When Amy Winehouse was a girl she told her mother that she needed to be rougher with Amy, that she was too soft and that she could get away with murder around her. That was my first clue to Amy’s nature as I watched the documentary about her entitled “Amy” last week at Upstate Films in Woodstock.
Amy’s father left her and her mother when she was still a girl. Her mother claimed she could not handle Amy’s overwhelming and intense energy. And Amy couldn’t handle the overwhelming and intense illusion of fame that came with her success as a pop singer. She was bold and brash, outspoken and seemed incapable of keeping her feelings in but at her core she was highly sensitive, a raw and open wound that needed more than anything else to feel loved, understood and protected.
I didn’t start to really pay attention to Amy’s music until after she had passed. But like anyone in the America I could not get away from her music when she was the height of her short lived career. It was everywhere, this old soul jazz vocalist in the body of a young Jewish girl and the face of a lead actress in a Pedro Almadovar film crossed with a Ronette. Where did she come from? Why was she like this?
Ava DuVernay’s handle on her IG account is Directher, simply, powerfully and concisely telling you who she is by transforming a term that is dominated by white male directors to tell the story of a black female film director. And in so many ways Ava has directed not only her own films but also the trajectory of her life through her passion as well as directing our attention to her phenomenal talent.
I first learned about Ava DuVernay through a good friend of hers who is also a dear friend of mine. CeCelia Falls who shares my deep and sometimes fanatic love of film invited me to the AFFRM (African Film Festival Releasing Movement) film festival for the first time in 2010 to see the debut of Ava’s film “I Will Follow.” I loved everything about it, the story, her direction, lighting, editing, score choice, the fact that it was an all black and predominantly female cast. I even wrote a review of it back when I had a film review blog on blogger.com. I wanted to promote the film as much as possible and put the full weight of my own support as a writer and movie goer behind it.
Since then she has gone on to direct and produce films, such as “Middle of Nowhere,” “Say Yes” an episode of “Scandal,” the fashion film “The Door” and her latest “Selma” an epic biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. and the formidable pioneers who were integral to his fight to represent and gain civil rights in the early post integration era of the South. I actually just saw the film myself last weekend and am certain I will never watch another Oscars ever again until they nominate at least three black black films in the same year. Fact.
Ava’s mastery of visual language, story-line, pacing and richness of character exhibit a breadth of experience that paints the experiences of women of color with broad, nuanced strokes that depict our depth and complexities with pride, reverence, honesty and care.
When I was taking film classes at Baruch towards my degree in Media and Social Issues, I was very conscious (often self-conscious) as a woman of color that I could not look at the history of film and television in the same way as say, a white male film student. I also felt compelled to be as vigilant with my own classmates of color about the myriad ways in which great popular films and television meant to tell a broad story of humanity often doesn’t serve us, even when we are “included.”
Remember that scene in the Matrix when Neo walks in on Cypher while he’s keeping watch on the ship and asks him about looking at the code in its unencrypted form? Joey says something to the effect that like anyone else, he used to look at it and see what most human viewers would see, green lines running vertically up and down a black computer screen. “But now I just see blonde, brunette, redhead…” In essence, after being trained, he knows what the code represents. He knows that the code is written to replicate the illusion of reality which is accepted as the only reality that exists for all the humans who are still plugged in. And as we learn later, he’s already made a deal with agents to have himself plugged back in.
Sit with that for a moment.
It’s not necessary to have a background in film and or media to understand the underwritten code that runs like a current through just about every form of media we consume. And as a person of color and a woman of color no less, my fascination with film and television is based not only from what I have gleaned from an early age from being “plugged in” but even more from what I have discovered and still uncover constantly from the study of intersections of race class and gender politics in film and the ways in which studios, networks, and writers collaborate and clash to produce narratives and pieces of propaganda that feed our minds subliminally and overtly with ideas that have been implemented from the dawn of the age of film, formulas, gender construction, codified mise en scene. We’ve come very far with the transformation and reinterpretation of some ancient narrative devices. And I am not necessarily an enemy of what’s old, because in art as in life, there are some things that always work. The wheel only got invented once and that’s all that was needed. The ideas that are derived from foundational discoveries are endless.
There are the foundational ideas in film and television and there are the politics of racism, sexism, homophobia and power embedded in the censored approach to storytelling that has become the mainstay of American Cinema and television.
So for instance when I’m lying in bed watching the trailers app on my iphone which is something I do religiously, and I see the trailer for a film like “Interstellar” which is sold as this modern day space frontier film with the power of love at its core, I also see what is just beneath that, White space cowboy hero, token black guy, token female fly off into space to repopulate another planet because the Earth is dying.
When I watch the trailer for “Black or White” (aw jeezus) which is being sold as a color blind commentary on a cross racial family divide with of course, love (because it conquers all) at its core, I see White, not “Black or White.” And I see Costner as a yet another tool, a representation of rugged white American male ideal with a little Black girl on his lap.
I love Costner. He’s the spoonful of sugar that’s supposed to make the Kool Aid go down without you realizing it’s just more acid. But I’ve been on that trip before. I don’t need to spend my money on that.
Last night I watched the first episode of “Empire,” a show that I had been anticipating only with the energy of someone excited to see people of color on a television show in such large numbers. But best believe my critical mind took in the code of predominantly light skinned black who make up the majority of the cast and what they means about what networks will accept as representations of people of color on television that can occupy spaces of power. That was kind of a hard one for me to miss. Did you watch it? Did you notice who comes begging for money? Did you notice who gets killed first? Do you remember who asks the oldest son not to forget him on his way up the ladder of success?
The sets are bombastic, hyperbolic and over the top. Did you catch the two large ass Kehinde Wiley paintings? Loved them!
“Empire” is a stallion that busts out of the gate charging forward with seemingly reckless abandon. Yes, I just wrote a promotional blurb for “Empire.” But beyond that, I see some of the same destructive elements of broken black family culture that have been the running theme of many successful reality television shows which revolve around so-called “Black life.” Taraji as the ruthless bitch who stops at nothing to win back her stake on a company she bankrolled, Terence as the ever resplendent male Mulatto who builds and Empire but is destined for tragedy. And the darker skinned bit players who scrabble for scraps near the bottom rung while brushing off the shadows of subordination by their lighter, more privileged superiors.
At least that’s the formula and code I’ve become accustomed to seeing. I’ll watch it few more times and see if it heads in a “surprisingly unexpected” direction because that’s what I long for. And let me be clear about what I mean when I say surprisingly different. I want a dark skinned Black hero, preferably a woman with a decidedly mysterious but grandiose and royally descended past, to pop up, seemingly out of nowhere, unite everyone divided by power and commerce to fight the real enemy.
Okay wait, did I just write a pitch for my own original television show idea?
I don’t want to give away any spoilers for Chris Rocks new film, “Top Five.” It’s not due for release until December 11th. But I saw a screening of it last Friday night with a friend of mine and I really liked it.
From the trailer I’d only just recently started to see last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’m glad I saw it before reading or even hearing anything else about it because I would never have expected what I saw. I’ve already been let down by “Dear White People” and “Interstellar” so I tried to keep my expectations at an even keel.
“Top Five” is a film I know I have to see again because I was sort of thrown off by what is clearly being promoted as a haha funny comedy, but which has some surprisingly sober and contemplative moments. I was hooked immediately, not just by the story and the performances but also the editing, the score, the pace, the choice of New York City locations. As a native New Yorker, I love good New York movies. I’ve been to absolutely every location in New York that “Top Five” was shot in and some of those places hold very fond memories for me so already, I’m engaged on an emotional level. Even the courtyard of my old High School in Spanish Harlem had a quick split second cameo.
Ever since SNL, I’ve always really liked Chris Rock so I’m always rooting for him even if I don’t always love everything he does. The last movie he did “Good Hair,” which was a documentary, fell short for me. I appreciated the attempt but I think he could have cast his net a little broader with regard to testimonials, research and approach. But he’s Chris Rock and he does things the way he does. His interests and experiences as a man with regard to the issue of “Good Hair” and women of color were slightly different from mine.
Watching “Top Five” though, I can tell that Rock has begun to selectively incorporate into his writing and direction much of what he has learned from other films he has worked on and loved and finally made them his own. It’s clear how determined he is to break out of a one dimensional shell of projections, and depict himself as a man with a deep undying passion for the craft of comedy and the truth that it reveals about life, celebrity, social issues, racial politics, music and more.
He basically plays a character loosely based on his own celebrity and though this may sound like Rock was just turning the camera on himself I think it’s actually very challenging for an actor to elevate a self-referential character study beyond a reality television framework for the sake of sensationalism alone. And he nails it. I think that playing a famous Black comic allowed Rock to bring himself to the character in a way that stripped him of the need to hide behind a performance and reveal complex parts of himself instead. I didn’t feel him acting. I just felt him period. He called on his best resources, his life experiences, his talent and created something memorable, sentimental, raw, hilarious, and even sweet.
Last night I was watching the acceptance speechHarry Belafonte gave after receiving the Humanitarian Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is someone I have admired greatly for years, more for his activism and work with youth, than his acting. I prefer his musical performances to his dramatic ones. But having worked in film at a time before racial integration, the projects he chose to work in were deliberate in their revolutionary positions on race, social justice and class structure. Even he has said that he never wanted to be an actor for any other reason than to have a platform from which to positively affect social change.
My favorite part of his acceptance speech is when he began to reverently and expertly break down the fundamental ways in which films like “Birth of A Nation” and “Tarzan,” while admittedly innovative for the time, helped to invent and stereotype popular ideas about who Black Americans and Black Africans were, to in effect plant the seed of hatred in the minds of Whites and Blacks alike. Even Belafonte was impressed as a young person, watching “Tarzan” for the first time. But he was clear that for people of color, awe and amazement were quickly stamped out by images of themselves that evoked and reflected the base fears of a dominant white culture that were bent on maintaining power over this medium by keeping aesthetic ideals of intelligence, beauty and heroism as white as could be.
That hasn’t changed by the way.
As an avid film lover with a degree in Media and Social Issues and as a woman of color I make it a point not only to study film but to try my best to understand what I am consuming when I watch films. Since the dawn of filmmaking there has only been one story to tell albeit in many different ways. The story is of humanity. We cannot tell any other story but this. Even in nature documentaries about animals, ecosystems, planets, everything that is being studied, or explored, or interpreted is being done through the human mind. We like mirrors. We hate mirrors. But if we do not look, we can never know we exist, how and for what reasons.
The medium of film has been co-opted by the dominate culture for decades but the stories of humanity within them that have been allowed into the mainstream have been broad, compelling, heartbreaking, transcendent, universal and beautiful nonetheless. Like any form of art, you can find the voices you’re looking for even if they are not released by the big studios. But you have to look. And if you can’t find the voice you’re looking for, try using your own or supporting and encouraging those around you which hold promise.
I know without looking at my film collection that it is primarily made up of white casts, and white directors. I can also guess that the majority of these directors are male. This is the world I live in. I can see myself in a story that does not include characters that look like me because as humans, we all share the human experience. But humane portrayal in film is not always shared equally across race and gender. Types stick. Genres and formulas generate buzz and bring in millions. And the deep psychological effects of racism and sexism play out on the big screen and the small in ways we are often depended upon to overlook as consumers. Being educated about the history of any medium of expression is to understand more about its present day incarnations and the ways in which the actual evolution or change in its depictions are usually more or less the same as they ever were for better or worse.
With regard to film and the role it plays in enlightenment, exploration and inciting movement, it’s not always change that’s necessary, but a realization about why we tell stories the way we do in the first place. Our voices, stories, faces, our diversity is there. It has been from the beginning in directors like Oscar Micheaux and performers like Paul Robeson, in films like “Black Orpheus” and “Sugar Cane Alley” The problem is in the monopolization of the dominate eye behind the camera. And you can always tell whose eye it is because the same trail of evidence is left behind in each frame.