Donald Trump: The Gift That Keeps on Taking

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As Donald Trump’s popularity was on the ascent last summer, the only thing I found more horrifying than his unabashed ignorance, inelegance and xenophobia was mass media’s complicity in helping to spread his gospel.

Donald Trump

Why, I wondered, had the mainstream press granted The Donald a platform and a megaphone? Was this quintessentially ugly American really to be taken seriously as a potential statesman who might represent the United States at home and abroad? What was the thinking behind increasing the oxygen supply to a man whose facility for civil discourse and nuanced thinking was honed on a reality TV show? And why were news directors so eager to mortgage their reputations, credibility and brands on the rantings of a carnival barker when there was so much at stake for the electorate?

A chance meeting with my friend Manolo* provided an opportunity to get the skinny.

A high-ranking network news executive, Manolo is privy to morning meetings where veteran producers, editors and programmers decide what is newsworthy and how much time to devote to each story. He, more than anyone I knew, could explain how Trump had become the press’ pet of 2015.

“Manolo,” I began, when our paths crossed over drinks at a mutual friend’s home a few months ago, “give it to me straight. When your network gives Donald Trump disproportionate air time to work his magic, is it because you feel compelled to do so as custodians of a public trust? Or is it all about the ratings?”

A devilish smile tugged at the corners of Manolo’s mouth as he raised his eyebrows almost imperceptibly and replied, “Gail, Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.”

I give Manolo the nod for honesty and self-awareness, which is more than I can say for other members of the press.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/opinion/the-trump-effect-and-how-it-spreads.html

Last week, the New York Times’ editorial board published an essay decrying the damage being done by the leading Republican candidate for president. Recalling the national shame of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and comparing it to the darkness many Muslims feel descending around them as a result of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric today, the Times’ editors claimed that the Republican party should have renounced Trump’s views back when he entered the race, “calling Mexico an exporter of criminals and rapists.”

But what of the Times itself, and its responsibility to readers? Why no mention of the well-documented role media played in fanning the flames of anti-Semitism during the rise of the Nazi party in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s? Did no one recognize any parallels between the Times’ devoting so much bandwidth to Trump’s hate-filled speech over the past six months and the Rwandan media campaign that incited ethnic Hutus to kill Tutsis in 1994? Likewise, how could the board overlook the seeds of Dylann Roof’s radicalization (a word rarely, if ever, applied to men who look like Roof and Trump in Western media) after a google search led him to the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens and resulted in his gunning down 10 people– nine of whom died– at a church in Charleston, South Carolina?

 I don’t conflate Trump’s declaring his candidacy for president on June 16th with Roof’s attempt to start a race war one day later.

I am, however, waiting for someone charged with upholding the First Amendment to acknowledge and apologize for the kind of short-term greed that might yield internet clicks and enhanced ad revenues… but ultimately winds up being the gift that keeps on taking.

*Manolo is an alias chosen to conceal the executive’s identity (and acknowledge their unerring taste in designer footwear).

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Wrecked: Sandra Bland and the Power of Unreconciled Pain

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We will probably never know what prompted Brian Encinia to make a U-turn on a four-lane road in Waller County Texas and follow a car with Illinois plates, but we will never forget what happened next.

sandrabland4

After both vehicles came to a stop, Encinia– a 30-year-old Texas trooper who joined the Texas Department of Public Safety about 18 months ago– approached the passenger side of 28-year old Sandra Bland’s car, peered into the window and began:

“Hello, ma’am.”

“Hi.”

“The reason for your stop is you failed to signal a lane change. Got your driver’s license and insurance with you?”

Bland– an alumae of Prairie View A&M University who’d just relocated from Chicago to to start a new job at her alma mater– had merged from the left to right lane of traffic, then onto the shoulder of the roadway (presumably because she realized she was being followed by a marked car with flashing lights) without having turned on her indicator light. If she responded to Encinia’s question, it was inaudible.

Encinia proceeds: “What’s wrong?”

Again, few seconds of silence pass before he asks: “How long have you been in Texas?”

Bland replies that she’d arrived the day before, and Encinia asks her to “give me a few minutes,” as he returns to his car. Several minutes pass before Encinia approaches the driver’s side of Bland’s car and asks, “You OK?”

Bland does little to mask the aggravation in her voice as she responds, “I’m waiting on you, this is your job.”

“You seem very irritated.”

“I am. I really I am. I don’t know what I’m getting a ticket for, you were speeding up, tailing me, I move over and you stop me. So, yeah I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so give me a ticket.”

“Are you done?”

 “You asked me what was wrong and I told you, so now I’m done, yeah.”

Encinia asks Bland to put out her cigarette and she replies, “I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

“Well, you can step out of the car now.” This time, Encinia’s command is terse. The stakes have been raised.

“I don’t have to step out.”

“Step out of the car. Step out of the car!”

“I’m getting removed for a failure to signal?”

“I’m giving you a lawful order.”

When Bland states that she is going to call her lawyer– an already fraught exchange escalates. Encinia threatens, “I’m going to yank you out of here!”

“Oh, you’re going to yank me out of my car? OK.”

The two argue back and forth, Encinia calls for backup, and demands that Bland, “Get out of the car!,” as he draws what appears to be a Taser, yelling “I will light you up!”

Bland exits her car, and the argument grows more heated as the two move out of camera range.

The audio that follows gets even uglier. Encinia finds himself on the receiving end of a string of expletives. There is a scuffle. At one point, Bland cries out “You just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground… I got epilepsy!” To which Encinia replies, “Good.”

Things go downhill from there.

Bland was arrested and jailed while friends and family scrambled to satisfy her $5,000 bond. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell from an apparent suicide by hanging. (In response to supporters calling for a Justice Department investigation, the Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, said in an interview, “Once the entire investigation comes in, it will be reviewed for potential criminal liability on behalf of the trooper, if any.”)

Trooper Encinia now claims he placed Bland in handcuffs because he feared for his own safety. “Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin,” reads the arrest affidavit. “I had a pain in my right leg and suffered small cuts on my right hand.”

What Encinia failed to record in his retelling of the facts, however, was that he’d pulled a stun gun on Bland. He also neglected to document her repeated questions re: why she was being apprehended, and why she had to get out of her car.

Authorities rely on affidavits to determine if there is probable cause for arrest, but the glaring holes in Encinia’s recollections undermined his credibility. After a preliminary investigation found he’d violated the Texas Department of Public Safety’s traffic stop and courtesy procedures during the stop, which was for an improper lane change, Encinia was put on administrative leave.

“Regardless of the situation, the DPS state trooper has an obligation to exhibit professionalism and be courteous,” DPS Director Steve McCraw told the Washington Post. “That did not happen in this situation.”

Speculation about Bland’s mental state have already begun to swirl– as have what the results of her autopsy and toxicology report might reveal to authorities.

But as pundits from mass media to social media debate the state of affairs between white police officers and unarmed African Americans who have been victimized by those sworn to protect and serve the public– it’s time we consider what Eckhart Tolle calls painbody.

Tolle, a spiritual teacher and author, believes that when we experience an emotional trauma that “is not fully faced and dealt with in the moment it arose,” the negativity manifests as energy that lives within our bodies. Over time, a series of these energy fields can accumulate– resulting in a painbody.

Like any energy force, a painbody will not only feed on experiences that resonates with its own kind of energy, but it will create a situation in your life that reflects back its own energy frequency for it to feed on. “Once the pain body has taken you over,” warns Tolle, “YOU WANT MORE PAIN, you become a victim or perpetrator.”

Anger, destructiveness, hatred, resentment, grief, emotional drama, violence and even illness are common triggers.

Based on a YouTube video that Bland recorded just six days before her arrest, in which she speaks out about #BlackLivesMatter, it’s probably safe to say that her painbody might have been triggered by injustice, abuse of authority and racism.

How else to explain the paradox of her collaborating in a vortex of violence and toxicity that ended in her arrest– all the while knowing how easily her life could be taken by Trooper Encinia. Why was she so reckless when her very survival was on the line? Why didn’t Bland behave as if her life mattered when dealing with somebody who was obviously armed, dangerous and demonstrating nothing but ill-will, a pathological need to dominate and firepower?

And what of Encinia?

What triggered him to follow Bland on a quiet road in the first place? Why ticket her for circumstances that he knew were precipitated by his actions? Why, as a trained professional, was his ability to de-escalate the situation so lacking? Why didn’t he answer Bland’s questions as stipulated by his code of conduct? Why did his line of questioning sound more like a provocation than inquiry? And why did law enforcement look like bullying in his hands?

We will probably never know what forces caused Encinia’s and Bland’s painbodies to collide on July 10, but until we recognize ourselves in them– their demise will be be indecipherable from our own.

Change I Can’t Believe In

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Full disclosure: like a lot of people, I simply adore Michelle Obama!

Let's Move!

She has been the subject of past posts on The Gaily Planet and the objet of my unabashed affection since stepping into the limelight as then-Senator Barack Obama’s better half nearly a decade ago.

https://thegailyplanet.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/michelle-ma-belle/

https://thegailyplanet.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/lets-move/

On her journey to becoming FLOTUS, I admired Mrs. O for her sure-footedness in kitten heels on the presidential campaign trail. Even when under fire– her intelligence, composure and poise never foundered, but served to elevate her above the flotsam and jetsam of political discourse as it ran aground. Remarkably, her charisma superseded that of her husband. She came across as sincere in a sea of also-rans whose every move was studied. She conveyed the message that her family came first without sounding preachy or judgmental. And her statuesque physique combined with her C-Suite bona fides commanded attention and respect in equal measure, regardless of her surroundings.

I’ve also been captivated by, of all things, her exquisite hands.

MO

Always manicured, Obama’s long, tapered fingers appear better suited for pursuing a fine art— practicing calligraphy with a quill, plucking the strings of a harp, or playing a harpsichord springs to mind— than toiling in her vegetable garden at the White House. I don’t know how such an accomplished woman, wife and mother of two has managed to maintain such beautiful hands into her sixth decade of life, but they rank high among her many assets.

Not since Jacqueline Kennedy charmed the nation (if not much of the world) over 50 years ago has a figurehead lived up to the honorific with the star-quality and natural grace of Michelle Obama. Which is why I was horrified when a video dubbed #GimmeFive FLOTUS-style debuted this week.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AId-rpiZtoU&feature=youtu.be

Released to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Obama’s Let’s Move! physical fitness campaign, #GimmeFive is meant to “encourage Americans across the country to give out high-fives when they see someone making healthy choices,” and to list five things they are doing to lead healthier lives, according to the Let’s Move! website.

Far be it from me to quibble with women like Mrs. Obama, whose guns rival those of Linda Hamilton’s in The Terminator…

terminator-2-linda-hamilton_610

…or Angela Bassett’s in What’s Love Got to Do With It— the undisputed alpha and omega of feminine badassery in the history of modern cinema— but I’m just saying…

Angela Bassett

If I googled “savoir faire,” I’m fairly certain moving pictures of my beloved first lady busting a move in the gym would not pop up on the search engine.

 Defenders of the video claim the sight of Michelle Obama pumping iron, doing explosive squats and delivering round house kicks to a body bag has inspired them to follow the leader. Yet all I could claim after watching the video was nostalgia for ‘70s funk as interpreted by the Ohio Players.

You are a bad bad Mrs.

In them skin tight britches

Runnin’ folks in ditches

Baby about to bust the stitches, yeah

Seriously?

How did it come to this?

First of all, if the sight of MO’s toned, slender arms in a sleeveless dress has not motivated folks to hit the gym over the past eight years, I doubt anything will.  So let’s table any rationalizations about the greater good the video may inspire for now. Secondly, it’s hard to imagine more unflattering, unimaginative camerawork than what viewers of #GimmeFive were treated to by whomever shot the video. Crotch shots of the first lady in her skin tight workout britches? Mon dieu! Thirdly, whatever happened to a woman’s prerogative to maintain a modicum of mystique?

Again, Jackie O comes to mind.

When Pakistan’s governor, Ayub Khan, gifted the first lady with a horse named Sardar in 1962 (talk about the height of elegance in diplomatic relations!), she nicknamed the jet gelding “Black Jack” and referred to him as her “favorite treasure.” Black Jack went on to serve as the ceremonial rider-less horse during John F. Kennedy’s funeral. But back to my original point…

Although pictures of Jackie Kennedy astride her horse have been burned into our collective consciousness, she was lucky enough to have lived in an era where no one dared ask her to demonstrate exactly how she maintained the kind of thigh, back and abdominal muscle strength required to make riding a thousand-pound beast at full gallop look so effortless. She was never required to divulge her beauty secrets for maintaining such a trim figure postpartum.  Nor was she ever asked to give the ThighMaster a whirl for the cameras, thank goodness. Thus, we get to treasure snapshots (like the one below) of elegance in motion, without getting too literal, when remembering the wife of the 35th president of the United States.

Jackie Kennedy & Sardar

Sadly, such considerations are a thing of the past for the wife of the  44th president of the United States. 

I fear our populist inclinations have shattered whatever semblance of cultural refinement and propriety we’ve managed to retain since the era of Camelot. I don’t know which White House advisor thought it would be a good idea to level Michelle Obama– and, let’s face it, nothing levels a lady like watching her struggle to hoist 35lb weights under the non-nonsense gaze of a personal trainer in some drab gym– but the inclination dovetails nicely with a larger pattern among politicians, celebrities and authority figures who are eager to convince the rest of us that they (the public figures) are “are just like us,” when, in fact, we might have less in common with them than our egos would allow. Moreover, given our country’s complicated history with black bodies being sexualized and held up as paragons of athleticism,  it rankles when the usual rules of feminine modesty are not extended to women of color. I don’t want people ogling Mrs. Obama’s bare underarms or the contours of her derriére as silhouetted in leggings (lovely though they may be). Never mind a first lady of color who, for all her physical strength, also possesses the long-lost qualities of a damsel.

So why am I so distressed?

It’s not logical, but my friend Bill put it best when he said: “There is something viscerally disturbing to me about seeing women kicking, hitting or screaming.”

A wonderful hybrid of thoroughly modern man and chivalrous Southern gentleman, I should mention Bill also has an aversion to seeing women “changing tires, mowing lawns or doing anything that causes them to break a sweat.” And though he has the self-awareness to acknowledge that his views are “far from politically correct,” he also has my vote for speaking truth to a change I can’t believe in.

 

#dignitymatters

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The day after a videotape of Toya Graham beating her 16-year-old son went viral– inspiring headlines, tweets and calls for her to be named mother-of-the-year– the Baltimore mom sat down with CBS’s Gayle King who asked, “Do you feel like a hero mom this morning?

toya graham

To her credit, Graham, who took matters into her own hands after identifying her child among a group of teenagers vandalizing and looting property during a riot sparked by the arrest and unexplained death of Freddie Gray, replied without equivocation, “I don’t.

In fact, Graham was furious with her son for defying her orders to go to school that day, stay out of trouble and do his level best from becoming “the next Freddie Gray,” as she later put it.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/baltimore-mom-toya-graham-on-smacking-son-at-riots-freddie-gray/

Parents losing their tempers when children go astray is nothing new. But after witnessing Graham’s no holds barred attack on her boy– which the single mother of six has acknowledged was not unprecedented–  I could not reconcile the carnivalesque tone that sprang from what amounted to an assault on a young man’s dignity in broad daylight.

Would the New York Post have been as keen to make light of the situation had the recipient of Graham’s fury been a girl? How would we have responded had a father disciplined his son in the same manner? Would the scene have elicited as many giggles had a dad unleashed a hail of punches on his daughter? (If the latter made you flinch, what does it say about our culture that the idea of men hitting girls is any more offensive than women hitting boys?) Have we become so desensitized to the visual of black males being brutalized at the hands of rogue police officers, that we can’t distinguish right from wrong at the hands of those who are sworn to protect and serve us by a higher power?

Based on the Facebook feed that was generated when a friend posted a picture of Graham in attack mode with a caption that read: “That awkward moment when momma embarrasses you in front of the entire nation cause you’re throwing rocks at the police,” the answer was made abundantly clear.

  • Todd Moye Gee, I wonder where that kid learned to act violently.
  • Alison Gibson She’s doing what responsible parents should do when their children act like this. Notice, he wasn’t surprised she swung on him. She’s trying to teach him to be responsible and not follow what these other idiots are doing. I bet he won’t throw another rock at anybody.
  • Gail O’Neill I’m with Todd. While I applaud the mother’s goal, her parenting game leaves much to be desired.
  • Shaka Lias Cobb She got my vote! Mama of the year
  • Alison Gibson Well, would you rather have the police beat him? She did EVERYTHING a good parent should do when her child has gone against his mother’s wishes.
  • Sesalee Woods Why is it that when children misbehave we forget that we too disobeyed as children and were raised by productive, intelligent, tax paying and sometimes God fearing parents? Did the corrective measures we earned from said disobedience cause this selective amnesia with symptoms of tsk-tsking, condemnation, and pomposity? I’m intrigued. 😅😅😅😅
  • Alison Gibson Sesalee Woods, the “corrective measures” I received as a child have helped me become the law abiding citizen I am today. Again, I see nothing wrong with what the mother did.
  • Shaka Lias Cobb Had he been hurt or killed down there throwing rocks and cops and whatever else he was doing then people would be asking. Where was his mama?
    Well she made sure that didn’t happen it.
    What was she suppose to do? Approach him
    And request nicely that he come home? That was not a nice situation he was in or that he put her in so her behavior is warranted.
  • Sesalee Woods Nor do I Alison Gibson. I just can’t get with folks who judge the parents and charge them with not doing a good job or somehow failing because the kid misbehaves. It happens with the best parents.
  • Alison Gibson It’s like parents are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We can’t have it both ways. We know the difference between abuse and discipline. Trust and believe, she probably talked to her son about his behavior on SEVERAL occasions but he tried to test his mom. He didn’t think she’d know he was down there clowning and acting a fool. She showed him. She needs to make him go help the groups trying to clean up after these fools who destroyed things. That would be my punishment for him.
  • Jared A. Ditaway Mines would have done the same thing!!! Good for her!!!
    22 hrs · Like · 2
  • Gregory Moore Who are we to judge her skills as a parent???

Beat his ass for embarrassing the family; since he doesn’t have the common sense if not destroying property.

Good for her

10 hrs · Like · 2

As the lines between discipline and abuse blur, I vividly recall the collective outrage when Alec Baldwin lost his cool in a voicemail to his then 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, eight years ago.

Appropriately, nobody attempted to defend Baldwin or lionize him for keeping his kid in check by any means necessary. Implicit in most discussions was the fundamental agreement that as challenging as parenting can be, an adult’s response to a child’s provocation needn’t be an either/or proposition. No one argued that the ends justified the means, or that Ireland should be put in her place lest she go astray. And no one suggested that bullying voicemails might cement Baldwin’s place in the hall of fame for well-intentioned dads.

So why the double-standard for Graham?

He be say you be colonial man

You don be slave man before

Them don release you now

But you never release yourself

~Fela Kuti, “Colonial Mentality”

Just as #blacklivesmatter struck a chord on social media and forced us all to rethink old assumptions, I’d like to see #dignitymatters (don’t look for it anywhere else because I just made it up) gain traction and alter perceptions. I’d like us to reflect on how the legacies of slavery, lynchings and unchecked police brutality have turned crimes against humanity into spectator sport. And I’d like for parents to move away from tired, old tropes like “my mother beat me, and I turned out fine,” when self-awareness may well be the first casualty of physical abuse.

In the meantime, as public humiliation trails Toya Graham’s boy into manhood, I wonder if his shame will harden into antipathy for women. I wonder if he’ll choose to negotiate peace and resolve conflicts with words or brute strength when dealing with woman, children and authority figures going forward. I wonder if reason can resonate with the man if the child has been trained to respond to violence. And I wonder if, should he be blessed with children one day, it will occur to him that appealing to a child’s conscience and intellect can be even more effective than a beating.

Are You Proud of Your Work?: The Levi Pettit Story

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My girlfriend, Lisa Kauffman, was 29 years old and pregnant with her first son when she decided to build a log cabin one hour outside her hometown of Calgary. She was a model back then– whose wide-eyed gaze, utter lack of guile and halo of cropped, flaxen curls put her in constant demand with designers, advertising executives and top fashion photographers from New York to Paris.

Lisa Kauffmann

No surprise, those physical features also made Lisa an easy mark to others who could spot her trusting nature. And the contractor she hired to install drywall in her new home was one such individual. His work was as shoddy as he was unscrupulous. But fate saved the day for Lisa when her dad, Eberhard, stopped by the construction site one afternoon.

A contractor himself, Eberhard had grown up in Germany where pride of workmanship meant everything to him. He was exacting, but never belittled his workers. So when he visited Lisa’s home to do a little quality control one afternoon and saw the sub-contractors crooked wall, he simply turned to his peer and quietly asked, “Are you proud of your work?”

With that, the sub-contractor unpacked his tools without a word, tore down the wall and rebuilt it from scratch. He didn’t stop until his workmanship met a professional standard.

Nearly twenty years after first hearing that story, Eberhard’s question came rushing back to me after watching Levi Pettit’s public apology yesterday.

http://on.msnbc.com/1buGE03

After the University of Oklahoma student was videotaped singing a “hate-filled, racist and homicidal chant,” as characterized by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, the clip went viral and the repercussions were swift.

Pettit and another student, Parker Rice, were expelled from university. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity that counted Pettit as a brother, closed its University of Oklahoma chapter and has since launched a diversity plan. Social media discussions trended toward the insidious nature of racism, while network and cable news programs convened panels to talk about the problem (with the usual rank and file of talking heads miraculously diversified overnight).

Finally, the inevitable press conference came, with Pettit flanked by a dozen men and women of the cloth, politicians and civic leaders as the newly-chastened Dallas-native offered, “Let me start by saying I’m sorry, deeply sorry. I’m so sorry for the pain that I’ve caused and I want you to hear that directly from me. Even though I don’t deserve it I would like to ask for your forgiveness.”

levi-pettit-apologizes-for-racist-fraternity-chantjpg-5939fb0809fcdbc5

Pettit has my forgiveness. But the optics were not good from my vantage point. They reminded me of any number of political scandals in which elected officials have been outed for marital infidelity before dragging their poor wives into the spotlight when her only sin was proximity to an unfaithful husband. It’s a great distraction for a bloodthirsty public, but utterly unhelpful. Ditto with the all-black coterie, that was assembled for Pettit’s mea culpa, the sole purpose of which was to telegraph a tacit agreement that all had been forgiven in the black community.

I have two problems with such slick orchestrations: 1) it presumes that racism is only offensive to people of color— which it is not, and 2) it presumes that young men like Pettit emerge from a vacuum— which they do not.

Where, I wondered, were Susan and Brody Pettit as their son was being hung out to dry? Shortly after Levi’s expulsion, his parents were quick to release a statement calling their son a “good boy” who made a ”horrible mistake.” So why were they not by his side when he needed them most?

Where was the administration and teaching staff of Highland Park High School, from which Pettit was launched into his college career? Likewise, where was the headmaster of the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas from whence Rice came? What are their theories on how their now-infamous alums ran off the rails?

Where were the elders of Levitt’s place of worship now that their prodigal son had come home in such spectacular fashion?

And where were Pettit’s friends? His neighbors? His extended family? Those most likely to harbor some of his more narrow beliefs— thus, most likely to grow if willing to reëxamine the genesis of such beliefs.

Most of all, where was the Old Glory when we needed her? 

American Flag ~ Todd Monaghan

Though I am not one for waving flags and jingoistic sloganeering— if ever there was a time to have rolled out the American flag as backdrop to a breaking news story, that time was yesterday. Because unless Americans are as vested in examining our shadow side– which can breed the kind of cavalier, unconsidered, malignant expression that spewed forth from a bunch of drunken frat boys on a bus ride to nowhere (and can manifest everywhere from who we befriend, to who we hire, to who we shoot first and question later) as we are in celebrating our light side– which breeds the possibility for movement from Selma to the White House– we will never overcome.

The sins of a nation have been heaped upon the shoulders of a young man foolish enough to utter, out loud, what he’s obviously been taught (though, to his credit, he refused to rat out the lyricist when pressed about the origins of the words to a song that will follow him to his grave) while growing up in the United States. Which begs the only question circling in my mind today, “America, are you proud of your work?”

Photo of Lisa Kauffmann for British Vogue by Patrick Demarchalier

American Beauty 911, Todd Monaghan, 2001, 64″ x 84”, oil and egg shells on canvas, Emory University Permanent Collection http://www.tmnorthwood.com/tm.html 

What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks?

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Only two things kept my spirits from sinking lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon wheel track when 12 Years a Slave was named Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

The first was the sight of my girlfriend, Nadeen, literally jumping for joy before breaking into a happy dance that outlasted (12 Years director) Steve McQueen’s rambling acceptance speech. The second was the realization that friends and family across the country– whose judgement, taste and intelligence I really respect– would be as thrilled as Nadeen with what they regarded as a victory.

But after a rash of films in which African-Americans starred as maids, butlers, slaves and general-purpose receptacles for other people’s trash had swept box offices and the imaginations of movie-goers one year too many, I’d had enough of the entire genre and was not feeling the love.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s no dignity in a life of service or the telling of all stories. As the direct beneficiary of two grandmothers who worked as domestics after migrating to the States from Jamaica, I am well acquainted with the fortitude, strength of character and nobility required of anyone who would willingly accept a dead-end job to ensure limitless possibilities for their progeny. Such selflessness only heightens my respect and admiration for my grandmothers. But it also bears noting that neither woman was shaped by her sacrifices. In fact, their examples taught me that forfeiture of agency in ones personal life did not have to go hand in hand with being deemed a second-class citizen due to race, class, immigrant and/or socio-economic status.

To the contrary, my grandmothers were steel magnolias to all who knew and loved them. They were matriarchs who commanded respect in their homes and communities. Their lives did not revolve around those of the people they served Monday through Friday. Nor were their off-duty hours wasted by rehashing or recuperating from whatever pettiness befell them in their places of employment. They were neither defined, nor confined by their job descriptions. Instead, they had interior lives. They gave as good as they got. They counselled their grown children, and over-indulged their grandchildren. They fulfilled promises and fell short. They might go to church on Sunday, then gossip on Monday. Depending on the day of the week, their mood or who was watching, they could be sinner or saint– just like you and me. And just like you and me, it’s impossible to imagine a prevailing circumstance which might have precluded their humanity.

I’d hoped to get glimpses of women like my grandmothers and their predecessors when movies like The HelpThe Butler and 12 Years a Slave were released. I was eager to bear witness to their stories in time-appropriate contexts. I wanted to see them in all of their glorious and maddening complexity. But all I got were slap-dash, broad stroke reenactments which rendered the protagonists either all-good or all-evil. Whatever their motivation, the writers and directors of these films seemed hell-bent on serving up a smörgåsbord of smackdowns: Hollywood’s version, I suppose, of what it means to be black in America. Nuanced plot lines, layered narratives and the kind of character development which allow for the suspension of disbelief were the first casualties– making the likelihood of nodding, or smiling or weeping in recognition of what I know to be universal truths when viewing a movie (or any work of fine art) an impossibility.

In this parallel universe, service was tantamount to servitude, cynicism trumped sincerity and the story lines veered from simplistic to sensational. But absent subtlety, depth, color or warmth a film cannot resonate on any significant level. At best, they will look like hyper-realized versions of real life. At worst, they’ll make the audience painfully aware that we are watching a movie, as opposed to being engrossed in a great story.

The affront of slipshod storytelling aside– which does more to dishonor the legacies of women like my grandmothers than not– the most alarming aspect of this cottage industry has been America’s apparently insatiable appetite for the most mono-dimensional portrayals of people who look like me, in spite of being completely unrecognizable to me. Characters who are first and foremost victims: satellites orbiting someone else’s planet, helpless, hopeless, pathetic, impoverished, emasculated, infantilized  and, though worthy of our pity, seldom worthy of our respect as equals.

And then came Belle.

belle

Director Amma Asante’s film is based on a real life character named Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804); the child of an enslaved African woman and a British naval officer. After her mother’s death, Belle was placed in the care of her great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who raised her as a gentlewoman at Kenwood House, just outside of London. Murray and his wife had no children of their own, and were raising another niece, Elizabeth Murray, by the time Belle became part of the household. There, the girls– who were very close in age– were raised as sisters and immortalized in a portrait that hung in their childhood home from 1779 until 1922; when it was moved to Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland.

 The painting of Belle and Elizabeth is attributed to German neoclassical painter Johann Zoffany and considered groundbreaking not only for the vivacity in Belle’s facial expression and body language, but because her eye line falls on a parallel plane with that of her cousin– an 18th century English aristocrat– a practice that was unheard of at the time given the girls’ respective ethnicities.

In Belle, we have a heroine who is as quick-witted as she is sharp-tongued. A coquette as well-read, refined and cultured as she is thoughtful, sensitive and sure-footed. A bona fide beauty, swaddled in silk brocades, with an ever-present strand of pearls circling her delicate neck and fastened with a silk bow. A young woman whose mastery of the King’s English is as pitch perfect as her rendering of a piano solo by Mozart or Bach. Yet none of these assets are enough to protect Belle from the assault that awaits anyone unlucky enough to have been born out-of-wedlock, black and female in her time and place.

By the same token, Belle is not defined by her vulnerability, and it certainly doesn’t discourage her from perpetrating the sins of her (English) forefathers upon those of lower birth who live and work at Kenwood House. Belle’s casual disregard of (if not outright hostility toward) a lady’s maid in the family’s employ, who is also a woman of color, show how a victim can victimize others. And when Belle chooses a suitor, she does so with a flinty-eyed awareness that choices based upon love, money or position in society will result in starkly different outcomes for herself and any children she might bear.

Like Belle, every character in the film is a study in shadow and light. The contradictions help breathe life into the players– giving them depth, making them believable and allowing viewers to empathize with them whether they are guided by their higher or lower natures.

Belle’s Uncle William, for example, says he loves his great-niece “as if she were born to me,” but even his profound affection for the child fails to inform his moral convictions where bucking societal conventions are concerned. From not permitting Belle to dine with her family whenever the Murrays entertain guests, to his equivocation on the slave trade– Uncle William is neither satanic nor paragon of virtue. He’s just a man doing the best he can with the cards he’s been dealt. Lady Mary Murray, Belle’s spinster aunt, has the gruff exterior and short-temper of a harridan, but her sharp edges are precisely what make the occasional flashes of gentleness and compassion so significant when coming from her. And though Aunt Mary’s words can slice-and-dice her young charges one moment, Penelope Wilton’s ability to convey maternal pride in the next, with the slightest arch of an eyebrow or almost imperceptible twitch at the corner of her mouth, is downright breathtaking to behold. (Getting to watch Wilton in another period piece and out from under the considerable shadow cast by her Downton Abbey co-star Maggie Smith was an absolute delight! Moreover, Wilton proves herself an equal master of the kinds of zingers, one-liners and cutting remarks that have made the Dowager Countess Grantham such an iconic character on Masterpiece Theatre.) Even Belle’s most staunch ally, her beloved cousin Elizabeth, is not above sinking to conventional thinking when caught in a pique of rage that is spurred by her frustration over being a woman in a man’s world.

My initial attraction to Belle was purely superficial. I am a sucker for period films with their elegant interiors; baroque costumes; requisite unrequited love stories and strict protocols surrounding language, manners and comportment. And I knew that getting to watch a woman of color at the center of it all would be as much icing on the cake, as a revelation, to me. So much so, that my first thought upon seeing the ethereal beauty of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the title character, in a trailer for Belle was “What light through yonder window breaks?” Not only for the actress’s obvious intelligence, innate grace and haute couture, but for what was missing from the picture. Because gone were the mainstays of too many films featuring African-American casts which foretell the “authentic ethnic experience” about to ensue: elements like self-loathing, misogyny, improper English, slang, over-the-top gestures, histrionics, aprons, raggedy clothes, head scarves, mournful soundtracks, pathology, backbreaking labor, sweat, hot stoves, cotton fields and unanswered prayers. These aural, visual and psychic cues are no more accurate today than they were 235 years ago, and only serve to keep all parties in the dark.

 

Yet for all of Belle’s beauty, the film’s value is far from skin deep.

When a filmmaker loves her characters enough to show them as they are, for better or worse; trusts that her audience does not wish to be spoon-fed a singular narrative so that we can all reach identical conclusions by the close of a film; and manages to upend stereotypes and tropes– without lecturing or pontificating, this is my idea of true cinematic victory. And while I hope that Asante’s effort will at least challenge other directors to think before releasing the next paint-by-numbers portrait of people of color on film– even if it never happens again, I will be grateful to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Belle will be released in the US on May 2, 2014.

Back By Popular Demand

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I was crushed when Amy Adams wasn’t named Best Actress for her smart, colorful and surefooted portrayal of Sydney Prosser in “American Hustle” during Sunday night’s Oscar telecast. But even if the Academy was too short-sighted to recognize the actress’s genius, they ought to thank her for bringing sexy back to the red carpet without deploying any of the usual cheap tricks.
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when stripper-chic déshabillé sauntered out of the clubs and into broad daylight, but after trying to un-see what my disbelieving eyes had seen on one too many red carpets, awards shows and even at my local mall for the past several years, I finally reconciled myself to the fact that women had bought into the lie that more is more. That the only thing more beautiful than the female form in it’s natural state– as celebrated by visual artists for millennia– was the female form as reconfigured by Spanx, Wonder Bras, silicone, breast implants, botox and plastic surgery. And that absent having anything important to say, women could always shake their asses to attract attention and move some merchandise.
And man, has that strategy worked.
After J-Lo backed that thang up on Pitbull at the American Music Awards in 2011, it was only a matter of time before American Idol came a knockin’ to recruit her as a judge.
Had Anja Rubik not worn a gown which revealed exactly where her hip bone connected to her thigh bone for the Met Gala in 2012, I seriously doubt that I’d remember the model’s name today.
 When Miley Cyrus showed the world what she was twerkin’ with at the VMA’s in 2013, images of a wholesome Hannah Montana promptly tumbled from our collective consciousness and kick started her new career.
   And in spite of my being naive enough to think “Et tu, Queen Bee?” after Blue Ivy’s mommy left precious little to my imagination during her big show opener at the Grammy Awards this year, Beyoncé’s latest album had just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart without benefit of a single pre-sale announcement.
And then came Adams– bucking the trend and styled to perfection in “American Hustle” by the film’s costume designer Michael Wilkinson.

Together, the duo accomplished the seemingly impossible by channeling the ’70s in all of its sartorial splendor without making the period dress look as clownish, cheap and over-the-top (bell bottoms, Applejacks and marshmallow platforms anyone?) as those of us who actually lived through the era can attest.

No doubt, getting to work with an actress whose intelligence is her calling card, though not so much that it sublimates her sexuality, was an excellent start for Wilkinson. But his background in theatre, opera and ballet costume design obviously honed his talent for delivering the razzle-dazzle with sophistication and restraint.
Who, after all, but a master craftsman who truly loves and respects women could make plunging necklines, thigh-high slits and sheer fabrics that afford peek-a-boo glimpses of an unadulterated bust line (which, in Adams’ case, was more demure than in-your-face) look positively elegant as opposed to trashy? Which is not to say that Wilkinson couldn’t go there when necessary. Jennifer Lawrence (who I believe deserved a win in the Best Supporting Actress category, as did Wilkinson for Costume Design) played a character in “American Hustle,” for example, whose consistently too-tight & too-shiny wardrobe perfectly mirrored her emotional instability as well as the string of poor choices she’d made in her life.
   Ultimately, a very thin line separated Adams’ character from Lawrence’s, but the distinction was a great lesson in how too much of a good thing is rarely a good idea where timeless style is concerned. And, let’s face it, just as sure as we love looking back on pictures screen idols from 50 years ago, so too shall future generations revisit images of pictures today’s super novas and either think “Wow!
…or “What was the hell she thinking?!

Whether the costumes from “American Hustle” inspired women to reconsider what is required of them to bring drama and sex-appeal to the red carpet, or the timing was sheer coincidence, I was happy to see that the tide had seemingly turned during this year’s Oscars. In fact, with one exception, I was not horrified by a single look all night. Actually, make that two now that I remember the woman who I mistook for a man all night until one of the girlfriends I was watching the Academy Awards with did a goggle search to settle the dispute. On second thought, make that three exceptions as I also consider the very pregnant actress whose beaded green gown accented way too much information.

But I digress…
Overall, I was charmed by the return to glamour.
     The white coats on gentleman, and ruby red lips on ladies.
Matthew McConaughey

The delicate heels and understated accessories.

   The mix of slightly messy chignons, flowing waves and darling pixie cuts.
    The billowing skirts, sweeping scarves and delicate trains.
   The disciplined structure, tailoring and draping of rich textiles in jewel tones, miles of tulle and nude dressing.
   Gaga looked every inch the lady in a pale lavender/pink strapless column with reflective deco accents– more like a muse to the French couturier Erté, in fact, than her typically edgy, ironic self.
   And even babies got on board board with the refined aesthetic.
   Honorable mentions to silver belles Constance Leto and Mary Kathleen McConaughey who not only threatened to steal the show from their Oscar winning sons (Jared and Matthew), but provided a beautiful contrast to all the nipping & tucking, slicing & dicing, filling & buffing that made some of the more mature screen legends in attendance practically unrecognizable to their lifelong fans. Kudos to both ladies for knowing that too much plastic surgery not only fails to make the patient look younger, but can sometimes accelerate the aging process as it telegraphs ones fear of growing older to even the most untrained eye.

And then there was the undisputed belle of the ball, Lupita Nyong’o wearing a silk gorgette soleil pleated Prada gown in a shade of cerulean blue that the actress said reminded her of “the sky in Nairobi,” where she was raised.

Like Adams, Nyong’o is an actress whose brains trump her considerable beauty. Moreover, she always has something meaningful to say– whether paying tribute to the spirit of Patsy, the character she portrayed in “12 Years a Slave,” during an acceptance speech that reduced both fans and colleagues to tears, or confessing how she’d once enjoyed “the seduction of inadequacy” as a young girl to a group of women at a pre-Oscar luncheon.

http://www.upworthy.com/oscar-winner-lupita-nyongos-speech-on-beauty-that-left-an-entire-audience-speechless

And yet, for all of her considerable gifts, it was apparently Nyong’o’s poise and aristocratic bearing that most charmed everyone– prompting red carpet watchers to describe her first and foremost as princess-like and regal.

It’s any one’s guess whether the trend started by Adams and upheld so effortlessly by Nyong’o can be sustained. For one thing, they are both exceptional women in an industry that celebrates sameness. And the fickle winds of fashion are constantly shifting. But even if the magic does not last, what a pleasure it has been to be reminded that less is always more. That there is no substitute for natural beauty. And that if you don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute, it is far better to be an observer than do whatever it takes to rock the mike.

But now that ladylike dressing is back by popular demand, I think the Academy would do well to encourage a complimentary tradition to keep the comeback alive at The Oscars.
Legend has it that there used to be men who would instinctively rush to the aid of damsels in distress, unasked, to extend a hand if he saw her getting tangled up in the skirts of her ball gown or tottering on too-high heels before disaster struck. I believe they were called gentlemen… or Frenchmen.
Helping hand: Actor Jean DuJardin gives the embarrassed actress a helping hand

   But as Jennifer Lawrence taught us at last year’s Academy Awards, and again as she took a tumble in the car park upon arrival at this year’s ceremony, such men are apparently in very short supply in Hollywood. So I think the Academy should formalize the position and hire an army of escorts to assist actresses when they are at their most vulnerable: as they alight from limousines, navigate rain-soaked receiving lines for photo-ops and ascend slick staircases to receive their awards? It would be a great look for the modern man, deeply appreciated by women in need and, with any luck, the trend might even catch on far from Tinsel Town… at a mall near you!

Hollywood’s Downward Dogma

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Like all profound lessons, the first one my yoga teacher Kquvien taught me was simple.

In an effort to make her students more mindful of how we carried ourselves in and out of the studio, Kquvien demonstrated how posture could inform our mental outlooks for better or worse. Slumped shoulders, concave chests and downcast eyes, she said, would reinforce feeling of depression, defeat and pessimism. Whereas heads held high, raised sternums, shoulders pinned back and gazes trained at eye level or above would bolster feeling of well-being, courage and optimism.

Six years later, these stark contrasts still serve as all the encouragement I need to turn my thinking around whenever an emotional setback threatens to alter my physicality. In fact, second to my mother’s relentless insistence to “stand up straight” throughout a very awkward adolescence, Kquvien’s insights remain the greatest influence on my posture today. But this heightened awareness has also sensitized me to a disturbing trend in Hollywood that’s been gaining steam and stands an excellent chance of being rewarded at tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony.

When I chose to see “12 Years a Slave” last year, it was with a great deal of trepidation. After watching films like “The Butler,” “The Help,”, “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball” I’d had enough of the downward dogma that sees to be a prerequisite for telling stories about African American men and women. I’d lost my appetite for seeing a lion of a man like Forrest Whittaker don a pair of white gloves and bow under the unbearable weight of civil injustice. If I never had to witness a goddess like Viola Davis fasten a starched white apron about her trim waist again– knowing this would be her only defense against the slings and arrows of racial apartheid and profound ignorance– good riddance. And I most certainly would not mourn the loss were someone to tell me that Mo’Nique’s dramatization of a mommy-gone-mad on steroids was to be my first and last taste of such toxic medicine.

For the record, I respect any artist’s right to tell stories that reveal ugly truths about the human condition. Feature films do not have to be wrapped in rainbows (to borrow Zora Neale Hurston’s exquisite metaphor) to attract my attention and command my respect. But when the characterizations of people who look exactly like me are so far-fetched and extreme that they border on caricature, the filmmaker is guaranteed to lose my trust. Likewise, given the Academy’s apparently insatiable appetite for portrayals of black people who are depraved, depressed, oppressed, suppressed, pathological, pathetic, self-hating and/or self-destructive, the cynic in me now wonders if the shortest route between an actor (of color) and an Oscar might not be to play someone who possesses one or all of the above traits.

12 Years a Slave (2013) Poster

To put it very mildly, I was not a fan of “12 Years a Slave.” The film felt more like pornography to me than a work of art. And though the director, Steve McQueen, succeeded in crafting a film that would shock, excite and titillate his audiences, the film neither taught me anything I didn’t already know about the peculiar institution, nor gave me any insights on Solomon Northrup– a real life character who was free-born in 1808 then kidnapped and sold into slavery when he was 33 years old. To the contrary, under McQueen’s heavy handed direction, slow-motion examination of whippings, torture and degradation and one particularly gruesome sequence in which Solomon literally exorcises his demons upon the person of a female slave named Patsy– I was left feeling more brutalized than enlightened. Feeling, I imagine, how the jury must have felt by the end of the Rodney King trial over 20 years ago.

Early in the process of that infamous court case, the defense attorneys wisely theorized that the surest way to eliminate any empathy for King’s suffering would be to show the jury the videotape of his savage beating at the hands of the LAPD repeatedly. The gamble worked, because though it seems counter intuitive one of the best ways to desensitize an objective party to the pain and suffering of another human being is to force feed images of the victim being brutalized. At some point, King evidently became more of a receptacle for punishment in the mind’s of the jurors than a living, breathing man who deserved service, respect and equal protection under the law. The kind of man, for example, who might remind a juror of a beloved big brother, or favorite uncle or kind-hearted neighbor. The takeaway for me was that to know a man is to know his humanity: and absent the former, the latter is an impossibility.

For all the chest-beating, tears, drama and accolades that Northup’s story has generated, I left “12 Years a Slave” feeling  like I knew everything about the slave and nothing about the man. And in order to love, respect or truly care about anyone, we must know them in all of their dimensions. Thus, it will feel like a very hollow victory to me if McQueen’s picture wins any of the nine Oscars for which it has been nominated because without knowing who Solomon Northrop was how can we expect the story of his life to resonate beyond the pomp of tonight’s broadcast? And if it does not resonate and change minds, then what what was the point?

Ironically, the one film I saw in 2013 that introduced me to a character with whom I had very little familiarity in real life, yet left me with the kind of profound understanding that will inform my thinking about a sub-section of young black men for the rest of my life was completely ignored by the Academy. In fact, if you have not already seen “Fruitvale Station” by first time feature film director Ryan Coogler, I recommend you rent it and watch it in place of the Oscars if you want to have a truly meaningful and lasting experience in front of your TV tonight.

“Fruitvale Station” chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed in cold blood by BART officers at San Francisco’s Fruitvale subway station on New Year’s Day in 2009. In his masterpiece of a film, Coogler manages to render Grant with respect, love and attention to the kind of detail needed to bring two-dimensional characters to life. The possibility of falling in love and having our hearts broken is what makes cinema a worthwhile endeavor. And it takes a skilled craftsman to get viewers to willingly walk that razor’s edge between hope and despair without feeling like we’ve been conned, tricked or condescended to when the lights come up at the conclusion of the piece.

As a screenwriter and director, Coogler has already distinguished himself as such a storyteller. The 27-year-old has enough courage and respect for his audience to tell us the whole truth about his protagonist– without need to manipulate, sugarcoat or obscure the truth. Thus, we get to see Grant as both an unfaithful and loving partner to the mother of his child. We watch him code-switch from happy-go-lucky kid who can chat up a customer in need of a good recipe for fried fish at the high-end foodie emporium from which he was recently fired, to a desperado whose efforts to get his old job back turn menacing.

Grant served time in prison for dealing drugs, but it was impossible to judge the morality of his decisions once we were left to reconcile the reality of his life (which afforded him as many opportunities as second chances– which is to say zero) with that of a son, brother and father who wanted to provide for his family in spite of having no access to a legitimate revenue stream.  And in the most touching scene of the film, we watch an utterly dead-eyed Grant respond to the taunts of a fellow inmate in kind one moment, before getting a glimpse of the frightened little boy who only wants a hug from his mother as she retreats from the Visiting Room where he is incarcerated without so much as a backwards glance.

Again, I knew very little about the ins and outs of lives like Oscar Grant’s before seeing “Fruitvale Station,” and am ashamed to admit that I had little to no compassion for how boys and men like him might wind up making bad decisions that can ruin lives and destroy entire communities. In Coogler’s capable hands, however, not only was it unthinkable to judge Grant, but I was hard pressed to rationalize how I might have made different choices in my life had I been born into Grant’s circumstances. In other words, once I got to know him I loved him. And once I loved and knew where he was coming from, how could I not root for him?

Thanks also to Michael B. Jordan’s nuanced, layered and unadorned portrayal of Grant, I immediately recognized his humanity, his swagger, his family and the depth of love that makes young men like him the favorite uncle: the one who is always accused of getting his little nieces and nephews “all riled up before bedtime” owing to the excitement he can generate in their tiny hearts just by being proximate to them. That Jordan is the kind of actor who you can actually see thinking was icing on the cake.

How the Academy might have overlooked a diamond like “Fruitvale Station” while heaping praise on “12 Years a Slave” is a conundrum that has me more excited about the red carpet portion of tonight’s ceremony that the actual awards. But even if my worst fears are realized, I already know that Kquvien’s voice will ring in my ears– reminding me to keep my head up, shoulders back and gaze high– all the while praying that Hollywood’s romance with the downward dogma of the African American experience is just a passing fancy whose time has finally come and gone.

The Butler: Taking a Long View on History

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Color me kooky, but when friends told me that I had to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I took them at their word.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) Poster

It’s ah-MAAAAZE-ing!” raved one . “EXCELLENT!!!,” exclaimed another. “The best film I’ve seen on race relations… ever!” promised a third.

High praise for a director who once cast Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball: a role Angela Bassett famously turned down saying, “I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on  film… It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later.” Granted, Berry subsequently won a Best Actress Oscar for her star turn. But true to Bassett’s conviction, 12 years later I still cringe at the soft core visual of Leticia moaning “I want you to make me feel good. Can you make me feel good?” This, as she stripped for her would-be (if stunned by the out-of-the-blue overture) lover. A man she’d met just hours prior and who, coincidentally, had overseen the execution of Leticia’s husband.

Daniels also cast Mo’Nique as Mary in Precious. Her tour de force portrayal of the title character’s mother earned the actress an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But thanks to the graphic depiction of Mary’s unrelenting emotional and physical abuse of her child– including dropping a television set down a stairwell, with the intention of having it land on Precious’ head– I still struggle to draw a distinction between Mary and any number of Loony Tunes cartoon characters with an axe to grind and a weapons cache at their disposal.

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Personally, I prefer a  good story that captivates and compels my attention without stooping to sentimentality, melodrama or simplistic black & white depictions of people as all-good or all-evil. By that measure, Beasts of the Southern Wild is my idea of perfection in film making. Scenes like the one where Hushpuppy is placed in a government facility and transformed overnight from a fearless spitfire (who once ran free in nothing more that an undershirt, shorts and rain boots under a cloud of untamed hair), to a dopplegänger of her former self (in a government-issued blue dress; white, patent leather Mary Janes; and hair pressed and combed into submission) leave me breathless not because of what is stated, but for what is implied. In this case: the capture and taming of a once free spirit. The suppression of individuality. The homogenization of Hushpuppy.

Given my preference for restraint in movie making, it’s anyone’s guess why I might have expected Daniels to deliver something as subtle and nuanced as Beasts of the Southern Wild. Or a film that would be as quiet, understated and dignified as the former White House butler, Eugene Allen, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2008-11-07/politics/36906532_1_white-house-black-man-history whose real-life story inspired the screenplay for The Butler.

Perhaps the Downton Abbey-like images I’d seen on movie posters and in film previews bolstered my belief that service would not be confused with servitude in Daniels’ film. That the undertone would be elegant. That a butler’s work might be elevated to art form through careful storytelling and refined cinematography. Certainly my friends’ endorsements, the abundance of critical praise heaped on The Butler, and the fact that the film reigned as #1 at the box office for three straight weeks (before getting served by Vin Diesel’s Riddick last weekend) helped weaken my defenses. So I threw caution to wind and finally saw the film.

Next time, I won’t be so reckless.

I suppose The Butler has merit as a history lesson, for those too lazy to actually read a book, but its Greatest Hits of Black History compilation approach to screen-writing struck me an inadequate substitute for narrative and character development. Likewise, the butler’s front row seat to every human & civil-rights trail, trouble and tribulation– from a white plantation owner raping one of his black field workers within earshot of the victim’s husband and child, to Cecil’s son’s pow-wow with Martin Luther King, Jr. moments before King’s assassination– undermined the gravity of of the events, diluted the intended impact and gave the film a Forrest Gump-esque quality: minus the wink-and-a-nod irony that made the Tom Hanks movie so utterly charming and original.

Casting on The Butler was another problem. The star-studded cameos felt more like a distracting parlor game (Jane Fonda, and Robin Williams, and John Cusak. Oh, my!) than a legitimate means  to animate one dimensional characters. And watching an artist of Forrest Whittaker’s caliber share the screen with supporting actors who could not bear the weight of his genius was a desecration on par with seeing the Hope Diamond in a tin setting. Like seeing a giraffe in a parking lot, I kept wondering “What is that magnificent creature doing in this unexceptional setting?!” Happily, the one deviation from that norm was newcomer David Oyelowo, the young man who played Cecil’s son, Louis, with a deft touch despite the disjointed, clunky script with which he had to work.

In her role as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, Oprah Winfrey proved that the charisma responsible for making her such ratings and marketing juggernaut on the small screen is actually enhanced on the silver screen. But for all the leaning in Winfrey’s presence inspired, the rate of  emotional return was not commensurate with time and close-ups devoted to her character. To be fair, there were moments of absolute truth– none more so than when Gloria slaps Louis across the face for disrespecting his father, and reminds her son that, “Everything you are and everything you have is ‘cause of that butler.” And her cuteness factor was off the charts when she donned a black & white jumpsuit, giant afro and hoop earrings in an homage to 70’s chic. But Gloria’s stuck-on-sourpuss tone struck me as monotonous. While the occasional out-of-left-field mood swings were unfaithful to her character. In one such instance, Gloria tells Louis “…now, get that low-class bitch outta’ my house,” after finding fault with his girlfriend. In another, Gloria tells a heart-broken Cecil– who has just left the newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy bloodied and broken in the White House– that she (Gloria) doesn’t care about a the First Lady’s plight. This, in spite of Gloria’s near obsession with how many pairs of shoes Jackie owned, and her constant badgering of Cecil to shed some light on the contents Jackie’s closet.

The soundtrack, though beautiful, was as discordant as Gloria’s multiple personalities. And while it swelled in all the right places, I was left feeling more manipulated by the score than moved by the material.

Then again, maybe I’m just out of step with what people really want when they go to the movies.

Daniels’ flare for mega-drama has certainly served him (and his leading ladies) well in the past. And I pray that fortune will smile upon his leading man this time around. But whether or not Forrest Whittaker takes home a statuette next March for his pitch-perfect depiction of Cecil Gaines, I’ll be thinking about Angela Bassett when the Academy Awards roll around. Considering her personal benchmark for excellence. The wisdom of taking the long view in life. And wondering if anybody will think The Butler is as “ah-MAAAAZE-ing!” in 10 years, as they do today.

 

Boys in the Hoodie

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In August of 2002, my extended family reunited on the island Jamaica to say good-bye to my uncle, Vincent Lee, a man whose laughter was as prodigious as his appetite for life. Unc died very suddenly: leaving his wife, children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews without the only patriarch we’d known since my grandfather’s passing  30 years prior. To say that our collective loss felt like an amputation would be an understatement.

Still, the family agreed that it would have been a disservice to remember Unc by dressing in black, beating our chests and howling at the moon, so the tone of our gathering was decidedly “better to have loved and lost…,” if not downright celebratory.

Courtesy Olive Rose Kemble

The other cause for celebration that summer was my cousin Dominic’s imminent departure for boarding school in Pennsylvania. One of the youngest of our tribe, Dominic was born and raised in Kingston, a straight A student and the kind of competitive swimmer who brought as much intensity, focus and determination (to win) to the swimming pool as he did the classroom. That he excelled in both arenas was no accident. In fact, when he was a toddler his mother once told me that her primary goal as a parent was to “make sure that when I unleash my children upon society, I’ll be making a positive contribution, as opposed to burdening the world with a potential  liability.”

With that mission accomplished, Dominic was ready to make a splash in uncharted waters.

Courtesy Matthew R. Wendel Photography 

But not before getting an earful from his elders on the eve of his departure.

When you get to campus, try an extra-curricular activity that’s out of your comfort zone,” encouraged one cousin. “You never know where or when you might discover a new passion.

You’re going into a different culture,” my mother advised. “And though the language is the same, the accents are very different. This may cause you some discomfort at first, but don’t let this inhibit you from engaging with the other students. Observe. Be curious. Ask questions.

Education is everything,” said a grand-uncle. “It is the great equalizer. You can play hard, but I want you to work harder because the choices you make today will have an impact on the rest of your life.

And then a close family friend, Jennifer, offered her insights:

Dominic,” she began, in the no-nonsense tone that serves her so well as a South Florida prosecutor, “if the police ever stop you on campus, on the street or while driving a car– always keep both hands in plain sight, maintain your composure, do not raise your voice and do not allow the encounter to escalate. No matter what they say or do, your responses must be ‘Yes, Sir. No, Sir.’

I can still hear sound effect of a needle scratching across a record every time I recall that moment. Jennifer’s words felt like a slap across the face. My brain scrambled to reboot. I was insulted that the best she could offer the best & brightest of our family was a primer on Police Protocol 101. And I was offended that she’d done so without at least consulting Dominic’s parents first. How dare she. What the hell was she thinking?

I now realize that Jennifer said what she did because she was thinking. Whereas I had visions of unicorns and rainbows dancing in my head: neither of which would have served a muscular, 6’3” 15-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood much good given the whole new world he was about to encounter.

Courtesy Dominic Lee

As a first generation American who’d grown up in a family of mostly girls, I was completely ignorant of what I now know to be “the talk.” As were my cousins, who also grew up in the States. Owing to the homogeneity of Jamaica’s population (where my parents were born and raised), “the talk” was as a foreign concept to their generation as mine, so chances are even my big brother was spared the father-son chat which is practically a rite of passage when African-American boys reach a certain age. The age when they transition from looking cute & cuddly to threatening– as would Dominic– to an untrained eye.

I have been thinking about perception, reality and the potentially lethal power of an untrained eye  a lot ever since the shooting death of a boy (who was just two years older than Dominic) became headline news. And while a Florida jury subsequently acquitted Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, of second degree murder charges, the self-appointed (though unskilled and unsanctioned by law enforcement) neighborhood  watchman will never elude the fact that he is now a cautionary tale of how wrong assumptions can break hearts and end lives.

Courtesy People Magazine 

Consider Zimmerman’s words the night he called 911 after spotting Martin walking though the gated community– where Zimmerman lived and Martin was staying with his father’s fiancée.

Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy. … This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about. … Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. … Something’s wrong with him. He’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what he’s doing. … These assholes, they always get away.

We now know that Martin had a cell phone in one hand, a bag of snacks in the other and that he did not get away that night. But Zimmerman’s drive-by assessment of the 17-year-old as “a real suspicious guy,” “up to no good” and an “asshole,” his palpable level of frustration as he spoke to the 911 operator and his rush to judgement all struck a chord with people who have been on the receiving end of unwarranted prejudicial treatment in the past.

From the usual subjects…

Courtesy Eunîque Jones Photography

To those snared in the dragnet cast over one-quarter of the world’s population since September 11, 2001…

To those with enough self-awareness to acknowledge having been the beneficiary of white privilege.

Much to the credit of mankind, people around the world were appalled by the unprovoked confrontation that cut one life short and revived dormant discussions on race, racism and the alternate reality black men are forced to navigate on a daily basis. As a show of solidarity with the young victim, supporters from every strata of society contributed to a campaign called “I am Trayvon Martin” by posting pictures of themselves, on-line, wearing a hoodie similar to the one Martin wore the night he was killed. Some of the more high-profile participants included elected officials, sports icons and music moguls. And one of the more arresting images came from Howard University Medical school, where an image of hooded students was juxtaposed another of the same group wearing white doctor’s coats.

For all its good intentions, my feelings about this movement have been mixed from the outset for a variety of reasons. Not because I don’t agree that it is shallow to equate a person’s worth with their dress, but because it would be intellectually dishonest of me to pretend that human beings do not respond to uniforms. Right or wrong: just as the soon-to-be doctors at Howard might expect to be regarded differently when they upgrade from blue scrubs to the coveted laboratory coat upon graduation, so too might a young man wearing a hoodie and sagging pants with a slumped posture want to consider how he might attract extra scrutiny merely because his dress and affect mirror those of a sub-set of young, black men who have been the perpetrators of extremely anti-social behavior. I suppose this is why seeing  a photo-shopped image of Martin Luther King, Jr wearing a hoodie was so jarring to me.

Granted, it is ironic that the visionary who inspired a nation (that seemed incapable of living up to her founding principle that all men are created equal) to judge one another based on the content of a person’s character was also the man who changed minds via the sheer power of imagery. But Dr. King’s suit was literally his armor. And his always pristine manner of dressing was one of the mightiest weapons in his arsenal. As was his non-violent composure, even when having to negotiate with state-sanctioned barbarians.

Montgomery Alabama, 1958

But as the alter ego of this particular civil rights icon-in-a-hoodie was stamped onto the consciousness of billions of children around the world, I felt that my generation owed it to them to fill in the back story.

Coretta & MLK, Jr. walk  in the James Meredith March, 1966

The story of women like Rosa Parks, for example: who was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first black woman to be mistreated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But she was the first victim of such unimpeachable character that, once arrested, NAACP organizers immediately rallied to her defense after identifying her as the best possible candidate for seeing through the legal battle (to dismantle segregation laws) that would surely ensue. Parks, in the minds of her advocates, would be regarded as a sympathetic victim to blacks and white. And they (her lawyers) were right.

Rosa Parks following her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956 

Was it fair for a civil right’s organization not to challenge all instances of racial discrimination reported during the Jim Crow era with as much vigor and publicity as that devoted to Mrs. Parks’ case, owing to other victims having had arrest records? Or having being deemed women of ill-repute? Or for having had less than stellar reputations in the community (as has been documented)? Of course it wasn’t. But the NAACP understood that the fight for fairness was anything but fair. And they were trying to change the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans who could not identify with the plight of people they neither knew, nor cared to know.

In exemplars like Parks and King, however, it was impossible to deny their humanity– thus their insistence upon human and civil rights– when their values so obviously mirrored those of the larger culture…

Coretta greets MLK, Jr. outside a Montgomery courthouse in 1956

When they presented themselves in a way that reflected high self-esteem and self-respect…

When their commitments to family values were irrefutable…

Courtesy Flip Schulke Photography

And when their non-violent example to followers proved potent enough to inspire the masses and move mountains.

MLK, Jr. homecoming after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964

It goes without saying that the hypocrisy of moral giants like King and Parks once having had to prove themselves to a majority population– that demonstrated neither the social, spiritual nor political will required to make America actually live up to her Constitution– is not lost on me. When I consider their examples, I realize how lucky I was to have been raised at the tail end of a time when the bar for excellence was set so high. But it also makes wonder about the negative ramifications for boys and girls being raised today, who have yet to become acquainted with the dreams (and dress codes) of their forefathers.

Courtesy Sabrina Fulton 

I still struggle with the two faces of Trayvon that have come to light following his death. I held my breath when the baby-faced portrait was first released to the media– because given his age at the time of the shooting, the picture of him in the maroon tee-shirt was likely not the most current in existence. Not by several years. And we now know that subsequent images of Martin only undermined any arguments that he might have been a total innocent. (Which, I realize, should have been irrelevant for the purposes of determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.) But when I hear pundits and journalists dismissing Trayvon’s self-destructive choices– including truancy, expulsion from school, drug use and alleged theft– as no big deal, I vehemently disagree.

The only reason black people have come as far as we have in this country, in spite of  systemic, institutionalized efforts to nullify our existence, is because we once took our parents at their word when they told us “You have to be twice as good as your white peers to go half as far.” Because children were taught to kept their eyes on the prize with a mono-focus that left no room for bullshitting, ever. Because the public figures who represented us– from movie stars to men in uniform– understood that the privilege came with tremendous responsibilities.

Lena Horne with Tuskegee Airmen in 1945

This is not to say that I think Martin should have been the Jackie Robinson of the adolescent set. But there is a shadow side to 21st century living in the African-American community that would make Dr. King weep in his grave. The substitution of gangsterism for masculinity, the misogyny masquerading as musicality in rap, the abdication of responsibility to women and children by the men who once protected us with their lives and the unchecked homophobia cultivated in our churches are all indefensible and unacceptable realities that can only be ignored at our own peril.

Such a backdrop could not have boded well for Martin– who carried the legacy of his race on his young, narrow shoulders when he was, in effect, put on trial in that Sanford, Florida courtroom– even though he’d done nothing wrong the day he was profiled, targeted and ultimately stalked to his death.

I am astounded that George Zimmerman is a free man today. And terrified by the prospect that someone with so little judgement and such poor conflict-resolution skills has not lost the right to carry a firearm in his home state. And yet the pain he has inflicted upon the black community pales in comparison to the self-inflicted wounds we continue to visit upon ourselves. A house-cleaning is long overdue. And to pretend otherwise not only sabotages our position when supporting truly deserving African-Americans (like the First Family), but offers a woefully inadequate road map for young men and women striving to be the next Barack and Michelle Obama.

My Aunt Rosie and I cannot see eye-to-eye on this point: her position being that how Martin looked and carried himself should not have mattered in a court of law, because it was not he, but Zimmerman who was on trial. And I would never argue with such logic. But if the case was also a de facto battle for public opinion (which it was, in my opinion); it can be argued that some of Martin’s choices did not help his case. Including his association with witnesses like Rachel Jeantel: who proved detrimental to the prosecution’s attempt to portray Martin as a sympathetic victim thanks to her naked hostility, lack of respect for authority figures, unintelligible responses and a body language that implied she had better things to do with her time than sit around and rehash the tragic, final moments of her friend’s life.

At best, Jeantel’s inappropriate demeanor made me wonder how many children are ignorant of the fact that we are all judged by the company we keep. At worst, I put myself in the shoes of Sybrina Fulton and Tracey Martin: Trayvon’s parents, who epitomized grace under ridiculous pressure, as they sat and watched this young woman speak for their son.

But why should she know better when so many elders are preaching one thing in public, while practicing something else entirely in the privacy of their homes?

I have a hard time reconciling my Aunt Rosie’s hyperbole (re: how Martin’s missteps should not have been used against him throughout the trial), for example, with the woman who is constantly reminding her grandson, Noah, that she expects him to comport himself like a gentleman at all times. Noah can mimic his GiGi’s lectures, chapter and verse, on the merits of combing his hair, making sure that the waistband of his pants align with that of his anatomy and the importance of having good manners inside and out of his home. He’s even become adept at pointing out those who violate GiGi’s rules when they’re in the park, or at a mall or running errands around town.

And Noah is just eight-years-old.

Courtesy Gasuza Lwanga Photography

To her credit, Auntie maintains the drumbeat because she knows that little boys who look like Noah are afforded zero margin of error before being dismissed as worthless in this country. She stays on her grandson’s case because unlike George Bush– who could be elected president in spike of his past as a slacker who abused alcohol for decades, and Mitt Romney– who came damn close to being president in spite of his well-documented past as a high school bully– Noah will get no such passes in this lifetime. And this does not even take into account the the double-standards and disrespect Noah may have to endure should he follow in the footsteps of our current President– whether the questioning of his academic credentials or his US citizenship– that reflect our country’s schizophrenic attitudes towards black men.

Sure, kids like Noah will always get the message that his personal appearance, words and actions can mean the difference between life and death (even if it kills his GiGi!). But what about the kid who may never benefit from such tried and true wisdom? They are the ones I worry about the most. Especially when I see pictures of celebrities (who have the unique privilege of slipping into and out of a variety of personas, easy peasy) like the one posted below: which always fail to mention the unintended consequences that tend to befall our boys in the hoodie, should they encounter an armed stranger with a grudge… and an untrained eye.

And after the lessons learned when Jennifer schooled me on the real facts of life 11 years ago: I believe the most dangerous thing I could do to any child would be to paint a picture of the world as I wished it to be… as opposed to preparing them to survive in the world as it really is.