- Considering John Ford's 'Apology Western' Sergeant Rutledgeby Sergio Mims on June 14, 2021 at 12:03 PM
John Ford, who was once accurately described as a "tough, two-fisted, hard-drinking Irish sonofabitch," has justifiably gone down as one of the greatest directors ever. On the surface, his films seem simple and uncomplicated, very much in the studio style of directors of the period from the 1930s though the mid-'60s. But on closer examination, Ford's authorship displays a nuanced approach, complexity, emotional depth, and penetrating characterization that many films made by his peers sorely lacked. During his very long career as a film director, starting in the silent era in 1917 until "Seven Women" (his exquisite final film in 1965), he made more than his fair share of classics which still stand the test of time: "The Informer," "The Grapes of Wrath," "My Darling Clementine," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and "How Green Was My Valley." Though he made films in every genre, from dramas to historical epics, romances and even comedies, Ford has been justifiably associated with the Western and is considered one of the most influential directors in that genre. He directed so many that Ford once said of himself, "My name is John Ford. I make Westerns." However, despite the fact that Ford considered himself a political progressive (though he was close friends with actors he worked with that were right wing reactionaries, like John Wayne, James Stewart, and the even more right wing Ward Bond), he was often labeled a conservative. Ford's films were not above dealing in negative racial stereotypes. He regularly portrayed Native Americans in most of his Western films as bloodthirsty savages. On top of that, in the early 1930s, Ford also made several films with long-lambasted black character actor Stepin Fetchit, like "Judge Priest" and "Steamboat Round the Bend," in which he, in all his films, played degrading and embarrassing roles as a slow-witted, lazy buffoon. In fact, Ford started out his film career as an actor and stuntman in silent movies including, according to Ford himself, D.W. Griffith's notorious "The Birth of Nation." He can be seen as one of the Klansmen, who in the dramatic climax rescue the white people under threat by savage "renegade" Black Union soldiers. However, by the mid-'50s, when Ford was nearing the twilight of his long career, the director seemed to have mellowed with age, discovering and exploring a more humanist side to himself. Perhaps it was the changing times, especially after the emergence of the modern Civil Rights Movement era. Maybe he saw his own mortality down the road, or simply changed his opinions to become more open-minded and accepting. The result was a few films in which he seemed to be, in a way, apologizing for the wrongs he committed in terms of his distorted portrayals of people of color in his previous films. But Ford was also challenging the misty eyed, romanticized images of the west that he portrayed in many of his films about strong willed, determined, loner men battling a hostile environment. There was the myth-breaking 1962 Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which Ford reexamines that whole mythos of the west he helped create. In 1964, there was his penultimate work, a nearly three-hour-long 70MM Super Panavision roadshow western epic for Warner Bros. "Cheyenne Autumn" told the true story of the Trail of Tears, and focused on the Cheyenne tribe who travelled by foot across 1,500 miles back to their ancestral hunting grounds. They defied US Army troops ordered to send them back by force if necessary. Though the film is an ambitious attempt to deal with how this country has historically and unjustly dealt with Native Americans (and there are several impressive scenes in the film), "Cheyenne Autumn" suffers seriously by Ford's ponderous direction and a wobbly meandering script. His stilted "wooden Indian" characters, a lot of the time, stand like stoic statues, with the major speaking parts played by either Latino or Italian-American actors such as Richard Montalban, Dolores Del Rio, and Sal Mineo. There's also one too many boring side stories involving white characters. Four years earlier, in 1960, Ford made a more modest and more successful Western that has been overlooked and forgotten, "Sergeant Rutledge," a film that remains pretty remarkable and advanced for its period. It tells of a black U.S. Calvary sergeant of a regiment of black troops, played by Woody Strode. In the film, which is mainly told in a series of flashbacks during a court martial, Strode's First Sargent Braxton Rutledge of the all-black 9th U.S. Army Calvary (which was originally established in 1866 as one of the U.S, Army’s first all black segregated units stationed in the west and southwestern Texas) has found himself in a dire situation, accused of murdering his white commanding officer and for the rape and strangulation of his daughter. Though the shooting of the officer was in self-defense after he shot and wounded Rutledge, Rutledge proclaims his innocence of the murder of the white woman. When hiding at a abandoned railroad station that is attacked by the Apaches, Rutledge saves the life of Constance Towers, the sweetheart of Lt Cantrell (Jeffery Hunter). Cantrell arrests Rutledge after coming back to the station to save Towers and eventually defends him at his court martial. After he is arrested by Hunter, Rutledge knows that that he has no chance of getting a fair trial, or, as he bluntly says to his follow black troopers, “I walked into something none of us can fight ... White woman business!” A truly remarkable line of dialogue in a film released just five years after Emmett Till. Rutledge escapes in the hopes of making it north to freedom. But when he discovers a group of Apaches are lying in wait ready to ambush the 9th along with Hunter and Towers, he goes back to warn them of the attack and takes command of his troops and tries to save the life of one of his men seriously wounded on a runaway house. Though Rutledge is commended for his heroic deeds, he returns to face trial. Naturally, he is found innocent when the real culprit of the crimes is revealed and he confesses on the stand in the film’s only real misstep in a scene so overwrought, overacted, and tonally off that it seems to have come out of some Victorian melodrama. His innocence proven and honor restored, Rutledge returns to the 9th with the final shot of him leading his troops through Monument Valley as an off-screen chorus sings "The Buffalo Solder" on the soundtrack. Ford, who was usually straightforward when it came to the visual aspects of his films, shows some real cinematic and dramatic creativity. The narrative structure is told mainly in a series of flashbacks in which information is revealed in bits, leaving us guessing as to what really happened. But Ford also effectively takes advantage of Strode's muscular, broad-shouldered, overpowering presence, shooting him often from a low angle to let him dominate the frame and the audience. When Rutledge is first on the stand, Ford cuts to a dramatic striking shot of the prosecutor's white gloved hand pointing an accusing finger at Rutledge. The glove practically exaggerates the whiteness of the prosecutor, commenting on the injustice that innocent black men have faced on trail for crimes they did not commit. It’s further exacerbated by the prosecutor's constant references to Rutledge being “A Negro,” or with the white gloved hand his insistent pointing at him calling “That man,” coded words for “that BLACK man,” or even worse. Needless to say, the crime has set the townspeople aflame with hatred, as a lynch mob in the back of the courtroom itches to take matters into their hands. In addition, during the trial sequences, Ford frequently leaves the actors in silhouette during the more emotional moments of their testimony. When Rutledge is on the stand, Strode is lit alone in the witness chair, surrounded by darkness, abandoned and helpless as many Black men on trial have felt. Throughout the film there are little telling touches about the life of Black men during that period. In one touching scene, the oldest member of the troop, the gray-bearded Sgt. Skidmore (played by the wonderful character actor Juano Hernandez) takes the stand and is asked how old he is. He replies he has no idea because he was “slave born” and tells the judges memories of things he remembers as a young slave boy. The judges gasp when they realize that Skidmore must be at least 70 years old, older than all of them, with most of that life in bondage. And Rutledge knows the pain and horrors of slavery. Though his past is never revealed, he is, as were almost all Black men who served in the Army during that second half of the 19th century, an ex-slave who had run away to join the Union Army during the Civil War and continued serving in the Army. One telling scene is when Rutledge mockingly tells Cantrell, “You know what they say about us sir, we heal fast,” repeating an often used racist expression that slave owners said to justify slavery. And in a later scene when talking with his comrades about the obstacles they still face, even though they proudly serve their country, Rutledge says to them, “It was Mr. Lincoln to say we were free, but that ain’t so. Not yet. Maybe one day, but not yet!” Ford even plays on the image of the sexual savage imagery of Black men which Griffith exploited in "Birth of a Nation" with his Black characters Gus, “a renegade Negro” who attempts to rape a young white girl, and Silas Lynch, who dreams of being the ruler of an all Black nation, and wraps his arms around the white frail Lillian Gish proclaiming that he will make her his queen. The idea that a brute Black man would defile the pure white innocence of white woman literally made audiences panic. The close-up shot of Rutledge's gigantic Black hand over Towers' mouth to keep her from screaming and warning Apaches must have sent similar feeling of panic. Later, when Rutledge is in a small cramped room with Towers, he takes off his shirt to tend to his wound. He reveals his chiseled body, and there's an underlining sexual tension that Ford subtly handles. But the sequence is sexually charged in a way that amplifies the tension between a white woman and a bare-chested Black man. No doubt the film was banned in the south (and other parts of the country) by some theater owners as being too explicit and offensive for audiences. Even the final happy ending has a bitter edge: Rutledge never thanks Cantrell for being his defense lawyer and goes straight back to leading his Buffalo Soldiers out for another tour of duty. Though Rutledge and his men march by and smile when they see Hunter and Towers kissing, there’s no sentimentality or hopeful message. The film suggests that though a Black man was found innocent, racial tensions will always exist; so what is the use of pretending that all is suddenly well? The same thing will happen again to another Black man and he probably won't be as lucky as Rutledge. Strode is perfectly cast and gives a powerful performance in one of the very few lead roles he ever played. However, it's interesting to note how Strode was treated in other Ford films. As Pompey in "Liberty Valance" he is John Wayne’s hired hand and eventual savior, though his part does not stray far from the submissive stereotypical Black lackey role. In fact, James Stewart complained to Ford that he felt Strode’s outfit in the film was too stereotyped. In "Two Rode Together," Strode plays a small role as a Native-American warrior and, in "Seven Women," which is set in 1935 China, Strode plays a Mongolian warlord who terrorizes the Christian missionary women main characters being held captive. The character of Rutledge was in many ways an exception for Strode and Ford, and one that would not be repeated. "Sergeant Rutledge" was also one the first times in which a Black man was seen as a cowboy or an Army soldier, and not as a slave, a cook, or a Pullman porter in a Hollywood feature Western. There were a few Black Westerns made during the "race films" era of the 1940s, such as "The Bronze Buckaroo" and "Harlem Rides the Range," but never before had a Black man been the lead character in a Hollywood studio Western film. Warner Bros. obviously thought that the audience wouldn't be able to handle it. The studio even tried to trick audiences into thinking that the film was about the white characters. In the film's trailer, Strode is given third billing. And in the film's opening credits, he’s not given a single credit like Hunter and Powers but is listed in the credits at the top among other actors grouped together. Even worse is the poster for the film on which Strode appears, though his name is listed fourth and in small letters. Not surprisingly and given the subject matter as well as the era in which it was made and released, "Sergeant Rutledge" was not a box office success either though it did get genuinely respectful reviews. However, it must have made a real impact on Ford himself, since, in the early 1970s, he planned to come out of retirement with a new film about the life of the first Black graduate of West Point, Henry Flipper. But with his ill health and advancing age, the project was dropped and Ford passed away in 1974. "Sergeant Rutledge" needs to be rediscovered and appreciated for being a remarkable film from its time, and during a point in Ford’s career where he was exploring new themes and ideas. Though it has many Fordian themes and visual trademarks (Monument Valley makes a majestic appearance), it also marks a different Ford film, one which not only looks at the past but examines the false narratives that have hidden the truth.
- Welcome to Black Writers Weekby Chaz Ebert on June 14, 2021 at 12:03 PM
Welcome to Black Writers Week at Rogerebert.com, a celebration of storytellers in diverse fields for Juneteenth week. Because I'm Black and my mother is Black and my father is Black and my sisters and brothers and friends and neighbors were al Black, I grew up seeing no difference between them and say Jackie Kennedy or President Eisenhower. Not by race but by competency, potential and beauty. No girl on television was smarter or more beautiful than my sisters Martha or Adele. No men were more diplomatic than my brother Johnnie or my neighbor Clayton Mitchell. No science teacher was more brilliant than Mr. Weathersbee, or more poised and regal than Mr. Caesar, my third-grade role model. These are people who I came to know very well, and whose actions, words and deeds I came to admire. I was an avid reader at a young age. I read books about famous people, but I had examples right in my own home, at school, and in my neighborhood who could match those in the books trait for trait. So it was a rude awakening for me to learn that some of these people couldn't attend certain schools or drink from the same water fountains as whites, or get hired for the same jobs because of their race. And it was even more shocking to learn that not that many years before some of these people, including myself, would have been slaves, considered someone's chattel property, and counted as 3/5ths of a person under the Declaration of Independence, one of the founding documents of this, our nation. I write these words not in 1971, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision of 1967 that allowed interracial marriage, but in 2021—fifty years after I expected all the talk about racial differences to have subsided. Thirteen years after we elected Barack Obama as our first Black president, supposedly ushering in a post-racial age. One year after the whole world watched a Black man named George Floyd die under the knee of a white policeman who knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds until with his last breath he called for his mother, who perhaps appeared to him as he slipped out of this world into the next. I write these words not to settle scores but to celebrate the rich talent that I have always seen all around me, but who, for some reason was invisible in books, and magazines, movies, and TV. The talent that was not always nurtured or promoted but thrived nevertheless, not needing permission or acknowledgment to do what they did naturally, even though they were not compensated commensurately for it. This Juneteenth week we at RogerEbert.com are turning over our website to all Black film critics to read reviews from their perspective. All our articles are being written by Black writers. All our panels are being occupied by Black executives and thought leaders and and communicators. We will celebrate with them Black scientists, musicians, filmmakers, media moguls and philanthropists, some you may know, some you may not know, but all of whom you should know. It is indeed a celebration and I invite you to join the party. We are calling this week Black Writers Week in symmetry with our Women Writers Week that I started in 2013. What a surprise to learn that Twitter considered this title too controversial to promote because it violated their standards. I guess we could have called it Diversity and Inclusion Week but somehow that would have been diluted the fact that all the participants are Black. It reminded me of a friend who was reluctant to say three little words: "Black lives matter." You know the response: "All lives matter." Of course they do. But in light of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahrmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland and Philando Castile, and so many many others, can you at least acknowledge this point in history by saying those three simple words? Can't you feel the groundswell for change that came about with marches for social justice all over the globe? The moment of reckoning that awoke us from the slumber of complacency? A moment with the potential to herald a new chapter of hope and equality if we only open our eyes and see what is right in front of us and work together to make a new day, a new world? Yes, Black - Lives - Matter! And so does representation in storytelling. So welcome to Black Writers Week at RogerEbert.com. Today, we are republishing reviews and features by elite Black critics as a prologue to what's to come. Joining our staff of qualified professionals behind the scenes this week are five talented guest editors: Robert Daniels, Odie Henderson, Sergio Mims, Danielle Scruggs, and Shawn Taylor. Enjoy reading about five individuals we're highlighting in our Profiles in Courage series: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Julieanna Richardson, Erica Ford, Dr. Kahil El Zabar, and Jeremy Joyce. Watch our esteemed panelists: Afro-futurists Dr. Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Dr. John Jennings and Ytasha Womack discuss the evolution of Afro-Futurism. Our executives and producers Karen Horne, Jon Carr, Troy Pryor, JaSheika and JaNeika James, and Shawn Edwards dissect the progress in TV, film and theater. Whose gaze should we consider when watching movies and how will Black film critics get paid? Watch the round table of Black film critics featuring Gil Robertson, Carla Renata, Reginald Ponder, Tambay Obenson, Kathia Woods, Sarah-Tai Black and Emmanuel Noisette. Other highlights of the week include: Al Chambles tells us why it's so important to prepare our students for the sciences. Taj Rani Chrisp chats with the legendary Mary J. Blige. Robert Daniels gets to the bottom of the story of "Zola" with director Janicza Bravo. Sherin Nicole writes about the powerful women of Wakanda. Sergio Mims re-examines John Ford's 'apology Western' "Sergeant Rutledge." Melissa Haizlip tracks the trajectory of her hit documentary "Mr. Soul!" David Moses considers the legacy of Apollo Creed. Ciara Wardlow reviews the new Apple TV+ show "Physical," starring Rose Byrne. And so much more, including reviews of "Fatherhood," "Luca," "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It," and new films by Edgar Wright, Francois Ozon, and Abel Ferrara!
- The Burden Hollywood Puts on Black Storytellers (And How to Fix It)by Ciara Wardlow on June 14, 2021 at 12:02 PM
As a development coordinator at a production company, a significant portion of my job involves reading scripts, primarily from emerging and early career writers. Having read hundreds if not thousands of scripts from writers of all backgrounds over the past couple years, certain trends have made themselves incredibly apparent, and none more so than the way writers of color overwhelmingly feel the need to be educators as well as storytellers, to teach as well as entertain, Black writers most of all. It’s a trend that speaks to a troubling truth of how Black stories are still being treated in Hollywood, and which audiences are still being prioritized. A portion of the Black edutainment trend stems from inclination. There are writers from all backgrounds who are drawn towards edutainment ideals. However, this only speaks to a portion. The extent to which scripts from emerging Black writers feel compelled to explore Blackness in a very outward-facing, explanatory way—Blackness for the white gaze—says far more about industry appetites and attitudes than anything else. There are still Black writers out there who have enough courage in their convictions to be telling Black stories that prioritize Black viewers; these stories are just rarely getting made (a few wonderful exceptions, like "Miss Juneteenth," have managed to make it through). But most of these projects are still not getting greenlit. Contrast that to the numerous tales of graphic, brutal violence against Black people designed to enlighten and move white audiences through shock and gore—with little thought to the experience of Black viewers—that have been recently made or are actively being made. Combined, it makes a feedback loop that pressures Black creatives to tell tales for others, not themselves. This is an incredibly heavy burden for writers to bear. The best stories are often the most personal, the most driven by passion, and written because they’re the stories the writers themselves really want to see. But this industry overwhelmingly asks Black writers to do just the opposite—to write for others first and foremost, to edutain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with teaching through entertainment, in the sense that it can, to an extent, be relatively effective. If that’s truly what a creative wants to create, they should be welcome to do so. The issue is the multifold ways in which this industry still pushes Black creatives towards taking on these additional responsibilities, both by primarily rewarding stories aimed for white audiences specifically, and by failing to see the potential of those that don’t. Sparked particularly by the torture fest that is the new Amazon Prime limited series "Them," commentators from publications ranging from The Atlantic to The Guardian have raised questions about the purpose and dubious ongoing need for all-too-real fictional stories packed full of Black suffering and violence against Black people and little else. Who wants to see this? Who are these narratives for? And the only answer that truly makes any sense is “white people.” As Angelica Jade Bastién writes for Vulture, “watching 'Them' feels like compounded trauma It doesn’t force others to consider the anti-Blackness they perpetuate. If anything, it lets modern white people off the hook, providing extremes with which they can distance themselves from their own racism.” The dark side of the edutainment model makes itself very clear when dealing with edutainment that is fundamentally not entertaining, so to speak, like Black trauma narratives. To be clear, exploring trauma in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. A film like "Get Out" or a series like "The Underground Railroad" explores trauma, but they also do more, and in ways that show consideration for the experience of Black viewers as opposed to just shock value, and explore Black identity beyond the pain of existing. The issue is the trend of narratives that are trauma and little else, from "Them" to "Antebellum" to the controversial recently minted Oscar-winning short "Two Distant Strangers." For non-Black, and particularly white audiences, such stories might be insightful or edifying—but for Black audiences getting a remedial lesson on things we know all too well firsthand, it can often just hurt. As Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department at Duke University explained in a recent interview for the Los Angeles Times, “For white audiences, these projects offer an opportunity to see things they may not see on a regular basis, while for Black folks, it’s the same old, same old. People are really sensitive and raw about the graphicness of the violence because, for them, it’s not entertainment.” Black people suffer the consequences of anti-Black racism, but it is a problem of whiteness and white institutions, not Blackness. The way the entertainment industry continues to push Black storytellers into translating and explaining Blackness—towards telling stories where Blackness doesn’t get to be explored with any nuance or depth beyond what it is to interact with and be oppressed by whiteness and white systems—is not just incredibly restrictive, but also continues to prioritize white audiences in a way that undermines diversity agendas. Surveys such as one done last June by market research company Morning Consult back up anecdotal evidence with hard numbers, further supporting that Black audiences want films about the modern Black experience more than traumatic tales of slavery and segregation, and yet what Hollywood continues to supply often remains confoundingly disconnected from these demands. Throughout the film industry, there’s a boogeyman-like notion of a “wide audience”—and the business side of the industry spends most of its time trying to predict what this fickle beast will or will not respond to. Many of the most harmful dogmas of the industry are disguised under the illusion of business smarts by appealing to this mythical figure: the idea that films directed by women can’t turn a profit, that leads of color won’t attract white audiences, the list goes on—all stereotypes supported by a scant handful of cherry picked examples if anything at all. The actual evidence to support this is quite weak at best. These dogmas have been around for so long they can be treated as self-evident; the alternative hypothesis is hardly ever tested. And on the rare chance it arguably has, such as "Black Panther," the dogma hardly holds up. A study published in the Journal of Advertising Research that surveyed 1,900 Black and white adolescents back in 2018 found that white teenagers were just as likely to describe films that would be deemed by the industry as “Black-oriented content” as being for “general audiences,” including themselves. People love things that aren’t made “for” them all the time. Growing up loving movies as someone not white and not a boy was growing up being very aware that they often did not love me back—but I loved them anyway. So many of us do. And when I look at younger generations—seeing what my college-age sister and her friends are into—they’re more devoted to anime than any programming being made in English. They’re hardly the primary target audience these anime creators had in mind, yet self-described dweebs they are nonetheless. The thing is that good stories transcend. At the end of the day, audiences want to be entertained, to be moved, to escape into another world for a little while—and they can do that without needing every beat translated and spoon-fed. The same industry that trusts that newcomers can be tossed headfirst into the latest "Star Wars" or MCU installment and still enjoy the ride will turn around and fret over how an in-joke or narrative element unfamiliar to white audiences could be too alienating. Yes, over the past several years there have been signs of progress when it comes to opening a seat at the table for Black storytellers, but the journey is far from over. To be able to tell the most compelling and authentic stories, the industry needs to take the burden off Black storytellers to explain, to allow narratives to just be Black without having to take the time to translate every nuance of that Blackness for non-Black viewers. When it comes to telling Black stories, we need to start decentering white audiences in the name of making better movies for everyone to enjoy.
- Look Away, Look Awayby Brandon David Wilson on June 14, 2021 at 12:02 PM
“I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land. In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin', Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.” - Chorus from Dixie “And I want to thank, on behalf of Black America, white America. Thank you white America for making us tough. Because we’ll get through this terrorist stuff. White folks made us tough because they’ve been terrorizing us for 500 years. [...] We’re used to terrorists. This is no big deal for us. I’m worried about my white friends. They ain’t gonna make it through this. I’m opening up a school: How To Be A Nigga in America and Survive.”- Paul Mooney (1941-2021), from a standup performance just after 9/11/2001 When I was at UCLA Film School, the venerable Professor (now Professor Emeritus) Howard Suber had a legendary class on story that I would later realize took structuralism and made it accessible and intriguing. His class promised to take even the most film savvy student on a ride by revealing things about the medium that were obvious upon being pointed out but had been obfuscated by shallow received ideas about storytelling. One of the moments that forever changed how I thought about storytelling was when Professor Suber asked us a simple question: what is the chief characteristic of a hero? Of course, the answers came quickly: courage, intelligence, honesty, compassion. Suber listened with an impish smile that let us know none of these were correct. And then he gave his answer: the chief characteristic of the hero is the ability to withstand pain; specifically pain that the rest of us worked hard to avoid. The words fell like feathers in the quiet but the impact made a tremor travel through the room. We all immediately recognized this as truth but Suber dutifully pointed out examples. Rocky Balboa (particularly the Rocky of the original film) is the only example he gave that I can still remember. When I relay this lesson to my own students today I typically point to moments like the climax of "The Avengers," when Tony Stark finally achieves his apotheosis by carrying a nuclear missile into space. The act almost kills him and also marks him for the rest of the series. To be clear, there are many types of pain, and any will do for the hero of a story. Physical pain is not the only kind of pain Professor Suber was referring to. It is a (slightly dubious) cliché of screenwriting pedagogy that stories are about conflict, but I left Professor Suber’s class feeling that the greater truth was that in drama, characters are born to suffer for us. This idea has come back to me many times in the last year as I witnessed and took part in the Great Black Pain Discourse. For the social media uninitiated, I will explain. There is a growing sentiment spreading across the timelines of Twitter and the comment sections of Facebook, particularly in the wake of projects like "Them" and "The Underground Railroad," which holds that too many of the stories about Black people are overly focused on suffering and trauma. The argument holds that such films no longer serve a healthy purpose. Some even go so far as to question why Black suffering holds such allure, suggesting that there’s a pornographic appetite for Black suffering that filmmakers are unwittingly feeding. This renunciation of Black Pain doesn’t square with what I know about why we watch films. What about catharsis, the notion that explorations of pain and suffering offer a necessary emotional release? Catharsis is an old concept. Is it possible that the modern world has exceeded the cathartic capacity of dramatic storytelling? This is a complicated question with no easy answers in sight. But perhaps by going back in time and moving through the history of film can we get a better perspective. At the outset I want to address the “let people watch what they want” point that often comes up around this subject. It has been said that this is a pointless debate because the individual viewer reserves the right to watch what they want and shun what discomforts them. To this, I say, of course. We all pick the films that speak to us on an individual level. If stories of enslavement don’t speak to you, if you feel you know all you need to about this shameful foundation of American life, I cannot argue with you. But the filmmaker in me has to ask what becomes of Black Cinema if we turn away from difficult stories? Will Black Cinema grow if we only depict joy and happiness? Or will it devolve into mere entertainment, an escape from life’s hard truths rather than a weapon to do battle with them? The chilling answer might lie in the recent NAACP Image Awards, where "Bad Boys For Life" beat "Da 5 Bloods," "One Night in Miami," "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," and "Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey" for Outstanding Motion Picture. It is at this point fairly common knowledge that American cinema has a racial original sin just as the nation itself does. D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 epic "The Birth of a Nation" was a formal leap forward for the medium. It unambiguously told the story of Reconstruction as a tragedy and cast white supremacist terrorism as heroic. It was the first American blockbuster, and it succeeded in bringing the largely dormant Ku Klux Klan into the 20th century. Griffith’s disgraceful and mendacious racist epic did irreparable damage to the moral fabric of this country and more than that he set a terrible precedent: he shows that history, whether willfully misrepresented or misunderstood, can be a powerful chisel to sculpt the future. We Americans are a forward looking people, even if our tendency to disregard the past means we are tripping over its tendrils as we dash ahead. One of the more striking arguments against depicting slavery is the notion that it has been done to death. To listen to this argument, you would assume slavery films were a time-honored American genre like Westerns or Biblical pictures. But the reality is slavery is touched on fairly rarely in American film. However, the subject is so sensitive we have a perception that there are far more films made on the subject than there actually are. While it is difficult to come up with an exact number or percentage of American films about slavery, a Wikipedia entry on slavery films lists just 110 titles, many of which are not American films and/or are not about American slavery. So while this is far from scientific exactitude it tends to suggest under 100 films made that touch on slavery in a medium with over a century of history (and most of those films skew newer, meaning they were mostly made after 1970). The misperception about slavery films is understandable. Both "The Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind" (1939) have such an outsized place in American (film) history they suggest a genre that doesn’t truly exist. But the truth is white supremacy more usually expressed itself in Golden Age Hollywood by erasure. They simply relegated non-whites to the periphery, to the edges of the screen or off the screen altogether. For organizations like the NAACP, these two pillars of American film gave them two related objectives: combatting romanticized depictions of slavery and its aftermath and also a push for greater representation on screen. The fight over Disney’s "Song of the South" (the 1946 film is set during Reconstruction and Uncle Remus is the sentimentalized former slave who wants to remind us that things back then maybe, just maybe, were better than they are since the North meddled) was bitter and the voices raised back then in objection to the film were stentorian. As detailed in a recent season of Karina Longworth’s outstanding You Must Remember This podcast, the controversy put a permanent mark on the film: it is not available for streaming on Disney+ (even though the film enjoyed many re-releases, including a lucrative run during the Reagan Era). After the tumult of the 1960s, the 1970s was the era when the goal of representation which Black organizations had fought for began to bear fruit. There were more films about Black people (which also led to more films featuring non-Black people of color), more opportunities for Black actors to appear in supporting parts, and all of this culminated in 1977 with the debut of "Roots," an ambitious television miniseries that traced the journey of writer Alex Haley’s ancestors from Africa into American bondage. "Roots" changed America’s perception of slavery overnight in a way that the American educational system had, by design, failed to do. This August marks Alex Haley’s centennial birthday. In the 1970s, he had already been put on the map by collaborating with Malcolm X on his autobiography and the way in which he labored for years to unearth his family tree from the fog of chattel slavery has become the stuff of legend. By the time the miniseries came out, "Roots" had become a cultural phenomenon. According to an article in the New York Times (dated February 2, 1977), historian Roger Wilkins wrote that "Roots" “may have been the most significant civil rights event since the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.” It was a ratings smash, a moment the likes of which only come around once in a generation. The miniseries had its critics: “Very frankly, I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.” These were the words of Ronald Reagan, who was just three years away from being elected president. Regardless of whether or not it should be so, movies and television play a profound role in how history is understood, processed, and allowed to influence our contemporary dialogue about race. So if we begin to turn our backs on films and TV that grapple with heavy themes and daunting subjects, what could be the long range impact of that choice? Have we arrived at the point where we know all we need to know about the roots of American white supremacy? As the 1980s continued, we saw more representations of the Jim Crow era and fewer attempts to grapple with the subject "Roots" had taken on. The rise of Reaganism in the 1980s led to contrapuntal measures in race films, the most famous of them was the White Savior trope. As if to address Reagan’s critique of "Roots," more and more films about the oppression of Black people were centering white people and following their transformation from passive participant in an unjust system to active opponent (I haven’t read Roots but from what I understand several parts for white people were beefed up during the adaptation process to allay network executives’ fears that the miniseries relied too much on the point of view of Black people). This effectively made Black people the objects rather than the subjects of stories about their lives and hardships. Only the white characters were granted inner lives. The Black people were meant to suffer and through that suffering ennoble the righteous white person who had the courage to reject the white supremacy they’d been taught. As if guided by the Newtonian laws of physics, the White Savior film was disrupted by an explosion of Black Cinema in the late 1980s. A new wave of African-American filmmakers had arrived, and they were intent on telling Black stories for Black people while simultaneously demanding space in the mainstream. The stories they chose to tell were overwhelmingly contemporary, of the moment, but with a deep understanding that today is built on yesterday and whatever joys one experiences today are linked to the past which includes dried tears and memories that scar. This Black Cinema boom of the late '80s and early '90s ebbed in the (George W.) Bush era. But such waves are cyclical, and with the Obama era came the first film directed by a person of African descent to win the holy of holies, the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. It was directed by a British filmmaker (of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent) who had an outsider’s audacity in telling the story of a Black American pressed into slavery as a freedman. And in retrospect, it all made sense. Steve McQueen did not have the baggage of someone like Spike Lee (who had been dismissed by many as a self-aggrandizing loudmouth and bomb thrower) in the minds of the largely white Academy voters. "12 Years A Slave" fit a provocative pattern for McQueen whose debut feature film "Hunger" was the first film about “The Troubles” to be made in several years and some critics questioned his take on the 1981 hunger strike of IRA prisoners. Like most artists, McQueen was inexorably drawn to the taboo. He dared to revisit The Troubles, he earned a dreaded NC-17 rating for his sophomore effort ("Shame") making a film about sex addiction just as sex was being ushered off American theatrical screens altogether, and now he was making a film about the subject most of us in this country would rather not deal with or think about. McQueen’s 2013 film was a box office and critical success and it led to a renewed interest in exploring this tragic history. Perhaps the film’s success had the unforeseen consequence of emboldening the stance that we had finally seen enough of slavery. It was around this time that I began to see this position be spoken in public and on social media. For an African American of my generation, this took me aback. I was brought up with the ethos that as ugly as aspects of our history were, we had a duty to face it. Like many of my generation I watched all six episodes of "Eyes on the Prize" (first volume) and made sure my own son saw it as well. But something was changing. And this ethos was being displaced by something else. People were no longer even paying lip service to bearing witness to history, now they were flat out saying “no more.” What changed? Just months after "12 Years A Slave" made Oscar history (the ceremony took place on March 2, 2014), we began to see the killings. Less than six months after that film won the big prize, Eric Garner’s murder (July 17, 2014) in Staten Island was recorded and went viral. Michael Brown was murdered one month later in Ferguson, Missouri. No tape of that murder, but Ferguson became the national nexus for the fight against police acting with impunity and treating Black lives as cheap and expendable. In short, McQueen’s beautifully crafted but emotionally excoriating triumph coincided with a wave of images of Black Death. These images are nearly inescapable: they visit us as we have a drink or a quick bite through televised news, they snake across our social media timelines, and they play in our minds whether we want them too or not. And once this wave begins, it doesn’t really stop. Philando Castile’s murder (July 6, 2016) was even live streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. These videos have taken a psychic toll. And many have begun to wonder if perhaps the perpetual “toughening up” that Black people have experienced in America may be more deleterious than we want to admit. Perhaps that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And perhaps that which doesn’t kill you depletes you before the next inevitable assault. These videos are horrific, but it is indisputable that they have been a major factor in forcing this country to have a conversation about law enforcement and race that is long overdue. I find it hard to believe the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd (May 25, 2020) would have happened without this terrible montage to which we have been forced to bear witness. It is incredibly upsetting for many to accept this. Words should be enough. But they are not. Images have a power all their own. That’s why in 1955 a grieving mother named Mamie Till insisted on an open casket funeral to show what the world had done to her beautiful son. This simple but painful act helped galvanize change in America. So taking into account this hideous stream of Black Death, it is understandable that some have now found representations of Black Suffering too triggering. I am sure "Roots" would have had a different reception if television and the Internet were bringing Black Death to our homes on a weekly and daily basis. This taps into an old debate about cinematic representations of atrocity. Jean-Luc Godard famously cited his failure to stop Steven Spielberg from making "Schindler’s List" as one of the reasons why he didn’t deserve the Academy’s 2010 Honorary Award. In the 1980s, Godard began to use real video clips of violence and its aftermath in his landmark Histoire(s) du cinéma essay film (as well as images of pornography as if to underscore the connection between sex and death in cinema). Godard is supremely suspicious of filmmakers who want to reconstruct atrocity and infers (in the case of American filmmakers especially) a totalitarian impulse behind such stories; he believes that recreated atrocity asks the audience to feel without thinking, and for Godard, that way lies fascism. Godard has never applied this reasoning to depictions of American slavery and racist violence, but I think his reasoning echoes and finds common cause with some of those who object to current depictions of slavery. “Who is this film for, and what purpose does it serve?” are the questions that hang over any film that wades into such territory. And the 2020s have thrown one more element into the combustible mix: genre. There are countless examples of genre (specifically horror and science-fiction) being used to explore questions of race and history from the last two years alone, but clearly the breakthrough here was Jordan Peele’s Academy Award-winning "Get Out," which borrowed the horror formula of Ira Levin to make a visceral experience rooted in free-floating racial anxiety and the perceptive take that the progress represented by Obama’s presidency might in fact mask something sinister with deep roots in American soil. As I write this we mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of many white supremacist ethnic cleansings that resulted in the death and the destruction of a vibrant African-American community. The perpetrators faced no consequences and the incident was largely withheld from historical account unless you sought the information out on your own. Damon Lindelof’s laudable choice to open his miniseries sequel to Alan Moore’s "Watchmen" changed that, possibly for good. The fictionalization of this massacre did more to educate the public about it than all the books and documentaries that came before it. And I think that fact issues a stern warning to those who would seek to have Black Trauma eliminated from the screen. To erase such history from film and television risks erasing it from the public consciousness altogether which only serves the aims of white supremacy. At this moment, Republicans across the country are trying to criminalize any attempt to educate students about this terrible history (it’s a fait accompli in the textbooks, but they know teachers have been making up for these elisions via instruction). And without films and television offering a different perspective from their lies, their warped view of the past might become even more widely accepted than it already has. In the vacuum we will inevitably get films that much like the song "Dixie" (which was written to say that slavery as an institution was worth defending) attempt to spin history in a way that brutal depictions of slavery do not. Assuming that we agree that this history has a place on our screens, the very fair question remains how it could and should be handled. Two recent examples come to my mind. Jayro Bustamante’s "La Llorona" caused quite an uproar in his homeland of Guatemala when word spread that his new film was a thinly veiled horror reimagining of the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala. This led to a tense production and growing discomfort with the airing of “dirty laundry” which only abated when the film received positive reviews from American and European critics. We’ve begun to see more and more of this here, employing the horror genre as a way of overcoming the audience’s discomfort with confronting death and brutality. It should be noted that in the context of Bustamante’s film, it is the oppressors who are the targets of the haunting. We watch the ex-dictator and his family pay for his sins and when we do see the genocide, one of the dictator’s loved ones is forced to experience it the way the Mayans did. The supernatural is employed in this film to correct an evil, not to amplify it. I was also struck by another more realist handling of atrocity: Jasmila Žbanić’s Academy Award-nominated "Quo Vadis, Aida?," which depicts the struggles of a Bosnian U.N. translator to save the lives of her sons and husband from the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre during the Bosnian War. Comparing this film’s telling of attempted genocide to earlier decades’ treatment is revealing. We have moved away from the need to see atrocity on screen as seen in Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List." The Bosnian film represents the next chapter in this kind of storytelling by giving us clear indicators of the stakes and placing the rape and mass murder just off-screen. This new restraint does nothing to blunt the devastation of the characters in the end. Žbanić’s film offers a new approach to difficult subjects. The shocking imagery is gone, but the pain is not. But above all, I fear that none of this matters. I worry that the audience for difficult films about Black history is dwindling, and that regardless of the way Black Death is handled or how explicit the violence is, the audience has begun to withdraw. I am of course well aware that Black Cinema cannot only depict the suffering and the pain. Steve McQueen’s brilliant "Small Axe" films addressed that by making sure Black Joy was as much a component as Black Suffering. McQueen understands that our joy and our agony are two sides of the same coin, a coin that is flipped on us without warning. Black Joy is irrepressible (who else would turn the act of standing in punitively long lines to vote in Georgia into acts of celebration as seen in viral videos last election cycle?). We will always make our comedies, sing our love songs, and envision our own kind of heroism. Yet if we spend a season focusing exclusively on Black Joy, and eradicate the sorrow and heartbreak, we are only telling half of our story. Our joy and our pain are inextricably linked because our joy, our Black Joy, has always been an act of defiance. And that joy loses its profundity and power on its own. We may think we want to see stories where people that look like us just win and thrive and embody fabulousness, but Professor Suber’s words echo in my ears and I suspect in time we’d come back to the simple truth that the hero’s journey is one of pain. If this urge to shun that pain and catharsis grows and Black Cinema abdicates its responsibility to use cinematic craft to elevate the total breadth of our history, then the films by Black filmmakers will at best function as disposable entertainment and lose the range that elevates a story to art. One of our greatest African-American directors, Barry Jenkins, has just given us a towering adaptation of "The Underground Railroad," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It remains to be seen whether or not this work will suffer because of reluctant Black viewers. Cinematic golden ages never occur solely because of filmmakers. They also require critics who can help the audience understand challenging work and an audience willing to take the ride. If any one of these is absent from the equation, the golden age that might be is lost.
- Hitman's Wife's Bodyguardby Carla Renata on June 14, 2021 at 12:02 PM
After more than a year of pandemic-induced stay-at-home orders, audiences are eager to hit movie theaters and reunite in a dark room with a larger-than-life big screen and booming sound. As theaters slowly open up, studios are gleefully releasing titles in preparation for what is hopeful to be a profitable and exciting big summer launch. Will "Hitman Wife’s Bodyguard" kickstart the action? In 2017's "The Hitman's Bodyguard," with his reputation destroyed after a painfully unsuccessful delivery of a distinguished Japanese client, triple-A protection agent Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was reduced to a second-class bodyguard for hire, accepting an offer from Interpol to escort an international assassin, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), from Manchester to the Hague. The mismatched duo were forced to put aside their grudges with comedic, action-driven results. However, with his beloved Sonia (Salma Hayek) now behind bars, Kincaid was willing to do anything for her release, even if it meant risking his own life. As this film opens, Bryce is still brooding over losing his triple-A status, and is highly encouraged by his therapist (hilariously portrayed by Caroline Goodall) to put his guns away and go on a quiet, restful Italian holiday in Capri. As a bluegrass soundtrack bellows in the background, it become apparent his vacation will be short-lived when Sonia appears guns blazing, this time enlisting Michael to assist with rescuing Darius. Eventually, the trio are forced by Interpol agent Bobby (Frank Grillo) to track down a device possessed by a criminal named Aristotle (Antonio Banderas), who desires to thrust all of Europe into a blackout as revenge for sanctions on the Greek economy. Not quite as straight-faced as hit franchises like those about Ethan Hunt or James Bond, "Hitman's Wife’s Bodyguard" thrives in making fun of this entire international spy/hitman premise while utilizing the charm of three of Hollywood’s most beloved stars: Hayek, Jackson, and Reynolds. All are immensely gifted at taking farce to a whole new level, one laden with four-letter words that make for a “mouth in need of an exorcism,” mixed with immense physicality that makes Hayek look like an Avenger from the MCU, and witty dialogue that sounds more improvised than scripted. Reynolds proves yet again why he thrives in satirical action-thriller flicks with the same command and comedic bravado that has given long-standing careers to the likes of Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller. Jackson is an unsung cinematic legend whose ownership of cursing to the point of making it sound like a completely different language laced with a little sugar and spice is always entertaining regardless of what film and genre he's in. However, the real treat is watching an on-screen reunion between Banderas and Hayek. After more than 20 years, their chemistry is still just as palpable and thrilling as in Robert Rodriguez's breakthrough "Desperado." I could have just had the whole film revolve around their infused storyline. Hayek’s no-nonsense attitude in real-life melts into Sonia, making her a woman on-screen that is no one’s damsel in distress. Her ability to hold her own with the boys, kicking butt and taking names in fight scenes, leaves you wanting more every time. The extra added twist of having Morgan Freeman as Bryce’s dad (an award-winning bodyguard in his own right) be simultaneously dismissive with a fatherly vibe is also hysterical. There are also a few clever nods back to the original with the pair being surrounded by nuns, Sonia’s use of the word ‘cucaracha’ referring to Darius, bullets flying every two seconds, and the Lionel Richie hit "Hello" as the theme song for the hitman and his wife. Directed by Patrick Hughes, this comic book-energy spy adventure, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Terry Stacey and keenly scripted with barbed laden dialogue from Tom O’Connor, Brandon Murphy, and Phillip Murphy, is heavy on blood, guts, action, and star power. It really is time for a summer movie season again. Available in theaters on June 16.
- Profiles in Courage: Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, Ph.D.by Chaz Ebert on June 14, 2021 at 12:01 PM
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett is a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC). She received a B.S. in Biological Sciences, with a secondary major in Sociology, in 2008 from the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, where she was a Meyerhoff Scholar and an NIH undergraduate scholar. She then enrolled at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she obtained her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology in 2014.A viral immunologist by training, Corbett uses her expertise to propel novel vaccine development for pandemic preparedness. Appointed to the VRC in 2014, her work focuses on developing novel coronavirus vaccines, including mRNA-1273, a leading candidate vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19. In response to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine concept incorporated in mRNA-1273 was designed by Corbett’s team from viral sequence data and rapidly deployed to industry partner, Moderna, Inc., for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved Phase 1 clinical trial, which unprecedentedly began only 66 days from the viral sequence release. Following promising results in animal models and humans, mRNA-1273 is currently in Phase 3 clinical trial. Alongside mRNA-1273, Corbett’s team boasts a portfolio that also includes universal coronavirus vaccine concepts and novel therapeutic antibodies.Additionally, Corbett spent several years working on a universal influenza vaccine, which is slated for Phase 1 clinical trial. In all, she has 15 years of expertise studying dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus and coronaviruses. Along with her research activities, Corbett is an active member of the NIH Fellows Committee and avid advocator of STEM education and vaccine awareness in the community. Combining her research goals with her knack for mentoring, Corbett aims to become an independent principal investigator.Read more about Dr. Corbett's place in history here.
- Scientist Al Chambles Explains Why Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett's Contribution to the Moderna Vaccine Matters in the Black Communityby Al Chambles on June 14, 2021 at 12:01 PM
During the first half of the twentieth century, the only well-known African-American (AA) scientist who was applauded before generations of school children was Dr. George Washington Carver. It is very refreshing to witness the positive national and international recognition of the scientific work of other African-American scientists, including the recent recognition of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (Dr. Kizzy), who helped develop the Moderna mRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody. As the historical scientific work of Dr. Carver made many generations of African Americans very proud, so it is with the recent scientific work of Dr. Kizzy, which is literally and figuratively “A shot in the arm of America.” UNRECOGNIZED AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT It is not clear why Dr. Carver captured the attention and imagination of America—even in the South—when the contributions of many others have gone unnoticed. Perhaps it was because his scientific discoveries in agriculture led to the widespread use of crop-rotation techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He is credited with saving the economy of the South. The fact that a former slave in the segregated South of the twentieth century was actually given worldwide credit for his work is both a blessing and a mystery. There were other African Americans who made significant scientific contributions but they were largely unknown and possibly not believed by the general population. Even slaves made significant scientific and technological contributions but definitive proof of most of them has generally been lost to history. It is reported that a smallpox vaccination procedure which saved the lives of millions was introduced to America by a slave named Onesimus during a 1721 smallpox outbreak in Boston, MA. Onesimus reportedly described the procedure to his slave owner and preacher, Cotton Mather, who shared it with others. Yet, his contribution toward eradicating this disease is largely unknown by the general public. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) provides another example of how the hidden scientific contributions of African Americans were ignored. Fortunately, it became generally known after the movie "Hidden Figures" was widely shown and viewed. It was revealed that female NASA employees (Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) dubbed "human computers" helped the United States excel in the space race, nevertheless, their critical contributions remain largely unacknowledged, not only outside NASA but also within it. UNTAPPED AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT The yearnings of African Americans, especially the gifted, for a coherent scientific understanding of the perplexing world that their ancestors were brought to in chains and the obstacles they had to overcome in their quest have been overshadowed by their long and intense struggle for freedom. The number of African Americans who were just as gifted as Dr. Kizzy and Dr. Carver who lived in the United States between the early 1600s and the second half of the twentieth century must have been in the millions. It is unfortunate that such a multitude of the gifted were relegated to low educational levels, menial labor, and generally prevented from participating fully in American society. Also, it is equally regrettable that humanity was deprived of the tremendous contributions that they potentially could have made. A crude extrapolation based on the scientific discoveries made by one African-American man, Dr. Carver, in the 20th century and one made by one African-American woman, Dr. Kizzy, in the 21st century suggests what could have been if the talents of the multitudes of other gifted African Americans had been widely utilized. Over 200 years of slavery and another 100 years of segregation and racial oppression made it necessary for African Americans to emphasize freedom above all else. As a result, African Americans have come to be viewed as being one dimensional—preoccupied with freedom and Civil Rights issues. Also, since African Americans were viewed as being less intelligent than white Americans, their struggles for knowledge and for a coherent scientific understanding of the physical world, which are important human dimensions, have been largely ignored, forgotten, or never even considered. It was not until Affirmative Action initiatives in the mid-1960s that African-American scientists were slowly being employed in the South. Affirmative Action initiatives are a set of policies and practices within a government or organization seeking to increase the representation of particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which they are underrepresented such as education and employment. There are numerous accounts of African Americans being denied scientific employment in the South during the earlier period. We will never know what they could potentially have discovered to make our lives better and the world a little safer. One potentially detrimental effect of such discrimination could have slowed the development of research leading to the development of the atomic bomb and thus allowing our enemies to be first to develop the powerful weapon. The Manhattan Project was established by the U. S. Government in Oak Ridge, Tennessee principally to provide a larger nuclear reactor and plants that could produce enriched uranium for atomic bombs during World War II. However, bias kept African-American scientists out of Oak Ridge's atomic bomb work. About a dozen African-American scientists and technicians worked as researchers in New York and Chicago. But, they could not follow their fellow workers when larger facilities were needed and built by the Manhattan Project in a city that would come to be known as Oak Ridge, TN. Unfortunately, the "Solid South" bloc of Democrats in Congress insisted that the new city follow the Jim Crow segregation laws that persisted in the South during the 1940s. The effect of that level of discrimination will, perhaps, never be known. CELEBRATING AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT America has faced many challenges since its beginning—some were expected and others were entirely unforeseen. While the origin of the Covid-19 virus is still being debated, it struck America and the rest of the world as “a thief in the night” in 2019—in spite of planning and preparation for pandemics by the Obama administration. Covid-19 is a new strain of Coronavirus that had not been previously identified in humans. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are known to cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. It is inspiring to learn that Dr. Kizzy was given immediate credit for her scientific discoveries and to read in her biography about how her scientific curiosity was encouraged from an early age to pursue excellence in education—especially science education. That encouragement is obvious from her fourth grade teacher in the Oak Lane Elementary School in Hillsborough, NC, who recognized that she was gifted and encouraged her mother to enroll her in advance classes (1995) to her becoming a research fellow working as a viral immunologist at the National Institute of Health (2014), and now as a member of Harvard’s faculty (2021). While there must have been setbacks, heartaches, and disappointments in her life, it seems that she was encouraged, supported, and mentored throughout her life and career. With that encouragement, her life-long study and research prepared her to tackle the virus that struck America as “a thief in the night” in 2019. Her research resulted in her team developing the Moderna mRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody in record time—a shot in the arm for America and the rest of the world. Also, it is “a shot in the arm” of African Americans who are being infected and killed at a disproportionate rate across the country yet reluctant to take the vaccine. The knowledge that an African-American woman led in the development of the vaccine could have a powerful inducement for minorities and other ethnic groups to take the vaccine. Her scientific work coupled with her well-publicized voice encouraging people to take the vaccine could potentially help save millions of lives around the world. She is truly “a shot in the arm” of America and the world and “a shot in the psychic” of African American who have seen too few African Americans appropriately honored for their scientific discoveries. It is very refreshing to see her life, career, and discoveries shining as bright as the Noonday sun. I am reminded of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing: Out from a gloomy past, Till now we stand at last Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast… And W.E.B. DuBois: “The Negro only wanted an opportunity to be a man [woman] and then he [she] would manifest his [her] ability to accomplish great things.” VOICE OF AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT But, there continues to be a snag in the willingness of African Americans to take the vaccine and Dr. Kizzy gladly answered another call for service. According to a November poll, only 55% of Black Americans said they would take a vaccine if it was proven safe and effective by official. Currently, African Americans’ COVID-19 vaccination rates are still lagging months into the nation’s campaign, while Hispanics are closing the gap and Native Americans show the highest rates overall. While there are numerous reasons given for the reluctance of African Americans to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, including access difficulties, the infamous Tuskegee Experiment which began in 1932 to study syphilis looms large. At that time, there was no known cure or treatment for the contagious venereal disease. Six hundred African-American men in Macon County, Alabama were enrolled in the project, whose purpose was to study the full progression of the disease. The men were enticed to enroll in the study by promising them free medical care. However, penicillin became the recommended treatment, in many cases a cure, for syphilis in 1947— about 15 years into the study. Nevertheless, the men in the study were not told of this information nor given penicillin. The health workers monitored them but they were only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements. They watched the men suffer brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints damage and eventual death. Dr. Kizzy has appeared on numerous programs encouraging African Americans to take the Covid-19 vaccine. It is believed that the continuing voice of Dr. Kizzy to encourage African Americans to take the Covid-19 vaccine is helping to remove some of the reluctance of African Americans to take the vaccine due to the negative stigma associated with the historically unethical treatment of African Americans and other ethnic groups by the medical establishment in America. She is committed to using science and her voice to improve people’s lives, especially for communities that have been denied full participation in American society—health, education, employment, etc. ENCOURAGING AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT Africans Americans have made substantial progress in mastering a wide range of careers and occupations—dominating sports, entertainment, and human services, etc. Nevertheless, African-Americans continue to lag behind their peers in studying and understanding basic science. Their proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has shown to be a very difficult frontier to penetrate. It is hoped that Dr. Kizzy’s well-publicized scientific accomplishments, her vibrant African-American role model status, and her powerful voice will help African Americans to penetrate yet another frontier. I am also hopeful that the widely publicized information honoring the life and accomplishments of Dr. Kizzy will give America insights into the hopes, dreams, and accomplishments of African Americans as they continue to seek full participation in American society and the vast untapped talent pool waiting to be encouraged and tapped; will foster a better understanding and appreciation of how African Americans have historically struggled to learn, live, survive, and thrive in America; inspire parents and teachers to encourage children to start studying science at a young age; and to inspire innovators in education, especially science education, to dedicate themselves to the difficult task of devising techniques to accelerate scientific literacy and academic excellence among all Americans—especially African Americans—to help create the next generation of talented scientists to follow in the footsteps of the marvelous Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. It is hoped that our combined efforts will result in “more life to all and no less to none.”Learn more about Dr. Corbett in this feature.
- The Outside Storyby Odie Henderson on June 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM
This review was originally published on April 30, 2021 is being republished for Black Writers Week. Charles (Brian Tyree Henry) is “stuck.” That’s the word more than one person uses to describe him. He spends most of his time in the second floor apartment of his Brooklyn walk-up, as oblivious to the world outside as it is to him. When his very pregnant neighbor from the building next door says she’s never seen him before, she quantifies that detail with the number of years she’s lived a stone’s throw away. Charles’ fellow tenants recognize him, but have yet to interact with him in any meaningful way. When writer/director Casimir Nozkowski’s “The Outside Story” opens, Charles is even more stuck than usual; he’s just broken up with his live-in girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green), a woman everyone in the neighborhood seems to know. In fact, she is the connection point whenever Charles has to introduce himself to his fellow denizens. She's also the sole reason Charles leaves the house, as he’s promised to honor alternate side of the street parking for her car as she prepares to move out of his place. That traffic ticket bane of New York City area existence is what sets the story in motion. After he’s dissed over a lack of tip by his food delivery guy—the one person who has seen him on the regular—Charles accidentally grabs the wrong set of keys and leaves his house to chase the guy down and offer him a measly dollar. The good intention causes him to be locked outside draped in a ratty sweater and minus his shoes. As if this weren’t enough trouble, Charles is also on an editing deadline for Turner Classic Movies. If he can’t get back inside, and soon, he just may lose his job. So begins his journey through the neighborhood, reconnecting with the life outside his apartment. Nozkowski crafts a sweet, gentle situational comedy, surrounding his lead with a slew of supporting characters whose expected quirkiness is sharpened by a heaping dash of saltiness and keen observation. Of course, everyone has some wisdom to impart to Charles, but the method, and Charles’ response, unfold in often unexpected ways. Much of this stems from the actors, all of whom make meals out of the smallest parts. They’re in a playful orbit around the film’s worthy, shining star. This is an excellent showcase for Henry, who takes on his first major leading performance after memorable supporting turns on the TV show “Atlanta” and in films like “If Beale Street Could Talk.” His other work shows a knack for both comedy and drama, and Charles contains multitudes of both. Henry has always reminded me of the late Robin Harris, whose large, physical carriage also vibrated with assurance and swagger. Like Harris, Henry can spit the saltiest, most ribald lines with sinful glee, yet his eyes alone can convey pathos like the best of the silent film stars. We know there has to be a scene where Charles becomes “unstuck,” that is, he returns to life. But “The Outside Story” doesn’t make it a grandiose gesture. Instead, the film portrays it as a silent moment on Henry’s part. The camera stays on his face, and his response is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. This is a beautiful performance, a calling card for the starring roles to come. Much of Henry’s role is some form of exasperated response to the situation at hand, a situation that can’t help but get escalated by fate and Charles’ reaction. These scenes play out with everyone from the ticket-crazy Officer Slater (Sunita Mani), who takes sadistic glee in writing parking citations, to Andre (Michael Cyril Creighton), the upstairs neighbor Charles keeps inconveniencing every time he needs to get buzzed into the building. These antagonistic yet comic run-ins occur alongside sweeter interactions between Charles and his piano-playing young neighbor Elena (Olivia Edward) and the older, widowed neighborhood lifer, Sara (Lynda Gravatt). “The Outside Story” is smart enough to flesh each character out so well that one could easily follow them into a movie of their own, especially the officer, who gets perhaps the best “are you for real?!” reaction shot I’ve seen in years. For example, Charles convinces Elena to let him into her house so he can charge his now dead cellphone in case his landlord calls back about dropping off a spare set of keys. Inside, we meet Elena’s mother, a Mama Rose-type who has had some success on the stage (“One review said I was the best nun!” she proudly tells Charles) and who demands Elena perform her recital piece for their guest. When Elena refuses, it causes a bit of uncomfortable dispute. This one scene plays like a mini-movie, a tangent that at first seems extraneous. But there’s a payoff later, one that gives Elena a poignant depth. Also, Andre’s arc proves more interesting than it first appears. It turns out his exasperation at Charles’ numerous interruptions is due to the fact he’s in a romantic relationship with a married couple. The film doesn’t treat this with any salaciousness. Instead, the trio offer Charles advice about how to deal with his feelings about the breakup. One would never expect a candid, touching meditation on the uselessness of jealousy to come from a setup like this. Again, Henry’s performance anchors the film so that his scene partners can be equally effective. And then there’s Isha, who haunts the film via a few carefully chosen flashbacks before making her grand entrance in the final scenes. She’s so tired of Charles’ ennui that she commits a bit of infidelity that, while not a home run in the scoring department, would still merit at least a double. Isha shows up with moving men ready to take her stuff from Charles’ abode, and her former paramour’s potentially unsuccessful attempt to show that he has changed results in a hilarious and sad piece of cringe comedy slapstick that Henry and the moving men superbly execute. I haven’t even gotten to what exactly Charles does for TCM, which I’ll not reveal. His edited pieces use fictitious actors, yet the response he has to them is strong enough for you to feel his love and admiration. There’s a film geek’s running joke here: every time Charles mentions his current subject, someone responds with a description of one of the actor’s films. Charles provides the title, and everyone bonds around how great the performance is in it. That’s how I imagine the discussions around Henry’s work will unfold 20 years from now. “The Outside Story” will certainly be in that discussion, even if the person reminiscing about it will have forgotten its title. "The Outside Story" is barely 85 minutes long, but Henry's performance is rich enough to make this small film feel rather epic. Now available on demand and on digital platforms.
- Infiniteby Robert Daniels on June 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM
I’m sure Mark Wahlberg, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Toby Jones signed on to Antoine Fuqua’s globetrotting sci-fi action flick “Infinite” with the best of intentions. On paper, the premise sounds like a killer idea: Reincarnated warriors locked in a centuries old war work to save humanity. On one side lies the good guys, the infinites. On the other, the nihilists. Here, the nihilist Bathurst (Ejiofor) is searching for a silver egg imbued with the power to end all life, thereby suspending reincarnations. Only one man, Evan McCauley (Wahlberg), has information about the weapon’s whereabouts. He just doesn’t know it yet. ”Infinite,” Ian Shorr and Todd Stein’s adaptation of D. Eric Maikranz’s novel The Reincarnationist Papers, combines elements of “The Old Guard” and “The Matrix,” with a splash of “The Fifth Element.” Unfortunately, the product falls far short of the lofty works from which it draws. Rather than crafting a high-concept science-fiction marvel, Fuqua’s “Infinite” relies on shoddy VFX and ropey world-building for the worst film of his career. (Yes, worse than “King Arthur.” Yes, worse than “Brooklyn’s Finest.”) From the outset, the filmmaker tries to paint a wide canvas but fails to fashion a detailed visual language. In Mexico City, set during “the last life,” for instance, three infinites are involved in an elaborate car chase. As they wisp and wind down wide, empty streets, in a scene barely stitched together for semi-coherent action, nothing in the costumes, hairstyles, or architecture clues us into what decade we’re inhabiting. Fast-forward to the present “in this life” in New York City and a stream of compositions—a slow-motion bustling Manhattan street bathed in orange sunlight, and cranes reflecting off an office window—read like stock images. Here, Evan is interviewing for a job at a fancy restaurant, a gig he could easily win if not for his troubled past. Years ago he assaulted a customer after they sexually harassed a waitress. Evan blames the incident on his schizophrenia. See, odd visions and voices often visit him. One moment he’ll dream he’s a Japanese sword maker, and then next, he’ll forge a sword. To keep these apparitions at bay, he takes extra-strength pills, buying them by selling his hand-made weapons to a local drug dealer. Outside of the problematic insinuation of mental health patients as inherently dangerous, Fugua places zero trust in the audience to follow the very basic plot. Rather Wahlberg provides a glorified temp track as the film’s voiceover, wherein with all seriousness he says, “These meds are running out. And once they do—shit gets real.” Eventually, Evan pops on the respective radar of both Bathurst and the Infinite. Though Ejiofor plays Bathurst as a man warped by his mentally painful life—he just wants to die—that trauma isn’t felt at all. Ejiofor turns in a perplexing performance that elicits a bevvy of confounding questions rather than providing an actualized character. I couldn’t spot the genesis of his thick, obnoxious accent that borders on Saturday morning cartoon special in its wide specificity. Nor is Bathhurst’s origins comprehensible: Where does his immense wealth come from? Where are the other nihilists? The Infinites invite similar question marks. A leader in the image of Professor X, the wheelchair-using Garrick (Liz Carr), guides the team. Her top soldiers include the tall, bearded Kovic (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and the highly skilled Nora (Sophie Cookson). The team hopes Evan is the reincarnated form of Treadwell, the agent who first hid the egg. In the case of Nora, specifically, she wants to see her former lover again (his spirit is being imprisoned by Bathurst) and believes the egg can bring him back. The character dynamics between this trio and Evan aren’t at all built out. Rather Fuqua is handed this intriguing world but refuses to add contours to these heroes or their powers. The same goes for the group’s researcher played by Toby Jones, and a debaucherous neurologist portrayed by Jason Mantzoukas. Instead, Fuqua is far more interested in the crafts driving the film. Which wouldn’t be a bad idea if the crafts were anything to write home about: The score thrums at an unmemorable rate. The fight choreography and execution is dreadful. In one scene, it’s excruciatingly clear that stunt doubles filmed an entire hand-to-hand combat sequence rather than Ejiofor and Jóhannesson. In another, wherein Evan and Nora raid Bathurst’s mansion, the editing is an epic mess that's impossible to follow due to poorly articulated compositions. And even if you could follow the onscreen action, you soon wish you couldn’t. Worst yet, the storytelling in “Infinite” never drives the tacky VFX—soldiers are seemingly suspended in air as wood shards shred them to death—and overabundant stunts like an acrobatic confrontation between Evan and Bathurst in the hull of a transport plane. Without great characters and the aesthetics to match, “Infinite” is a misguided soft toss by Fuqua directed with franchise goals. You get the sense that its unanswered questions, such as the religious component of these powers, is purposely left obscured to cater future films. Instead, the obfuscation totally weakens this movie. In an action-adventure that concerns living multiple lives, don’t waste yours watching “Infinite.” Now playing on Paramount+.
- Akilla's Escapeby Odie Henderson on June 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM
“Akilla’s Escape” opens with a black-and-white historical montage set to Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party.” Interspersed throughout clips describing the rise of gang violence in Jamaica are scenes of an older Jamaican man dancing vibrantly to Marley’s famous reggae banger. This is Akilla Brown (Saul Williams), a well-read, world-weary man who runs a Toronto dispensary for a mysterious figure called “The Greek.” Based on his inclusion in the opening credits, we can assume that Akilla has some tie to the gang life. Williams establishes and internalizes that history well before we’re bombarded with the constant flashbacks that mar this film with their familiar, predictable beats. He is a commanding presence in every scene, revealing so much in his physicality that he renders all backstory moot. This is a man who has seen some things and been some terrible places, yet he feels he must honor his sense of compassion lest he fall into the abyss of those who came before him. That compassion forms the central conceit of director Charles Officer’s film, but his script with Wendy Motion Brathwaite frustrates by ignoring or downplaying everything that would have given their film something new or intriguing to say. For example, there’s a great scene between Akilla and Benji (Colm Feore), the man who cultivates the strains of weed that has given them success for the past ten years. Now that marijuana is legal in Canada, the government is coming after formerly illegal places like this one. Akilla and one of his musclemen discuss this briefly, describing the new methods to destroy side hustles as more criminal than the side hustles were. This is why Akilla wants to get out of the business, a move that Benji finds rather ironic. This is not only a timely issue, but one I hadn’t seen before. I was intrigued. All this is dropped when a robbery occurs. It’s a set-up, and the traitor winds up getting hacked to shreds with a machete by one of the criminals. One thief, Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana) can’t finish off Akilla, which gets him overpowered and left by his crew. They make off with $150,000 of The Greek’s money and product, leaving Sheppard to take the fall. Security footage of the incident exists, leading Akilla to turn detective to save his own skin. After saving Sheppard from certain death at the hands of Jimmy (Bruce Ramsay), the Greek’s enforcer, Akilla feels a sudden protective kinship with the young, inexperienced gang member. He’s reminded of his younger self, an idea made blatant by Mpumlwana also playing the younger Akilla in flashbacks. This is distracting, a move so blatant that the duck from “You Bet Your Life” should have fallen out of the ceiling with the word “SYMBOLISM” in its beak. It’s not that Mpumlwana is bad in either part; as Sheppard, he’s a credible deer caught in headlights, and as Akilla, he successfully telegraphs the desire to do the right thing that Williams will quietly manifest in his eyes and his face. The problem is that the flashbacks are presented as a puzzle where we must piece together how Akilla’s kingpin father, Clinton (Ronnie Rowe), wound up as the hideously bloody corpse we see in the opening scene. Rowe is intense, but this storyline does nothing to inform us about the Jamaican gangs Clinton (and by extension, Akilla) were beholden to at the time. There’s a clear parallel between Akilla and Sheppard being unwitting gang members, but we have to wade through story elements that have been beaten into the ground by so many other movies that they’ve lost any power. Several times, I had to ask myself if I hadn’t already reviewed this film. Based on what gets released, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think being Black was nothing but being a slave or having a dangerous side hustle. It’s as disheartening as it is dull and incorrect. But I digress. The performances in the Akilla-Sheppard plotline render the flashbacks redundant. I don’t think Williams’ memorable work would have been any different had we not known the details of the demons Akilla carries. There’s another very good scene between him and The Greek (Theresa Tova), whom we discover is actually a tough woman who looks like she shares the same amount of mileage in the underworld as Akilla does. Tova does more with an arched eyebrow than pages of dialogue could describe, and the two actors know the kind of crime movie cliché they’re employing and lean into it with an enjoyable gusto. The robbery story is full of watchable two-hander scenes featuring the elder Akilla, including a few with Sheppard’s concerned and fiery aunt, Faye (Donisha Rita Claire Prendergast) and others with fellow enforcers who come out for the climax of the film. About that climax—it’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, but “Akilla’s Escape” denies you of seeing what transpires, opting instead to only show its aftermath. I was fine with this, though I acknowledge it’s probably a letdown for many viewers. It was the one time we’re left to fend for ourselves. During the film, we’re offered several potential explanations for its title, that is, what constitutes the titular event. I immediately assumed it would be death. I won’t tell you if that’s the case, but Williams’ last scene is far more haunting than the film deserves. “Akilla’s Escape” is undone by its own lack of faith in the viewer, opting to explicitly tell rather than rely on its fine actors to show us who their characters are. Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.
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