Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards a New Black Masculinity: Obama, Luke Cage, Nate Parker and Chiron.

The joke has returned. I’m speaking specifically of the Obama Joke. If you watch Black standup comedy you probably know what I’m getting at. Though it may not get the respect it deserves, standup is always a fascinating peek into a group’s collective unconscious. At its best, it verbalizes unspoken knowledge a culture carries silently in its gut. And in November 2008, once the shock of Obama’s election had been processed into acceptance that history had been forever altered before our eyes, you heard a certain joke all the time. 

It went like this: now that Obama had been elected, we would soon see “the Real Obama”, the authentic Black man that the junior senator from Illinois had been skillfully hiding from (white) America on his year long odyssey to the Oval Office. This was not the stuff of great comedy. It was low-hanging fruit. It was instantly hacky. But more and more comics took their turn at this particular piñata as November became December and the inauguration approached. 

I can’t remember specific jokes but they ran along the lines that his speech and mien would become more recognizably Black now that he’d secured power. It was as if Obama’s election was such a seismic event the first response was to cast Obama in the part of the wiley trickster who had put one over on America. It was an understandable reaction. And yet it is a little unsettling when we view these jokes as a foreshadow of the far more sinister birtherism to come. In other words, some Black people questioned the veracity of Obama’s identity first, then a type of white person did it too in a far less playful manner. But in the end these were both flawed ways to reckon with this man who had changed history.

President Obama has always been viewed as some sort of Trojan Horse. But now, with less than 100 days left in his presidency, none of that came to pass. The Obama that ran for office, the Obama that wrote two beautifully written books, the Obama that made people believe in hope again, was the Obama we got. 

But just as birtherism has proved impossible to kill, the Obama Joke too has come back to life. In Cedric the Entertainer’s new Netflix special Live from the Ville he makes jokes about Obama quitting “like that Black lady on the news” after dealing with Republican obstruction for years. Cedric dives deep back to that 2008 bit saying Obama “won’t put on a suit on that last day, he gon’ walk to that helicopter in pair of Jordan flip flops…a wave cap on”. The Entertainer goes on to acknowledge that Obama’s near-Vulcan demeanor enabled him to succeed at such a public, high pressure job (and separates him from African-Americans of a more choleric disposition) but then points out when Obama's patience is short “every now and then that Negro shows up and we see it first.” He wraps up the bit by likening Obama to a thug (citing Obama’s kill list as president) despite his calm manner.

There is a lot to parse out about the Obama presidency but his impact on Black masculinity is fascinating. Blacks and whites alike are still recalibrating what a powerful Black man looks and sounds like and some old ideas die hard. This presidency has been transformational and the final year of it has been a tumultuous one. 

2016 has taken so much from us all. But perhaps we can view the year in a new way. Rather than looking at it as a year of loss and collapse, it might be better to view it as one of transformation and a prelude to rebirth. As the year draws to a close, this is what seems to be unfolding. And no aspect of this is more clear than the way 2016 has affected our ideas about Black masculinity. 

At the beginning of this month, something else collapsed: Netflix. The streaming service was literally crashed on the first of October. The cause was clear: Luke Cage had come to Netflix. The third of their original series based on Marvel Comics properties, Luke Cage focuses on one of Marvel’s singular creations. Created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., and George Tuska, Luke Cage was Marvel’s transparent bid to capitalize on the Blaxploitation movement of American film. Cage was a Black hero but he was not Marvel’s first. That distinction belongs to Black Panther, who turned 50 this year (debuting three months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party). In 1969 came Marvel’s first Black American hero, Falcon. 

But Cage was a significant break from what had come before. He was not an aristocrat from an exotic land, nor was he a social worker from the Black middle class (this was Falcon’s original origin before later being retconned). Cage was an ex-convict, given powers by an experiment gone awry in a hellish prison. It is important to note that Cage was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison, but he was a Harlem gang member who had committed crimes in the past. 

A word about those powers: Luke Cage undergoes a painful transformation that makes his skin and bones virtually unbreakable and grants him super-strength (his might is dwarfed by the physical strength of Iron Man or Thor, but still far stronger than a normal human being). Luke Cage becomes bulletproof. It should be noted that neither Black Panther nor Falcon had been endowed with super powers. The former, like Captain America, was at the peak of human strength and speed but not superhuman. And aside from a connection to his falcon Redwing, the Falcon had no powers at all (his flying rig was originally created in Wakanda, the technological titan ruled by Black Panther).

The idea of a bulletproof Black man in comics obviously came directly from the violence directed at Black bodies in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is uncanny that Cage finally makes it to our screens after decades of failed attempts at a time where again the violent murders of Black men are a weekly part of our news. But the creators of Luke Cage did one more thing to distinguish him from other Black heroes: they made him decidedly working class and fairly apolitical. Cage was a “hero for hire”. This put him squarely in the Blaxploitation tradition which in turn had been influenced by American hard-boiled detective fiction. Luke Cage didn’t even bother with a nom de guerre like Falcon and Black Panther. He was simply Luke Cage (though that name was an alias) and he used his powers to get paid, not out of altruism. 

For these three reasons, Cage occupies a special place in the hearts of Black comic book nerds, especially men. The reaction I get when I wear my Luke Cage t-shirt from Black men is pretty striking. My Black Panther t-shirt does not elicit the same response. Cage is a Black everyman and has become a totem of Black masculinity like no other character in comics. His origin smacks of Malcolm X but rather than set out to change the world after his jailhouse transmutation, Cage sets out to survive in a cruel and harsh world and that struggle connected with his readers. 

As the 70s progressed Cage became Power Man and was a given a partner, a hero similarly created to capitalize on another genre of film popular in the early 70s with African-Americans. But his mission stayed the same. “Hero for Hire” became plural but Cage never became a corny do-gooder. 

His signature yellow disco shirt, tiara and hot pants hung on into the 1980s until Cage was given a new look. His head was now shaved, the disco shirt became a t-shirt and only his heavy metallic gauntlets survived. He now had a look that fit his workingman persona. This is the look Mike Colter’s portrayal of Cage in the Netflix series is based on. 

Colter’s Cage first appeared a year ago in Jessica Jones as a supporting character and love interest for the similarly powered titular heroine. One oft-repeated line is that the Cage featured in Jessica Jones is superior to the Cage featured in his own series. I don’t agree but I get where that comes from. The Cage in Jessica Jones is more in line with the comic books. He’s an everyman who rejects costumed adventuring as foolishness (even though he lives in a city saved by such action). But when Cheo Hodari Coker (showrunner for Luke Cage) takes over the character from Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Cage does shift a bit. 

In Luke Cage, he has fled Hell’s Kitchen after the events in Jessica Jones and gone uptown to Harlem. The show makes some changes to the character’s established origin. He is no longer a Harlem native. He is an avid student of Black culture and history. And while he is still an ex-convict he is also now an ex-cop instead of an ex-gang member. That last one is big. It takes away some of Luke Cage’s street cred and makes him a figure of the establishment similar to Black Panther and Falcon, albeit a fallen one.

I think the possible reasons why might have something to do with Coker’s approach to the character. Luke Cage features a postlapsarian view of Black culture. While the show lovingly showcases Harlem and its history, it also takes the position that for all the gloriousness of Black culture in America, we fell from grace. The drug epidemic and attendant nihilism of the 1980s have left scars on us and the show deals with that. 

And though Hip Hop is central to Luke Cage he is not presented as blinged out and street as some of his more recent incarnations. Instead he’s old school and timeless; a man of the moment who is shaped profoundly by the past. In Coker’s hands, Cage becomes a metaphor for Black people as a whole striving to use awesome power in a positive way so that we can live up to the expectations of the giants who paved the way for us. 

Some read this as “respectability politics”. Luke’s refusal to swear or use the “N-word” (in a format where that is a possibility) clashes with the edgy Cage of our youth. But what is the point of a hero who doesn’t in some ways inspire fans to be their best selves? Coker has refashioned Cage for the Obama-era without violating the character’s core. And he also gives us a Luke Cage who values women not just as objects of desire but also as allies. This Luke Cage offers us a new progressive form of Black masculinity, one that values collaboration, community and seeks to rebuild more than destroy. The counterpoint offered by his adversary, deemed too soft and sensitive as a boy, shaped by a toxic masculinity that makes him a man willing to level a building to kill one person, is striking.

On the heels of Luke Cage came a theatrical release also purporting to tell the story of a Black hero. Actor Nate Parker took the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by storm with his passion project which he called in a breathtaking act of subversion The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in this look at the life of Nat Turner who led a violent slave revolt in 1831 that shook the slave states to their cores. Parker, a Virginia native like Turner, viewed this film in the same light that Turner viewed his plans for rebellion: as a divine mission. Leading up to the film’s debut, Parker spoke of this as more than a film. He chose Fox Searchlight as a distributor in part because he wanted the film to be a big screen experience. He also got Fox Searchlight to create teaching guides and plan a tour of colleges as a condition of the sale. Like Coker, Parker was taking Nat Turner and fashioning him into the hero he believed we need. 

But, of course, things didn’t go as Parker planned. 

Parker’s 2001 rape charge (for the record he was acquitted though he did have sex with the victim that he maintained was consensual) supplanted the film itself. Suddenly the conversation Parker wanted to have had become something else and his attempts to address the charge only added fuel to the fire. The word “boycott” entered the conversation. 

Though I respect the decision to do so, I chose not to boycott. In my view, Birth of a Nation is a failure and a curious one at that. Never mind that it is mediocre, that it modeled itself after Braveheart when it should’ve aimed higher. The unpardonable sin is that Birth of a Nation seeks to turn Nat Turner into a Marvel hero. It fabricates a rape as if slavery wasn’t sufficient motivation. It reduces women to suffering motivators rather than giving them agency (something called “fridging” in comic books which Nate Parker has clearly never heard of).  But most intriguing is how thoroughly retrograde Parker seems to be from the choices he has made and the hero he has created.

It has never been clear to me what Parker’s aim is beyond making Nat Turner a more recognizable figure. Does the film have anything to say for the post-Obama era? What directives are we to take from seeing a violent resistance to the horrors of white supremacy? Perhaps Parker had intended to speak to this more directly before his past overtook him.

I don’t use “retrograde” to insult Parker. I use it to refer to his point of view which seems rooted in a bygone era. I don’t know Parker’s exact age but the ideas he espouses through word and deed seem to belong to a much older man. Even his choice to turn down Netflix’s much bigger offer for Fox Searchlight reflects someone thinking in an outmoded way. Or perhaps it suggests personal ambition was more of a motivation than simply bringing Turner’s story to the public (Netflix would’ve put the movie in every living room in America but it would have also ended any hopes for an Oscar). 

Similarly, Parker’s view of a Black male hero is of another time. I suppose Parker wanted to make Turner into a classical hero not unlike a man Mel Gibson or John Wayne might play but it missed an opportunity to either create an alternative to those Western models or critique the ways in which the oppressed can come to resemble their oppressor in the act of rejecting that oppression. 

But all such nuance is ignored. Parker refuses to show the brutality his army dealt to whites in a way that is frankly an act of artistic cowardice. Showing the brutalization of white people in equally unflinching terms is necessary in a film that lingers on how whites brutalized their slaves. But that’s messy. That’s disturbing. And that’s not what Parker wants you to feel. Exhibit A: the use of John Williams-style choral singing on the soundtrack clashes with the brutality of Nate’s first kill. But the score more than editing or camera, is often the clearest window into the soul of a director and Parker wants you to see this murder as not tragically inevitable but ennobling. I could accept that if the subsequent murders were handled more frankly. 

Parker’s Turner dies surrounded by a scornful horde (an uncanny foreshadow of Parker’s public excoriation prior to the film’s release) but the director wants you to know he didn’t die in vain even though the rebellion failed. Parker allowed Nat Turner to settle a few personal scores before the gallows. He accepts death beatifically. Now that the film has failed and Parker’s reputation is in ruins one can’t help wondering if the hero narrative he’s constructed has sustained him through this ordeal or if it has caused him to reflect on how he might have handled things in another way. 

Parker famously said he refused to play a gay man because “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons” and “to preserve the Black man…you will never see me take a gay role.” Nat Turner took an eclipse as a divine signal to lead his rebellion and Nate Parker should similarly view the auspicious arrival of Moonlight as an omen to rethink his outdated homophobic nonsense. 

Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight focuses on three moments in the life of Chiron, a Black gay boy growing up in Miami’s Liberty City. We see Chiron at turning point moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he tries to come to terms with the abuse, homophobia and toxic masculinity he’s grown up with. The film has set records in its first weekend of release for per screen average (meaning even though it is only playing on a handful of screens it is making a ton of money). I saw it Friday night at a screening that had to be moved to the Cinerama Dome to accommodate the demand. 

Moonlight, without a ton of paid ballyhoo from a studio, is the film Parker wanted Birth of a Nation to be. It has comes to the screen with a sizable audience hungry for it, who have been waiting to see it for most of their lives. And Moonlight is revolutionary in ways that Birth of a Nation is not. We’ve seen Black men stand up and violently resist oppression. Not a lot, but we have seen it. But we’ve rarely seen a film about intimacy between Black men. We’ve rarely seen a film show how toxic masculinity can destroy Black men as quickly as racist oppression. We’ve rarely seen a film where the great act of masculine courage is not acting out violently, it is learning to feel worthy of love. 

What’s so striking about Moonlight is that for the first half of the film, Chiron’s queerness is more or less beside the point. He could be straight and still suffer the same soul crushing oppression and emotional brutality and it would be no less deleterious. But he is gay and the film will force many to question what being gay looks like and what it means. Chiron responds to his oppression by fashioning himself into the very picture of Black masculinity. The actor who plays him as an adult looks every bit the superhero and could easily play Luke Cage or Black Panther. But that kind of manhood, the kind that Nate Parker seems to think is so precious and sacrosanct is not Chiron’s salvation. It is an imperfect solution that the culture he’s grown up in has led him towards. 

These are trying times but they’re also remarkable and exciting times. We are once again on the verge of making history at the ballot box. We are seeing some amazing strides toward social justice taking place. And we have lost many dear figures along the way (namely Prince, who violated codes of Black masculinity when he felt like it and on his own terms setting a whole generation free in the process).  Taking it all in we see that all of this loss only portends that a new era is coming. In the Hindu faith, Shiva is the destroyer deity; but in Shaivism, Shiva is the creator, destroyer, and regenerator. 

I see that pattern in this year. I see this pattern with the receptions of both Birth of a Nation and Moonlight. And I see aspects of that in how Black masculinity has unfolded in the Obama era. He has changed forever what a Black man can be and what a Black man can believe. He shows us that being a feminist, supporting marriage equality for LGBT people and being photographed with a tiara does nothing to diminish your masculinity. And if it does, leave it behind this year and allow something else to replace. 

If you’re brave enough, of course. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spike Lee's 10 Worst Female Characters (along with a consideration of his best female characters, from October 2009)

The following originally began as a series of tweets in the fall of 2009. It was then collected and published by Shadow and Act but with the publication changing hands the article has gone missing. I've retrieved it from a message board and posted it below. This seems an especially apt time to revisit the countdown with the news that filming is currently underway on a remake of Mr. Lee's groundbreaking, epoch-defining debut She's Gotta Have It as a series for Netflix. I cannot wait to see what Lee does when he comes to retell a story from 30 years ago, especially with regard to his female characters and how they are written and executed.

And now, the countdown:

At number 10, I am going with Betty Shabazz, portrayed by Angela Bassett in Spike’s 1992 magnum opus Malcolm X. Here’s why: Malcolm is a perpetual student, an eternal protegee. I think his wife should have played a far bigger role in his evolution. Yes Betty gets the one knock down drag out scene, but beyond that she is just the Good Wife and nothing more. I owe a debt to @ChrisMacDen who recently tweeted about this. He knew Dr. Shabazz, and said she deserved better than she got in Malcolm X. I love Spike, but women have always been his Achilles Heel. Betty Shabazz (the character) is one sad example of that.

Spike’s women are either, duplicitous, martyrs, or beside the point. He also falls into the madonna/whore dichotomy far too often. And what’s interesting is that from the very beginning he has been dogged by charges of misogyny/sexism. One huge caveat to all of this is Crooklyn.

Largely written by his sister Joie (and Cinque Lee), this film features many great female characters: Troy, Joie’s stand-in, is easily the greatest Spike Lee heroine ever. She was played by Zelda Harris, who (sadly) could not find roles worthy of her debut. Crooklyn also features the great Alfre Woodard as Carolyn, Troy’s formidable doomed mother. And Aunt Song (played by the late Frances Foster) is one of my favorite supporting characters. But take away Crooklyn and it is hard to find many rounded, complex women who aren’t traitors, whores, or beatific martyrs.

For the ninth worst female character in Spike Lee’s oeuvre, I pick Clarke Betancourt, played by Cynda Williams in 1990’s Mo’Better Blues.

Clarke, an ambitious jazz chanteuse, is a great example of the ‘don’t trust women’ ethos Spike espouses in so many films. She is one point of a love triangle, and in that arrangement she also comes to be the whore to Joie Lee’s madonna. 

Indigo "saves" Bleek, thereby fulfilling her madonna destiny, whereas Clarke sleeps with Bleek’s rival, presumably to further her career. Clarke isn’t evil. She’s just limited due to Spike’s indifference. She cares when Bleek is injured. But there isn’t much to her that is, except for ambition and self-regard. Her refusal to become a martyr is, I think judged harshly by the film. 

[More than once, you will here me say “it’s a shame she didn’t go on to do more” when discussing these roles & actresses.]

I pick Sloane Hopkins, played by Jada Pinkett Smith in Bamboozled. 

Sloane starts off well. She seems to be bright, capable, and a go-getter. She is the assistant to Pierre Delacroix, a hapless TV executive. But Sloane is sorta baffling. When Pierre hatches a plan, she’s in on it, then spends the rest of the film acting as though she isn’t. 

Also Spike (and this I think is most telling) has Pierre (her boss), call her pet names at work. What is this, Mad Men? Spike really blew a great opportunity in Bamboozled to craft a relationship between equals. Instead he reveals very late that they had sex. 

Worse yet, Sloane had denied that such a thing had ever happened, which makes her seem like a liar and someone willing to screw for success (a sadly recurring trope in Spike's films). She isn’t a misogynistic caricature. But the way she’s treated by the film speaks volumes on how Spike sabotages his women characters. 

That’s the shame; almost all of these women in Spike’s films represent missed opportunities.

At number 7, we have 2 characters who I believe are inextricably linked. From Malcolm X, the combine of Laura (Theresa Randle) & Sophia (Kate Vernon). This gets us into dicey territory. Immediately some will say these characters are from the autobiography; therefore we can’t blame Spike. One of the tenets of the Auteur Theory is that even if the director is adapting the material s/he is still in effect taking ownership of it. In other words, Spike may not have created Laura, Sophia, or Betty Shabazz, but his handling of them is still revealing.

Laura is the ‘good girl’ who young Malcolm rebuffs in favor of the ‘bad girl’ Sophia thanks to the siren call of interracial sexy time. In the book, X said he always blamed himself for good girl Laura’s subsequent descent into wickedness. So here, we have yet another madonna-whore dynamic, except here, the madonna becomes a whore, quite literally. And as Sophia is last seen as a reformed bourgeois hausfrau, the whore becomes a madonna, albeit a phony one. And also, there’s an ancillary nature to the characters. They are there for no other reason but to serve the story. A big problem in movies where women characters are concerned. Spike’s character Shorty feels far more rounded and less schematic than either Laura or Sophia.

Then there’s the matter of interracial relationships. In his early work, Spike takes a dim view of them, and that colors (sorry) things. In his early work, interracial relationships were ALWAYS a sign of moral turpitude. So it is impossible for Malcolm & Sophia to really have a layered relationship, or for Sophia to be a complex character. 

In Jungle Fever, Snipes and Sciorra more or less staged a revolt. They acted against Spike's vision of Flipper & Angie’s affair. Angie Tucci, Sciorra’s character in JF, may be one of Spike BEST women characters, ironically. But Sciorra had to fight for her character. Angie isn’t perfect. But she has nuance. And she was (almost) Flipper’s equal in the story, not just there to further the narrative. The shot of Angie returning home, defeated, heartbroken, is one of the saddest images in Spike’s filmography. It’s hard to not to feel like she’s being punished not just by society/family, but by the filmmaker, in the end. It has been documented widely that a formative incident in Spike's life was the one-two punch of having his mother die & having his dad move a white woman in too soon afterwards. This brought us the many martyred moms in his cinema (twice played by Lonette McKee), his daddy issues, and his antipathy to the swirl.

So Laura & Sophia really get at his big issues: madonna-whore, women as bystanders, and white women as symbols of corruption. 

Having outlined some of Spike’s hang-ups with women, let me mention another pair of recurring tropes: The Jezebel & The Sapphire. Both are negative female archetypes that we see more than once in Spike’s work. For those that didn’t major in Black Studies, Sapphire connotes a perpetually angry, castrating, mean black woman. Sapphire was originally a character in Amos N’ Andy. Academics then extended her name to the archetype. I’m sure the poet/author of Push (Precious) adopted that as her sobriquet because of the name’s connotation. I’ll mention a Sapphire and a Jezebel as we continue our countdown.

Number 6 in the Spike’s worst list: Tina, from Do The Right Thing, as played by Rosie Perez. Tina is a Sapphire, really. She isn’t horrible. Just underdeveloped. She has every right to be difficult, but I don’t think the director empathizes with her. So she becomes shrill. Enough said on Tina.

Fatima Goodrich, Kerry Washington in She Hate Me, one of Spike’s worst films. Fatima, is a deceiver (the protagonist catches her in bed with another woman), mercenary, and wholly unsympathetic. She’s a Jezebel. Worse yet, Fatima strikes one as a bit too much the product of Spike’s over-heated erotic imagination. Male writers often hatch female characters from their carnal desires, but a major character needs a little more to her than that. James Ellroy clearly fashions his women from his raging id, but they get to be their own person too. Fatima speaks to the flaws of the film; it’s a chaotic, unfocused mess which will always be Exhibit A when Spike is tried for self-indulgence.

Renata, played by Valentina Cervi, in Miracle At St. Anna. She’s another one of those underwritten betrayers. Renata is a comely Italian woman who lives in a village ravaged by WWII. She becomes the objet d’amour of two of the African-American soldiers. Without any real set-up she kinda betrays the good one for the bad one. And she’s particularly brazen about it. It is a very strange plot twist. It reduces her character from being a fully formed person to just a pawn of the plot.

Once again, Spike seems to be espousing the “don’t trust ‘em” ethos. I don’t buy that it’s just a matter of poor plotting. This is too consistent to just be happenstance. And yes, Spike didn’t create Renata himself, but the Auteur Theory tells us that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t write it himself.

Mary D’Annunzio, played by Anna Paquin in 25th Hour. She’s a singularly unlikeable young Jezebel with a dash of Lolita thrown in. Mary is the character I believe Natalie Portman was initially slated to play in 25th Hour before she quit. Mary is selfish, not particularly moral, and a vulgarian. She is just the hot young piece meant to tempt her teacher. It’s hard to find a woman in the Spike Lee oeuvre who has no redeeming value or complexity on the level of Ms. D’Annunzio.

For No. 2: LaLa Bonilla, played by the sublime Rosario Dawson in He Got Game. LaLa is the teen girlfriend of Jesus Shuttlesworth, the best high school B-ball player in the US. She has an agenda. LaLa is two-faced, deceitful and mercenary (sound familiar?). She two-times Jesus, and she tries to manipulate him into picking a college - (correction) signing w/ an agent that will give her a cut which she seems to feel she’s entitled to as Jesus’ girlfriend. LaLa isn’t even a particularly skilled manipulator. She’s a caricature of the gold-digging ghetto girl. A half-assed Cleopatra. Spike kinda sorta atoned for LaLa four years later when he cast Dawson in 25th Hour as Naturelle Rivera, Monty Brogan’s (Ed Norton) girlfriend. Naturelle has nuance and complexity. The film creates tension as to whether or not Naturelle betrayed Monty, which is almost like Spike copping to the fact that he’d gone to that well way too many times. And yes, I agree w/ all who say an inept femme fatale is more misogynist & worse than a skilled one. So Naturelle cancels out LaLa, but still, LaLa is number 2.

Number 1 has to be Opal Gilstrap (played by Raye Dowell) in She’s Gotta Have It, doesn’t it? Opal is a friend of the sexually liberated (but deeply hetero) Nola Darling. Opal is a lesbian. You see where this is going? Opal hates men. She seems to have one thing on her mind: getting Nola in bed. When Nola is sick, Opal comes to nurse her…& come on to her. So Opal is nothing but a stereotype of the rapacious lesbian trying to recruit. Nothing more to the character. Opal is particularly galling since she appeared in his first film. His Achille’s Heel revealed himself immediately. Spike was called on it. He has admitted that the character was ill-conceived and that she’s one of the many things he’d change about SGHI. It’s unfortunate that from the beginning, an artist so consumed with righting wrongs of representation got off to such a start. 

A word about Girl 6. Interesting mess, but I think Theresa Randle gives, what should’ve been a star-making performance. Judy, or Girl 6, is one of his better, more rounded female leads. The film is such a mess that Randle’s work has been forgotten. Too bad. 

I have a lot of respect for Spike. But we have to look at things in the cold harsh light of truth, not through the gauzy filter of admiration. Hopefully, this list will motivate some of you to take a 1st or 2nd look at his films.

Since this was originally written we've had (just in terms of his fiction output) Red Hook Summer, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and his controversial Chiraq. People bristled at the sexual politics of the most recent film. But for my money Lysistrata (played by Teyonah Parris) might hint at a new hopeful era of Lee heroine. Yes, she uses sex as a way to manipulate men, but she is no Jezebel and she is no Sapphire. She is no madonna and Lee does not regard her as a whore either. I hope this indicates a new chapter for Spike Lee with regards to his female characters but only time will tell.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Withdrawing SEPULVEDA: an apology, a reflection and a Valentine's note.

This morning I emailed Jim Mendiola, the accomplished filmmaker who also runs CineFestival in San Antonio, to inform him that though we'd accepted his invitation to world premiere our new feature Sepulveda there we'd in fact have to withdraw the film. This was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make as a filmmaker. And like all difficult decisions it has offered me a valuable chance to self-evaluate.

It pained us to pull out of CineFestival so close to our premiere, but after a very, very important consultation with someone who loves the film, we came to the conclusion that while we have a good film, we need more time to develop it into an even better film. At present, Sepulveda is 105 minutes long. That's a brisk running time by most standards. But given the unconventional storyline and structure, we came to the conclusion that the film would play even better if it were pared down even further.

I am not a young filmmaker. I'm middle-aged and it's been almost 22 years since I started film school. I don't have unlimited arrows in my quiver. In fact, every time I draw back my bow string at this point, I have to make it count. I would not have made this decision 10 years ago. Then I'd have plowed ahead figuring that the film's imperfections were part of what made it unique. I'd have figured that the people who get the film would be untroubled by its technical flaws or running time.

But as Tony Bennett memorably says in the documentary Amy, "Life will teach you things, if you let it." We've already worked hard on Sepulveda. Thanks to crowdfunding, we are the beneficiaries of the generosity of many friends and family. To honor that generosity, it's incumbent on us to make the best film we can make. And while Sepulveda has gotten positive notes, we think there's more work to do.

Jim Mendiola was gracious and understanding in his reply and I thank him for that. We hope to have Sepulveda play CineFestival in the future. Thanks also to all the words of encouragement that came after we announced the film's invitation.

To be clear, this was my mistake. Jena, my wife and co-director, always felt that the film could've stood more editing but I assured her we had something solid and that the film was done. I was wrong. This has been a chronic issue with me, rushing through work not to be done with it but in the belief that the act of rushing forces one to work at a heightened level and brings out the creativity in a furious tsunami. It's a punk rock notion. And it's past time I let it go.

We wrapped production on Sepulveda just 6 months ago. That's a very short postproduction that frankly isn't long enough even with as able a collaborator as my wife. Digital technology and computers allow for an accelerated pace in post, but that's not always a good thing. Editing, it has been widely stated, requires intervals of rest and reflection. I didn't allow much time for that. Shooting in the summer puts us right up against festival deadlines. And while it may go against my impatient nature it is better to spend a year in post than take a film out before its time.

Have I always been this way? I suppose I have. Am I more impatient with the knowledge that there is very likely now more life behind me than ahead of me? Possibly. A lot is riding on this simple little film for me personally. You don't get a second chance to debut a film (okay, not actually true but premiering a new cut is not a luxury afforded to all filmmakers).

I don't know today whether Sepulveda will hit the big screen in 2016 or 2017. But I do know that whenever it does it will be the absolute best film we can make. I figure if that's the case, everything else will take care of itself.

Finally I want to praise my collaborator in cinema and in life. Without my wife, the film wouldn't be as good as it is. I've wisely taken her counsel and already reaped the benefits. I hope she'll pardon me if occasionally I forget how valuable her insight is. She's made me a better man, and she's made me a better filmmaker. I will continue to strive to be worthy of her faith in me.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How Fanboys Have Gained The World But (Begun) To Lose Their Souls

[Five years ago I wrote this review of Tron: Legacy (2010) for Shadow & Act. I noticed that it no longer appears to be available and I thought I'd post it here. It's a little bit prescient about the direction of fanboy/geek culture.] 

Ever since the 2008 Comic-Con, the Fanboy Universe has been waiting with bated breath for the follow-up to Steve Lisberger’s Tron, a groundbreaking science-fiction adventure released by Disney 28 years ago. Considered the first shot fired in the digital cinema revolution, Tron has carved out a singular space in the genre. Now that the revolution Tron began has changed cinema, the time seems perfect to revisit the world of the film with an eye towards birthing a new franchise.

And that’s what Disney has done. The new film, entitled Tron: Legacy will doubtlessly reap a fortune from both the aging nerds who saw the first one and the new generation brought up on gaming. It is also poised to launch more films and become another blockbuster franchise.

Already, some have complained that the original Tron  has now gone into that Black Hole Disney is fond of hurling its properties into so as to create a demand for the next DVD edition. But I think there’s more than that at work. The new Tron  is no mere sequel to the earlier film. It is a complete re-imagining, and one gets the impression Disney would prefer that you NOT know about the original.  This reason, among many others, makes Tron: Legacy an intriguing film to consider as the shape of things to come even as it delivers yet another variation of Joseph Campbell’s generic mythology to the public.

Joseph Kosinski is the director. This is his first feature. That might strike you as odd considering how much is riding on this film’s success for Disney. But Kosinski has had a storied career in advertising, directing slick and memorable ads like the “Mad World” commercial for the game Gears of War.  He also holds a degree in architecture from Columbia University. I think Kosinski is to this age what film school brats were to the 70’s. If a (feature) first-timer directing a blockbuster is strange now it won’t be in the years to come.

So how did he do? Tron: Legacy is a triumph of design and can be downright jaw-dropping at times. The action is constant, the slow-motion-punctuated “Ain’t It Cool?” moments largely deliver. After the halfway point, the film begins to lose energy, and in the end, it feels much longer than its 127 minute running time would suggest. Lisberger’s film also had pacing problems. The more things change…

The story centers on the 27 year-old son of visionary computer guru Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, then and now), who went missing seven years after the events of Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son, apparently spends his time practicing capoeira, base-jumping and parkour rather than run his father’s empire. His surrogate father Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, then and now) gives Sam a nudge to visit the old man’s now-abandoned arcade, which results in Sam being whisked away to The Grid, that world within the computers established in the first film long before cyberspace was a household term.

Where the original took its cues from Star Wars, the new film adds The Matrix into the mix. Sam becomes a Neo, reeling from the discovery of a world he is destined to change. He meets that world’s overlord, Clu, a program that physically resembles his long-lost younger father. When Clu removes his menacing black helmet, revealing the digitally younged-up countenance of Jeff Bridges, Sam is shocked. But Clu tells him “I’m not your father, Sam”, a sly reference to and tweaking of the climactic moment in Empire Strikes Back.

Sam engages in amped up new versions of the gladiatorial games seen in the first (that Jai Alai game doesn’t make the cut) only to be rescued by this tale’s Trinity (Olivia Wilde playing Quorra) and delivered to his old man, now in Morpheus/Alec Guiness-Obi-Wan mode in a remote home reminiscent of aging Dave Bowman’s flat from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The rest is pretty standard a-chosen-one-will-defeat-a-dark-lord territory. It’s the production design that’s the star of Tron: Legacy, not the plot. Darren Gilford (production designer) creates a radically different Grid. Now it looks like a futuristic but recognizably urban megalopolis, not the wholly alien landscape from the earlier film.  It feels like the first time a sci-fi film has tried to create a world on this scale (a la Blade Runner)  for some time (lately sci-fi prefers to present a normal looking environment where the gadgets are the only indication you’re not in the real world).

The costumes and art direction are all state-of-the-art future cool. I kept thinking how much they’ll love this film in Japan as I watched it. And this is where the contrast between Tron and Tron: Legacy is so striking. The digital filmmaking revolution isn’t the only revolution that’s happened since 1982. There’s also been a Fanboy Revolution, wherein the genre fare that was once marginalized (even in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars) has now conquered the culture. And with that dominion comes the need to be cool.

Tron was NOT cool. Tron, with its actors wearing helmets like special ed students and spandex was so uncool it was endearing.  And all that uncool has been erased from the sequel. Even the flashbacks have been stylistically retconned so that when we see the younger Flynn in the grid he looks nothing like he did in the old film. Like a self-important, successful adult who hides his dorky high school picture out of shame, Tron has adopted an aesthetic at odds with the original but reflective of the way Fanboy Culture has re-branded itself.

That is, I believe part of the reason why Disney has de-rezzed the DVD of the Lisberger film. That is why Sean Bailey, producer of Tron: Legacy says it is “technically a stand-alone film.”

But if nerd/geek culture is to become cool, isn’t it bound to lose something essential in the process? Compare Kevin Flynn to Sam Flynn. Kevin (in ’82) was an unabashed geek who lived in his own arcade and hung out with pimply, uncool teenagers. He was a goof and an oddball. Not Sam Flynn. Sam is from the Young Bruce Wayne School of Loner Richboys Who Like Extreme Sports. He’s a daredevil. He can fight. This is the new nerd-hero? Sam Flynn was the guy in ’82 who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Tron. Now he is at the center of that world.

Clu is also a great metaphor for the shift that’s occurred. Just as geek culture has conquered the culture at large, Clu himself (once a benign avatar for Flynn) has now become drunk with power and swagger. He’s got something to prove, and dominating two worlds is how he aims to prove it. This isn’t new, Clu is another villain in the tradition of Lucifer himself, but this villain addressing his army made me think of a would-be geek tyrant addressing the costumed hoards at Comic-Con, telling them that their geekitude entitled them to rule the world.

Another sign of this shift: Tron  was made by actual computer experts and is far more meticulously nerdy and based on computer technology than Tron: Legacy. The new film bastardizes nerdiness and cuts out the techspeak for a 21st century audience that should be more receptive to it.

The saddest casualty of this revolution is femininity. Cindy Morgan played Dr. Lora Baines in the original, a bespectacled female scientist that once dated Kevin but has moved on to the more adult Alan. The three of them formed the core of Tron  as Leia, Luke, & Han did for that other franchise. Just as the eponymous warrior was Alan’s program in The Grid, Lora was represented by Yori there. The triangle in our world also occurred in The Grid.

Lora, present in the final scene of Tron, along with a triumphant Flynn and Alan on the roof of a skyscraper is totally erased from Tron: Legacy. She isn’t in it, and she isn’t even mentioned. Yori is similarly absent from The Grid.

Fans did protest. I’m told there’s a Facebook group advocating for her. The filmmakers’ choice to leave Lora/Yori out is yet another stunning example of the rampant gynophobia this emboldened fanboy culture has manifested. Even Sam’s mother is neither explained or identified. As with this year’s loathsome Kick-Ass, women have no place in a film unless they’re young, and/or hot, and can fight.

Yes, we do have Quorra, and she is an important character. But compare her to Lora in the first film. Lora was attractive, but modestly so. She was the kind of woman that actually dated guys who like Tron. And she was a scientist, an equal to the men in the film. Now she’s been supplanted by a total fantasy woman. Not much is “real” about Quorra. And she’s not the equal of Sam as Lora was (except in the fighting department). She’s child-like. She wants to be taught about the world by someone smart (every fanboy’s fantasy). Lora is the girl our successful, self-important hypothetical guy took the to the prom, but Quorra is his trophy wife. What this says about the fanboy audience is not encouraging if feminism is something you care about. In that respect, Tron: Legacy is a major step backwards.

As the action goes on and on and the world of The Grid begins to become less captivating it is Jeff Bridges that keeps it interesting. Bridges is an Oscar-winner now, and he’s at that point in his career where his persona is an inextricable part of whatever role he’s playing. This Kevin Flynn is different from the earlier incarnation. The difference can be summed up in two words: The Dude. Bridges peppers Flynn with a zen master ease and the occasional “man” in his dialogue. An audience member even muttered “The Dude abides” behind me. This didn’t distract or detract from the film, it gave the film a humor and humanity that is otherwise sorely lacking from Kosinski’s beautiful but sterile landscape.

Ultimately, that demo trailer from 2 years ago may have been better suited to Kosinski’s skill set than a feature film. But Tron: Legacy will prosper and the Fanboy Revolution will continue and like Clu, look for more worlds to conquer.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Top 25 Films of 2015

We always knew 2015 was going to be a big year for movies. Hollywood put an unusual number of blockbuster reboots on the slate for this year promising new installments of some of the movies’ most beloved series. But 2015 had some surprises for us nevertheless. As the ashes from the Sony Hack continued to drift in the beginning of the year, we found ourselves having some very uncomfortable but very necessary public discussions about equity and diversity in the movies and the movie business. 2014 was something of a watershed year for race in American cinema, but in 2015 gender seemed to be the battlefield. 

“Gamergate” and the Geek Girl Wars seemed to finally register on screen this year. My favorite film of the year subversively usurped the laconic male hero and introduced a formidable heroine not only his equal but in many respects his superior. By the time Rey arrived in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (so much a rip off of itself that they should've just called it Star Wars: Another New Hope) we had already been having a months long discussion of gender representation and what a female hero looks like. 

This was also a year of intense nostalgia. Looking backward excessively has been an unfortunate part of new American cinema for some time, but in 2015 it hit new heights. So many films this year involved the passing of the torch from one hero to a younger one. 1985 haunted 2015 like a friendly ghost: the last time Mad Max graced our screens was 1985 and “the future” portrayed in Back to the Future Part II (which came out in 1989 but narratively is linked to 1985) came and went. Sylvester Stallone never had a bigger year than 1985 and here he is again 30 years later, poised to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Can this nostalgia take us anywhere farther in the next 12 months or will it cycle down before inevitably cycling up again? We can’t know. But it is fascinating to ponder how much movies crystallize both our yearning for the past and our insatiable lust for the new. I don’t think any other medium is so shaped by this tug of war. 

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road - USA/Australia - d: George Miller
  2. Timbuktu - France/Mauritania - d: Abderrahmane Sissako
  3. Love & Mercy - USA - d: Bill Pohlad
  4. Tales of the Grim Sleeper - USA - d: Nick Broomfield
  5. Adieu Au Langage - France/Switzerland - d: Jean-Luc Godard
  6. Chiraq - USA - d: Spike Lee
  7. Sicario - USA - d: Denis Villeneuve
  8. Mustang - France/Turkey - d: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
  9. Tangerine - USA - d: Sean Baker
  10. The Look of Silence - Denmark/Indonesia - d: Joshua Oppenheimer

11. The Big Short - USA - d: Adam McKay
12. Clouds of Sils Maria - France/Germany/Switzerland - d: Olivier Assayas
13. The Hunting Ground - USA - d: Kirby Dick
14. Son of Saul - Hungary - d: Laszlo Nemes
15. Amy - USA/UK - d: Asif Kapadia
16. Room - Ireland/Canada - d: Lenny Abrahamson
17. Welcome to New York - USA/France - d: Abel Ferrara
18. The Diary of a Teenage Girl - USA - d: Marielle Heller
19. Carol - USA/UK - d: Todd Haynes
20. Spotlight - USA - d: Tom McCarthy

21. Steve Jobs - USA - d: Danny Boyle
22. Show Me A Hero - USA - d: Paul Haggis
23. Inside Out - USA - d: Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen
24. Best of Enemies - USA - d: Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville
25. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Faith - USA - d: Alex Gibney

Honorable Mentions: Magic Mike XXL, While We’re Young, Beasts of No Nation, Results, What Happened Miss Simone?, Mistress America, Ned Rifle, Anomalisa, Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice Mapping a Detroit Story, Meadowland

The Acting Purple Heart goes to Gerard Depardieu for fearlessly offering up his body as a metaphor the corruption of privilege in Welcome to New York.

Best Performances, in order:
  1. Brie Larson - Room
  2. Juliette Binoche - Clouds of Sils Maria
  3. Elizabeth Banks - Love & Mercy
  4. Teyonah Parris - Chiraq
  5. Charlize Theron - Mad Max: Fury Road
  6. Günes Sensoy - Mustang
  7. Katana Kiki Rodriguez & Mya Taylor - Tangerine
  8. Winona Ryder - Show Me A Hero
  9. Bel Powley - The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  10. Cobie Smulders - Results
  11. Olivia Wilde - Meadowlands
  12. Catherine Keener - Show Me A Hero
  13. Cate Blanchett - Carol
  14. Marion Cotillard - Macbeth
  15. Jada Pinkett-Smith - Magic Mike XXL

  1. John Cusack & Paul Dano - Love & Mercy
  2. Benicio Del Toro - Sicario
  3. Jacob Tremblay - Room
  4. Abraham Attah & Idris Elba - Beasts of No Nation
  5. Stanley Tucci - Spotlight
  6. Nick Cannon - Chiraq
  7. Bishop Blay - Out of My Hand
  8. Liev Schreiber - Spotlight
  9. Michael Peña - Ant-Man
  10. Paul Giamatti - Love & Mercy
  11. Oscar Isaac - Show Me A Hero
  12. Michael Fassbender - Macbeth & Steve Jobs
  13. John Cena - Trainwreck
  14. Sylvester Stallone - Creed

The Vilmos Zsigmond Color Cinematography Award: No film was more visually striking than Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, shot by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. He translated the internal hellscape of Shakespeare’s doomed power couple and externalized it in striking ways. 
-First runner-up: to Roger Deakins, A.S.C./B.S.C. for his work on Denis Villeneuve's Sicario.
-Second runner-up: to the late Ryo Murakami for his work on Out of My Hand.
-Third runner-up: Ed Lachman, A.S.C. for his luminous work on Carol, shot on Super 16mm.
-Fourth runner-up: Cary Fukunaga who pulled a Soderbergh in directing and shooting Beasts of No Nation.
-Fifth runner-up: Likely Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, A.S.C./A.M.C. for his work on The Revenant.

The Gianni Di Venanzo Black & White Cinematography Award: no award this year.

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Steven Soderbergh for his triumphant second (and final) season on The Knick.

The William Cameron Menzies Production Design Award: to Thomas E. Sanders for his work on Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. 
-First runner-up: Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Theodora van Runkle Costume Design Award: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road.
-First runner-up: Wendy Chuck for Spotlight, because good costumes aren't always beautiful. Sometimes costumes are great because they're real and true.

The Margaret Booth Editing Award: to Ronald Bronstein & Ben Safdie for Heaven Knows What.
-First runner-up: Margaret Sixel for Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Alan Splet Sound Design Award: to Eugene Gearty & the sound department of Love & Mercy. Stunning work. 

The David O. Selznick Producing: Jeph Loeb, because TV Marvel (specifically Netflix-Marvel) shamed movie Marvel this year. In a year where the best picture Oscar winner was in part a screed against super-hero films, Loeb’s work on Daredevil and Jessica Jones shows great, meaningful work can be done with super-heroes that outstrips the middlebrow drivel that frequently wins our awards.

The Grant Tinker Television Award: No TV show pushed the boundaries of the medium like Transparent.
Runners-up: Better Call Saul, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Knick, Master of None, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, Adventure Time.

Great Disappointments: the final season of Mad Men, The Hateful Eight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina.