Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 30, 2019

Taking stock of Elijah Cummings and John Conyers

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

Elijah Cummings

John Conyers

This month two long-time African-American members of the House of Representatives died, Elijah Cummings on the 10th and John Conyers a week later. In a typical liberal encomium, John Nichols of The Nation described Cummings as a supporter of trade union struggles and a celebrated civil rights activist. Conyers, 22 years older than Cummings, had lost most of his prestige after being forced to resign two years ago from his office after a number of women had charged him with sexual harassment. That did not stop his successor Rashida Tlaib from Tweeting “Our Congressman forever, John Conyers, Jr. He never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice and peace. We always knew where he stood on issues of equality and civil rights in the fight for the people. Thank you Congressman Conyers for fighting for us for over 50 years.” One imagines that if Conyers had not been caught with his pants down in 2017, he would have been put on the same pedestal as Cummings.

To my knowledge, neither of these long-time members of the Congressional Black Caucus has received the scrutiny they deserve. Given the subservience of the Black Caucus to the Obama administration, which was largely responsible for the backlash that allowed Trump to become President, it is worth taking a close look at their record.

Just after his death, one of the highest praises offered up to Elijah Cummings came from the solidly pro-Netanyahu Jerusalem Post that hailed The Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (ECYP). It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, proud of its record of sending more than 200 African-American, non-Jewish high school students to Israel. In 2010, Cummings signed the Hoyer-Cantor letter to Secretary of State Clinton that was your typical endorsement of any depravity Israel could come up with. The letter cited VP Biden: “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space.”

Lauded for his wise leadership in keeping Baltimore calm after the cops murdered Freddie Gray in 2016, Cummings refused to call for a federal investigation of the department in 2016 and practically told Democracy Now that all lives mattered:

And so, now, what we have to do is be about the business of what this night is about—that is, not going into separate corners, the community and the police. We have to work together. We have to acknowledge the fact that we love our police officers.

According to the November 2018 Harpers, a unit of this police department has been found guilty of the following acts of robbery and racketeering:

  • Dragging a man from his car and robbing him while he was shopping for blinds with his wife.
  • Pretending drugs found in one man’s trash can belonged to another man and then raiding his home.
  • Seizing drugs off the street and reselling them through a bail bondsman who was photographed in the police station wearing police gear and holding an officer’s gun.
  • Reporting that a gunshot wound was related to police work when it was in fact related to drug trafficking.
  • Looting pharmacies during the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black teenager who was killed by officers while in police custody.

As for Conyers, there is ample evidence that he had declining cognitive powers in office but nonetheless it is disconcerting to take note of the following.

In 2001, succumbing to the “war on terror” hysteria of the time, Conyers co-sponsoring the Patriot Act of 2001 Jim Sensenbrenner. Sensenbrenner, a Republican, was a real piece of work, calling attention publicly to Michelle Obama’s “big butt”. He was also a nativist and advocated amending the Espionage Act of 1917 to allow journalists to be prosecuted for publishing leaks.

In 2003, Conyers dragged his feet on a Freddie Gray type killing in his home state Michigan. Called the “Benton Harbor, Michigan Intifada of 2003”, the Black community rose up for two nights after the cops murdered an unarmed black motorcyclist. There were other grievances. An African-American pastor named Edward Pinkney was a leader of a struggle against the local recreation site Harbor Shores by outside investors. (The city is 96% Black.) was in jail at the time for trumped-up charges including writing an article calling a local judge racist. When his wife appealed to Conyers to come to the aid of the people, he refused.

In 2008, Dennis Kucinich, who was a Congressman at the time, launched an impeachment inquiry against George W. Bush for his illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like up until recently, Nancy Pelosi sputtered that “impeachment was off the table” back then. When Kucinich proceeded nonetheless, Ralph Nader sent a letter to Conyers asking why he wasn’t being called as a witness, reminding him that they had “several conversations and two meetings” focusing on impeachment. Clearly, Nader was being punished for challenging the two-party system.

Just some words in conclusion. All of the information above was gleaned from the CounterPunch archives. By this point, everybody knows that I regard it as a great asset of the left just for the articles. But I would add that the searchable archives amount to a Lexis-Nexis for the radical movement and reason enough to contribute to the fund-drive.

In looking for something on the Congressional Black Caucus’s decline there, I came across just the perfect article to wrap things up, written no less by managing editor and good cyber-friend Joshua Frank. Written in 2007, “The Demise of the Congressional Black Caucus” will give you an idea not only of the failings of the two recently deceased Congressman but the malaise that affects all the rest of its members:

On September 26 the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the fundraising arm of the legislative conclave, will be hosting a four day Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), which, in the their own words, “provides a platform or the 42 African American Members of Congress to share the progress of their work on legislative items and also allows for the exchange of ideas correlated to policy issues that are of critical concern to their constituents.”

Indeed, the conference provides a platform for Congress’s black politicians, but that stage is not propped up by citizen action, it is instead supported by some of the country’s most influential corporations including; Coca-Cola, Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, Shell Oil, Anheuser Busch and many more.

It hasn’t been the best year for the CBC Foundation. Last summer the Black Caucus was compelled to cancel a Democratic Presidential Forum it had planned to do with the Fox News network. Fortunately activists exposed the foundation for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from various branches of the Fox Broadcasting Company. While CBC did not seem to mind the criticism it received from constituents for the group’s association with Fox, Democratic presidential candidates were sensitive to the disapproval and withdrew from the forum, forcing its cancellation.

It isn’t likely that the black community will call for the termination of this month’s Annual Legislative Conference because Shell Oil has a card in the CBC Foundation’s donor Rolodex, despite the company’s blood-spattered history with the Ogoni people of Nigeria. Nor will the members of the CBC abandon support for the event because the Foundation accepts cash from the nation’s largest defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which was recently awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to defend the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

Evidently the CBC isn’t shy about who its precepts. In fact a look at the ALC’s itinerary of the week’s events is telling enough. Despite that the majority of black Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq, while even more oppose a military foray with Iran, there is not one single session scheduled to discuss these important issues. Lockheed Martin seems to pull more weight than CBC constituents.

Continue reading Josh’s article

 

 

September 6, 2019

Crimes of the Criminal Justice System

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,crime,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 6, 2019

Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.

Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.

Continue reading

December 26, 2018

Race, class and the DSA

Filed under: african-american,DSA,racism — louisproyect @ 11:49 pm

Miguel Salazar, hired gun for the New Republic

On December 20th, Miguel Salazar wrote an article for New Republic titled “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?” that was clearly intended to scandalize the DSA. While the magazine is by no means as disgusting as it was under Martin Peretz’s neoconservative editorial control, it certainly reflects the dominant position of the Clinton/Biden/Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. If you want to get a handle on Salazar’s politics, you should read the Nation interview he did with Jon Lee Anderson, the author of a hostile biography of Che Guevara. Check out this question: “Recently, in the US, there has been a push for a more revisionist approach in looking back at historical figures such as Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson. In an interview with BBC Mundo, you say that we can’t compare figures from the past using the morals of today. Where do we draw the line on figures like Che?” Imagine that. Making an amalgam between the slavocracy and a physician who gave up a promising career to risk his life fighting for the liberation of Cuba’s campesinos.

It appears that an African-American politician named Cat Brooks was urged to come to a Bay Area DSA by some of her supporters who were at a meeting in progress. They summoned her because there was sentiment against endorsing her candidacy for mayor of Oakland. A DSAer named Jeremy Gong was likely leading the opposition to her based on an article he wrote in September titled “East Bay DSA Should Not Endorse Cat Brooks”. To start with, Gong argues that her support for charter schools should preclude an endorsement. But additionally Gong hearkens back to a hoary debate on the left going on for a century at least. He writes: “in her statements to and about DSA, Brooks has revealed that she holds a political perspective which understands race to be the fundamental dividing line in society instead of class — and this undermines our project of building a multiracial working-class movement.”

For Salazar, the emphasis on class betrays the DSA’s supposedly old-school Marxism:

But unlike other progressive groups, DSA has to contend with internal factions that are very seriously wedded to a certain strain of socialist ideology—one that emphasizes, as Karl Marx did, a churning class war that governs the history of humankind. For these socialists, an anti-capitalist movement must be anti-racist, since capitalism has been instrumental in the subjugation of minorities. But they are also weary of liberal politicians who, they say, exploit race to pander to minority groups, all while skirting the deeper class conflict at work. In the past year, these hard-liners have clashed on numerous occasions with other socialists, often minorities themselves, who contend that righting America’s unique wrongs requires an approach distinct from the universal precepts of historical materialism—one that emphasizes racism’s special impact on inequality, supra-class.

It would be useful if Salazar identified who “these hard-liners” were but I wouldn’t expect an article designed to scandalize the DSA to name names. My first inclination would have been to check what such a “hard-liner” had written to judge for myself, if only Salazar had bothered to provide a source. But then again I am used to reading Marxist polemics where clarity is all-important. When you write for the New Republic and The Nation, clarity gets short shrift.

Further evidence of racism might have been uncovered in Philadelphia as well. There was a proposal in DSA to set up a reading group based on Asad Haider’s new book “Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump”. After the political education committee declared that it was not starting any new reading groups, the DSA members went ahead with it anyway. When the Philly DSA leaders found out, they told them to either cease and desist or resign. Considering the loose-knit nature of the DSA, this struck me as an organizational solution to a political problem, namely how to resolve the class/race contradiction or decide whether one even exists. The two camps went back and forth for a couple of weeks with temperatures rising, I supposed.

Finally, the fight boiled over into the pages of Jacobin when Melissa Naschek, a co-chair of the Philly chapter, wrote an attack on Haider’s book because it viewed the Black Power movement of the 1960s positively. For her, Black civil rights figures such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are much more in line with DSA perspectives because they “insisted that the way forward was through an interracial working-class coalition.” By creating separate Black organizations such as SNCC, the Panthers, and dozens of other less well-known groups in the sixties, the Black Power movement was “was still based on a liberal belief that economic inequality could be dealt with by segregating the working class into racially distinguished units”, even if the rhetoric of an H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael was “militant”.

Since Naschek and Haider only know the sixties by reading secondary material, I am not surprised that they find inspiration in either A. Philip Randolph or H. Rap Brown. Unfortunately, the Black struggle in the 1960s was held back by reformism on one side and ultraleftism on the other. As should be understood, they function as two sides of the same coin. As Peter Camejo once put it, the failure to win reforms, especially through electoral politics, can make impatient youth take part in adventurist actions that are designed to persuade politicians to change—an act tantamount to a tot having a tantrum.

Sometimes a liberal becomes frustrated not getting the ear of the ruling class, and he concludes that he has been using the wrong tactics. So he adopts a lot of radical rhetoric. He says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention. The politicians won’t listen to peaceful things, but if we go out and break windows then Kennedy will say, “Oh, I guess there is a problem in this society. I didn’t realize it when they were just demonstrating peacefully. I thought everything was OK because they were in the system, but now they’re going outside the system, they’re breaking windows, so we’ve got to hold back.”

These liberal-ultraleftists think that’s what moves the ruling class. Actually they come close to a correct theory when they say that if people start leaving the system the ruling class will respond. But they don’t believe that the masses can be won. They think it is enough for them to leave the system themselves, small groups of people carrying out direct confrontations.

Does Melissa Naschek have any idea that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin refused to speak out against the Vietnam War for fear that it would undermine Democratic Party programs to help Black people? You’d think that to help her make her case against Black Power she would have at least held up Martin Luther King Jr. who did tie race and class together in the course of pointing out why Blacks should oppose the war. Maybe she decided to sweep him under the rug because too many people, especially old farts like me, knew that he was beginning to adopt some of the themes that the Black Power movement had articulated. This includes his 1967 statement that “The majority of [Black] political leaders do not ascend to prominence on the shoulders of mass support … most are still selected by white leadership, elevated to position, supplied with resources and inevitably subjected to white control. The mass of [Blacks] nurtures a healthy suspicion toward this manufactured leader.” H. Rap Brown might have used coarser language but it amounted to the same thing.

Haider wrote a lengthy reply to Naschek on the Verso website that I cannot begin to summarize because of its length but suffice it to say that he finds Randolph and Rustin lacking. Somewhat surprisingly, he does not mention their silence on the Vietnam War.

My biggest problem with his response is his tendency to express himself through abstractions. For example, he writes: “To argue for improvements in the living conditions of Americans alone is not universal. But any struggle can become universal if it challenges the whole structure of domination and brings about a collective subject with the possibility of self-governance.” I guess this is the occupational hazard of being a dissertation student. You read stuff like this all the time and it seeps into your own writing. That being said, I am probably much more in sympathy with his ideas since I was passionate about Black nationalism from the time I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in 1965.

Turning back to Salazar, he blames the Momentum caucus in DSA for the old-school Marxism that led to the rejection of Cat Brooks:

These ideological clashes, usually pitting DSA leadership against rank-and-file membership, have been largely limited to East Bay and Philadelphia, the only two major chapters in the country run by the Momentum caucus, a subgroup described in a 2017 Nation profile as the “most explicitly Marxist” within the organization, with a heavy focus on the campaign for Medicare-for-All.

You’d think that “the most explicitly Marxist” faction in DSA would be all about raising transitional demands and breaking with the Democratic Party. But in this strange skewed perspective of the New Republic and The Nation, a heavy focus on Medicare-for-All is virtually equivalent to Che and Fidel going into the Sierra Maestra mountains to start a guerrilla war. If you go to the Momentum website, you’ll discover that despite their dim view of the Democratic Party, they also view attempts to build a new left party as futile. Momentum leader Jeremy Gong co-wrote an article with Eric Blanc on Jacobin making the case that the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and Medicare-for-All illustrate “How Class Should Be Central”, as the title puts it. If that’s what “most explicitly Marxist” represents in such circles, I guess I am no Marxist.

Finally, a few words about Adolph Reed who intervened in this debate in a Common Dreams article titled “Which Side Are You On?”. Reed, who was a Trotskyist in the sixties just like me, has evolved into a class fundamentalist of the sort that the Debs SP and the CPUSA of the 1930s typified. Apparently, it is also the orientation that Miguel Salazar and Melissa Naschek favor.

Debs, bless his soul, just didn’t understand what his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois was trying to say:

I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle. Our position as Socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: “The class struggle is colorless.” The capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other side.

Reed sounds like he has plagiarized Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor who blamed Trump’s victory in 2016 on Hillary Clinton’s identity politics:

This politics is open to the worst forms of opportunism, and it promises to be a major front on which neoliberal Democrats will attack the left, directly and indirectly, and these lines of attack stand out in combining red-baiting and race-baiting into a new, ostensibly progressive form of invective. Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 campaign swipe at Sanders that his call for breaking up big banks wouldn’t end racism was only one harbinger of things to come. Indeed, we should recall that it was followed hard upon by even more blunt attacks from prominent members of the black political class.

It has been and will be all too easy for the occasion to elect “the first” black/Native American/woman/lesbian to substitute for the need to advance an agenda that can appeal broadly to working people of all races, genders and sexual orientations. Our side’s failure to struggle for that sort of agenda is one reason Trump is in the White House. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that helped bring about that result.

It’s worth mentioning that Reed’s hostility to Black people organizing on behalf of their own demands has led to some truly reactionary positions. In an article on Nonsite.org, he takes up the question of Black Lives Matter focusing on killer cops. He writes:

This line of argument and complaint, as well as the demand for ritual declarations that “black lives matter,” rest on insistence that “racism”—structural, systemic, institutional, post-racial or however modified—must be understood as the cause and name of the injustice manifest in that disparity, which is thus by implication the singular or paramount injustice of the pattern of police killings.

But, when we step away from focus on racial disproportions, the glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. [emphasis added]

As for this “glaring fact”, it skirts the real issue, namely whether a white cop would have shot a 12-year old boy like Tamir Rice running around with a toy pistol in a playground if he had been white. When someone in a position to speak for the Black left ends up spouting the kind of garbage you can hear on Tucker Carlson, you really have to wonder what went wrong.

December 6, 2018

Black America seen through the prism of seven films released this year

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 2:16 am

Likely a combination of pressure applied on the Hollywood film industry to be more racially inclusive and the street protests led by Black Lives Matter, 2018 was marked by a bumper crop of films about Black America. Perhaps the most significant evidence of a shift was the long and flattering article in the May 22, 2018 Sunday NY Times Magazine section titled “How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood” that was unlike any article I had seen in the magazine in a long time, maybe ever:

“Sorry to Bother You” comes out in wide release in July. The film is visually ingenious and funny, yet grounded by pointed arguments about the obstacles to black success in America, the power of strikes and the soul-draining predations of capitalism. A self-described communist since his teens, Riley has said he aims “to help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.”

Another such film that opened to universal acclaim was Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, which some critics viewed as his best work ever. I avoided seeing the two films when they first came out partly as a reaction to the hype surrounding them. In general, I stay away from Hollywood films for most of the year since they hardly seem worth the money I would spend to see them. As I expected, I received screeners for both films and can say at this point that my skepticism was warranted. This has also been the case with just about every other film I have seen in this capacity except for the surprisingly great “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

As it happens, the best in this group of seven under consideration was a low-budget neorealist indie film titled “Life and Nothing More” directed by a Spaniard who used nonprofessionals exclusively. Except for this film, the others were flawed in one way or another. Despite that, I have no problem recommending them all since they at least engage with the realities of racism that have deepened horrifically under the white supremacist administration of Donald Trump.

Sorry to Bother You

The main character in this surrealist satire is a young African-American man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who has just started a job as a telemarketer in Oakland. When he fails to sell much of anything, an older co-worker played by Danny Glover advises him to use a “white voice”. This leads to success, so much so that he gets promoted to a highly paid “power caller” position on a higher floor. When his co-workers on the ground floor form a union to strike for higher wages, Green crosses their picket line.

The combination of losing friendships made on the ground floor, estrangement from his girlfriend–a radical artist, and the dark secrets he discovers on the top floor is enough to make him quit his power caller job and join the resistance.

Both the ground-floor and top-floor operations are owned by a man named Steve Lift who might be described as a combination of Jeff Bezos and some villain out of a Marvel comic book—not that there’s much difference. Lift has begun building a slave labor work force based on Centaur-like creatures called “equisapiens” that are produced by a gene-modifying, cocaine-like drug that Green himself is persuaded to take in Lift’s office.

As a genre, surrealist satire generally leaves me cold. Although I have seen no references to this, it strikes me that the work of directors and screenwriters such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Terry Gilliam helped shape “Sorry to Bother You”. Such works strive for shock value rather than dramatic intensity based on realism. In Riley’s film, there is almost no attempt to develop one of the equisapiens into a sympathetic and identifiable character such as the slaves in Pontecorvo’s “Burn” but there is no doubt that the sight of a man’s body with a horse’s head must have been enough to impress most film critics.

BlacKkKlansman

This film was “inspired” by the real life experience of a Black cop in Colorado Springs named Ron Stallworth who teamed up with a white cop in the 1970s to infiltrate the KKK. Since he was working undercover at the time to gain information on “extremist” groups like the local Black Student Union that had invited Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael), he decided to branch out and investigate the Klan. So the film sets up an equivalence between Kwame Ture and David Duke, a cast character playing a major supporting role in the film. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of how Trump and his “there were bad people on both sides in Charlottesville”?

Ironically, despite Boots Riley’s devastating critique of Lee’s film, they both rely on the same device—a Black man using a “white voice” to deceive someone on the other side of the line. In Stallworth’s case, it was to communicate with the KKK about future meetings, etc. Once a hook-up was arranged, a white (and Jewish) cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) would show up representing himself as Stallworth.

Stallworth’s initiative in penetrating the KKK elevated him in the eyes of the local police force who at first regarded him either paternalistically or in an openly racist manner. In the film’s conclusion, he uses a wire to record a racist cop who is dragged off to the delight of Stallworth and his white cop supporters. It is not exactly clear why he is being arrested since racism is completely legal, especially in Colorado.

Essentially, Lee’s film is a throwback to Stanley Kramer’s liberal, integrationist films of the 1960s like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Racism is depicted as a function of prejudice rather than institutions functioning to create a reserve army of labor. Lee is a skilled filmmaker but not much different than Michael Moore politically. In 2008, he hailed Obama’s victory as a sign that Washington would soon become a “Chocolate City”. Four years later when it was obvious that it remained vanilla under Obama, he expressed disappointment but still raised a million dollars in a fundraising party at his home for his re-election.

In his takedown of Lee’s film, Riley was a lot sharper than any dialog he wrote in “Sorry to Bother You”:

Look—we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines—we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Green Book

Like “BlacKkKlansman”, “Green Book” is based on the experiences of real-life characters but probably taking fewer liberties. In 1962, Jamaican-born pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) needed a driver for a tour that began in the north and that ended in the Deep South. He hired a bouncer from the Copacabana named “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was out of work for two months while the Copa did some remodeling.

The film is reminiscent of old-fashioned TV comedy, especially “The Odd Couple” that paired a slovenly sportswriter and a prissy photographer in the same Manhattan apartment after both men had divorced their wives. Felix, the photographer, is always lecturing Oscar about his untidy habits while Oscar is working to wean Felix from his neurotic obsessions over this and that. In “Green Room”, the fastidious and well-educated Black artist is always remonstrating Tony Lip for his lapses. He wants to improve his diction—a Bronx Italian accent done well by Mortensen—as if he were Henry Higgins working on Liza Dolittle. Irritated at first, Tony Lip begins to warm up to his boss after seeing him wow audiences and having the courage to tour the Deep South. In a number of scenes, he confronts racists who have disrespected the world-class pianist even though the film starts with Tony Lip throwing out a couple of glasses that Black repairmen have drunk from while working to fix his refrigerator. If he can overcome his prejudice, why can’t the rest of Italians in the Bronx “get along” with Negros.

The film was directed by Peter Farrelly, a white filmmaker who has teamed up with his brother Bobby for comedies like “There’s Something About Mary”. This is essentially a road movie with a message of racial tolerance as likeable and old-fashioned as bowl of steel-cut oatmeal on a winter morning. It is the kind of film that a white audience in Birmingham, Alabama, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, can watch with pleasure even if on the next day they treat Black people with contempt. That’s what films like this are about, anyhow. An escape from a mean and violent world.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, this is a film directed by Barry Jenkins, the African-American who made the excellent “Moonlight” in 2016. Set in the early 1970s, it is love story about a 22-year old aspiring sculptor named Fonny and his 19-year old lover named Tish who grew up in Harlem, the children of working-class parents.

Like many kids in Harlem, especially those who took advantage of an inexpensive CUNY education, the two were anxious to live as Manhattanites and put the provincialism of Harlem behind them, especially that of their parents. Tish’s mother is a devout Baptist who practically disowns the two when the unmarried Tish becomes pregnant.

Fonny has a day job that allows him to enjoy a reasonably decent life (this was long before Manhattan turned into Rio de Janeiro) while Tish works behind the counter selling cologne at a place that looks like Bloomingdales. Their prospects brighten when an orthodox Jew named David decides to rent an empty loft to Fonny on Bank Street in the West Village that he can use for both shelter and artwork. Keep in mind that in the early 70s, this is how Soho and Tribeca got started. When Fonny is shocked to discover that a Jew was about to rent something far below market prices (was this an inadvertent stereotype?) to a Black man, he can’t help but ask why he was being treated so well. The reply: I was touched by the love you two shared.

Despite being poised on the brink of a new and free life, Fonny can’t escape the consequences of being Black, even in progressive New York. When a white cop, who has a grudge against Fonny for an earlier confrontation, arrests him on the flimsy charge of raping a woman on the Lower East Side, their dreams are dashed. He goes off to prison despite the best efforts of his mother to track down the woman in Puerto Rico in order to convince her testimony in court.

What makes the film notable is not so much the struggle for racial justice but the romance of the two young people that director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins conveys well, no doubt a function of his deep devotion to James Baldwin and this novel in particular. In an Esquire Magazine article, Jenkins expresses the challenges of making a film that combines the hopefulness of young love and the crushing social forces arrayed against it:

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

The Hate U Give

Directed by the African-American George Tillman Jr., this is a Black Lives Matter-themed film based on a young adult novel written by another African-American, Angie Thomas (the screenplay was an adaptation written by a white woman named Audrey Wells, who died shortly before the film’s release.)

The main character is Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who lives in a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhood reminiscent of Ferguson, Missouri called Garden Heights but who goes to a predominantly white and wealthy school “on the other side of the tracks”. Her identity is split between the two places. She has a white boyfriend and hangs out with white girls, making little attempt to fill them in on how she lives in Garden Heights.

One night she goes to a party where she runs into an old friend from the neighborhood named Khalil who offers her a ride home. On the way there, they are stopped by a cop in a typical racial profiling manner who orders Khalil out of the car and to put his hands on the roof. With Starr sitting in the front seat and the cop examining Khalil’s license and registration, he turns around, sticks his head through the window to see how she is holding up. After she says okay, he grabs a hair brush from the front seat and begins resuming the stance the cop ordered him to take. When the cop spots the brush in darkness of the night, he mistakes it for a pistol and in “self-defense” fires three bullets into the youth who dies on the spot.

As the sole eyewitness to the killing, Starr has to choose between two identities. If she comes out as the only person who has a chance of bringing the cop to justice, she risks antagonizing her white friends in high school. One of them even repeats the “all lives matter” excuse for the cops.

Finally deciding that she had to do the right thing, she does a TV interview that charges the cop for being a lawless executioner as well as well as fingering a brutal gang in Garden Heights that is almost as much of a impediment to Black security as the out-of-control police department. As a Ferguson-type protest takes shape in her neighborhood, she reluctantly assumes leadership even as she has to contend with the gang members who want to punish her for the TV interview.

Whether it is a function of the young adult material it is based on or just the author’s inexperience, the main problem of the film is its predictability. Characters are defined and then act according to the role that they are assigned to. Nothing comes as much of a surprise.

That being said, it is of supreme importance that such a film can make its way into Cineplexes where a documentary on Ferguson would never appear. It is even more significant that the novel it is based on has sold 1.5 million copies, presumably to young Black people who have a voice speaking for their frustrations and anger that are heard nowhere else.

The author’s story is very much like that of young people in Ferguson or any other place where a cop killing triggered BLM protests. Born in 1988, Angie Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the city in which a progressive Democratic Party city government has encouraged the growth of cooperatives serving the Black community.

Having dreamt of becoming a writer from an early age and graduating from a Christian college in Mississippi with a BFA, she resolved to write such a novel after Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland on New Years Eve in 2009. In an interview with Ebony, Grant described what amounted to as a mission, something probably remote to the average University of Iowa Writers Workshop student:

As a Black woman, I feel like I have a unique experience that we don’t often see in media portrayals of the South. When you say, “Southern” or you speak about a Southern accent, there’s always that drawl and usually from White people. That’s what people associate with the South.

But we’re all different. The Black Southern accent is different. It’s small things like that, and then big things like being from Mississippi, specifically, and hearing the stories about Emmett Till, and being familiar with that from a very young age. Or knowing that I lived maybe three minutes away from Medgar Evers’ home, and that my mom heard the gunshot that killed him. Knowing that I live in a state where whenever somebody would fight for my rights or speak up for me, they were automatically deemed the enemy by the majority.

Whatever qualms I had about the film, I feel enriched by the experience of discovering that such writers exist.

Monsters and Men

Directed and written by the African-American Reinaldo Marcus Green, this film is also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Based on the killing of loose-cigarette peddler Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 by a cop’s chokehold that inspired the protest call “I can’t breathe”, Green tells the story of three men who were impacted in one way or another by the fictionalized account of Garner’s death (in the film, it is a cop’s gun rather than a chokehold that costs the cigarette peddler his life.)

We first meet Manny Ortega, who like Starr is an eyewitness to the killing. He is hesitant to speak out not because it would diminish his status but because as a poor and underemployed Latino, he cannot afford to piss off the cops. Like Starr, he does the right thing.

Next we meet Dennis Williams, a Black cop who is struggling to stay behind the blue wall of silence that would free him from the burden of testifying against a colleague. Having been stopped by cops six times that year in racial profiling incidents, he has been pushed to the limit. (Williams is played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, who also played the cop Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s film.)

Finally, there is Zyrick, a young Black man who is stopped on his way home from baseball practice in another racial profiling incident. For his father, an MTA worker, and Zyrick, baseball opens up the possibility of a lucrative career. When his own experience being stopped by the cops resonates with the killing of the cigarette peddler, Zyrick decides to take part in a BLM protest the night before he is supposed to take part in a game with baseball scouts eyeing prospects for the big leagues. When his father learns that he is going to take part in the protest, he lashes out him for losing his focus. It is nothing but baseball that is important. Black people have been killed by the cops for no good reason since the Civil War. The only answer is to mind your own business and stay out of their way.

The next day, Zyrick shows up at the baseball game with a shirt demanding justice for the slain peddler and takes a knee with other aspiring baseball pros.

In an interview with Remezcla, a website devoted to Latino culture and politics, Green—who is half Puerto-Rican—spoke for many young filmmakers of color anxious to use film to raise political awareness in the Black and Latino community:

This film is my form of activism, however small. I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s about baby steps. It’s about talking about it, continuing the dialogue, and trying to open people’s minds to an issue that really needs to be talked about. It’s happening all around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to our people and our community. It’s important for us to just stay engaged as a community, the Latino community, the Black community, it’s important for us to come together. As a collective, we’re much stronger, and we need to support one another.

Life and Nothing More

Despite its minimal funding and its brief stay in the Film Forum, this film stands out for me as a major contribution to the body of work about Black Americans going back to classics like “Nothing but a Man”. It should show up eventually as VOD and when it does, don’t waste any time. It is truly powerful.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother named Regina working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Director Antonio Méndez Esparaza spent two years in Tallahassee interviewing single Black mothers to help him write the script for a film steeped in neorealist traditions.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless pit. The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

 

August 20, 2018

CLR James interview

Filed under: african-american,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm

July 13, 2017

The Story of O.J.

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 11:28 pm

 

The lil radicals now online assailing Jay-Z for propagating that oxymoron Black Capitalism have got it all wrong. Try Black Tribalism, my nuh. Try Black economic nationalism, to be specific. Marcus Garvey wouldn’t be mad at Hov’s 4:44; nor would Garvey’s hero, Booker T. Washington; nor the heir apparent of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam; nor Berry Gordy neither. Not to mention David Bowie, who related how, when he first shook P. Diddy’s hand, Diddy said, “Wow, strong grip — I need to meet your trainer.” To which Bowie retorted, “That grip’s not from the gym, Puff. That’s from forty years of trying to hold on to your money in the music business.”

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December 10, 2016

Hidden Figures; The Man Who Knew Infinity

Filed under: african-american,Film,india,racism,science — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

When two screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration as best film of 2016 happen to deal with racism against people of color who are gifted mathematicians if not outright geniuses, your first reaction might be to consider it a coincidence. But upon further reflection, despite all of the gloom about the election of Donald Trump, the film industry still sees such stories as eminently marketable rather than Rambo retreads. Not only are the films marketable, they are first rate.

“Hidden Figures”, which opens everywhere on January 6th, 2017, tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and who had to deal with both racial oppression and sexism. Of the three, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) receives most of the attention. Now 98, she calculated the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission. As the daughter of a lumberjack in segregated West Virginia, she had many obstacles to overcome. Although I have little use for President Obama, I thought he exercised good judgement when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

While its venue was in art houses last April, where features generally make a fleeting appearance unlike the Multiplexes that will screen “Hidden Figures”, my readers will certainly want to take advantage of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” now on Amazon streaming. This is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel), who grew up poor in Madras, India and demonstrated a mastery of mathematics from an early age. Working as a lowly clerk after the fashion of Bob Cratchit, his supervisor was struck by a notebook of formulas he kept, so much so that he encouraged him to send letters with a sample of his work to universities in England. After Cambridge don G. H. Hardy (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons) reads the material, he invites Ramanujan to come to Trinity College and fulfill his dreams. Like NASA, however, the institution is racist to the core and almost crushes Ramanujan into the dust.

While both films have most of the well-trod inspirational elements you would associate with such tales, they rise above the genre and soar. This is mostly a function of their faithfulness to the historical context, informed to a large extent by the well-researched books they are based on. Written this year, Margot Lee Shatterly’s “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” was sparked by conversations she had with her father, who was an African-American research scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia where the women in “Hidden Figures” worked. As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, the source material was a book of the same name written in 1991 by Robert Kanigel, who worked as an engineer before becoming a free-lance writer in 1970. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he helped start its Graduate Program in Science Writing, which he directed for seven years. So clearly, we are dealing with authors who are very much wedded to the stories they write about.

In addition to Katherine Johnson, the other two Black women facing discrimination at NASA are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Vaughan was the supervisor of the West Area Computers section at NASA that despite the name consisted of African-American women whose job it was to do tedious calculations and check the mathematics of other employees, almost like fact checkers at the New Yorker Magazine. Known as “computers”, they had to be much more rigorous than those working for a magazine since the lives of astronauts depended on it. The West Area was segregated from the main buildings at in Hampton—separate and unequal. The women could not even use the bathrooms on the main campus or even the water fountains. When Katherine Johnson ended up working with the white scientists, she had to walk a quarter-mile to return to the West Area to go to the bathroom. When Mary Jackson decided to become an engineer to get away from the drudge work of being a human computer, she found out that no college in Virginia would accept a Black person. Undaunted, she took a night class in a high school after winning a legal case to gain such a right.

In some ways, the film will remind you of “The Imitation Game”, which was also about a crash program run by mathematicians and engineers. But unlike “The Imitation Game”, “Hidden Figures” is much more of a human drama since there is a daily battle by the women to be recognized as equals to whites and to men. In the most stirring scene in the film, Katherine Johnson explains to her boss (played capably by Kevin Costner) that she disappears a couple of times a day from her desk in order to go to the bathroom in a segregated area. Appalled by the waste of time and the disrespect to a fellow worker, he goes around NASA and tears down all the signs indicating facilities for the “colored”.

As another coincidence, the film climaxes with the successful orbital flight of John Glenn (Glen Powell) in 1962. Glenn died two days ago at the age of 95. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate his orbit around Earth, Johnson was called upon to verify the numbers because Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine verified them first.

When Ramanujan arrives at Trinity College, he is met by racism from every quarter. Even his champion G.H. Hardy mixes well-intended paternalism with jibes about sending him back to India if he doesn’t make the grade.

In many ways, Hardy is a more interesting character than Ramanujan because he is constantly being forced to reckon with the disjunction between his prejudices and the reality of the young man in front of him who he finally acknowledges as the Mozart of mathematics—a man who could penetrate to the heart of a math puzzle and solve it as easily as Mozart could write a sonata.

In one scene, Ramanujan is sitting in a lecture that Hardy has pressured him to attend in order to compensate for ostensible deficiencies in his autodidactic training. When a professor asks him why he is not taking notes, he replies that it is not necessary since he understands the material on the blackboard completely. Not believing him, the professor goads him into explaining what the formulas on the blackboard are about. Nonplussed, Ramanujan arises from his seat, goes to the blackboard and provides a sophisticated solution to the problems being posed by the professor. This does not result in congratulations but instead being thrown out of class for his perceived arrogance. Apparently he doesn’t know his place.

Unlike nearly every film I have seen about scientific matters or chess, this is one that makes very clear what made Ramanujan such a genius. He was the first to crack the “partition” problem that the film elucidates.

Take the number four. There are four ways to calculate the number of paths to that number using simple mathematics:

  1. 1+1+1+1
  2. 2+2
  3. 2+1+1
  4. 3+1
  5. 4+0

But what if the number was 3,789,422 instead? Was there any way to use a formula to arrive at the number of ‘partitions’ and bypass manual calculations? This is a problem that has vexed mathematicians forever until Ramanujan solved it. I have no idea what the practical application of such a formula would be but Ramanujan, unlike most men at Trinity College including Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) who were atheists, was deeply religious and once told Hardy that god gave him the insights to solve such problems. For him, solving math problems and praying complemented each other.

The Wikipedia entry on Ramanujan, who died of TB at the age of 32, is most informative:

During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations). Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct. His original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, have inspired a vast amount of further research. The Ramanujan Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was established to publish work in all areas of mathematics influenced by Ramanujan.

Deeply religious, Ramanujan credited his substantial mathematical capacities to divinity: “An equation for me has no meaning,” he once said, “unless it expresses a thought of God.”

After seeing both of these films, I could not help but be reminded of one of the main reasons I became a socialist in 1967. When it is such a battle for the women of “Hidden Figures” or Ramanujan to rise to the top, think of all those who were not fortunate to be given a chance. What a waste of humanity when class divisions require a mass of workers to be treated little better than a horse or any other beast of burden. I put it this way in my review of a documentary about Ousmane Sembene, the brilliant Senegalese film director who was thrown out of grade school for assaulting an abusive teacher:

I became a socialist in the 1960s largely on the belief that capitalism held back civilization by preventing a large majority of the world’s population from reaching its maximum potential. If the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America could enjoy the same benefits of those in rich countries, especially a top-notch education and the leisure time to develop innate talents, that could enhance the possibility of a great artist like Picasso or the scientist who could find a cure for cancer emerging out of formerly neglected regions.

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

October 1, 2016

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.

Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.

“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.

The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.

When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:

From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.

Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.

What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.

For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.

The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.

At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.

Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.

Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.

In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:

And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”

For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:

From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.

Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.

Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.

Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.

“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.

It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?

DuVernay calls  upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.

Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article  titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):

An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

September 12, 2016

When Justice isn’t Just

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

First Run Features released the 42-minute documentary When Justice Isn’t Just to iTunes on August 30 and follows up with a DVD beginning tomorrow, September 13, 2016. The film, directed by Oscar-nominated and NAACP Image Award winner David Massey, addresses the concept and reality of justice in the United States, particularly in regard to racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. It will be very useful for classroom discussions of why Black Lives Matter emerged, why Colin Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the national anthem, etc.

Filmed in cities across the country, the documentary explores why so many unarmed black people have been targeted and killed by law enforcement officers, an issue that has taken center stage in the national consciousness. The filmmakers talk to legal experts, activists and law enforcement officials who speak to the inequality within our criminal justice system. The film asks the crucial question of how to prevent more violence in this country, including Black on Black deaths. Activists, law enforcement officials, legal scholars, and the family members of victims offer a range of responses.

At its heart, When Justice Isn’t Just confronts the broken criminal justice system, focusing on the incarceration rate of people of color. As the Black Lives Matter movement and citizens nationwide question the accountability of our justice system in cases of police violence, When Justice Isn’t Just is an essential addition to the ongoing discussion about reform and renewal.

David Massey and producer Dawn Alexander have screened their film throughout the country. As Massey states, “we as filmmakers couldn’t sit on the sidelines without documenting one of the most important human rights issues facing America and the black community today.”

When Justice Isn’t Just features a broad array of people, including Civil Rights Attorney Benjamin L. Crump, Dr. Cornel West, Black Lives Matter’s Dr. Melina Abdullah, Criminal Attorney Tom Mesereau, LAPD Deputy Chief William Scott, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and many more.

Director/Producer David Massey is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications & Education from Ohio Dominican University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Advanced Film & Television from the American Film Institute. He is the first African American in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for an Oscar in the Live-Action Short Film category.

Presently, Massey is the co-chair of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers, West (BAD-West) in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College. He has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including The Martin Ritt Scholarship; the Eastman Kodak Second Century Honoree; induction into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame; The National Education Association for the “Advancement of Learning through Broadcasting”; the National Black Programming Consortium “Prized Pieces”; PBS “Innovator Teacher’s Award”; and the Heartland Film Festival’s Crystal Heart. Additionally, Massey is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Co-Producer/Writer Dawn Alexander is mother of a young African American male, and as such created this project with a deeply felt commitment to his safety and the safety of other young black men in America. When Justice Isn’t Just is her most recent attempt to address justice since: “Justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality, and is the constant and perpetual disposition to render every person his due.”

 

June 7, 2016

All the Way

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Currently being featured on HBO, “All the Way” derives its title from LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan “All the Way with LBJ”. That year SDS urged a vote for Johnson but under the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. For some former SDS’ers like Carl Davidson, you can expect the slogan to be dusted off and used once again for Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump being the scariest Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater—or was it Ronald Reagan, I can’t remember.

The movie is an adaptation of a three-hour play by Robert Schenkkan starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ that ran on Broadway in 2013. The NY Times faulted it for including too many characters to receive full development in such a short time so you can imagine how much worse the problem is when the play is reduced to a 132-minute teleplay.

“All the Way” received a Tony award for best play in 2014 but that’s setting the bar fairly low given the competition on Broaday. Probably most people went to see it because it starred Bryan Cranston. Nowadays big-name TV and Hollywood movie stars are often recruited for such roles to boost ticket sales. The HBO film was directed by Jay Roach, who directed the very fine film “Trumbo” that also starred Bryan Cranston. Since I loved “Trumbo”, I approached “All the Way” with an open mind even though I couldn’t help but feel that it would be an effort to salvage LBJ’s reputation, especially since it covers the period prior to the major escalation of the war in Vietnam and the ghetto uprisings that left LBJ’s legacy a pile of smoldering rubble.

Like “Selma”, a central part of the drama consists of LBJ and MLK Jr. butting heads over civil rights legislation, especially the need for one protecting voting rights. Unlike “Selma”, however, there is much more focus on the white racist opposition to this and any other reforms from southern Democrats like Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who is played by veteran actor Frank Langella. Russell was very close to Johnson who had him over for dinner many times in their 20-year friendship that came to an end over the 1964 Civil Rights bill that banned Jim Crow practices but fell short of guaranteeing voting rights.

As you might expect, a film could be more expansive in some ways even if it had to be curtailed in length from the play. All the action in the play took place in the oval office but the film shows debates taking place in the Senate over the proposed legislation. It is entirely possible that the words that came out of one racist politician’s mouth were written by Schenkkan, but you can’t exclude them actually being heard on the Senate floor. In arguing against the bill, he says that it would not allow a podiatrist to exclude someone who had smelly feet. It is the same kind of argument being used by bakers who refuse to serve gay wedding ceremonies and from essentially the same voting bloc except now they are Republicans rather than Democrats like Richard Russell.

My only exposure to Schenkkan’s work in the past was the screenplay he wrote for Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” back in 2002 that I found lacking:

Robert Schenkkan, one of the screenwriters, told the Boston Globe in February that he wanted to make Pyle [the eponymous character–a CIA agent] more believable and more sympathetic. Since he is also involved with terror bombings that are blamed on the communists, this requires a certain amount of literary license. Brendan Fraser [playing Pyle] added, “He couldn’t be capable of doing the awful things he does do. We had to show him some respect, to make him credible as someone who could take care of himself and have language skills.” Ultimately this doctoring of Greene’s prose yields an OSS agent who might be mistaken for a character on “Friends”. With his dog and baseball cap, this Pyle seems more like a frat boy than a killer.

As it turns out, “All the Way” flunks the Indochina acid test just as badly as this misuse of Greene’s novel set in Vietnam during the 1950s. Although most of it is concerned with civil rights, there is one scene that deals with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and rather badly at that. LBJ is depicted as being preoccupied by the murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney since it might cast a pall over the Democratic Party convention. When Robert McNamara comes into the oval office to apprise him of an unverified attack on an American destroyer by Vietnamese patrol boats, LBJ’s initial reaction is to let it slide. When McNamara tells him that his rival Barry Goldwater has been leaking news of the bogus attack to the press and warning that the administration was soft on Communism, LBJ caves in and authorizes air strikes.

Is it credible to believe that Barry Goldwater’s campaign speeches was what led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the horrors that would last for nearly another decade? Not if you have read the Pentagon Papers. The USA had intended to destroy the revolution taking place in South Vietnam long before Goldwater was a candidate. A war with the North was essential in order to cut off the NLF’s supply lines. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was manufactured in order to give the White House cover for launching a genocidal war that it has never fully atoned for or honored the need for reparations to the Vietnamese. It probably would have been better for Schenkkan to stick to the civil rights struggle rather than introducing a false account of American history, especially since the play was supposed to be historically accurate.

The most interesting and dramatically effective segment involves the failed attempt by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at the 1964 convention. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer (played effectively by Aisha Hines), it pits LBJ against the civil rights activists who thought the delegation was the true voice of the DP rather than the bigots who were now seated. In effect, they were the Bernie Sanders of their day.

The MFDP was backed initially by Hubert Humphrey but since LBJ feared a walkout of all the Southern racist delegations if the MFDP was seated, he pressured Humphrey to withdraw his support. As was generally the case with LBJ, he offered material incentives to those he was pressuring–in this case the VP nomination. In order to close the deal with Humphrey and the liberal wing of the DP that backed the MFDP, LBJ gets Walter Reuther on the phone and orders him to lean on Humphrey, which he does. To give some credit to Schenkkan where credit is due, he makes Reuther look like a rat.

In one of the more dramatic scenes, we see MLK Jr. outside the convention cajoling the younger and more militant Black activists to settle for a token two-delegate observer status so as to preserve “party unity”. You don’t want the evil Goldwater to be president, do you? In essence, this is how the DP operated back then and operates today as Bernie Sanders and his supporters will learn this summer.

“All the Way” should be seen as an introduction to some important historical events even if it has to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. Bryan Cranston, as always, turns in an impressive performance. If it motivates you to read some serious historical accounts of the period like Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” or Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63”, then it will have served a useful purpose.

The biggest problem, however, is that it might leave you with the impression that LBJ is now undervalued by the left, especially since he was the architect of the Great Society and two major pieces of civil rights legislation. Nostalgia for LBJ can be seen in certain quarters, especially Salon Magazine that wrote about “Lessons from All the Way: 3 big takeaways from LBJ’s victories that progressives can’t afford to ignore”:

Yet even though millions of liberals tuned in on Friday night to see Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ, polls continue to show that our era’s Johnson is in danger of losing to our era’s Goldwater because many progressives — who largely backed Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, for the Democratic nomination — are unwilling to support her in the general election. This is where “All the Way” specifically, and Johnson’s story in general, offers three instructive lessons.

“This ain’t about principles, it’s about votes. That’s the problem with you liberals — you don’t know how to fight! You wanna get something done in the real world, Hubert, you’re gonna have to get your hands wet.”

To really gauge LBJ’s role in American history, you have to have a more inclusive time-span than the one presented in “All the Way” that is bounded by JFK’s assassination and a victory party at LBJ’s ranch after the votes have finally been tallied making him the new president.

As a sign of how “we can overcome”, the voting rights bill of 1965 that is a cornerstone of both “Selma” and “All the Way” was enacted just five days before the Watts riots, the largest in American history. It was one thing for the Blacks to press for voting rights and another for them to throw Molotov Cocktails. LBJ’s reaction to earlier urban uprisings had been from a law and order perspective and now he would confront them as he confronted the Vietnamese peasants: with iron and blood.

The liberals he assigned to report on native restlessness were hardly distinguishable from the Southern racists. Harry McPherson, who was the White House counsel under LBJ, toured Bedford Stuyvesant and reported back to his boss:

[And] Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is the home of what Marx called the lumpen-proletariat,'” an “incredibly depressing” cityscape with “every tenth car—as in Harlem—a Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera, or Chrysler, double-parked before a busted decaying house.” He offered a few po-litical impressions (“I am coming to believe that 95% of the Negro leaders in this country are West Indian”), but mostly stories of the sort that the Kennedys had ridiculed Johnson for telling. “A statue, in the park of a public housing project, of Lincoln—seated, with his hand around the shoulder of a Negro boy,” he wrote. “There is a lot of modern playground equipment in the park, but when we were there, the kids weren’t playing on the equipment; they were climbing all over the statue. It almost seemed as if they were trying to lift Lincoln’s other hand and put it on their shoulders. The statue’s bronze is worn to a light brown by thousands of children’s hands. It is the statue of a father—a powerful figure for kids without one at home.”

(From Kenneth O’Reilly’s indispensable “Nixon’s Piano”)

When the Kerner Commission prepared a report that blamed social and economic conditions for the riots, LBJ would have none of it and even refused to invite the authors to meet with him at the White House. What was wrong with these ingrates was his reaction. After all, the Great White Father had bestowed the Great Society upon them.

A rival commission investigating the riots was headed by Arkansas Senator John McClellan, a typical racist who sought answers in law enforcement rather than redressing social conditions. His target was the OEO, a key part of the War on Poverty that many on the right viewed as instigating the riots even though only 16 of its employees were ever arrested during an uprising. For the most part, the OEO representatives in the Black community served as the eyes and ears of the government and could hardly be mistaken for H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael.

I will conclude with O’Reilly’s summation of the relationship between LBJ and McClellan’s McCarthyite investigation of poverty workers:

The riots also hardened Johnson’s soul. He embraced McClellan’s notion that subversives and criminals had instigated the riots, and “having earned recognition as the country’s preeminent civil libertarian” now seemed oddly determined “to become its chief of police” (McPherson’s words). Desperately trying to hold the Democratic party’s voting bloc together, the president dismissed the ghetto riots as the product of Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists. And he did so while trying to contain the growing conservative critique of his administration’s policies. Edwin Willis, the Louisiana Democrat who chaired HUAC, reminded him of how effective old Republican party tactics might be in the present. “Just like some years ago the Republicans made a dent in the Democratic column on the false issue that Democrats were ‘soft’ on Communism, so I regret to say that in my opinion they will try to portray Democrats in general, and you in particular, as being ‘soft’ on law enforcement and respect for law and order.”

 

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