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Archive for the tag “Cinema”

Put It Down: Outrage Over Miscasting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

By Guest Contributor, Bea Sullivan

Hollywood is making a biopic of Nina Simone. What could go wrong?

As angry as I was about the recent casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, I had to put it down. When I heard the news, I was stunned and confused, but that quickly became an internalized rage likened to the mechanics of an incinerator. Why, I wondered, had this upset me so deeply? What could be the reasoning behind such an erroneous decision? I was certain there were ulterior motives —like whitewashing. Fans of Nina, including her daughter, have denounced the project for the casting decision.

As I’ve reflected on the issue, I am more deeply disturbed by Hollywood’s hold on our individual and collective psyche being as intrinsic as air. Women like Nina Simone don’t come around very often; how could Hollywood be trusted to portray her adequately given that its business is in creating a fantasy for the masses?

And there you have it. The line between fantasy and reality. Zoe Saldana doesn’t resonate with me as a convincing enough actress to do Nina Simone any justice.

There are a number of Black Latinas in the world who many not be recognized by Hollywood as Black in the first place, or even who have the salt perform this kind of role. Is Hollywood giving them a chance? Or is it copping out to cast someone who not only conforms to more acceptable standards of beauty, but who has a recognizable name for the sake of ticket sales.

Even asking Mary J Blige to play Nina is tricky to me, while she identifies as a black woman. Her life and experience as an entertainer seem lacking. She has been reported as saying that upon accepting the role (before dropping it this summer to pursue another film and because of funding) that she had yet to fully research Nina’s life. Nina’s impact on the civil rights movement; the ways dark-skinned, southern black women were and are perceived in the media; Nina’s undeniable talent as a pianist and vocalist, which was turned away by institutions like Curtis; her renunciation of the United States’ political, economic and military investment in the Vietnam War and her expatriation to Europe; her battle with mental illness and how it affected her image with stakeholders in the entertainment industry in Europe and the Americas. Mary still had some reading to do.

The fact that Nina is being portrayed posthumously is an oversight by the entertainment industry in my view. Worse an oversight is Hollywood’s systemic undercurrent erasure of black women’s images and stories. In particular, the erasure of dark-skinned black women and their struggle implies that this particular experience is irrelevant. That if we band together as women or as people of color, then the problem of race will somehow solve itself.

This debate calls out the failure of people of color to converse about color in a thoughtful way that includes our differences and similarities while celebrating them. Hollywood’s glorification of light-skinned people and white people is important because we watch it, internalize it, and enact it ourselves via colorism. Nina’s legacy holds too much weight to bastardize her origins, her struggle, her embodiment of beauty through it all as a mahogany woman. The preservation of her legacy has everything to do with her experience in the body she inhabited as what she produced in the world.

While her music and accomplishments touched and moved me as it did many others, her life does not belong to me, it belonged to no one, which is what made her time on earth so special. Further, David Nathan, a close friend of Nina’s, has said, “The choices are completely beyond my comprehension. Having known Nina from my own teen years to close to her passing in 2003, I can say that aside from her obvious genius as an artist, she was a complex woman whose personality made her often misunderstood, erratic, volatile and subject to the gamut of emotions from rage to tenderness.”

I’m more concerned now with how we understand our reality through (sometimes problematic) representations of life and how that affects our behavior. Her impact was that of excavating a feeling unseen and unsaid.

I’m finding solace and peace in the essence of Nina’s individuality—that no one  is or could be quite like her. And shouldn’t that in itself be inspiration? Alternative avenues for funding, casting, direction, screenwriting, for instance, could be a starting point; in short we have to take control of stories that matter to us, to step in and just make something real. Outrage over absence of reality portrayed through imagined reproductions is how great pieces get made. While my anger doesn’t necessarily move the argument further, it has incited inspiration to participate in making richer representations of reality that speak to the urgency of my dreams.

Red Hook Summer: On Post-Soul Culture & Spike Lee Talkin’ Smack

By Naomi Extra

(Cross-posted in Racialicious on 08.28.12 with edits from the author)

Spike Lee’s newest film, Red Hook Summer, takes place in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn where Flik (Jules Brown), a teenage boy from Atlanta, goes to stay with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) for the summer. Flik is a teenage Afro-Punk type: vegan, middle-class, afro-hawk, suburban speak. In contrast, Bishop Enoch is a Bible-thumping preacher and active member of his community. Amidst heavier themes of class, politics, religion, and generational difference, a budding romance between Flik and Chazz (Toni Lysaith) is also threaded through the film.

What shocked me most while watching Red Hook Summer was its striking similarity to the films of Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes whose work Lee has openly criticized. In fact, many reviewers have put the film right in line with Perry’s films by describing it as a church movie.  Red Hook Summer has been said to be preachy, messy in narrative structure and development, and sensationalist. All are valid critiques. They also seem ironic in light of the ongoing beef between Perry and Lee, which was ignited when Lee referred to the films of Perry and the like as “coonery and buffoonery.” And of course, the media loves this sort of melodrama.

The question is, could Red Hook Summer be Spike talking more smack, mocking the immensely popular church films of Tyler Perry and the like? I wouldn’t put it past him. When recently asked about the ongoing feud, Lee responded with a request: “No more Tyler Perry questions please” and later “peace and love, leave it at that.” With Red Hook Summer, Lee seems to have found a way to squash the beef and have the last word.

Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of clean-cut messages of healing and redemption through religious faith. Then suddenly, about a third of the way through the film when its formulaic structure and less than stellar acting have bred boredom, Lee not only disrupts but mocks this message. When Enoch’s proverbial demons come out the closet the viewer is forced to rethink the preceding sixty or so minutes of flatness. If we think of Red Hook Summer as a parody of any one of Tyler Perry’s or T.D. Jake’s films then suddenly, the sensationalism, heavy-handed messages, simplistic character portrayals, low-budget look of the film, and mediocre acting begin to work in an interesting way.

Layered upon Lee’s satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul aesthetic which we see throughout the body of his work. By post-soul, I mean Lee’s creation of a distinct tradition within the tradition that addresses the intersections of class, religious, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America. In Red Hook Summer, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry places similar concerns on the agenda, Lee’s beef seems to be with his reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.

Red Hook Summer’s insistence on the tradition and how it is used in the black community could be interpreted as direct commentary on what Lee and others have found offensive about Perry’s films. As a symbol of post-soul culture, the star of Red Hook Summer, Flik, is openly atheist and disconnected from the tradition of the black church. He sees the world not through religion but through the lens of technology, his iPad serves as his means to record and interact with his environment. Enoch, however, uses the tradition of the black church as a veil to hide behind. What Flik and Enoch do have in common is a desired sense of freedom. In order to achieve this, both characters must learn to navigate the circumstances of their past and present. By the end of the film, Lee makes it abundantly clear that for those seeking redemption, the church is not the answer.

For better or worse, both directors have managed to make a name for themselves in an industry largely invested in what sells. With so few black filmmakers out there, combined with the politics of respectability within the African American community, and a media that thrives on conflict in the black community, it’s not hard to imagine how this rivalry not only manifested but also thrived.

In the end, with Red Hook Summer, Lee achieves more than just trash talking. He leaves us with food for thought on the ways tradition and faith are employed within the African American community. The film begs the question of where black folks turn when traditional spaces for achieving personal and spiritual freedom fail or cease to exist. Writer, Gayle Jones, perhaps put the message best. In her post-soul novel, The Healing, she writes: “Some people think that freedom is to manage everybody but theyself. Learn to manage yourself. That is the key to freedom.” An excellent bit of wisdom, not only for those watching films but also those making them.

Lights, Camera, Omission

By Camille Wanliss Ortiz

It’s been more than a century since the advent of the motion picture industry yet Hollywood still fails to accurately address the greatest atrocity to ever take place on American soil – slavery.

The latest example is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, director Timur Bekmambetov’s big-screen adaptation of the Seth-Grahame novel. Not only does it reconstruct the life of America’s 16th president but also the oppressive system he abolished. In this sci-fi rendering, slaves are less an economic commodity than they are vampire food. And it appears that the end-game of the Civil War was not to abolish the bondage of black folks but instead to stop the undead from enslaving all mankind (that’s code for “white people too”).Though no one should look to a vampire film for accuracy when it comes to slavery’s role in the Civil War, it is no less symbolic of the lengths this nation has gone to in order to spin its own revisionist history.

Just last year the Sons of the Confederacy Veterans kicked off a four-year celebration of the war’s sesquicentennial with nary a mention of slavery. Instead they stuck to their script; maintaining that the eleven states of the Confederacy were only fighting for their right to secede from the Union. What they conveniently left out, however, was that the reason they wanted to secede was so they would not be forced to end slave labor, which their ancestors benefited from economically. After losing the war, the Confederacy decided the best way to lick their wounds would be to continue spewing the “states’ rights” myth. The mindset behind this led to a romanticization of the antebellum era as the glory days of white Southern pride; a time before the North infringed on their rights and ruined everything (that’s code for “when blacks were in their rightful place”).

Hollywood soon latched on and in 1915 produced Birth of a Nation, the Confederate-sympathizing, KKK propaganda film. Then in 1939, Hollywood released Gone with the Wind, the “American classic” in which slaves are sassy and inept but never unhappy. Never searing at their core for freedom. Never rapt with fear of being raped, beaten or sold. Prissy “don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies?” Puh-lease. Not only would she have birthed a few for Massa herself but nursed and raised the babies of her mistress too.

The film industry has done a great service to the revisionists. Search IMDB for Hollywood films set during the antebellum era and read the plot summaries. Most tend to be any of the following: sweeping sagas revolving around the lives of white plantation owners; war epics on white Confederate soldiers; war epics on white friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the war; and romantic tales about white lovers torn apart by the war. It’s amazing how many stories can told about the antebellum South or the Civil War without so much as a hint to the ills of slavery. Can you imagine sweeping love stories and epics set during the Holocaust from the Nazi point of view? Yeah, me neither.

Over the past twenty-odd years, Hollywood released only three major motion pictures that dealt with slavery, though somewhat peripherally. Glory (1989) revolved around a regiment of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and Beloved (1998), based on the Toni Morrison novel, was more of a post traumatic slave tale set during Reconstruction. The one to come closest was Steven Speilberg’s Amistad (1997), about an uprising aboard a slave ship. It told the unflinching true story about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath.

But there may be hope for Hollywood yet. Though Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter only adds to the canon of revisionist movies, it at least does what no film has done before it – depicts metaphorically what the Confederacy was to blacks in reality – life sucking vampires.

There are also a few films on the horizon that may add a new dimension to the oeuvre of slave narratives. This Christmas, Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge flick Django Unchained will be released. And in 2013, director Steve McQueen will get his turn with Twelve Years a Slave, a star-studded film featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor and based on the true story of a free man of color who fights for his liberty after being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

With so many holes in the stories of this nation’s history, it’s about time Hollywood fill in the blanks.

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