Tag Archives: NYC

Brian Alessandro’s Passionate Defense of a Cult Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As an Act of Protest: The film that won’t go away…

AVAILABLE DIGITALLY OCTOBER 30, 2020 ON “VIMEO ON DEMAND”!

A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.  Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that makes it explode….

“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”

             – Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)

unnamed
As an Act of Protest presents a tragic truth of life: A final liberatory act sets the Black Man free…and puts the artist at ease.

When all is said and done

you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried.  Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING.  And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience.  The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee.  Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels.  There is no more time for games. This ends it all.  Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world.  And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.

It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and  savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.

After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.”  As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang.  It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him.  It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,  Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.

Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,”  it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it.  Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protest is a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do:  it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.

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For more information visit: https://dennisleroykangalee.wordpress.com/videos/as-an-act-of-protest/

And Pre-Order your digital download today!

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


“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”
– Screenwriter Paul Schrader , upon viewing Spike
Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
From Manthia Diawara’s book Black American Cinema
(p.194)

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As an Act of Protest

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

Guerrilla Filmmaking & Resistance 

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

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

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

The first draft was over 180 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

As an Act of Protest (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

— The Last Poets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Charles Burnett, the maker of the cult classic Killer of Sheep. This milestone came out the same year as Star Wars and has not been seen ever since. While brothers are applauding the heroes from a galaxy far, far away – they’re completely inured to their fellow brethren right in their backyards. Huey P.Newton wrote a stunning essay and review of Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasss Song and hailed it as a new vanguard cinema for black people – an example of real artistic-political storytelling that the black audience could appreciate.  Huey wrote that he hoped this would inspire a whole revolutionary genre of black pictures. Instead, the white people of Hollywood saw they could make money by having a brother on screen and decided to further the ante by “gambling” on pictures like Shaft (by Gordon Parks, ironically, whose brilliant The Learning Tree has been forgotten even though it was the first major Hollywood movie by a black Writer and Director! Of course, the rest is history and like they have done to Rap music – everything caved in; the Blaxploitation era arrived and all the racist, stereotypical White Man’s Nigger-Propaganda-movies flooded the world and artists like Bill Gun, Burnett, and even Van Peebles himself vanished into thin air. No wonder Huey P.Newton died in a crack house: he had no movies to go see.

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

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

The answer is Digital Video.

DOGMA 95 & DIGITAL VIDEO

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

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

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

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

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

THIRD CINEMA 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘A Saintly Madness’ – Vagabond artwork for the latest Cinematic Project by Brian Alessandro…

Speller St. Films recently asked Vagabond to do some artwork for Brian Alessandro’s demo short A Saintly Madness, the NY author and filmmaker’s latest cinematic project as he begins to make plans on the feature film itself.  I have the pleasure of working and developing this project with Brian Alessandro and A Saintly Madness marked my official return to acting in nearly two decades.   (Alessandro was the director of the  controversial Afghan Hound.)

A Saintly Madness is a true communal, Socialist project itself  &  is the result of the latest example in a humble group effort.  A reminder: As we cross-pollinate our talents and all we contain inside we will slowly leave something behind on the cave wall besides our bodies and our dust. It all starts here. These artistic collaborations are not important as they are necessary – and vital.

Ia-saintly-madness-dennis4x6

Vagabond’s Barbara Kruger inspired 1980’s NYC artwork for Brian Alessandro’s Urbane & Checkhovian ‘romantic comedy for rebels’

Vagabond, one of the last true DIY punk rock artists and a genuine Puerto-Rican-Protest Artist is one NYC’s unheralded master guerrilla filmmakers and a wonderful visual artist.  Read more about the artwork here:

https://nothingtobegainedhere.wordpress.com/2020/04/19/a-saintly-madness/

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Where Paintings Go to Die

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

-Bob Dylan, August 1965

Interviewed by Nora Ephron & Susan Edmiston

A lonely Basquiat hangs on 57th Street…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

*

 

 

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

 

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Sometimes even an outlier becomes heard…

You cannot have a revolution without having an art to go alongside it.  Sometimes that art is living itself, sometimes it’s the expression of the angst through blood. Sometimes the tears mean more in the glimpse of 24 frames per second. Sometimes, often in actual life, there is no time for tears — and certainly no poetry that comes along with it.  There is nothing romantic about headaches nor oppression.  Yet we choose to ignore and malign our beautiful crazy visions and inner horror for the sanctity of a television news report or streamed web video of the apocalypse we’ve been led to believe in and worship.  We opt for the button-downed pathology of Wynford Marsalis as we step on Sun Ra.  We resist the spaceship for the bank teller.  While the world is as it is because we will it to be…it is also our responsibility to admit that we foolishly resist both the revolutionary visions of artists and the forlorn mad-men who have been misled and let down. “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets conceded in As an Act of Protest.  But it certainly helps to have those poems going up into the sky like fireworks…and hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final ax falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken.  You can’t clap with one hand.  But you can still wield a sword.  Or a pen.

 

Design for the 2014 Chicago screening (Ben Starr)

[original design by Benn Starr, (c) 2014, originally created for the 2014 Chicago premiere]

 

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25th Anniversary of Public Enemy & Spike Lee’s Legendary Collaboration…

Riot on the Set: How Public Enemy Crafted the Anthem ‘Fight the Power’

Twenty-five years after ‘Do the Right Thing,’ Spike Lee, Public Enemy and Branford Marsalis reflect on the film’s anthem

Chuck D & Flavor Flav of Public Enemy [Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Chuck D & Flavor Flav of Public Enemy [Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy perform in New York City.
Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By Kory Grow from Rolling Stone

“We needed an anthem,” Spike Lee said. “When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting. I wanted Public Enemy.”

The director may have asked for an anthem for his 1989 chronicle of big-city racial tensions, but what he got was a salvo. A quarter of a century has passed since Radio Raheem’s boom box served as a megaphone to a generation, spreading Public Enemy’s rap reveille over and over again in the movie, but “Fight the Power” has not lost an ounce of its revolutionary power or poignancy. Chuck D’s lyrics praising freedom of speech and people uniting while decrying racist icons still sound just as vital as anything Pete Seeger wrote, and production team the Bomb Squad’s ultra-modern collage of funk and noise for the track has never been replicated. The fact that Public Enemy made multiple versions of the tune – including the Branford Marsalis–infused, free-jazz cut for the movie and the more straight-ahead approach on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet – only shows the versatility of the song’s message.

To celebrate the legacy of the tune, and its impact both in and out of movie theaters 25 years later, Rolling Stone caught up with Lee, Marsalis and Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav and the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee and found out how they made an anthem.

Where does the “Fight the Power” story begin?
Chuck D: Spike, [producer] Bill Stephney, Hank and I had a meeting, and Spike simply said, “Hey look, I’ve got this movie based on all this tension going on in the New York area, the clashing neighborhoods, and I’m looking for an anthem.” All I remember was Spike was saying, “I’m looking for an anthem.”

Hank Shocklee: Spike’s original idea was to have Public Enemy do a hip-hop version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is kind of like a Negro anthem or spiritual. But I was like, “No.” I opened the window and asked him to stick your head outside. “Man, what sounds do you hear? You’re not going to hear ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in every car that drives by.” We needed to make something that’s going to resonate on the street level. After going back and forth, he said, “All right, I’ll let you guys go in there and see what you guys come back with.”

When did the “Fight the Power” concept come up?
Chuck D: We like to work from titles down, so we came up with “Fight the Power” first. It was inspired by the Isley Brothers’ song “Fight the Power.” But the challenge was, could we make something entirely different that said the same thing in another genre?

Shocklee: We lived in the suburbs and were sandwiched by nothing but white communities. It was like we were the leftovers: We got what the white communities didn’t want to have, we got their spillovers. So we always had to kind of fight this adversity. We wanted to just make something that was going to say, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not gonna take it any more – I’m going to fight the system.” So that song that the Isley Brothers did, “Fight the Power,” resonated, but their version was a little soft. It didn’t resonate as deeply as I thought it should.

Chuck, at what point did you write the lyrics?
Chuck D: I was getting ready to head out on a European run with Run-D.M.C. in the fall of 1988. I remember writing a big chunk of it on a plane as we were flying over Italy. And D.M.C. was probably in the chair next to me. So I had the aftereffect and the glow of Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay to inspire me, so to speak, in the writing of some of the lyrics.

“Freedom of speech is freedom of death” is a line that has always stood out. What prompted that?
Chuck D: A lot of that stuff like that line is like Bob Marley or Frederick Douglass: “There’s no progress without struggle.” There are a lot of things like that that I was able to incorporate it in there.

Why did you pick out Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 single “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as a negative thing?
Chuck D: Because”Don’t Worry Be Happy” doesn’t apply to protests. If you’re not worried and you’re happy, you’re like, why protest? Not everybody’s gonna feel like that.

What inspired the line about Elvis and John Wayne being racists?
Chuck D: [Comedian]Blowfly had a record called “Blowfly’s Rapp”in 1980. And there was a line in there where one of the characters in the song was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and basically he had a lyric, “Well, I don’t care who you are, motherfuck you and Muhammad Ali.”

Why did you pick Elvis Presley and John Wayne, specifically?
Chuck D: Elvis and John Wayne were the icons of America. And they kind of got head-and-shoulder treatment over everybody else. It’s not that Elvis was not a talented dude and incredible in his way, but I didn’t like the way that he was talked about all the time, and the pioneers [of rock & roll], especially at that time, weren’t talked about at all. When people said “rock & roll” or “the King,” it was all “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, one trillion fans can’t be wrong” type of shit.

But as far as “motherfuck him and John Wayne”… yeah, fuck John Wayne to this minute [laughs]. John Wayne is “Mr. Kill All the Indians and Everybody Else Who’s Not Full-Blooded American.” The lyric was assassinating their iconic status so everybody doesn’t feel that way.

Is that also how “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” came about?
Chuck D: That came from the fact that Spike also discussed how there was a wall in the movie with people we respected as heroes on it. So “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” was saying, “You know what, we’ve got heroes on the wall, too.”

Flavor, how did you end up getting the John Wayne line?
Flavor Flav: A lot of the songs that Chuck D has written, I took parts. I’d say, give me this part, give me that part. And I’m very grateful for the lines he gave me. I ain’t gonna lie, because those are the most memorable parts of the record.

Was “Fight the Power” the first song considered for Do the Right Thing?
Lee: That wasn’t the first song they submitted. It was not “Fight the Power.”

What was it?
Lee: Not “Fight the Power.”

Shocklee: It was “Fight the Power.” He got the preproduction version. It was a sparse outline of the idea of the song. Spike, with all due respect, is not a rap guy, so he’s not gonna understand where it could go until it’s a finished production.

Chuck D: [Laughs] Spike misconstrued it as being a different song. It was a song in a rough stage with different elements brought up to the front. But Spike used it, because he had to present the film to a bunch of different investors. I remember checking out a screening with Hank in Brooklyn, and Spike had put in the rough draft of the song, and every time he played it, I was sinking in my seat, because I was like, “Oh shit. The song is not complete. It sounds like shit to me. And he’s going to put in the movie this many times? What the fuck!” I was like, “Man, we’ve got to come better than that.”

Hank, what was your goal when you were putting together the music for the track?
Shocklee: I wanted you to feel the concrete, the people walking by, the cars that are going by and the vrroom in the system. I wanted the city. I wanted that grittiness, the mugginess, the hot sticky, no-air vibration of the city [laughs].

How did Branford Marsalis get involved?
Branford Marsalis: I think it was Spike’s idea. I don’t feel at that the time that P.E. or Hank would have been suddenly compelled to use a saxophone.

Shocklee: I wanted to have a sax in the record but I didn’t want it in a smooth, melodic fashion; I wanted someone to play it almost like a weapon, and Branford was the guy. He came in the studio and he was incredibly gracious and very humble. He treated us as if we were musicians just like himself.

Marsalis: Hank did something that I’ll never forget. He made me do one funky solo, one jazz solo and one just completely avant-garde, free-jazz solo. And I said, “Which one them are you going to use?” And he said, “All three of them motherfuckers,” and he threw all three up. And the shit was killer. You had this Wall of Sound come in and the saxophones came in, and it was a Wall of Sound to accompany a Wall of Sound.

Branford, coming from a jazz background, what was it like playing over a Bomb Squad track?
Marsalis: It was not a normal chord progression. If it was C minor then it went to A-flat 7. It has the same sensibility as a James Brown tune, which is completely where they got it from. If you listen to when they go, “Fight the Power” and you hear that voice that goes, “Aahh,” that voice is not in the same key as the other shit. A musician would never do that. But it works. It unwittingly helped me expand my brain in a way.

Did you think you had a hit?
Chuck D: No, but when I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh. We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver shit. We couldn’t rely on radio.

Marsalis: They had the greatest marketing tool in the world. They had a movie that people were going to see two and three times, that was going to be all over the world and it scared white people half to death — which ensured that it was going to sell.

Flavor Flav: When “Fight the Power” was being created, all I did was just come in, lay down my lyrics and I was out. I didn’t know that the record was going to be as big as it turned out to be. I just wanted to make a great record and keep it moving. And next thing you know, this phenomenal record was being played on the radio over and over and over. I’m like, wooow. This is crazy.

Chuck D: For all the talk about “Fight the Power,” there was always resistance to Public Enemy. It really got no higher than 16 on the R&B/black charts, which just goes to show you how much help black radio and urban radio gave us. It didn’t even crack the Top 10. It’s crazy, because in hindsight when they talk about the Number One rap record that meant something, “Fight the Power” is always at the top of those charts.

The B side to the original 12 inch features a hilarious meeting between Spike and Flavor. How did that come together?
Chuck D: They’re having a conversation – about what? Who the fuck knows. Flavor won’t remember it [laughs].

Flavor Flav: I don’t remember the B side.

What did you think of the movie’s opening credits, when Rosie Perez shadowboxes to the song?
Flavor Flav: It was just incredible, man, hearing my voice in a movie [laughs]. It was buggin’ me out. It was like the first time I ever heard “Public Enemy Number One” on the radio. It gave me that kind of feeling. Then also hearing my voice all throughout the movie – because that’s the only record that they really played in that movie, [actor Bill Nunn’s character] Radio Raheem would play nothing else but “Fight the Power” on his box, man. It was just an incredible feeling.

Chuck D: It was cool, because I thought I could get away with not doing a video [laughs].

Marsalis: I dug the song. I thought it was a hit from the get. I mean, Rosie wasn’t my favorite dancer necessarily, as someone who had a relationship with the arts that was rather broad. But it was cool. It was great to see. You know, Rosie was fine as hell so I didn’t object to that.

Shocklee: The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boom box playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.

What do you remember about making the video?
Lee: All Chuck D and I wanted to do was reenact a march. So we had everybody show up. We marched from a specific space through the streets of Brooklyn and ended up on the block where we shot the film. We had to do it there. The movie is shot on one block. Stuyvesant Avenue, between Quincy and Lexington in Bed-Stuy. So we definitely wanted the destination of the march was the block where we shot the film. The stage was there. Perform.

Shocklee: That video was a really good thank-you that Spike did for us. We didn’t get paid for using the song throughout the film. It was the first big production budget that we’ve ever had for a video. When I first got the treatment, I thought it looked very simple. It was just, “Hey, we’re gonna do this march, make it seem like it’s a march on Washington, but we’re going to do it in Brooklyn.” I got to the set around 5:30 in the morning, and people were lined up. It looked like the Million Man March.

Spike, how did you get so many people there?
Lee: We just put the word out: “Public Enemy video.” People showed up. The police were scared though.

Why?
Lee: That many people? They always get scared. But there was not one incident. It was great. And the police were not a problem. As long as you’re done by 6, we’re all right.

Chuck D: It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn. It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.

Chuck, what inspired the video’s intro, where you talk about the Civil Rights March on Washington from 1963?
Chuck D: I remember coming on in the video saying that the whole concept of the march in Washington wasn’t complete, but my words weren’t as sharp as I would like them to be, so I ended up saying, “That’s some nonsense.” And the way it was cut, I sound like I’m out of my damn mind [laughs].

Flavor Flav: That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot. And with that many people at my video shoot, it was crazy. Not only that but we had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant. We had a good time that day, man. I would give anything to live that day one more time, that day was so amazing.

Flavor, who is the little girl you’re holding at the end of the video?
Flavor Flav: That was my daughter Shanique. She was three years old at the time. Now she’s 28 [laughs].

Lee: Chuck and Flavor just had so much fun. It was a great day. VH1 named it the Number One hip-hop video of all time. Well deserved. Rightfully so.

The version of “Fight the Power” on Fear of a Black Planet stripped away Marsalis’ solo and remixed the Elvis line. Why make different versions?
Chuck D: “Fight the Power” came out on Motown first, because of the soundtrack, but we were with Sony. We had to pull some structural things in order have “Fight the Power” on Motown as a single but also our own video on Sony and then being on Fear of a Black Planet the following year as the final track.

Shocklee: Putting on the Public Enemy album, it just didn’t make sense to have the same exact version. And I’m a big fan of each. Each record, to me, should live in its own space.

Finally, now that 25 years have passed, how do you feel the song holds up?
Chuck D: I feel like Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome.” “Fight the Power” points to the legacy of the strengths of standing up in music. Spike really made that record what it is. Because who puts a song in a movie that many times? Who does that?

Flavor Flav: I think it’s one of the most amazing things that Chuck has ever written. I’ve always looked at Chuck as one of the most amazing writers and lyricists ever. And a lot of the stuff that Chuck wrote was all accurate information. Chuck has been right a lot of times and that’s why I always backed up my partner.

Marsalis: Come on, that shit is anthemic. And for all of the people that love popular culture, there are a handful of songs that are actually anthemic in hip-hop or otherwise. And that one is one of them.

Shocklee: I think it was Public Enemy’s and Spike Lee’s defining moment because what it had done was it had awoken the black community to a revolution that was akin to the Sixties revolution, where you had Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. It created such an energy surge throughout the community that it became the template for every artist, every filmmaker, every rapper, singer, and it also sparked community leaders and teachers to understand the power of hip hop. And it made the entire hip-hop community recognize its power. Then the real revolution began.

 

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Limits of the Imagination…

An actor who auditioned for my latest film Octavia: Elegy for a Vampire just balked at our offer to participate in the film (I offered a part!) The actor interrogated my partner: “How much and when will I get paid?  What are you shooting with?  And what do you intend to do with the film after its made?”

We wanted to reply to this lost soul:

“We’ll pay you what that silly television show paid you to shake your ass for a bunch of rich gangsters in “cool” 1920’s gear. Sound good?  We’re shooting with AK-47’s (we no longer believe in cameras). And we intend to hide the film in an insane asylum until it burns down and someone can find it in 50 years.”

I have no idea what has happened to the Actor.  There is a strange new breed of actors that have come of age in the new millennium, actors reared on proxy, business kits, the internet, American Idol, and marketing showcases.  Actors have always been a strange, insecure, odd breed of artists.  They are, actually, the odd man out even among artists themselves – because their art is inextricably bound up with social systems, the zeitgeist, the ebb and flow of capitalism and getting ahead, etc.  And I understand this.  It is a harsh world and one must be crazy to be an actor.  The rejection, the disappointment, the nutjobs who manhandle your career, the evil back-stabbers who thwart a good audition, the jealous types who make sure you never get a good role or opportunity — I know it happens.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve experienced it.  But that’s also why I stepped back and away from the tide of Show Business and why, at the tender early age of 21, decided completely that mainstream Entertainment Industrial complex wasn’t for me.

I have no tolerance for actors who aren’t artists and I really don’t know what to say to actors who actually care about Hollywood.  I look and crave for the actor who wants and NEEDS to act – to save his or her soul.  Not to feed a mortgage or dignify his parents greed or justify their own egotistical cravings.

I have swept floors and worked in warehouses in 100 degree weather in the middle of New Jersey to feed my own habit as an artist and to ensure that I could remain true to myself.  I don’t judge others who do what they have to do – either for money or for the proclivities of their soul — but I cannot for the life of me understand the sad pathetic insulting requisitions and inquiries made by actors who APPROACHED ME and submitted to our ULTRA-LOW BUDGET SAG film only to try to play “Mr Hollywood Big-Shot” when we offered them a part.  

For all you lost in the wilderness:

I am Dennis Leroy Kangalee.  I am not Darren Aronofsky.  I am not Steve McQueen.  I am not Kelly Reichardt.  I do not say this to disparage these talented individuals, I say this to clarify:  even if I had the support and access to money that they do, I’d still make my films the way I have always approached cinema and theater and I would still be only concerned with expressing my own madness and trying to find some peace within.

Actors are emotional athletes.  They should not be Corporate Soldiers.  If your concern is “what camera” a director is shooting with and NOT about the character or the ideas of the director, etc – then something is wrong with you.

There is utter transparency with my work, my reputation as someone who has NEVER EVER sold out, bought in, copped out, or stood down. I’ve had my work screened in Burkina Faso, Paris, Berlin, and New Orleans when the establishment at the NY TIMES refused to acknowledge my work or that of any other ‘African American art’-filmmaker’s work. I am a man who has wiped down counters and cleaned fridges in order to pay my actors, musicians, etc.  And I am proud of that.  And I take great offense when I post what kind of union film this is (they are even lucky I am dealing with a such a corrupt organization such as SAG), and yet get treated like my work is not as “important” as the mainstream independents’ is.  My work is actually more important. And, frankly, we need directors and writers and actors and producers who challenge ALL status-quos and try to make films that are less like a real estate deal…and more like a poem. Here’s my suggestion: When you walk into an audition and ask Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese what they intend to do with their films and get a response, then I’ll reconsider my righteousness.

But only a little.

*

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New Poet Cinema Preparing for First Production of 2014

New Poet Cinema - photo by Nina Fleck

New Poet Cinema – photo by Nina Fleck

After a long stretch after our 2011 collaboration Gentrified Minds, I am proud to announce that my partner, Nina Fleck, and myself have resumed work on a series of films that are at once personal and political and highly personal. Like poems.  Shards of Glass Spindled Tears Broken Dreams a trilogy of short films meditating on the nature of disappointment and endings will be shot and edited in May, 2014.  We’ve allowed our approach to “Avant-garde”  and experimental films to be highly intimate and informed by our work as poets and theater artists.

Currently we are looking to hire a MALE actor, 50, any race, with a tragic face that can emit a quiet intensity and one capable of expressing without speaking. 
Actor must also but must be comfortable interpreting and reading text aloud as you will be recording a poem as a voice-over. 

Union and non-union actors.

Email us for more information. One day shoot and voice-over recording in May. Paid. New Media SAG Agreement.

(Note: Year round,  we look for actors and actresses; performers who think OUTSIDE the box (or “models” in the Bresson sense) and possess expressive faces who can easily identify with themes of failure, death, memory, injustice, and the desire for hope.   A link to the New Poet Cinema project will be published by May 1st when the film is in production.) 

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The Nomad Junkie Interview – 2011

Read Sylvia Harvey’s interview with Dennis Leroy Kangalee at the closing of his 2011 performance piece, “Gentrified Minds” which was not only the end of a whole performance project, but his last sigh as his alter-ego, ‘the Nomad Junkie’ — which he abandoned so he could move beyond his rage about gentrification and the death of neighborhoods and, specifically, New York City.

Dennis Leroy Kangalee
*The interview originally appeared in the Bed-Stuy Patch as a part of the column Change for a Dollar that focuses on gentrification.

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