Of course, the rest is history and like they have done to Rap music – everything caved in; the Blaxploitation era arrived and all the racist, stereotypical ‘skin flicks’ flooded the world and artists like Bill Gun, Burnett, and even Van Peebles himself vanished into thin air. No wonder Huey P.Newton died in a crack house: he had no movies to go see…”
— from “Towards a Black New Wave & Notes from the Underground,”
(Harlem, August 26, 2000)
(copyright 2000, 2014 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee)