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Tag: "film"

Are You Tired of Slavery Movies?

[ 95 ] February 4, 2016 |

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Kara Brown is damned tired of slavery movies. I am not, but I get that every other high-profile Oscar-nominated film about black lives is an exercise in filming black bodily trauma.

The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s Sundance darling period piece about the deadliest slave insurrection in American history, was purchased by Fox Searchlight on early Tuesday morning for $17.5 million. It was the largest deal in Sundance history, and coverage immediately suggested that The Birth of a Nation will function as some way through which the Academy can make up for this year’s diversity debacle.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion is a fascinating story, an important one, and an under-examined one. Nate Parker struggled for years to get the project made, and I have no doubt that—as with almost any film rooted in a black experience or with a mostly black cast—it was a frequently frustrating fight. I will certainly be buying a ticket to see The Birth of a Nation when it comes to theaters. But part of me is torn about sitting through yet another film that centers around the brutalization of black people.

Frankly, I’m tired of slavery movies.

It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.

Of the six films actually produced by black people that have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, three are about slavery or slavery-adjacent violence against black people (The Color Purple, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave). The fourth is Selma and the fifth is Precious, two movies that focus on black women being emotionally and physically beaten down in almost every way possible. The last is the The Blind Side, where a white woman who butts in and makes a black kid who was already a promising athlete into an even better athlete.

From a simple visual perspective, I’m tired of being told that I have to watch black actors in physical pain and endure mental abuse for two hours in order to be worthy of a distinction. I don’t want to watch a black body being lashed open so white people can finally “get it.” I’m tired of black actors not only having to live through the trauma of acting in those films, but for also having few other options in front of them.

I am very excited for The Birth of a Nation, and I love how it steals the name back from D.W. Griffith. But I do get this. However, in the trajectory of Hollywood, there have hardly been any serious discussions of slavery at all. 12 Years a Slave was the first since The Color Purple. What else is there? Amistad is ridiculous and really about white people anyway. Django Unchained is a cartoon. Beloved wasn’t very good. Glory is sort of about slavery, but is really a Civil War film that doesn’t explore slavery itself all that deeply. And then???? That’s through a century of film. We need a lot more slavery films precisely because American politics and the rise of overt racism once again is seeking to erase black voices from politics and black history from relevance to the present. Thus says Mychal Denzel Smith in his response:

And while I understand, I disagree. I want more films about slavery. I want a Marvel Universe of films about slavery. I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.

 I want more films about slavery because America would rather forget. We would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on. We would rather act like we understand because we know it happened and that’s enough. But we don’t have any understanding of the economics of slavery, of how the racial caste system was built, of who was complicit in its maintenance, of how it defined our politics, of how it ended. The films about slavery that we have now barely scratch the surface on any of these issues. We basically just think it was a mean thing to do to people. Can a slate of slavery films completely solve this problem? Absolutely not. It would be foolish to think so. But as slavery gets pushed further and further out of our cultural memory by politicians and pundits who dismiss the institution as ancient history not worth discussing (while that history continues to be distorted), then a new cultural memory needs to come into place. I believe film is a place to build it.

Of course, let’s have black people making all kinds of movies. Let’s see black people in all kinds of roles, in front of and behind the camera, in pre- and post-production, in publicity and marketing, at award shows. I’m down for all of that. But films about slavery—lots and lots of films about slavery—should also find their place.

As a historian, this is I think a more useful response. Slavery needs to be driven home again and again to white Americans. They need to be confronted with it constantly. Right not, it’s far too easy to forget it happened, deny white privilege exists, and claim that only whites suffer real racism because something. That has to stop. A major strategy on how to do this is through cultural productions, including film, television, comic books, whatever.

For that matter, where’s the TV shows that center slavery? Or black history at all?

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Colorblind Casting

[ 94 ] January 9, 2016 |

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I really enjoyed this Angelica Jade Bastién essay on the problems with colorblind casting in Hollywood. Using Oscar Isaac as an example, she explores how he has been able to work without his ethnicity defining his roles, but also how he had to not use his given last name of Hernandez in order to do this. I didn’t even know Issac was Latino. I thought he was Jewish, not that he can’t be both. The real issue of colorblind casting in Hollwyood, Bastién argues, is that it serves to reflect the world white liberals wish existed–one where race doesn’t exist–as opposed to actually dealing with the enormous racial inequality in the film industry, where only tiny numbers of people of color rise to be directors, producers, lead actors, etc.

But his success hasn’t come without compromises. Isaac is open about the choices he’s made in his career including dropping his last name, Hernández. “Starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast,” he said to the magazine In. “I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.” His tendency to play characters of different backgrounds extends to his new Star Wars character, whom Isaac has described as “non-ethnic.” Notably, he didn’t say “white” or “racially ambiguous,” instead referring to his character’s absence of ethnicity.

Which fits in neatly with the idea that colorblind casting is the easiest and most visible way to address the need for diversity within Hollywood. Indeed, the practice has led to great, high-profile performances including Morgan Freeman’s Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the majority of Will Smith’s career from the mid-1990s onward, Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the kitschy 1960s Batman television series, and most recently, Laverne Cox taking on the role of Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On a more political level, colorblind casting exists as a hopeful emblem for how many wish the world to be: post-racial. The powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who’s been extensively praised for her use of colorblind casting, has said that she doesn’t write with race in mind. In the early days of Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes explained her reasoning by saying, “My friends and I don’t sit around and discuss race … We’re post-civil rights, post-feminist babies, and we take it for granted we live in a diverse world.” And yet, with minorities making up a small fraction of directors and other key behind-the-scenes roles, it’s hard to know how seriously the industry cares about improving representation in general.

In the face of Hollywood’s deeply entrenched racism, colorblind casting seems like a solution with broad appeal and an actual history of producing great performances. But its downsides go beyond the fact that white actors can end up taking roles for non-white characters, as in Aloha and Pan, or that productions can slot minority actors into secondary roles and get praised for “diversity.” It’s simply counterintuitive to argue that problems related to race can be fixed by ignoring race altogether. In practice, colorblind casting isn’t a form of acceptance or progress: It can just as easily be erasure wrapped up as benevolence.

This pretty well sums up how a lot of white liberals want to think about race. Post-racial just sounds so nice, doesn’t it. Then we can all just get along and not have to think about those hard questions of structural inequality. Of course this reflects the ways a lot of liberals were talking about America generally for a few months at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, before a massive white backlash to President Obama reminded them that race is the most important category of analysis in nearly ever issue in this country.

Colorblind casting also makes no sense in reflecting a society that is profoundly racial. That’s why I was never comfortable with the scripts of either The Shawshank Redemption or Unforgiven. Morgan Freeman’s character in both of those movies would have had to exist in a world where race is a profound factor, yet it is not addressed in either. Gene Hackman whips Freeman to death in Unforgiven, yet race is never mentioned, except that his character has married an indigenous woman!

Colorblind fantasies contribute to the problem of racial inequality more than reflect progressive values amongst those who hold them. That certainly includes Hollywood, where the “race film,” now in a politically liberal form, still often provides people of color the only large-scale casting opportunities they have.

Poverty in the Valley of Plenty

[ 10 ] January 4, 2016 |

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In 1948, the National Farm Labor Union and Hollywood filmmakers who hated the virulently anti-union big farm grower DiGiorgio Fruit, the largest grape, plum, and pear grower in the world, made a film titled Poverty in the Valley of Plenty to expose the terrible conditions of the farmers. In 1947, DiGiorgio responded to a strike by firing all the strikers and replacing them with a combination of Filipinos, undocumented workers, and migrants coming to the U.S. through the Bracero Program. The last of these was an illegal move for the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico explicitly stated that braceros were not to be used as strikebreakers. The unions hated DiGiorgio so much that they waived all their wage and hour contracts to get the film made.

Here it is.

It’s an interesting document. I know the print is not very clear at all and that’s too bad. It’s notable that the workers here are all portrayed as white, given that there were already a lot of Mexican-Americans and Filipinos working these farms and that Ernesto Gallarza, one of the founders of farmworker organizing, was one of the NFLU leaders. Perhaps this was done for the rhetorical argument of claiming these were real Americans. That seems more likely given the unfortunate emphasis on the evils of illegal immigration as the real villain here. It’s not so much that the immigrants are being blamed as they are pawns of an evil corporation, but there’s certainly no sympathy for the immigrants either. That’s unfortunate but not at all surprising for 1948.

DiGiorgio responded by suing the NFLU for libel and going to court to end all screenings of the film. In 1950, the company won. The NFLU was destroyed and the union agreed to destroy all copies of the film, although as we see here, at least one survived.

Wednesday Night Reading

[ 3 ] December 31, 2015 |

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Pico Iyer on Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

2015 National Film Registry Selections

[ 107 ] December 29, 2015 |

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The Library of Congress named this year’s National Film Registry selections today. As usual, it combined some big-budget movies people love even if they aren’t really that good (Top Gun? Ghostbusters?) with some classics (Winchester ’73 and Imitation of Life) and then some real treasures of American film that need the commitment to long-term preservation. Here are a few of the winners:

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.

That will teach you to gorge yourself on Welsh food.

King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, one of the socially conscious classics of the Depression.

And then the 1946 Disney cartoon on menstruation, The Story of Menstruation.

There are a bunch I didn’t know about either, including the 1931 Spanish language version of Dracula and the 1929 Duke Ellington film Black and Tan. Pretty cool.

Haskell Wexler, RIP

[ 27 ] December 27, 2015 |

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Haskell Wexler, the great cinematographer, has died at the age of 93. He worked on so many films, but for me, and for himself actually, his finest achievement was directing (and of course shooting) the wonderful Medium Cool. Here is the beginning of that film.

Since it’s that kind of day, let people also discuss their memories of two other famous people who died today, the outfielder Dave Henderson, noted for his home run in the 1986 ALCS that saved the Red Sox from defeat and started their comeback to win that series and for his terrible broadcasting with the Mariners where he made Joe Morgan look like Vin Scully, as well as Ellsworth Kelly, about whom I have little to say since that high-falutin’ abstract art is too smart for me I guess.

…It also seems, although unconfirmed by major news sources, that the legendary anthropologist of the Caribbean Sidney Mintz has also died. Mintz was the author of Sweetness and Power, on the role of sugar in human history, among other very important works. Here’s a lovely little essay on the first time Mintz ate Chinese food, an important moment for a pioneer in food studies.

Setsuko Hara, RIP

[ 15 ] November 25, 2015 |

Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actors in film historym has died. Hara worked with most of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, but her finest work was in the wonderful films of Yasujiro Ozu, including the transcendent Tokyo Story, where she plays the widowed daughter-in-law who cares more about her aging in-laws than any of their surviving children. Not a lot happens in Ozu films except talking but given that he largely shot the films with the actors speaking directly to the camera, the personal power of these family stories transcend postwar Japan and created some of the finest films ever made. Her performances radiated a powerful independent grace in a transitioning Japanese society. She disappeared from the public eye in the early 1960s and I didn’t even know she was still alive. In fact, she died in early September at the age of 95 and it was never reported until today.

Here at LGM, We Remember Only the Finest in American Cultural Artifacts

[ 36 ] November 2, 2015 |

You’ll thank me for the theme song and Bucky Dent, if not the fine, fine acting and disco. Not to mention Jane Seymour and Bert Convy.

The Power of Silent Film

[ 31 ] October 19, 2015 |

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I am really excited to watch the 1920 film The Daughter of Dawn, once thought lost (like about 85 percent of silent films) and now found.

The Daughter of Dawn is more than just another Friday night flick. It is a cinematic wormhole into America’s past.

“The rediscovery of The Daughter of Dawn is a great historical find,” Jeffrey M. Moore of the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture tells NPR. “Not only is it significant because so few independent films from the silent era survived but it captures a time period often romanticized in a very real and authentic way. The imagery from American Indian culture on the Southern Plains is for the most part presented unfiltered by the non-Indian filmmakers.

In the movie, Moore says, “The viewer gets to see Kiowas and Comanches wearing their traditional clothing without the help of Hollywood wardrobe departments. Besides the scenes on horseback and hunting buffalo, there are scenes of traditional dances being performed that would have been forbidden by the federal government if not for the fact that they were part of the film.”

And the background landscape of the Wichita Mountains, he adds, “gives an environmental purity lost when later films portraying Plains tribes would be filmed in locations like Monument Valley.”

My only caveat to this is that a silent film being an amazing window into the past is not something limited to this film but rather is actually a quite common and wonderful feature of silent film. That’s especially true in the 1910s when people were still figuring out on the fly how to make films and before Hollywood methods and sets were common. So you have street scenes from New York in 1903 that are shocking to the viewer because that’s simply something you don’t expect to see, for example. The Daughter of Dawn is definitely not the only Native American based film that is a must see as well. In fact, there are a lot of really fascinating examinations of Native Americans in silent film. One of the best is the 1929 film Redskin, which is about both the transformation of Navajo culture through the Indian schools and the Navajo-Puebloan divide that went back centuries to the times when the Navajo were raiding the pueblos left and right. The film is actually partially in color, using an early technique that did not allow for the full palette of colors, but was still an amazing advancement (see also the amazing and 100 percent no holds barred exercise in Orientalism 1922 film The Toll of the Sea with Anna Mae Wong for use of early color in silents). Plus the scenes of the Navajo Nation, filmed at Canyon de Chelly and revolving around herding culture are filmed in color and the scenes after the main character is forced to go to an east coast Indian school are in black and white, which is more shocking. He then falls in love with an Acoma girl at the same school. They come back and of course neither are any longer accepted as full tribal members. The final scene consists of a near-battle between the Acoma and Navajo. In order to film this scene, the director had a road built up Acoma Pueblo. For those of you who have visited the Sky City in western New Mexico, this is the road you take today. It was built for a film. So once again, this is a pretty fantastic examination of Native American life, even if it directed by a white person and the main stars are white actors.

There are so many silent films like this. Not only are many silents great films on the merit, but the historical window they present cannot be replicated in any other way and on almost any issue of the day–radical politics, birth control, race, etc.,–you can find weird and wonderful silents.

The Most Successful Walker Campaign in U.S. Political History

[ 12 ] September 22, 2015 |

I’d like to credit Robert Altman with crafting the most successful political campaign by someone named Walker in American presidential history. Because Scott Walker sure as hell doesn’t beat this, not to mention have Lily Tomlin singing with a black choir or have Jeff Goldblum riding a motorcycle-like vehicle.

Drink Up and Be Somebody

[ 58 ] September 6, 2015 |

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If the writers of LGM ever got together in the same place, I believe the alcohol consumption would look something like Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan:

As it should now be clear to you, dear reader, Soviet soldiers were not that discriminating when sourcing their sauce. When I was interviewing veterans of the Soviet–Afghan War for my doctorate, many and horrifying were the accounts of parties fueled by aftershave, rosewater, and rubbing alcohol. The military hierarchy denied the enlisted men legal access to drink, yet fighting a high-stress and — in the early years, at least — officially unacknowledged war, they were nothing if not committed to the quest.

Boot polish, for example, would be spread on a hunk of bread, which was then toasted. The alcohol in the polish would soak into the bread; the polish itself would crisp on the surface of the toast. You’d scrape off as much as you could, then eat the bread. The same could be done with some ethanol-based toothpastes.

Alternatively, take that polished bread, sit it on top of a glass of water over night, and then drink it, as a certain amount of alcohol will have infused it. And then eat the bread, hoping it hasn’t gotten moldy in the meantime.

If you had the misfortune to be based in one of the so-called “eagle’s nest” observation posts up in the mountains, where supplies were heaved out of an Mi-8 helicopter precariously balancing one of its wheels on the slope, then you needed to turn to your surroundings. Some solvents used for cleaning weapons contained ethanol along with all kinds of toxic additives. Pour some into a metal pan and then leave it out for a while in the bitter Afghan winter; the belief was that the ethanol would stay liquid, atop a frozen layer of everything else. Fortunately, such solvents were often in scarce supply.

The soldiers would also — despite official warnings not to, as much to avoid poisoning as anything else — buy drinks from Afghan traders. Ranging from the internationally renowned brandies of the Afghan-Clemd distillery to rotgut brewed in backstreet stills, the drinks on sale, especially at venues dotting Kabul’s Chicken Street bazaar, were numerous. The Soviet Commandant’s Service military police patrols meant to prevent off-duty soldiers from stocking up on drink would, instead, “tax” their victims a share of their purchases. As one soldier reminisced, “it’s the only time in my military career I actually didn’t mind wearing the red armband” of a patroller.

The field expedients the Soviets poured into their hapless bodies may have brought a degree of oblivion to their wartime misadventures. These noxious and innovative drinks were competing with the opium that was so readily available and also with such alternatives as chifir’, a punishingly strong tea that was actually used in the Gulags to induce a mild high or stave off pain and exhaustion. They also contributed to as much as 20 percent of the cases addressed by the Military-Medical Service in Afghanistan. One army doctor recounted to me a tale of having to operate on a soldier hit by shrapnel from a rebel mortar, whose innards still smelled of cheap cologne.

Speaking of such things, I just finished On the Bowery, the amazing 1956 early cinema verité film about drunks on the Bowery. This might also look like the LGM writing crew on any given night.

Also:

Sentinels of Silence

[ 15 ] August 28, 2015 |

Why can’t Orson Welles be brought back from the dead to narrate documentaries?

Had to link instead of embed because of the film’s privacy settings, but it’s a cool documentary of sorts on indigenous Mexican ruins.

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