May 3rd, 2013 — jazz reviews
The best jazz recording of 2012, much like science or magic, doesn’t easily yield its secrets – which is the main reason it didn’t make my Top-10 list. I simply didn’t get to it all in time. Still, with or without me (and gratifyingly so), Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers has by now received most of the formal acclamation it deserves: Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music, awards from the Jazz Journalists Association for Smith as musician and trumpeter of the year, a three-night live premiere last week at the Roulette in Brooklyn. I suspect that once the four-disc set on Cuneiform Records seeps into the shared consciousness of receptive listeners, it will continue to provoke, haunt and inspire. The greatest music – the greatest anything – doesn’t end when you stop absorbing it. Your reactions, primary and secondary, are part of the artistic process. They’re supposed to be, anyway.
Each of the nineteen compositions in Smith’s five-plus-hour opus announces itself as a chapter in American history from the 1857 Dred Scott case to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But the thematic core of Ten Freedom Summers, as its title suggests, is the decade of national transformation that began with the 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional and the 1964 summer that saw both Congress’s passage of the most sweeping civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction and the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project during which activists risked (and lost) their lives trying to enfranchise the state’s besieged African-Americans. With Smith on trumpet leading both his Golden Quartet/Quintet of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, percussionists Pheeroan ak-Laff and Susie Ibarra and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music Ensemble conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt, the work spools forth as a meticulous inventory of mood more than a sweeping pageant of struggle. It doesn’t chronicle its noteworthy events so much as search for their deeper emotional currents and, in doing so, compels the listener to react to history beyond text and shadow – and even further beyond the blithely-dispensed shorthand of newsreels, archival photos and sound bites.
I wonder, though, whether I’m probing or merely projecting whenever I hear some of its chapters. Just to take one example, the piece entitled, “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days.” It begins with a major-key dirge by Smith’s trumpet, with a tone and tempo reminiscent of such mid-1960s elegiac milestones as Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” One can easily interpret this table-setting incantation as signaling the no-turning-back-now gesture by Parks in her epoch-making refusal to sit in the back of an Alabama public transport. Then, for several bars afterward, a chugging 4/4 beat, driven by ak-Laff with bouncy strides, conveys the “381 Days” of the resultant boycott, which forced hundreds of domestics, office workers and laborers to walk instead of ride to work and shop, thus representing the first of the era’s significant civil-rights marches.
I’m confident I’ve sussed that out correctly. But when I hear the strains of bluesy strutting at either end of “Thurgood Marshall and Brown Vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education,” am I being cued to imagine the swagger and bravado of its eponymous heroic lawyer making his way through several litigious hurdles to reach his finish line at the Highest Court in the Land? And would I know enough to respond to such cues if I didn’t know what its title was? Or, for that matter, know who Thurgood Marshall was and the kind of ribald, larger-than-life figure he was?
It helps to know the history behind the music. But it’s not necessary. Because even if you can sense why Smith and his musicians make the choices in what they play and how they extend their ideas (together or separately), it’s the spacious-skies expansiveness of the concept itself, its willingness to do the unexpected – a segment on the “Black Church” that’s all swirling chamber music and no gospel tropes whatsoever – and let you deal with its implications, that allow you to sense that “freedom” is far more than the theme of Smith’s work here. It’s both his method and his objective.
Smith, after all, was forged in the crucible of what, for want of a better description, we still label “avant-garde jazz.” And what would be a better description? There are so many options. Some like “progressive jazz,” though you kind of feel an anachronistic draft when you hear those words. Others cling to such sixties taglines as “New Thing,” “Fourth Stream,” “Outside” and even “Free Jazz,” though some of the renegades of subsequent decades embraced old-school polyphony that kept things flying in fairly close order. Gary Giddins quixotically tried to coin the word, “parajazz” (or was it “Para-Jazz”?) as an all-purpose umbrella. I like it, but I can’t find anybody else who does.
I also like “creative music” — bringing us back to Smith, who was part of the groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) that nurtured and/or inspired such experimentalists as Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, George Lewis, Leroy Jenkins and many more. Their music was as idiosyncratic, original and unconventional as they were. Jazz fans who drew their lines at whatever Miles Davis was doing in 1965 (if not sooner) thought the AACM and their kind were too “way out” to even taste. But back in the seventies, I warmed to the freewheeling, sometimes breakneck invention of the renegades. It’s true they made mosaics out of traditional rhythmic pattern and carried thematic ideas down dark alleys and wooded glades you never thought of visiting. But as with avant-gardists of the past, they weren’t upending the order-out-of-chaos imperative of art as much as encouraging listeners to re-fashion or, at least, reconsider their own notions of order. In other words, they weren’t the only ones creating the music; you had to join in the process, too. And where previous generations did so by dancing, we did it by thinking or feeling our way through the changes.
Smith, now 71, has for decades advanced his own vision of creativity into finding new ways of fusing improvisation and notation. (He explains this process in far greater detail here, though, as with his music, one run-through won’t be enough.) Ten Freedom Summers uses the late 20th century’s upheaval to apply firmer context to the process. Those unaccustomed to such compulsively creative composition may think it’s haphazard, even if they know the historical facts being represented or dramatized. But as it was with the avant-garde’s loft concerts of the 1970s or for that matter, some of the late, lamented Knitting Factory’s wilder nights of the 1990s, the whole idea was to listen and to be attentive always for whatever is familiar in one’s own memory, private or public, and for what could be something you never knew before. From such surprises, you can make your own connections to this freedom struggle – or any other such struggle you can imagine. It may well have been this openness to possibility that the Pulitzer committee recognized in almost-but-not-quite giving their top prize to Ten Freedom Summers. If so, then it’s a whole way of thinking about music, and not just jazz, that’s received its just desserts.
April 16th, 2013 — movie reviews
If you retold Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by moving it several hundred miles upriver, replacing Huck with an older, craftier version of his friend Tom Sawyer and making Jim a younger, more articulate family man, you might well have the true-life, mid-20th-century’s Greatest Story Ever Told: How Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson engaged on a perilous two-man odyssey to force racial integration down major-league baseball’s throat and make America like it. The difference being that Huck, in refusing to turn Jim over to slave hunters, only thought he was going to hell. Jackie Robinson, throughout that trailblazing 1947 season of triumph and torment (mostly the latter), came as close to an earthbound purgatory as any mortal should have endured.
It’s a story that, much like Huck’s, never loses its power to simultaneously unsettle and inspire. And as with Twain’s masterpiece, no feature film could adequately do it justice, though at least one, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), made a crude, earnest attempt with the genuine article sportingly, if woodenly, starring as himself. (It’s still interesting to see as a curio of its time and for watching two of our greatest actresses, Ruby Dee and Louise Beavers, on-screen even if they’re only playing silhouettes of Robinson’s real-life wife and mother respectively.)
42, the freshest rendition of the Jackie Robinson parable, is shinier and more authentic than its predecessor – which doesn’t mean it’s any less earnest or doggedly elemental in its execution. I would have no trouble whatsoever exposing a young girl or boy to Brian Helgeland’s digitally enhanced diorama. (It should probably come with one of those labels Milton Bradley used to put on its board-game boxes saying, “Ages 7-14.”) As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman emits the same smoldering intensity as the genuine article while suggesting, at times, some of the prickly-heat feistiness the major leagues would see once he no longer had to turn the other cheek. His scenes with Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson have a genuine ardor and unassuming sweetness rare in any movie with an African-American romantic couple. I’d be tempted to say it was a breakthrough for black movies if I thought the movie was all about them. And it isn’t.
For what the story of Jackie Robinson’s trial-by-fire has by now become (in ways that Huckleberry Finn never could) is an occasion for America in general and white people in particular to congratulate themselves on their capacity for change. Boseman’s Robinson may have more dimensions than the version Robinson himself enacted sixty-something years ago. But he is still less a fully fleshed character than a stoic presence, sustaining unspeakable punishment for his country’s sins. This doesn’t in any way mitigate his heroism or importance. But much as America’s astronauts, however fearless, were basically instruments of their country’s scientific and political will, Robinson was the instrument of one man’s far-sighted version – and determination to overcome his own shame for his beloved game’s racial myopia .
We’re talking, of course, about Branch Rickey, 42’s true protagonist, the man who pulled the strings for this “great experiment” and made sure none of them were clipped. There sometimes seemed almost as many leading men in Hollywood yearning to play Rickey as there were wanting to play Chet Baker, though a far more motley group in the latter queue. Harrison Ford makes the most of his rare opportunity to go big, broad and hard. I hear some gripes about Ford going too far over the top – which discloses nothing so much as the complainers’ ignorance of baseball history. Outside of, say, Bill Veeck, Larry McPhail and George Steinbrenner, Branch Rickey is the only baseball executive whose larger-than-life presence is worthy of a movie. If anything, Ford seems at times a little too conscious of Rickey’s many facets (which, in Red Smith’s immortal turn-of-phrase, were all turned on). But it’s such an endearing performance throughout that you even enjoy Ford’s straining to get it just right.
The rest of the actors pretty much carry out their roles in this parable as expected, though history would have been better served by showing that Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (the admirable, under-appreciated Alan Tudyk) wasn’t the only one in that team’s dugout ragging Robinson so viciously. (The late Richie Ashburn was one of the few players on that team in that era who owned up to such taunting and expressed his deep regret for it.) Poor old Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) must once again be properly humiliated for trying to whip up his white Dodger teammates in opposition to Robinson – though in later years, he pleaded for forgiveness from the press and public. As for Christopher Meloni’s Leo Durocher, he’s such a magnetically funny and vividly rendered character in his precious few moments onscreen that when he’s compelled to leave the team (and the movie), you wish you could follow him out the locker room door to watch what happens to him – and, of course, Laraine Day (Jud Tylor). There’s another movie waiting to be made, and if they’re smart, they’ll let Meloni continue in the role.
As for 42, it may not cut as deep as most of us would like. But it may say something about my own diminished expectations of Hollywood that I doubt we’re going to get a better movie version of this story for some time to come. Dioramas and comic books are what sell in the multiplexes these days and as long as the outlines and colors are reasonably aligned and the proper emotions are aroused, then I’m willing to settle for harmlessness as a virtue; just as long as nobody tries to sell 42 as genuine progress. Popular culture as a whole still can’t accommodate the complexity of a real-life Jackie Robinson who in the years since his arduous rookie season was fueled by unceasing rage and uncompromising passion for justice. Indeed, Hollywood movies in general still can’t adequately deal with emotional complexity of any kind — and may have stopped trying.
March 22nd, 2013 — jazz reviews
A big shout out to those of you who responded to the previous post on Thomas Chapin’s newest CD set, Never Let Me Go. Lots of love out there for Tom, who deserves all that & more. Among the many who responded: Stephanie J. Castillo, who is trying to pull together enough funds for a full-length documentary about Tom. Here is the site — with all the information on the Kickstarter campaign & every important link related to Tom Chapin’s life & legacy.
Whatever you can do, patrons. The Home Office will be grateful. The campaign has roughly a week to go & they’re still not near the goal of $50,000. So she’s asking people to take part in the “100 X $100 Group Give.” Do the math. If 100 people give $100 over the next five days, $10,000 from the Group Give will help meet the $50,000. Of course, all amounts – small and large — will be accepted.
The previous post said mostly everything I needed to say about Tom…except, maybe….
OK, bear with me. In February, 2008, a memorial concert for Tom was staged at the Bowery Poetry Club. There was more than enough words & music to share that night. But I felt somewhat bereft, being only a spectator & knowing Tom as I did. It wasn’t until a couple days afterwards that the following fantasia rolled out of me. I wish it had rolled out that evening, but I guess it wasn’t ready.
So with your kind indulgence, here’s that side-dish of speculation mentioned on the marquee, a meeting that never happened, but should have. It’s a little wig-bubble The Home Office is labeling:
WHEN MILES MET TOM or THE FINAL FRONT LINE
It’s September of 1991 and a gravely ill Miles Davis is, as Lord Buckley would put it, not merely “on the razor’s edge”, but on the “hone of the scone,” whatever that is, if that is what it is.
Anyway, Miles is in his Malibu manse, semi-conscious, hooked up to all manner of wires and tubes. Deep down, he knows that this is all pointless. It definitely feels like Checkout Time’s arriving at any minute and all he can do is drift in and out of reality, trying to take in as much as he can before the lights go completely dark.
He can dimly hear a radio piping in music from another room. Some dumbass has it tuned to a jazz station. Fuck that, Miles thinks. Anything but that! And it’s not just plain old jazz, but that squealing and squawking shit that Trane helped spread like a virus. I do not need that shit taking me out. I’ll take Manto-fuckin-vani over this!
Just like that, his espresso eyes, which were starting to cloud over mere seconds ago, sharpen into hard, clear points as he hears this gorgeous, passionate alto sax solo soaring and slicing its way through the miasma. He’d love to sit up so he can hear better and, to his astonishment, he almost feels as though he could. The keening, probing sound continues to jab its way into his consciousness. He digs the raw aggression, the rippling arpeggios and, more than anything else, a tone that sounds the way light would sound if light could make sound. Mothafucka can play his ass off!!
At that moment, a male nurse walks by his bed. Miles emits soft murmurs, which is the best he can do. The nurse doesn’t hear anything. Drastic measures are called for, so Miles attempts to simulate some sort of spasm. It’s lame, but it works. The nurse walks over.
“Miles?,” the nurse whispers.
“Hmmrefffrrr,” Miles says.
“I’m sorry. Do you need anything?”
The music’s almost over. If only someone would take these tubes out of his goddam nose…
“Mister Davis,” the nurse leans close to the parched, scarred lips. “I still can’t…”
A raspy bullet, whatever’s left deep inside him, is violently pumped through his ravaged larynx into the idiot’s ear
“I SAID, who’s that on the mothafuckin radio, goddammit!”
After a series of confusing exchanges, someone else in the house, presumably whoever had the radio on, finally figures out what Miles wants to know. He tells him that there was this bootleg tape of a young reed player out of New York, used to play with Lionel Hampton, but he’s just starting to make a name for himself in the downtown scene. Album’s not even out yet…
Miles can sense the steam rising within him. It feels good, almost human, but he still sounds exasperated and weak at the same time. “Who…is…that…motha…fucka?” Serious coughing, maybe a trickle of blood…
The name, the fool says, is Chapin. Was that his first or last name? Oh, right. Yeah, Tom. Thomas Chapin…
Orders are rasped. Call that station! Get a copy of that tape! Find out where that mothafucka lives! Now, goddamit! And so on…
Sooner than it’s possible to imagine, given the circumstances, Miles is on a long-distance call with Tom, who thinks at first that someone’s fucking with him. When he realizes, it’s not a joke, he thinks: Oh, my God! I’m on the phone with Miles Davis! And he sounds TERRIBLE…
“Lissen, man,” Miles says weakly, gasping for air, “how soon can you get your ass out here? With…that…sax…”
“Um,” Chapin says, not sure he heard correctly, but he answers anyway. “I dunno, Mister Davis, when do you…”
“Now! Yesterday! Last week, goddammit! I’m dyin’ out here, man! I want…(wheeze)…I want to record with you…Just for one time…”
Chapin is now certain someone’s messing with his head, big-time. He observes, tentatively, delicately that Miles may not…make it…by the time he flies to L.A. even if he leaves that second…
“Well, then you better hurry your ass up” Click.
From here, it’s too quick and hazy to keep track, but Thomas Chapin has somehow made the next flight from JFK to LAX. Miles, or someone close to him, takes care of traveling expenses and studio time.
Time movies fast. Here’s the studio, but where am I, Chapin wonders. Is it dawn or dusk? Where did this rhythm section come from and how many of them are there?
Miles is wheeled into the room, connected to a respirator. There’s no way, Chapin thinks. But the horn is in Miles lap, poised for action. Miles, forgoing amenities, croaks out the only three words he will say to Tom Chapin all day:
What follows is the kind of music that wills itself forward without stopping for thought or breath. It free-associates itself into something that’s neither funk nor free, neither “inside” nor “outside”, neither modern nor post-modern, neither swing nor rock; more to the point, it’s none of these things exclusively but a dense, yet buoyant amalgam of mid-to-late-20th century music’s varied precincts, high, low and in-between. It is, in other words, music that only Miles Davis could have set in motion – and that only Thomas Chapin’s luminous tone and inquisitive chops could help him finish.
Ten hours and six tracks later, the last testament of Miles Dewey Davis is in the can. He returns to Malibu to await the final call, which comes as Tom is in mid-air somewhere over western Pennsylvania on his way back to the city…
The session? Well, you know what happened with that session. By now, everybody knows what happened with that session and how it helped make jazz’s next century a …But that’s another fantasy, isn’t it?
March 20th, 2013 — jazz reviews
The first time I heard him play was sometime in 1988 on an LP (ask your parents, kids, because I hear they may be coming back) entitled, The Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike, a jazz-and-poetry mix written and produced by a central Connecticut crony of mine named Vernon Frazer, novelist, raconteur, boxing aficionado and bass player who’d provided musical accompaniment to his readings here and, in years to come, at such venues as the Nuyorican Café and the Knitting Factory.
As I listened, I became acutely aware of this flute coiling around Vern’s incantations and bass lines in lucid, deceptively simple patterns. As I grew up a flautist manqué, however reluctantly, I paid attention when people did unexpected things with the instrument, especially in jazz. And whoever was playing had nailed down a lyrical, probing style that refused to lean heavily on the flute’s naturally pretty tone. (The tone wasn’t pretty. It was beautiful, rich and – was it possible? – evenly layered.) And then I heard the alto sax solos. They could burn like scalding water. But they also soared; sometimes like jets, other times like gliders. More than anything, it was the relentless invention, the let’s-try-anything ingenuity that knew how to swing, bop and blow the blues in the grandest manner, but could step “outside” conventional changes with a nonchalance that seemed highly evolved even for the greyest of beards.
I checked the name on the cover: Thomas Chapin. Hadn’t heard of him before that point and was chagrined at myself for not paying attention. I’d assumed he was this lesser-known veteran of the black music wars who likely spent the previous decade-and-a-half trolling through lofts along the eastern seaboard. “Who is this Thomas Chapin cat?” I wrote Vern, who in turn told me he was this barely-thirty-something white guy from Manchester, Connecticut.
Manchester? Really? I’d spent part of my early newspaper years writing about that east-of-the-river suburb and, whatever its myriad virtues and defects, the next-to-last thing I’d have expected was someone who could wail like this. When I played this record to another colleague from those long-ago Hartford Courant days, his head swiveled as sharply as mine had to the sound of Chapin’s alto. When I told him who was playing and where he was from, my friend shook his head. “Shit, man,” he said. “Nobody from Manchester ever blew like that!”
It’s been fifteen years since Thomas Chapin died at just 40 years old and I still find myself wondering what he’s been up to. I keep thinking he’s got to be on some club’s weekend schedule, leading a trio or quartet in support of a new disc or performing yet another homage to his idol Rahsaan Roland Kirk. No matter where Tom would be, he would be turning heads, winning friends, encouraging people to come over to his side, no matter how forbidding or unconventional the setting. That’s what he always did, on- or off-stage. That’s why we miss him.
He was a member in good standing of the crowd of cutting-edge dynamos who waved the progressive-jazz banner throughout the eighties and nineties in downtown New York (a scene whose central HQ was that aforementioned Knitting Factory). Yet he also turned heads among more-traditional-minded listeners as a distinctive and highly accomplished post-bop player with a bright, lightly jagged tone and a prodigious, often-stunning range of expression. As with generations of musicians who had apprenticed under Lionel Hampton (in whose big band he’d worked for five years), Chapin carried “Gates’s” lessons of brash showmanship in his own trick-bag. But he never pandered to or shortchanged expectations, whether swinging from the core of a hard-bop standard or generating torrents of chromatic density off a simple riff.
The straight-ahead side blooms like fireworks on Never Let Me Go (Playscape), a recently-released triple-CD of Chapin leading quartets at two New York venues. The first two discs are from a November, 1995 show at Flushing Town Hall with pianist Peter Madsen, bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara and drummer Reggie Nicholson. The third disc teams Chapin and Madsen with the bass-drum tandem of Scott Colley and Matt Wilson at the Knitting Factory on December 19, 1996 – Chapin’s last live date in New York City. (He’d been diagnosed with leukemia the following year.) Though Chapin’s last studio recording, 1997’s Sky Piece, remains the one true gateway to his life’s work, Never Let Me Go evokes the warmth of Tom’s personality and the exhilaration he could communicate even to those who may not have fully appreciated his chosen idiom.
Ecstasy leaps from the first track, “I’ve Got Your Number,” whose chord changes provide a gauntlet for Chapin’s breakaway speed and power. There was never anything tentative about his attack; not even when, on the silky “Moon Ray,” the tempo gears down to stealth mode and Tom summarily shifts to shrewder thematic tactics. Along with his many other gifts, Chapin easily complied with Lester Young’s directive to “sing a song” when he played – which meant, as Prez suggested by example, to find the songs within the song that needed to come out. More than most of his downtown confreres, Chapin always exercised this prerogative, even on songs that weren’t part of the classic-pop canon as exhibited here on both “You Don’t Know Me” and “Wichita Lineman,” whose melodies Chapin irradiates with such conviction that you get the feeling he could have, in time, single-handedly embedded them both in the traditionalist fake-book.
His own compositions become occasions for Chapin’s more imaginative dramas of harmony and rhythm doing their approach-avoidance ritual. These are most prominent on the Knitting Factory gig; it must be noted that Matt Wilson, whose own embraceable style and personality are mirror images of Chapin’s, opens wider terrain for both Madsen and Chapin to lunge at the edges of time and space. On such pieces as “Big Maybe” and “Flip Side,” whatever ambiguities, discordances and incongruities play their way through each solo do so from a solid core, which Wilson tends with inviolate calm, but also with a gentle persistence of vision. Madsen makes his presence even more pronounced on the latter set; he builds his own model airplanes to fly as eccentrically, yet as emphatically as Chapin’s own. Together, this group could have helped make the cutting-edge a place where all would be welcome, exalted and, eventually, transformed. It’s nice to think so anyway.
When someone dies as prematurely as Chapin, there usually comes in his wake several voices inspired by his example to fill the void. (Think of all those bright, hot horns who picked up where Clifford Brown left off. Or all those actors who are still filling in the blanks left behind by James Dean’s car crash.) In the decade-and-a-half since Chapin’s death, those examples are harder to find, especially his ability, or more accurately, his impulse, to bridge the gap between progressive and traditional jazz music – or to, at the very least, extend what critic Jim Macnie characterized as the “dialogue” between two wary, warring factions. As jazz kept shifting shape at the close of the century, bending and twisting itself into new forms while struggling with how much of its past forms it should retain (or shed), Thomas Chapin offered a model for the music’s future by making his own art pliant, inquisitive and open enough to accept whatever the times demanded. I don’t know whether the “amalgam of freedom and discipline” described in Chapin’s Allmusic.com biography could have slowed down or even stopped jazz’s free-fall in a music marketplace that became even more mercurial after his death. But I’m far from alone in wishing he’d had more time to try.
March 7th, 2013 — on writing lit -- and unlit
Ta-Nehisi Coates got his inevitable close-up in this week’s New York Observer and, as anyone who’s followed his work on- and off-line in The Atlantic will tell you, he deserves all the love he’s getting here. He has the grace to be embarrassed by these garlands – which of course only makes him worthier of them, especially when the one encomium that makes him cringe the most is being labeled “the best writer on the subject of race in America.”
While it’s true, as articles like this (from last fall) or this (more recent) make radiantly, abundantly clear, that Coates can slice through racial cant with this dude’s ruthless efficiency, even a casual tour of Coates’ blog site discloses his facility with such subjects as history, politics, sports, science and music. Cultural arbiters will insist that, however eclectic his interests, they are filtered through an African-American point-of-view. Well, yes. He’s a young African American and he has points-of-view that are informed by his life experiences. But what if he chose to write solely (and with comparable grace and precision) about, say, chess or music videos or physics or economics? Would his mastery of these subjects be recognized, much less lionized? Probably. We live, after all, in a world where black writers become famous on TV for being sports journalists and a film reviewer-of-color receives the Pulitzer Prize, just for being excellent and eclectic.
Still, African American writers remain the default setting for editors seeking that all-important-all-encompassing “black perspective.” And that’s by no means an inconsiderable, or unnecessary thing. There are things we know, feelings we have access to that white editors and writers don’t. We ask the questions that others may not. Our loyalty and devotion to our race confers a responsibility to enlighten our white country-persons if only to make sure they don’t assume, presume or otherwise say (or do) something stupid, insensitive or ill-informed to and/or about us. Still, why should Being Black be the one-and-only-thing about which we are always counted on to deliver an informed opinion?
Coates shouldn’t have to fall into a “spokesman-for-his-people” niche conferred by whatever passes for a post-millennial media establishment, though the risk is always there. That unofficial pedestal prevented my adolescent self from fully appreciating James Baldwin back in the 1960s when I too often thought he was speaking “for” me rather than “to” me. (It’s only as a much older adult that I’ve come to value Baldwin as the visionary essayist and undervalued novelist he was at his peak.) As master of the blogging art, in emceeing and in posting, Coates has more space than his predecessors did in trumping and deflating any attempt to make him The Black Spokesperson; it also helps that he’s been generous enough to give his peers some props, something too few of our predecessors did in a more competitive era.
But black writers shouldn’t always have to be the go-to source for writing about race. Indeed, some of the finest nonfiction on this topic has come from Caucasian writers as well. Larry L. King, whose recent obituary saw fit to highlight his collaboration on a successful little musical about Texas hookers, wrote a brave, candid essay, “Confessions of a White Racist,” that was expanded to an even better memoir. And I’m now in the midst of re-reading Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Journeys,” her exhaustive and masterly 1990 report about the hysteria surrounding the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Having seen Ken and Sarah Burns’ recently-released, award-winning cinematic j’accuse, Central Park Five, I now find Didion’s epic dissection of the crime and the subsequent police investigation, arrests, convictions and warring points-of-view to be one of the most cogent examinations of how race, class, politics and hype conspire against simple justice – and, given how things turned out with those five convictions, Didion also proved how steely and forbiddingly prescient an observer she is. Could any other writer, black or white, have shown as much composure at a time when emotions about the case, for and against the original convictions, were still strident and raw? I can usually imagine almost anything I want, but I’m having trouble with that one.
Sometimes, I think everything you write about when you write about America is about race – except when it isn’t. (And when it isn’t, I’m tempted to think the writer’s trying to hide something.) But as Coates as written, it’s in the particular rather than in the general that a writer can find her true voice on this volatile topic. When the voice reaches too far, too hard and too broadly, bad things tend to happen. I shall let the Best Writer on The Subject of Race have the last words:
“No one who wants to write beautifully should ever — in their entire life — write an essay about ‘the subject of race.’ You can write beautifully about the reaction to LeBron James and ‘The Decision.’ You can write beautifully about integrating your local high school. You can write gorgeously about the Underground Railroad. But you can never write beautifully about the fact of race, anymore than you can write beautifully about the fact of hillsides. All you’ll end up with is a lot of words, and a comment section filled with internet skinheads and people who have nothing better to do with their time then to argue internet skinheads.”
February 25th, 2013 — movie reviews
Here are some things I didn’t have time or space to squeeze into this CNN thingee. (I had to sleep sometime after all):
1.) Watching some of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last night & noting how the post-Oscar cast was more enjoyable, and a tad funnier, than what it followed (& that includes Your Local News), it occurred to me that all awards shows, except maybe the Tonys, will have to become desk-and-couch affairs if they expect to survive as annual broadcasts. I know historians now regard David Letterman’s turn-at-bat as a cataclysmic whiff. But imagine how he’d have done if he’d been in his comfort zone with Paul pouring the necessary smarm over everything. It may be another ten years or so before that happens, by which time desk-and-couch shows will be as obsolete as analog phones.
2.) If this year’s producers were so damned anxious to have a Broadway feel to this thing, why didn’t they just call Neil Patrick Harris to the captain’s chair & let him go nuts? He & Billy Crystal may be the only two people alive who know how to go meta with this glitz while still respecting it as glitz. Good luck boosting next year’s ratings.
3.) You know what was even more enjoyable than Kimmel or the Oscars? Cruising Facebook & Twitter for immediate reactions to last night’s awards. Maybe the future will really involve people showing up on red carpets in fancy clothes before heading into chat rooms to tap out the individual impressions through their FB pages or shoot their own video. The Academy will take care of the rest by mailing out the statuettes in advance. In Anne Hathaway’s case, at least, I though they did, anyway.
4.) I wasn’t surprised that both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty got relatively shut out, even though I thought right up to the end that the hacks respected Tony Kushner’s ability to effectively dramatize difficult material. Instead, the hacks got theirs by raising a middle finger to those who slapped Quentin Tarantino upside his head for turning slavery into, if you will, pulp fiction. (As I told CNN, wait twenty years…)
5.) Paraphrasing Oliver Stone, there’s the way America is & the way we ought to be. Argo, as I wrote in my CNN piece, was the way Hollywood & America prefer imagining themselves while Lincoln, The Master and Zero Dark Thirty reflected, in different ways, what they, and we, really are. That the Academy voters let controversy (or at least its prospect) get in the way of acknowledging those movies suggests that even the opposite edges of the continent are as polarized & tied-up-in-knots as the rest of America.
6.) People ooh-ed and aah-ed over Michelle Obama’s hook-up with Jack “King” Nicholson. (She has that effect on people, especially after she did the hippy-hippy-shake with Jimmy Fallon last week.) What I was hoping for, ever since last summer, was an excuse to put Clint Eastwood on stage last night and have Michelle’s husband show up in a chair off to Eastwood’s left. “Did you have something to tell me?” the president would have asked in, of course, the nicest possible way. A braver world than this would have allowed it to happen. As last night awards made clearer than ever, we do not live in a brave world, except when we’re tossing snark through our keyboards. In the meantime, I love you, Amy Adams & wish you better luck next time.
February 17th, 2013 — movie reviews
Not to press the point too hard, but for those who’ve seen Django Unchained and still wonder, or even care, about its relative closeness to historical authenticity, there is this much about which they can be reasonably assured: Most white folks were as serious as cancer about not letting black people ride horses. Didn’t matter if they were free or not. After all, if slaves see other colored people on horses, they may start getting…ideas. Livestock wasn’t supposed to have ideas. And livestock wasn’t supposed to be riding on top of other livestock either. Silliest damned thing a southern planter with any wits about him could bear to imagine. Like having a goddam goat riding a pig! Now don’t that sound wrong as hell?
Livestock: Let’s be emphatic, shall we, as we “observe” yet another Black History Month. It didn’t matter way back when whether the black people looked like Kerry Washington or Oprah Winfrey, like Jamie Foxx or LeBron James, like the incumbent president of the United States or his stunning wife or their two lovely daughters. If they were in the American South before 1863, they were all livestock and not even papers claiming their freedom could ensure that they wouldn’t be arbitrarily tossed into a corral, roped, branded, chained and treated only a feather or two better than the chickens.
If you’re livestock and leave the corral, they’ll put you in a cage. And you don’t ride anywhere unless the cage somehow rides with you – or you walk behind any white man on a horse, even if that white man is stupider than you, or his horse.
A movie, I say with mild embarrassment, first placed this gross disparity before my callow sight line. The Scalphunters, released in 1968, was the third feature film directed by Sydney Pollack, a name I’d recognized from some quirky television work as well as a feature he’d directed three years before, The Slender Thread with Sidney Poitier and Telly Savalas as psychiatric caseworkers trying to save Anne Bancroft from suicide. This particular movie was a western with another intriguing interracial star pairing: Burt Lancaster as a fur trapper and Ossie Davis as an educated fugitive slave he’s forced to acquire as compensation for the pelts he loses to a group of cagey, sybaritic Kiowa.
The trapper, Joe Bass, rides off after the tribe while making the slave, Joseph Lee, stumble along the trail after him, mostly on foot. Joe is, after all, a man of his times and those times dictate that he should eventually sell off Joseph Lee to whomever offers the best price. To his credit. Joe does let Joseph Lee ride the horse just long enough for the latter to attempt a getaway. One whistle from Joe and the horse tosses the disconcerted slave from the saddle. (Bass: “You seem to have an uncommon prejudice against service to the white-skinned race.” Joseph Lee: “I don’t mean to be narrow in my attitude.”)
When they catch up with the Kiowa, they’ve pretty much emptied Joe’s whiskey supply. “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?” Joe Bass asks Joseph Lee. “No, sir,” the latter replies, “but I’d like to see it done.” But before that show can start, it’s pre-empted by marauders roaring and slaughtering and relieving the tribesmen of their scalps and of Joe’s purloined furs. Joe Bass considers the genus of outlaw making money off dead Indians’ hair to be “the wickedest, crookedest trade to ever turn a dollar.” Joseph Lee, who intimately knows an even more wicked way of making money, can only stare back in what seems to be incredulity. We’re not quite sure how long before the Civil War this tale is set. (I’ve read some accounts that place it in 1860.) But we know by this point that Joseph Lee’s smart enough to keep his counsel here.
Still, for the first part of the movie, you wonder how Ossie Davis maintains his own composure. At the time this movie was made, Davis had achieved international esteem as both an actor and a writer with a successful play, Purlie Victorious, in his resume. He’d also established considerable credibility as an activist and was the principal eulogist at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. One was used to seeing Davis by the late 1960s, in varied roles on-screen – save for a leading one, despite his magnetism and warmth. But even though he shared top billing with Lancaster, a man of greater intelligence and deeper liberal conviction than Joe Bass, Davis must have thought at least a little harder than usual about the idea of playing in an antebellum comedy-western in which the only role available to him would be that of a runaway slave, albeit one who spent most of the movie choking down rage and humiliation with foxy erudition and oneupmanship.
Keep in mind, also, that the year this movie was released (the same week that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis), Davis was in the vanguard of a wave of African American writers publicly chastising William Styron for writing what they believed to be a facile (at best) novel about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave revolt. At the time, many of these writers, including Davis, were asked why they hadn’t written a novel or play about slavery. Davis, I seem to recall, at least acknowledged that he hadn’t written his own work challenging Styron’s vision — though he would in 1969 appear in a movie, Slaves, memorable, if at all, for being Dionne Warwick’s first — and last — starring role in a motion picture.
Davis didn’t have to perform in that silly, overwrought movie or write his own play or book to contribute to the culture’s evolving view of American slavery. If he wanted to make his own response to Styron’s Nat Turner, either as correction or counter-text, his Joseph Lee was more than enough. Within minutes of his appearance on-screen, Davis lets you see his character’s cultivation, grace and instinctive ability to tame the savage white man. You also see his wit, dignity and, as noted, his slyness. The joke of a black slave being smarter than the he-man white hero made for a nice gimmick in the years when multi-racial casting in westerns was still a relative rarity; westerns themselves now being relative rarities. Indeed, the white male characters in Scalphunters, including the marauders’ bonehead ringleader Jim Howie (Savalas) are nowhere near as smart as Joseph Lee, the crafty Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre) and Howie’s sassy significant-other Kate (Shelley Winters, sultry and kittenish in what was likely her last sex-bomb role).
But there’s a point in the movie – a sharp, glistening point – when Davis emerges as much more than a clever plot device. It comes as Joseph Lee, having accidentally fallen into the marauders’ camp and then finagling his way into accompanying them to the Mexican border, goes back to where Joe Bass has been a one-man guerilla force in pursuit of his pelts. He greets Bass’ hostility with both a supplicating smile and a bottle of whiskey from Jim Howie’s private stock. “I thought,” Joseph Lee grins, “you could maybe use a drink about now.” Bass takes the bottle with contempt for the way Lee accommodated himself with the gang, not even bothering to acknowledge Lee’s facility for survival – or his urgent need to go to a country where there is no slavery All Joe can say of Joseph’s resourcefulness is: “Throw you in the pig pen, you’d come out vice-president of the hogs,” he spits. (See? Livestock…)
When Joseph then asks if he could have a sip, Bass snarls back, “If I was to give you a drink of this whiskey, it’d be like pourin’ it out in the sand. This is a man’s drink. And you aint no man. You aint no part of a man. You’re a mealy-mouthed shuffle-butt of a slave and you picked yourself a master. So don’t go askin’ to take a drink with a man.”
At that dreadful moment, all of Joseph Lee’s canny defense mechanisms vanish, exposing a bewildered, wounded and somewhat volatile visage. It’s as if Bass’s cruel words yanked away the slave’s shirt to expose the scars of several dozen lashings, not all of them physical. Davis makes his face register a host of warring emotions before it changes into something harder and tougher than what the audience, up to that point, had been accustomed to seeing. (As with the greatest actors, he does this before you’re even aware that it’s happened. And Davis, make no mistake, was one of our greatest actors.)
Joseph, recovering his voice, lowers it. He tells Joe Bass just how small and stupid he really is, without using either of those words. And then he says, “You know how long you’d last as a colored man? Ten seconds.” That single line does the work of several-hundred words of steamy, hopped-up rhetoric by Leonardo DiCaprio or Christoph Waltz in Django about the ingrained distortions of humanity that remain the principal legacy of America’s Original Sin. Before long, the two of them will end up slugging each other in a mud hole, only to ultimately be left behind yet again, with one horse, no furs and no passage to freedom. The difference is that, this time, they both wear brackish, grayish coatings of caked, wet dirt. With no color distinctions between them, they’re just another pair of wayward desert flotsam.
Back in 1968, there were some who likely believed such an ending rubbed the audience’s faces in social consciousness, so to speak. Yet I’m willing to bet if any contemporary Hollywood movie tried the same approach, some would say they were being too subtle. A movie like The Scalphunters could take its time, keep things light, make its points by stealth. Now some would wonder if it’s being too frivolous. As the many Joseph Lees in history who made up their beings as they went along would tell you, there are as many ways to be tough and resilient as they are to telling stories. This crafty little movie, which somehow got lost in an emergent wave of boundary-busting Hollywood films, deserves our attention for making that deceptively simple point.
January 29th, 2013 — movie reviews
IMMEDIATE REACTION: I know what you’re thinking. At this late date, who am I to put twigs on a fire that’s dying out anyway? After all, nobody cares a fig what I think about torture. I’m not sure I care either. It’s like what Randy Newman said about the Spanish Inquisition that “put people in a terrible position/I don’t even like to think about it/Well…sometimes I like to think about it….”
1.) I’m just going to throw this out: The Hurt Locker is a better movie, though there are stretches of righteous filmmaking in this one; not surprisingly, they all come as the movie approaches the precipice of shattering violence. (The build-ups to both bombings, especially the Christmas morning attack; the whole climax, etc.) It’s not entirely Kathryn Bigelow’s fault any more than it’s Jessica Chastain’s fault that she’s stuck playing not a character so much as a state-of-mind. (More on this in a minute.) To me, doing this story so soon is like someone making JFK in 1966 — and something tells me if Oliver Stone were able to do so back then, he would have. Even before the movie was released, I was wondering what the rush was to get this story on-screen, irrespective of the controversy over torture. (More on THAT in a minute, too.) If I chose to practice armchair psychology (& since it’s just us talking, why not), I’d guess that K.B. was drawn to the idea of a brilliant, ballsy young heroine whom no one — no MEN, specifically — takes as seriously as she demands to be taken. (I’d love to see K.B. someday do HER side of James Cameron’s The Abyss, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be the same story.) I think Zero Dark Thirty is taking a beating mostly because its narrative is still current enough to be mistaken for journalism where if it were made and/or released ten or twenty years from now, the movie would be viewed correctly as historic events filtered through imagination. It may take twenty years for that to happen anyway.
2.) By now, I’ve read & heard just about every attack on Zero for its depiction of torture; that it glorifies or misrepresents torture as being key to getting a lock on Bin Laden’s whereabouts or is shilling some kind of thinking-person’s version of “USA! USA! USA!” triumphalism. (For balance’s sake, I shall include both Greg Mitchell’s measured dissent of the movie in his Nation blog and Glenn Kenny’s elegant and thorough skewering of the movie’s attackers.) As I’ve already said, I think the movie kind of asked for the pummeling it’s getting by throwing all this stuff out there unmediated by time’s passage & the intervening revisions & disclosures that could broaden understanding of the whole War-on-Terror era. But if the leftist pundits out there truly believe that the movie’s audiences are going to watch these waterboarding-and-boxing-in scenes & feel in any way ennobled or roused by the CIA’s savvy, then it sounds to me as though they’re not only underestimating people’s intelligence (to say nothing of their capacity to be grossed-out), they’re sort of buying into the blinkered bullshit about the Power of Movies without any real knowledge, intuitive or otherwise, of what that Power really is. (Getting back to JFK, do you really think that movie changed anybody’s mind about whether or not Oswald acted alone? If anything, that movie bullied people into thinking, “Who cares anymore who killed Kennedy?” — just as, it could be argued, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X swallowed or exhausted whatever public acrimony or controversy remained about its subject, too.)
3.) And as for the triumphalism, I REALLY don’t get where that criticism comes from. You most emphatically do not walk away from Zero Dark Thirty feeling cleansed, cathartic or especially patriotic. If anything, it comes across as an anti-revenge revenge movie, if that makes any sense. From the very beginning when you hear the wailing of the soon-to-be-dead woman in the soon-to-collapse Twin Towers to the very end when you see Chastain’s Maya, isolated on a transport plane she has all to herself, weeping & desolate & not quite sure anymore who she is or where she goes from here, Zero Dark Thirty resounds as nothing so much as a melancholy dirge on America in the ten years between the raids of both 9/11 and 5/1; of what we became or compelled ourselves to become in the wake of a heretofore unimaginable trauma. (This review, from what seem like eons ago, puts it better than I just did. )Maya is the embodiment of that mind-set, a blank space upon which we’re supposed to project our own seething desire for closure or payback. She doesn’t have any past except the one we’re supposed to conjecture. (Did she have some connection with the woman on the phone in that 9/11 prelude? I haven’t read anything that suggests that, though I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.) That Chastain makes this enigma substantial enough to carry this movie is, I suppose, reason enough to give her an Oscar nomination. Still, a blank space is no substitute for a real person & not even that moist coda she delivers is enough to make me believe in her. She likely had less to work with in The Tree of Life & she somehow evoked everything about that mother’s past, present & future. I guess if Zero does anything for her, it’ll make her a convincing starship captain in some Star Trek sequel, assuming she ever wants to go where no method actress has gone before.
4.) So little does Zero troll for patriotic cheers that I think it hurts its own chances for collecting any Oscar whatsoever. Argo. Now THERE’S a movie that makes you stand up and go “USA! USA! USA!” at the end. It’s the principal reason the Academy now regrets not giving Ben Affleck a director’s nod & why it now looks as though his movie’s poised to eat everybody else’s lunch, even Abe’s. Just as Rocky trounced All the President’s Men & Network in 1976 & Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the movie that makes Hollywood feel better about itself will likely clobber the movies that feel too much like Homework. (Remember: I’m forcing myself not to care this year who wins what…)
January 8th, 2013 — movie reviews
NOTE: I’ve also written a piece for CNN.com covering most of the same ground here. If you want to compare or contrast, click here.
IMMEDIATE REACTION: If loving Django Unchained is wrong, then I don’t…well, let’s see. What is it exactly I don’t want to be? That is the question. One of many…
Let’s tip off with a question that may not have an immediate or easy answer: Which movie better empowers black audiences? An historic drama, more or less factually-based, in which white men argue over and eventually move towards ending slavery – if not racism? Or an historic fantasy, rife with vulgarity, anachronism and impropriety, in which a freed black slave lays waste to every white southerner impeding his reunion with his wife — and gets away with it?
I am not asking which is the better movie, Lincoln or Django Unchained. Both have their problems. But it’s possible, despite their flaws, to enjoy them both for what they are, while accepting what they are not. I did not expect Lincoln to be much different from any other Steven Spielberg movie (though, until the ending, it is) and I certainly didn’t expect Django to be anything other than a Quentin Tarantino movie (and it is, only more so, for better and worse.)
For whatever it’s worth, my issues with the movie have more to do with craft than substance. I think Django talks too much, even for a Tarantino movie; and I also think that many of its scenes go on for too long, almost as if the movie’s afraid to let go of whatever effect it thinks it’s making with those people in the dark. It occurs to me, as well, that Tarantino’s been ripping himself off too cavalierly. I watch the set-pieces of wholesale slaughter and think, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was watching Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Japanese have been turned into southern whites.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. I laughed at Don Johnson and his night-riding stooges throwing hissy fits over whether to keep their masks on. I was almost touched by the slave girl’s impromptu bon mot aimed at Django’s baby-blue fop’s outfit. “You’re free…and you want to dress like that?” I didn’t buy any of it. But I was into it. And part of me hates myself for it. But I’m not sorry I saw it.
All right, then. So what am I asking? Get comfortable. I’m going to digress.
Back in 2006, I reviewed Blood Diamond for Newsday, giving it the two stars I routinely doled out to generic Hollywood mediocrity. I acknowledged the importance of the movie’s theme, which was the exploitation and wholesale murder of black Africans for the sake of the pink diamond trade. But I found myself chafing over the way this movie, along with so many of its kind, depicted its dark-skinned characters “as wholesale cannon fodder, doomed-but-noble ciphers or sneering bloodthirsty sociopaths.” I also lamented how the always-exemplary Djimon Hounsou, cast as a fisherman from Sierra Leone searching for his captured son, was used mainly as a vehicle through which the morally indolent white mercenary played by Leonardo DiCaprio Finds His Humanity (or something like that). At one point, Hounsou’s character even wonders aloud whether his people’s black skin constitutes some sort of curse “and [that] we were better off when the white man ruled.” No one, certainly not DiCaprio’s character, bothers to engage, much less contradict, this query. And, of the movie’s critics, I recall only the Nation’s Stuart Klawans calling the movie on this odious hogwash.
This is how I ended my own review:
“I suppose we should be grateful that there have been so many commercial features in recent years (“Hotel Rwanda,” “The Constant Gardener” among them) that pay attention to Africa’s woes. But even the best of them seem to writhe from hopelessness to despair and back again. Maybe what the continent needs are some empowering pulp myths far beyond the hoary model of Tarzan. A good start would be to cast Hounsou as the lead in a movie about the Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ first superhero-of-color. An African king who’s both a world-class physicist and a supreme martial artist may not be plausible, but he could broaden moviegoers’ sense of what’s possible.” (ITALICS ADDED).
Some readers, at least those who got that far, seemed to have a problem with this notion. One used the word, “infantile (which over time I’ve accepted as a back-handed compliment). But what is so childish about African American audiences wanting their on-screen counterparts (or surrogates) to be more than merely victims? I believe even white audiences get excited when conventional expectations, especially in race and cultural matters, are upended, if not exactly transcended.
This is the excitement I hear from people after they’d just seen Django Unchained. I doubt whether any of these viewers bought their tickets with the expectation of seeing some historically faithful saga of antebellum life, and neither did I. They were buying a comic book. Many people have a grievance against the very notion of comic books, but I don’t. I understand that comic books as a medium are limited in what they offer their clientele. So are the movies, especially those who cruise the multiplexes for loose coin. Expect a movie or a comic book to explain everything about anything and all you earn is surplus sadness in your life that you don’t really need.
Even with the narrowest expectations about historical veracity, however, things get complicated when the subject matter is American slavery, European Holocaust or any number of similar assaults upon humanity. Hence the reaction to Django, after less than a month of swimming in the mainstream, ranges from sheer exhilaration to outright hostility, with the usual gradations in between.
Much of the resentment seems aimed exclusively towards Tarantino himself; a visceral dislike which I think has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s outright refusal to see the movie, tossing grenades at it all the way. Ishmael Reed, writing in the Wall Street Journal, believes Tarantino shows willful, if not willed ignorance of history, both American and cinematic. He writes: “To compare this movie to a spaghetti western and a blaxploitation film is an insult to both genres. It’s a Tarantino home movie with all the racist licks of his other movies.” Reed aimed this laser shot at the Oscar-nominated actor who plays the treacherous “house slave”: “Samuel L. Jackson…plays himself.”
I doubt Jackson felt the blow. He has, in fact, further provoked the movie’s antagonists by running straight at an interviewer asking about the movie’s prolific use of the “N-word,” refusing to answer the question unless the reporter, who is white, actually says the dread epithet aloud. (He didn’t.)
Though I disagree with Reed’s conclusions, I think everyone who saw Django should read his piece for its flying shrapnel of loose insight and, most important, its disclosure of what has always been a relevant source of disquiet: The debate over whether white artists have the right to tell any part of the black American story – which, as Reed writes, is as old as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It is also as recent as 1967 when the white southern novelist William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told in the first-person voice of the brilliant-but-doomed leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. The outcry from African American novelists was so intense that a collection of essays, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond was published a year later. When I was a credulous, anxious-to-please teenager, I was so in thrall to the authority exerted by those black writers that for decades afterwards, I refused to even go near Styron’s book.
I still haven’t read it. But I plan to, because I now believe that James Baldwin, a friend of Styron who was one of the few African American authors speaking out on the book’s behalf, had the right take from the beginning: “I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours.”
It’s still sound advice – and in the intervening years, black authors have taken it. Indeed, if anyone’s earned the right to rail at Django, it’s Ishmael Reed since, unlike Spike Lee, he’s actually created his own antebellum thriller that’s as funny, provocative and calculatedly anachronistic as Tarantino’s. I can almost hear Reed erupting with outrage over the sheer notion of my comparing Django with his 1976 book, Flight to Canada. But as I insisted to friends and fellow readers at the time (and continue to do so), even with all its musical-comedy interludes, burlesque elements and television cameras, Reed’s shrewd take on the slave-narrative genre had more trenchant, telling and useful things to say about the Peculiar Institution than Alex Haley’s Roots, which was ascending, that same year, to the rare stature of pop-cultural phenomenon. When Haley’s book became a television mini-series, it affected America’s racial attitudes as nothing of its literary kind since…Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one’s bothered to do anything with cinematic Flight to Canada. Or, for that matter, with Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, two other antebellum satiric adventures written by an award-winning black author.
In 1987, there was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which did get adapted for the big screen eleven years later by Jonathan Demme. But even with Oprah Winfrey’s imprimatur as producer and co-star, the movie earned about $26,000,000, roughly half of its $50,000,000 budget. And while all I have is anecdotal evidence, I remember many of my African American relatives and friends who told me they were not going to see Beloved, no matter how good it was or who was in it, because they simply did not want to watch a movie about slavery, or its legacy.
This reluctance to engage with the subject of slavery is duly noted in Jelani Cobb’s ruminative take on Django:
“In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back. It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history. Were the film aware of that distinction, Django would be far less troubling—but it would also be far less resonant. The alternate history is found not in the story of vengeful ex-slave but in the idea that he could be the only one.”
Cobb’s ambivalence approaches my own point-of-view, even though I still liked the movie better than he did. As with other critics, he laments Django’s lapse into revenge-movie mode. I lament the fact that almost EVERY big-studio film is built for revenge, even romantic comedies. (What, after all, is Skyfall but the mother-of-all-revenge-fantasies with different agendas for vengeance overlapping and colliding into each other like a freeway pile-up?) No matter. If Django Unchained did nothing else but arouse re-examination of “the mythology we’ve mistaken for history,” then all the trouble and fuss it’s caused will have been worth it.
January 2nd, 2013 — family history, jazz reviews
For our site’s inaugural posting of 2013, I proudly & happily yield the floor to Chafin Seymour (BFA, Dance, The Ohio State University, 2012), who has picked up his father’s end-of-the-year compulsion to assess the things he hears and let the world in on what he thinks of them. Unlike his father, he does his list, you will note, in ascending, rather than descending, order (“Opa Letterman Style!” And, no, you wont find no damn Psy on this list.) He also shows righteous critical acumen that, were I an overly envious person, would make my teeth ache. Instead, “my heart soars like a hawk”! (Name the movie. Win no prizes.) It would seem I have helped re-birth Lester Bangs, though he dances a whole lot better and takes better care of himself…I hope.
These are my top albums of 2012. I will not go overboard with my intro except to say that 2012 was an exceptionally strong and eclectic year in independent and pop music, and I had a hell of a time deciding what I wanted to write about for this year end wrap-up. I decided on these fourteen albums (four honorable mentions and a top ten) arduously and carefully.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Cagey rap veteran Killer Mike finally does his name and reputation justice. Independent, political, and fiercely opinionated, Mike makes the album we have been waiting for, with help from Brooklyn producer El-P, who takes some of the usual distortion out of beats in favor of banging southern bass. It is a smart choice that allows Mike to rock in his comfort zone from start to finish.
TNGHT – TNGHT EP
THE party record of the year, hands down. This five song EP from producers Lunice and Hudson Mohawke was a giant smack across the face of modern dance music. Combining “trap” style southern hip-hop bass with elements of House and Dubstep (note the intense-ass-drops on every track), TNGHT reveled in simplicity and space while urging pop consumers and club kids to “wake the f’ up” and notice some real “ish.”
How To Dress Well – Total Loss
This was the first proper cohesive album from How To Dress Well’s Torn Krell. He continues to play with traditional R&B arrangements by taking out all the warm and fuzzy stuff to leave you with an anxious, empty sound. He does let some color in on tracks like “& It was U” but overall stays distant. Never has a bad break-up (and crippling depression) sounded so smooth.
Burial – Kindred EP & Truant/Rough Sleeper
I have always described Burial as being on “another level” from other electronic producers and the two EPs released by William Bevan this year continue to prove me right. While eleven-minute electronic house opuses steeped in otherworldly distortion and dark ambiance may not be the most palatable thing in the world, it is good to see an artist unafraid to explore the world he chooses to create. While we wait for another jaw dropping album like 2007’s Untrue these two excellent EPS will just have to be enough.
10. Four Tet – Pink
As any one who has spent a lot of time around me in the past year can tell you, I have been really into house music. In fact, much of this fascination was instigated by Four Tet’s fabulous Fabriclive mix from earlier this year. Many of the tracks off of Pink were released as singles or EPs, but they were really begging to be compiled. Four Tet (actual name, Kieran Hebden) is an electronic music veteran. He has put out six very different albums and more live mixes and song remixes than I care to imagine. Pink finds Hebden diving head first into the club. Where earlier records were rhythmically restrained in their minimalist tendencies, Pink lets the rhythm drive and builds the structure around those. Loops abound and bass pounds, but you never get the sense that Heben is leading you on aimlessly. This is music based in his roots, and you can tell he cares. This is really a great introduction to house music for someone with little to no experience, and rarely does a modern producer delve so deeply with no effort showing. Never has so much thought gone into music that encourages folks to stop thinking and just let go. You will dance my friends, oh yes, but you will do so consciously.
9. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
I was a little skeptical of Alabama Shakes before I listened to them somewhere between the NPR accolades and adult-contemporary following. However, I allowed myself to indulge in this album. It is four-piece, grungy southern blues-rock in its purest form, nothing overly deep or onerous, and that is key. What really reaches through the speaker and grabs you is lead singer Brittany Howard’s primal howl. From the thumping “Hold On” to the trickling “Goin to the Party” to the love ballad of the year “You Ain’t Alone,” the consistency, believability, and sense of desperation of her vocals make up this album’s driving force. While there were other notable blues-rock releases this year, namely Jack White’s strong solo album Blunderbuss, nothing stuck in my mind so concretely as Boys & Girls. In this case, less is most definitely more.
8. Jessie Ware – Devotion
In a post-Adele world how does a young, female, British singer-songwriter make her work stand out? There probably isn’t one right answer to that question. But Jessie Ware certainly offers an intensely-appealing album of suggestions. Ms. Ware made her start singing hooks on electronic dance songs by the likes of SBTRKT and much of that club influence spills over into Devotion, her first solo work. However, despite the “of-the-moment” nature of the production Ware manages to expertly write and sing timeless love songs. The centerpiece ballad “Wildest Moments” is a song that could have gallivanted into glory by expressing the joys of a one-night stand or healthy sexual relationship. Instead, Ware manages to add uncertainty and poignancy by singing about a relationship that only makes sense to the two people involved. This attention and care makes an album that could easily have been just another pop-diva’s introduction into a collection of smart artistic choices and memorably intimate melodies.
7. Grizzly Bear – Shields
I’ll be up front: I love Grizzly Bear, always have. Ever since I heard those first tenuous notes of 2006’s Yellow House followed by the complete work-of-art that is 2008’s Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has managed to run the emotional gauntlet from warm intimacy to cold distance. Shields finds the Brooklyn band venturing out into the wilderness to look beyond their own backyard for influence. Musical references range from jazz to The Beatles; somehow they manage do it all justice. The arrangements on this album conjure up landscapes as breathtaking as they are intimidating. You can feel that Shields came to be, relatively seamlessly and naturally when compared to the endlessly worked-over quality of earlier albums. In interviews, Grizzly Bear has said that this album was the most collaborative in terms of songwriting, and you can feel the vibe of a band intensely comfortable working together. In lesser hands, songs like these could easily be sappy or overly buttoned-up; in this case, it’s just What They Do. I’ll be damned if I can think of a band that does it better.
6. Beach House – Bloom
The most glaring critique I keep hearing about Beach House’s Bloom is that it “sounds too much like their earlier stuff.” While this is true, that fact is also precisely what makes Bloom such a strong effort. It has taken three other albums, but Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally finally take their synth-and-guitar-driven-dream-pop out of the bedroom and into the big wide world. The depth and scope of this album is impressive, as every song seems to, indeed, “bloom” from start to finish. Legrand’s voice is as scintillating as ever and the arrangements are indeed lush. However, her newfound lyrical assertions as well as the use of more confident percussion and rhythmic structures deepen and widen a sound that could easily peg a less-adept band into a corner. Beach House knows where their niche is and, instead of shying away from that, they have found a way to dive deeper into it. Bloom seems to say, in response to the criticism mentioned earlier, “Yeah it does and try to tell me you don’t love it anyway.” I can’t, and neither should you.
5. Grimes – Visions
Grimes is definitely a product of our over-digitized culture. Canadian art-student Claire Boucher makes music entirely on her laptop using technology that is, relatively speaking, available to anyone. She has garnered a following and buzz using just the Internet, no record label needed, and Visions is Boucher’s most accessible release to date. Despite being an indie darling (thank you Pitchfork), Boucher does something unexpected here by making something she clearly enjoys as opposed to trying to please critics or an audience (a tactic, I believe, more artists, in and out of music, should look into). You can tell she is having a lot of fun with this record. Her layering of her own sugar sweet vocals over gloppy, bounding digital tracks is equally appealing and subversive. The fact that you can hardly understand her lyrics (I’m pretty sure she slips into singing in Japanese on a couple tracks) is part of the escapist absurdity of it all. Visions is not the easiest album to listen to, to be fair. But it truly grows on you, going from ridiculous to danceable to contemplative in just a few minutes, further reflecting the over-stimulating effects of the Internet. By allowing yourself to revel in the commentary as well as the fun, Visions becomes a worthy indie-pop experience.
4. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
good kid, m.A.A.d. city has already been hailed by some critics as, “the most important commercial rap album in the last decade.” So let’s calm down and start by jumping off the Kendrick Lamar bandwagon for a second. Yes, he is a skilled lyricist with a strong instinct for radio-friendly hooks. Yes, he expertly chooses assorted beats from the best of today’s hip-hop producers. Yes he’s been featured on every hot hip-hop track over the past six months. Yes, he can count such industry heavyweights as Lady Gaga and Dr. Dre in his corner. However, despite the buzz, what stands out most about Kendrick Lamar is his ambition. This album is subtitled a “Short Film” and indeed the scope of the narrative-driven LP can feel a bit cinematic at times. It contains twinges of naïveté, with stories of adolescent peer-pressure and family alcoholism (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), mixed with youthful bravado (“Backseat Freestyle”), and a dash of timeless swagger (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”). At the edge of it all gnaws the darkness and emptiness of growing up in South Central L.A. gang culture (or, for that matter, any violent American urban center) and the cultural contradictions often present in African-American culture, such as devotion to God and religion equal to that of substance abuse and violence. It remains to be seen where this album will fall historically; hence my tentative urging to give it some breathing room. It is, nevertheless, instantly recognizable as an important and original portrait of urban music in 2012 — and, by far, the strongest rap offering I have heard from a new artist in quite some time.
3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
There is little doubt in my mind that Frank Ocean is the future of urban and pop-music. I am also decidedly OK with that. After an early mixtape in 2011, the phenomenal Nostalgia, ultra, and tabloid fodder regarding his sexuality, Ocean, whose birth name is Christopher Breaux, emerged from the hype with the meticulously-crafted channel Orange. The album is meant to transcend boundaries and identities, and it does. At first listen, it can come off as simply a strong debut from a pop singer. You can feel how much Ocean has sharpened his teeth while ghostwriting for such artists as Justin Bieber and John Legend. However, upon repeat listening, one can begin to recognize channel Orange as a much stronger statement; not just on Ocean’s pop sensibility but on America’s. The fact that a song as cloyingly sweet as “Thinkin’ Bout You” can slide into play on urban radio stations next to Rick Ross and Meek Mills, while still being a sing-along favorite for soccer moms, is both impressive and intelligent. This eclectic, constantly-shifting mix of pop ideas is so deftly, almost nonchalantly, executed that by the time you realize you’re listening to a John Mayer guitar solo over gloomy, ambient synths at the end of “Pyramids,” it’s almost too late. From start to finish, Frank Ocean plays to our comfort zone while periodically throwing in ideas you would not expect. A delight to listen to as well as to discern, channel Orange is an unexpected pop pleasure.
2. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
This album represents a musical and intellectual quandary to many people. A traditionally hip-hop/electronic producer strips down his digital cacophony with (get this) live musicians. Steve Ellison (a.k.a. Flying Lotus) has embraced his heritage. He is the great nephew of Alice and John Coltrane. After releasing three albums to increasing critical acclaim he arrives with the wonderfully-understated Until the Quiet Comes. It is, in essence, an electronic jazz album. But before you write it off as overly experimental, just put it on and let it take you for a ride. The way in which Ellison can synthesize so many disparate elements (African percussion, free jazz, West Coast hip-hop etc.) into a cohesive sonic journey is a wonder to behold. The influence of fellow Brainfeeder Collective member, Thundercat is clearly discernable in the strong bass lines and psychedelic milieu. The use of live set musicians, as opposed to exclusively digital instrumentation, further expands Ellison’s current trajectory. Nothing here seems forced. And despite existing in a clear and heady intellectual space, there is something discernibly intimate and personal about this album. You really feel as though Ellison has found his “quiet” place where all his musical ideas can flow organically and take shape on their own.
1. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
For those of us keeping score at home Swing Lo Magellan represents Dave Longstreth’s eighth album in the past decade with his Dirty Projectors project. What is most impressive about the latest effort is the seeming lack of it. Longstreth finally seems comfortable in his own skin as a songwriter. Not to say he has abandoned his distinctly complex vocal harmonies or tempo shifts, but he has found a way to not let his technical arrangements get in the way of simple and pleasurable song writing. Swing Lo Magellan is a collection of literate love songs for a generation of young people hyper aware of the impending doom of society. However even in the darker moments of the album (such as “Offspring are Blank”), Longstreth trusts in his expressive and eclectic musicality to carry through while allowing himself to be lyrically playful. This is by far Dirty Projectors most accessible and fun release to date and it is undeniably catchy. Try getting the chorus from “About to Die” or “Impregnable Question” out your head after one listen…Impossible.