David Henderson

Howl! Happening: BEAT & BEYOND: A Gathering

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SPIKE LEE’S OSCAR: NEW BIRTH OF BLACK FILM

When the Academy Awards are presented in Hollywood in late February 2016, there will be new elements of the film business in play. Some things have already been put into effect, such as the changes in Academy membership that seek to remedy an old-guard condition reflected in awards nominations that exclude not only African American but just about all people of color. This controversy began with Spike Lee receiving an honorary Oscar for his nearly thirty years of consistently high-quality films, all involved in various aspects of the Black experience.

Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, is based on an ancient Greek play, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, whose theme is built around the withholding of sexual congress by women who are fed up with war. Although the original play is considered a comedy, this particular takeoff is more in the tragic realm, as Chi-Raq takes place in a community that appears to be involved in almost ritual self-destruction.

Vibe magazine reported the following in late October 2015:

The film was expected to premiere for Amazon Prime subscribers, with a debut scheduled at the Cannes Film Festival next year. But after Amazon’s production sector teamed up with Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, it’s looking like Chi-Raq is getting a much bigger platform.

Chi-Raq was released with one of the most ambitious publicity campaigns of any of Lee’s previous films. The trailer was issued by Amazon—promoting its first feature film release—on November 3, 2015 a few days after the Day of the Dead (November 1) and just prior to Lee’s honorary Oscar ceremony on November 14. The proximity of this award was optimally placed within the film’s ad campaign—not long before the official release of Chi-Raq, on December 4, during that highly significant season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No Spike Lee film had ever received such a major promotion, and this campaign, coordinated as it was with Lee’s honorary Oscar, would instantly mark Amazon as a major player in the movie business. The film will eventually be made available via Amazon Prime’s streaming service.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African American, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since the summer of 2013, was delighted to welcome Lee into the hallowed hall of Hollywood’s chosen people. In welcoming him to the stage to receive his award, she announced a new Academy initiative, A2020, which will seek to promote a “greater diversity in terms of age, gender, race, national origin and point of view among filmmakers over the next five years.”

For the formal Academy Awards ceremony, statuettes are traditionally given out in a luxurious Hollywood theater, telecasted to a worldwide audience before a glamorously attired who’s who of the industry, especially the star talent, directors and producers. Before the big event, more intimate ceremonies are held, possibly as a way of promoting the awards ceremony itself. At a special gathering to recognize those of great achievement who have not received a statue in the usual categories, Spike Lee was slated to receive an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement (so to speak). His appearance and remarks, having aspects of controversy, could be said to be not only a prelude to the Oscar presentations themselves, but also as the first level of promotion for this new addition to his oeuvre—Chi-Raq.

Juxtaposing the violence against Blacks in Chicago with the violence perpetrated by the Iraq War, Lee hyphenated the two realities into Chi-Raq, causing Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel to request that Lee excise the allusion to the city from his title. Lee’s refusal gained him some timely early publicity.

At the awards presentation Spike came jubilantly to the stage, resplendent in a high-collared blue suit that closed at the neck, a silver chain holding an unusually thick cross, and a black beret, on its crest the red, black and green logo of Chi-Raq dominant in white. He wore pair of strange pink-rimmed glasses, and in a long shot he revealed something special for the occasion: custom-made high-topped sneakers.

He was flanked by Wesley Snipes, Samuel Jackson, and Denzel Washington, three heavyweight Black actors who have starred in his films—arousing the curiosity of the audience as to why they were there. The three stood stock-still, almost at military attention, sometimes engaging in praise or unanimously emphasizing an important point made by Lee, who spoke in a straightforward manner, often critically analyzing his lifelong work as a director in the film industry and both condemning and praising the Academy for recognizing and not recognizing his work. His supporting cast, standing strong throughout his ten-minute talk, stood a few feet in front of a life-size golden Oscar.

One’s heart goes out to Spike Lee in recognition of the dilemma he must have found himself in. Obviously, at some prior point, there was no question that he would receive the honorary Oscar, and receiving such an honor without addressing the major issues at hand would have been too great an oversight, especially for a Black man prominent in a film world that rewarded and denied him rather evenhandedly. But nailing down the major issues—or not—was up to him.

He handled it well. After all, he is also an actor. Although his on-screen character role is significant in She’s Gotta Have It, his later roles have been more public persona than showbiz director cum working actor. But today he is a figure in the business—and judging from his references to his students at NYU and his connection to ancient Greek literature, he may be somewhat of an academic as well.

Spike Lee is one of the great filmmakers of our time, having made that art form his total focus for just about all of his adult life. He discovered film after his sophomore year in college, when he received a Super 8 camera and a box of film from a friend who, rather than study filmmaking, decided to go to medical school.

“How did I get here? I was born in Atlanta and moved to Brooklyn, and my late mother, who died when I was in film school—she was the one who introduced me to film. My father, a great jazz musician, hated movies. So I was my mother’s date, drag me to movies. She introduced me to Scorsese when she took to me to see Mean Streets.

“Then I went away to college, Morehouse College. I was third generation; my grandfather and father went there too. He was a freshman when Martin Luther King was a senior. And my mother and grandmother went to Spelman College. They were two historic black schools across the street from each other in ATL So I went to college. My first two years I was lost in the wilderness. I was a D-plus, C-minus student. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart. I wasn’t motivated. At the end of my sophomore year, it was time to go back to New York City; I had to choose a major because I’d exhausted all my electives. I came back to New York the summer of 1977. I thought up to that point I could always get a job in New York. But that summer, there were no jobs.

“I made a film about that summer, The Summer of Sam.”

Could the general public be aware of the crippling racism that has infused the film industry since the post-Reconstruction bible, The Birth of a Nation (1915), became an early hit, propelling its director, D. W. Griffith, into legendary status, setting up his association with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin in establishing United Artists, a production company that still exists. Also existing today are the continuing depictions of African Americans as blackfaced “negro” ghosts who inhabited The Birth of a Nation and most Hollywood films from that point well into the late-twentieth century.`

“I want to thank my grandmother. Her grandmother was a slave. And for fifty years, she taught art. Van Gogh was her favorite painter. She taught in the state of Georgia, and in fifty years she never had one white student because of Jim Crow laws. For fifty years she saved her Social Security checks for her grandchildren’s education. And since I was firstborn, I had first dibs! My grandmother, fifty years of saving her checks, put me through Morehouse, put me through NYU Film School, gave me the money for my thesis film, then gave me the money for She’s Gotta Have It.”

He tells this story in a section of his speech thanking the Academy Board of Governors for his lifetime achievement award, although his life is still intact and his public expects much more from him than the considerable and well-developed oeuvre he has amassed since 1986, when She’s Gotta Have It, his first feature-length film, was a surprise hit. This established him early on as a director with auteur potential who could just as well be simply a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Whether he has accomplished either of those things is arguable to some, but to my mind he is both, and more.

The Blaxploitation films that emerged in the 1970s during a downturn in the U.S. film industry set the stage for someone like Spike Lee. Although there were other African American filmmakers who made their mark in American film, it would be he who crossed over, with “original” hipsters as part of his main audience.

Do the Right Thing put Spike Lee on the map as a serious filmmaker who could deal with vibrant social issues without having to rely on the soft sexuality of She’s Gotta Have It to gain and hold an audience. As a moviegoer, I became hooked on him and followed his career. The year after Right Thing, 1990, his Mo’ Better Blues was credible in telling what it was like being a jazz musician. Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn followed in each subsequent year. Although Malcolm X was right on and a story that needed to be told, especially from the perspective of a Black filmmaker, the history was well known, and there could be no surprises—and there weren’t. I especially liked the scene with Delroy Lindo and Denzel as Malcolm, as it brought up his West Indian background in a pithy and indelible manner when they exchanged words in a patois known only in that part of the world. Delroy Lindo would come back with a larger role as father to all those bad children in the endearing Crooklyn, in which Lee hit the nail of the head in telling oft-maligned stories of adorable Black children.

The following year, 1995, his next film would begin to alienate me. Clockers, whatever it was supposed to be, was, I thought, “a Spike Lee joint,” as he used to like to say about his movies. But as I discovered, Clockers was derived from a novel by Richard Price, a white novelist, supposedly about a Black teenager who becomes enmeshed in the drug trade but really is about the two white detectives. Moreover, the images over the opening credits set the tone—close-ups of Black male torsos featuring bullet entry wounds. I couldn’t believe Lee was doing this, yet I accepted it conditionally: it had better be worth it. But the film did not hold up to his earlier standard, and I left the theater more than disappointed, vowing to forgo any more Spike Lee movies—with no time limit on that vow. And I held to it through his next, Girl 6 (1996), although I was curious as to how he would deal with a screenplay written by a Black woman, the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. That same year he came out with a small film about folks on a bus heading to the March on Washington. I did not see it then, as I was still holding to my vow.

The next year, 1998, caught me in a dilemma. Searching for a late movie, I found nothing playing in the neighborhood except He Got Game, starring Denzel Washington. I hated to break my vow, but it was all there was to see.

And what a surprise: a beautiful, moving story of an imprisoned father whose son was about to go very high in the college draft. The father had been a basketball player; he had had game, but lost it in a descent into crime that cost him his liberty. He was furloughed from prison in order to convince his son to go to the state team, which would have appeased the governor enough to allow for Denzel’s release.

He Got Game was a totally unpredictable masterpiece. I was back in fandom. But the sequence had been broken. I saw Bamboozled, an interesting critique of the media, before I saw the next film after He Got Game, which was Son of Sam—yet another masterpiece. This time Lee took on “white” working-class Italian and Irish youths who lived in the outer regions of the Bronx and created their own universe. Integrating a neighborhood in that region as a teenager, I knew their ways firsthand. John leguizamo, a Colombian American, played an Italian and aced it. I could not believe his verisimilitude. He deserved an Academy Award; Lee deserved an Academy Award. But if one had not been forthcoming for the screenplay to She’s Gotta Have It, for which he was nominated, or the monumental Do the Right Thing, or Crooklyn, or He Got Game, or Son of Sam, none of which even came near being nominated, then it was clear that the fix had been in. He would not get one unless something extraordinary happened. And I believe it did—this year, last month, and continuing into another place altogether.

Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s vehicle onto this new film-biz terrain, is a “joint,” its elements textured to exist within their own distinct energy: there is poetry (especially in the brilliant opening sequence), excellently produced bombastic hip-hop beats, deft choreography, even a script that rhymes. Everyone seems to live pretty well, most look good, and even the grieving mothers—a Greek chorus of women in tears—are attractive for their ages and stations. There is, of course, gun violence, gunplay—with a symbolic casualty: a young Black girl playing in the street is hit and killed in the crossfire. The dominant theme is the dire relationship between Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata (the Afro headshot in the publicity ad), who seeks a solution to this murderous environ even though a major perpetrator happens to be the man she loves, Chi-Raq personified (played by Nick Allen). This reference to the ancient Greek play Lysistrata is probably a bit of a stretch, even as homage to the tragic reality of worldwide violence that is particularly evinced in present-day Chicago—to wit, the list of Blacks killed in that major midwestern metropolis. Chi-Raq, merging an American minority-majority city with the tragedy brought to the nation of Iraq, offers a comparison that is never stated verbally or cinematically, except perhaps for the involvement of the National Guard at the conclusion. In an interview Spike Lee said, “It comes back to guns. The takeaway, if anybody sees this film, is what are we going to do as a supposed democratic country? I guess we have the right to kill ourselves. That’s what it seems like. Kill ourselves and kill each other.”

This film could actually function as reinforcement for President Obama’s campaign against gun violence. Yet it seems that other than the verbal protestations, the demonstration against the ultimate senselessness of the situation, and the well-meaning but banal sermon by the sympathetic white preacher played by John Cusack—who seems out of place as a leader of a large church in a Black Chicago ghetto—the protest is basically rhetorical in effect.

The Academy membership could be said to have struck back with their January 14, 2016, announcement of the nominations for the official eighty-eighth annual Academy Awards. The omission, for the second year in a row, of any Black actor, producer, or director by the voting members of the Academy seemed to many to reflect that monolith of institutional racism that had been a mainstay in the history of Hollywood. The blatant obviousness of the snub revealed a deep, long-lasting policy. A few people in the business responded. Expressing feelings from dismay to anger, some well-known film-biz figures spoke out. Lee was one of the first to say he was not attending the ceremony and why. Jada Pinkett Smith declared her boycott. Her husband, Will Smith, also said he would not attend. Michael Moore and Al Sharpton declared their support of what was being called the boycott, while elderly white Hollywood veterans Charlotte Rampling and Clint Eastwood made statements in support of the status quo.

Perhaps the most prominent Black entertainment figure, Jada Pinkett Smith, referred to by one commentator as an “A-lister,” declared that not only not would she not attend the ceremony, she would not watch it on television either. Her husband stars in Concussion, a movie about football injury devastation. Neityher he nor the film was selected to vie for a statue. Maintaining a low profile, Will Smith made a public statement on the issue, saying that he too would not attend. Pinkett Smith was clear in her extended remarks on the subject:

“Begging for acknowledgment, or even asking, diminishes dignity . . . Maybe it is time that we pulled back our resources and put them back into our communities, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit that are just as good as the so-called mainstream.”

Then she gazed into the camera and spoke directly to Lee. “But I cannot think of a better man to do the job at hand this year than you, my friend.”

Another Black man dealing with the job at hand is Chris Rock, who, as host of the awards ceremony this year, stated that he would rewrite his remarks in light of the furor. Meanwhile, Black TV and film producer Reginald Hudlin was hired as a top-level executive by the Academy.

Receiving the honorary Oscar seems to have enabled Spike Lee to speak out. Now he has been recognized for his awesome body of work—films more in the art category and certainly away from the standard B movies that had been the staple of many Black filmmakers.

When Lee relied on a story from a novel by James McBride, The Miracle at St. Anna, his power was at its strongest. The segmented elements of Chi-Raq lose their impact on the story level, where the heart and the emotions are most often affected. The love affair between the two stars, indeed sensual and sexual, has no purchase beyond that realm. For instance, the recurring theme of the violent murders of Black youths loses it potential for tragedy when John Cusack tries to make us believe he is a religious leader who delivers righteous relief to the tearstrained mothers of the victims. That comes at a place in the film where a powerful sermon could have/should have, taken down the house.

The denouement and finale are crowd-dominated spectacles that, at the end, tie things up by asking us to believe that these two embattled lovers would compete in a sex contest of sorts, with their bed set in a parade ground before an audience of military, press, TV broadcasters, community people, and heartbroken mothers. That the inadvertent killer of the young girl in this “satire” suddenly confesses rather than completing coitus with the gorgeous female lead after all that deprivation seems patently ridiculous.

But Chi-Raq is not about story and is many ways the advent of a new kind of film that can be watched in segments—or for scenes or shots or sound track and poetry. Yet it might not be necessary, in its representation of an ongoing tragedy, to make a substantive ending that has true meaning. Aristophanes’s comedic tale of women withholding sex from their men in protest against an ongoing war is far from parallel with the current situation in Chicago, where Black-on-Black gun violence is challenged only by police gun violence on Black.

In the first century of the movie business in the United States, Hollywood films have always reflected the miscegenationist Jim Crow racial division prevalent in the social order until the Civil Rights Movement began to change things, resulting in the so-called diversity existing now. But real movement in Black depiction and subject matter is a recent phenomenon in the film world, which has now expanded beyond Hollywood, owing in large part to the changes in technology that have created advancement in the use of videotape, cable programming, and the vast possibilities of Internet streaming. Also, Netflix activity, and especially Amazon's entry into the film business as the bankroller for Chi-Raq, could indicate a game change in the industry after almost one hundred years.

Now a film is emerging that could supplant that deadly legacy. Coming soon to American screens is a correction of a century-old film industry evil. Two weeks after the Academy nominations of exclusion, a new feature film about Nat Turner’s rebellion, directed by Nate Parker, swept the top awards at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

At this very festival, new players in the business, including Netflix and more so Amazon, which bid $20 million for the rights to distribute this film —ironically titled The Birth of a Nation — perhaps the most radical Black film ever produced. This was the highest bid made in the history of Sundance. The film was purchased by Fox’s Searchlight for a slightly lower figure, owing to Parker’s desire to qualify for an Academy Award. Something apparently not possible with Amazon.

The Birth of a Nation, directed by and starring Nate Parker, is the story of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion that resulted in more than sixty deaths of white slavers in Southhampton County, Virginia. What Parker achieved was also set in place by his appropriation of the title of the 1915 D. W. Griffith film based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan), which was highly hailed as the first major hit of the early film business and set Hollywood on its grand path. The film was screened at President Wilson’s White House in 1919. By then most of the Black soldiers had returned from fighting in the First World War in Europe. The original Birth of a Nation poisoned the waters of the film industry for decades, reflecting a code of exclusion—or exploiting comic relief and ridicule—from 1915 until the beginning of 2016, exactly a century plus one year. Today, when one googles The Birth of a Nation, it is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation at the head of the listings.

It could well be that a new era in the “entertainment” business is at hand in these “United States.”

© David Henderson 2016 All Rights Reserved.

“SELMA” the Film and the Actualities by David Henderson

“SELMA” the Film and Actualities.  by David Henderson 20feb15

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who followed in the footsteps of Gandhi in bringing civil rights to a people, and in some ways went even further than Gandhi, is a towering figure in the recent history of the United States. For that matter, he ranks highly throughout the entire Western world, and perhaps everywhere on planet earth. His public denunciation of the Vietnam War contributed to the war’s end, but—coupled with his support for the striking sanitation workers of Memphis and his protestations of the larger issue of widespread poverty—it also resulted in a diminution of his popularity and a certain disfavor promoted by the corporate-controlled press, and it may have contributed to his untimely and mysterious assassination.  

His widow, Coretta Scott King, his children, and the famous entertainer Stevie Wonder combined forces with a broad swath of an approving public and fostered a public holiday in his name that became a reality in the late twentieth century. Now, in 2015, a new film, Selma, is based on one of his most important achievements: his leadership role in attaining the Voting Rights Act. He coordinated a protest that would bring together various civil rights organizations, church and religious groups, entertainers, and professional organizations, along with a public from all over the United States and countries across the world to march in Selma with the ordinary citizens of that small Southern town. These people endured great brutality in the hands of local Alabama police and state troopers in order to complete their march to the state capital in Montgomery to protest before the State House their inability to vote. 

On March 7, 1965, with a few hundred locals, Dr. King formulated a strategy that resulted in thousands of supporters joining the locals and, despite the murder of some, would result in a successful march to Montgomery over a two-week period. The number of marchers swelled from 5,000 to 25,000, and they arrived in triumph to hear the speech by Dr. King that announced the Voting Rights Act that would become law in a few weeks—a verification of democracy that inspired the world.

Selma, a motion picture put together by Pathé UK, along with several other companies including Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo, (those two personalities also became producers ),  was released during the Christmas holiday season, in time to qualify for participation in the Academy Awards of the Motion Picture Association of America. The film continued in theaters through the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Monday, January 19, 2015. 

 The engineered mass resistance to the police repression of today recalls those civil rights days that are so essential to Dr. King’s legacy. Selma was one of those moments in history monumental to its time. This story, this civil rights triumph, could be told in any number of ways under any circumstances (from person to person or as a Roots-like television miniseries) and be compelling. Regardless of actors or scenery or vintage cars, one simply cannot go wrong with this high point in the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The greatest actors in Selma are the marchers, the crowds, the representation of that motley crew who marched through Alabama being brutalized and stressed on every level. Toward the end of the film, shots of those marchers dissolve into footage of vintage film of the original marchers, the technique making it possible for the footage of Selma to have the same vintage quality and adding an aura of verisimilitude.

On the other hand, to portray such a central figure in the history of Black America with an actor who is so far outside the culture is not only as close as one can get to cultural criminality, it also points to serious deficiencies of effectiveness within the film industry in Black America. It is also unfair to the careers of all the actors involved, from principals to supporting, because it involves them in distortions of history that extend from casting to a broad set of problems that range from calling it a biopic to a juggling of facts.

An African playing MLK could possibly be a descendant of those Africans who sold their own people centuries ago, now often called African Americans. Now an African plays our present-day Moses, however with no passion or understanding of the Black American spirit or the ways of being with one another. We are mocked in our beliefs of the time—that the system, the vote, would save us. 

Selma begins just after MLK received his Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway. Cut to the White House USA, where Dr. King is in the presence of President Lyndon Johnson, who congratulates him on that honorable achievement. But King wants the disenfranchised Blacks of the South to be able to vote. This harks back to the moment when Black Americans won their freedom via the Civil War, where they picked up guns and defeated the Confederacy. But after a few years of Reconstruction, where Blacks had been elected to public office all across America and often enjoyed the liberties of freedom that had been only dreams for centuries, a white racist government/corporate gentlemen’s agreement reversed that situation. The resultant Jim Crow system of institutionalized racism continued on unabated until the time in history symbolized by Selma. There, the struggle amid violent repression would culminate in MLK’s speech on the Voting Rights Act. As many believed then and continue to believe, the vote would bring true power to Black Americans. It is sadly ironic that today, with the election of a Black president, it has become clear that a basic lesson of democracy has been learned after so long and at such a great cost. 

Be that as it may, the present times are reminiscent of Selma, but now masses from different backgrounds are marching to protest police brutality and the murder of unarmed Blacks, just as in the Old South the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by the lynching of Black men and boys. 

The principal actors, David Oyelowo as MLK, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, however, pall next to the character actors who played the various SCLC and SNCC personages. Those Africans who play the central characters were trained in London. They are surrounded by Black Americans who know the public code of comradery that is an important aspect of Black American culture. Oyelowo’s King comes off as absolutely cold. He does not have an aura of greatness, nor that playful modesty and majesty MLK was known for. Seeming more like a clerk or a small-town businessman, Oyelowo says his lines, but the rigor of Southern speech, not only in intonation but in emphasis and dialect, is beyond him. And the paraphrased speeches—as the King estate forbade verbatim quotations—lacked even further emphasis that was intrinsic to the soaring rhetoric and phrasemaking King was famous for. The writer could perhaps have spent more time on those speeches, as they were in essence the hallmark of King’s connection with the public and the essential inspiration to his close followers. This aloof impersonation of MLK was contrasted by his screen wife, whose characterization was far from the staid and true Coretta. Nowhere near a mother figure, she was more like a high-priced model or perhaps an au pair, and the children had no lines at all, no screen time with either parent

Oyelowo is also outdone by fellow British subjects who are Caucasian: Tom Wilkinson, who plays President Johnson, and, although not in a scene together with MLK, Tim Roth, who plays Alabama Governor George Wallace. He is electric, totally believable, and an excellent foil for Wilkinson. 

Dylan Baker, the actor portraying FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, was a bit of a paradox and may as well have been portrayed by another actor representing the Crown, such as someone resembling the late Bob Hoskins. Baker had fairly brief screen time, but appeared to be a tall, and rather fair-skinned WASP, far from the real-life diminutive, dark, and somewhat rotund Hoover. The collaboration with President Johnson is played in a straightforward manner. There should be no doubt about their complicityThe publicity-inspired outcry over the imagined unfair characterization of President Johnson would have us believe that a former cabinet official would know all the doings of the chief executive, and that all that President Johnson said was the absolute truth – as if a Robert Caro did not go to the trouble to write several volumes on his vagaries and victories.                                          

There is a scene where King and Coretta sit listening to a threatening telephone message that ends with a purported recording of the sound effects of King having sex with another woman. That the tape could be a fake or an audio production based on or not based on a real happenstance is not considered. The act of bugging the King telephone was obviously one of the psychological techniques that would increase the anxiety, blood pressure, and stress of the entire family.

White typed letters across the screen throughout the film contain brief messages indicating close surveillance by the FBI and/or other intelligence agencies. Unlike subtitles, these are placed midscreen, superimposed over continuing footage.

The costars of this film are the many character actors whose ensemble performances create an essential supportive emotional landscape. It is too bad that none of the actors representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee have enough screen time to qualify for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. 

The continuous presence of Oprah Winfrey, the workaday, middle-aged woman who marches and gets beaten up several time—so it seems--- is problematic. That character seems to be straight out of The Color Purple, a role she played  in the early days of her film life. She is much too well known to be a bit player with a few lines but plenty of screen time. And since she is an executive producer and her production company has its logo displayed in the closing credits, one wonders whether her financial support was connected to her “face” time.

For real fact-checking concerning Selma and the legacy of Dr. King, one could start with the Pacifica Foundation radio documentary recorded in Selma during the days of the marches. The license the makers of Selma believe they have gives rise to interpretations that can range from casting gaffs to historical distortion. One thing that saves the day is that the manipulation necessary in order to squeeze reality into two hours of screen time cannot change the actuality, the power of what happened. It might have been best for the director, Ava DuVernay, to insist on historical accuracy and thus build the drama accordingly. Whatever— Selma is in the can and will be available as is, for (probably) ever. 

 

Pacifica Foundation’s  90 minute documentary The Second Battle of Selma  Pacifica foundation      1-800-735-7230             pacifica.org         fromthevault.org

The first battle of Selma took place on March 7, 1965, with the bloody conclusion. The second battle went from March 9 to 24, culminating in the march from Selma to Montgomery. This documentary features recordings from those marches and recordings of MLK, James Forman, James Bevel, etc., including a plainspoken woman near the end of the documentary who was quite articulate. 

One of the important points of this radio documentary is that the second march, on March 9, was halted by King as a result of an agreement between him and city, state, and federal officials. This was not known to SNCC’s James Forman or the others in SNCC. Forman made a speech that made it obvious that he did not know. The film gives the impression that the halt and then retreat was  owing to some seemingly mystical intuition on Dr. King’s part.  Perhaps that halt avoided injuries, saved lives, and built dramatic tension that made the concessions necessary to ensure the Voting Rights Act. That happens to be the way it turned out, thank goodness.                                   

P. S.  Despite my complaints seemingly to the contrary, I believe that Ava DuVernay did an admirable job as a rookie major motion picture director. I strongly disagree with her belief that she has the right to slightly alter history for dramatic purposes, but she does not hedge her point of view. The soundtrack, of Selma is nothing short of wonderful, led by the Common and John Legend’s collaboration on the goose-bumpy ”Glory” – with a rap from Common that says it’s all good—with Legend’s soaring vocal somehow paralleling MLK’s oratory magic. The late, great Curtis Mayfield holds down the center with his long-underrated “Keep On Pushin’” that came out as a top-40 R&B hit of the time, inspiring many youths in the Movement across the country. And the brilliant jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran holds down the bottom with a viable semi-symphonic soundtrack that perfectly and often beautifully conveys the high points of dramatic intensity without intruding on the emotion. I believe Selma should win both categories of the Academy Awards for which it is nominated – best film and best song. Although Selma may not be a great film, the power of the history it portrays dominates the category, and the truth it does convey, fused with its wonderful music, makes it a film that despite its contradictions, will grow in acceptance. 

Copyright David Henderson 2015

Tribes announces..... Tribes 2.0- Live from Steve's couch

We are announcing Tribes 2.0: Live from Steve's Couch ---as a way to keep the old Tribes spirit alive  -- and keep a flow of new energy into the 6th St space. So Gander TV put in a camera and mic in 6th St for us.

The working dynamic here is that since Steve left 3rd St and the open door, every night a performance policy there, there has not been the kind of flow-through energy that sustained him and Tribes for a couple of decades. This is an attempt to find a way to find some new Tribes energy, to enter the digital world, and to have some fun with art.

You don't need to do anything different than what you always do here at Tribes, shoot the shit, heckle and read to the blind guy. The only thing that will be different is it'll be taped for people to watch live! (And there will be future events which we are in process of developing)

We will be setting up times and dates for people who want to participate. If you're interested please send us an email at gatheringofthetribes@gmail.com