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.
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.