Jun 21, 2015

Apr 27, 2014

Teflon Don

                                            Jim Rome on Showtime (May 14, 2014)

                                                  Outside the Lines (April 28, 2014)

                                               Disrupt w/ Karen Finney (May 3, 2014)

Dr. Todd Boyd, a USC professor and celebrated author on issues of culture and sports, has long been among those in town who have openly wondered how Sterling's behavior has avoided league censure. He thought this latest bit of ink-stained wretchedness was just more of the same. If he was trying to be sarcastic," Boyd said, "it actually might have been funny, but he wasn't. Boyd said the main issue was the propagation of a tired generality. You know, he said, Sterling's history is so tainted at this point, nothing would surprise me.  (Los Angeles Times: March 1, 2011)

 The Sterling Uproar and L.A.'s Race Relations (Los Angeles Times, Live Video Chat: May 15, 2014)

Disrupt with Karen Finney (MSNBC : May 3, 2014)

Racist Views Exile Sterling From the NBA (Associated Press : April 30, 2014)

Will the NBA Eject Donald Sterling (Which Way L.A.? : April 28, 2014)

Outside The Lines (ESPN : April 28, 2014)

Latest Ad From Clippers Owner Donald Sterling is Nothing to Celebrate (Los Angeles Times : March 2, 2011)

The Donald Sterling Rule: All Bad Deeds Go Unpunished (Novemeber 25, 2009)

Massa Sterling and Uncle Elgin Go to Court (Notorious Ph.D. : February 24, 2009)

Colored People Talkin' Greasy... (Notorious Ph.D. : May 12, 2009)

Clippers Owner Inconsistent on Approach to Race (NPR : September 19, 2006)

Apr 28, 2013

Richard Pryor's America

                   [This essay appears in the new box set No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert]

It is not uncommon in this rapidly expansive digital age, with so many media outlets available, for some would-be entertainer to emerge on the scene demanding their Warhol time.  Fifteen minutes is about all they get though, as their fleeting flirtation with fame passes before the blink of a blood-shot eye.  Famous for being famous has unfortunately become a reality these days. The type of fame that once emerged as a result of impeccable skills mixed with sweat equity often seems to be a relic of a bygone era now.  There are no shortcuts to greatness however.  This desired destination is only reached after putting in much work.  One hit wonders need not apply.  It takes years for this.  Dues must be paid.  
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor’s tenure as a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer, and unabashed American icon stretches from the 1960s to his death in 2005.  The 60s were his formative years, while the 80s represented his ascent to movie star status in Hollywood. Yet the 70s were his decade.  He owned it.  Having absorbed the lessons of the 60s, while cashing in on his hard work during the 80s, it was in the 70s that he made his most lasting mark. 
The 1970s were a magical time in the history of American popular culture.  In the decade set between the counter-cultural 1960s and the newly conservative 1980s, the 70s offered a decade of free spirited expression unrivaled in modern times.  Central to this vibrant decade was the emergence of a new black cultural style motivated by the shifting social and political currents in this enlightened era immediately following the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. 
In the last days of the dominance of the three major broadcast networks, television ratings were ruled by black situation comedies like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. The mini-series Roots inserted the problematic racial history of slavery and American society into the prime time mainstream when it premièred in 1977.  In music, stalwarts like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder created sounds rooted in both the black church and the black protest tradition, while expanding the American musical palette in ways both profound and proficient.  This sense of genius would be equally matched in the sporting arena, as a transcendent athlete like Muhammad Ali set about changing the game. Following on the heels of Melvin Van Peebles’ black power classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) Hollywood embarked on an era that would come to be known as “Blaxploitation,” where the sights and sounds of the streets represented gritty urban fare previously absent on the vaunted silver screen. 
Black entertainers and performers had emerged from the ash heap of a segregated racial past to command attention on the main stage of American life in the 1970s.  The demands of a newly liberated populace would not be suppressed.  Blackness was on the march and authenticity was its theme.  As the dust settled and the clouds moved away a new voice could be heard in the distance. That voice would grow louder and louder.  No longer exiled in the foreign land of unspoken black frustration, that voice had moved from margin to center.  The voice in question belonged to none other than the great Richard Pryor. 
Pryor’s live performances and his stand-up comedy albums, catalogued in this collection, along with his numerous film and television appearances define his creative output during this time.  But it was the brilliantly provocative and outspoken albums that functioned more like graduate seminars of the streets, providing us with the foundation upon which all else would be built.  Representing the best of the oral tradition, Pryor used the comedy stage as both a bully pulpit and a chopping block.  Nothing was sacred, nothing deemed off limits.  Pryor scrutinized his own personal shortcomings as much as he dissected the racial hypocrisy that had defined this nation for so long.  If it is true that the same things that make you laugh will make you cry then Pryor’s comedy turned tears into unmitigated hilarity. Things once considered infuriating now prompted belly laughs.  Topics that had previously only been spoken of in private were suddenly circulating in an open forum.
When Richard Pryor emerged in the 1960s, moving from a series of low budget industrial Midwestern gigs to New York’s celebrated Café Wha? he was a joker, not yet a comedian. Trying to find his own voice, he, for a time, opted to use Bill Cosby’s instead.  But one can only imitate someone else for so long before the appropriation becomes a burden.  Cosby’s college-educated humor was certainly helpful in integrating both the comedy stage and the television dial, but Cosby’s user friendly approach would not work for Pryor.  Though Cosby was knocking down previously segregated doors with rapid precision, Pryor couldn’t yet walk through these doors because he was still wearing Cosby’s ill-fitting hand-me-downs while trying to attend what was in essence a formal gathering.  Pryor simply needed more schooling.
When Pryor arrived in Berkeley, the Mecca of the counter-culture in the late 60s, he was there to get his degree, but his degree would not come from the University of California, instead it would be conferred by the academy of the underground.  Mingling amongst the creative and intellectual black vanguard of the Bay Area, Pryor, counting Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton among his new friends, immersed himself in the speeches of Malcolm X, with Marvin Gaye’s colossal What’s Going On serving as his soundtrack. 
Evidence of Pryor’s coming to consciousness during this time can be heard in a previously unreleased radio interview that originally aired on Berkeley’s KPFA/KPFB in 1971, now available in this collection. Sounding especially somber, and particularly disturbed by the infamous murder of black prisoners at the hands of the state in Attica, Pryor begins the interview by saying that it’s really “hard to be funny” in the aftermath of such a notorious event and concludes that what happened at Attica “ain’t cool.” 
There is nothing funny about what he’s saying though.  It’s actually quite real.  Pryor’s own frustration with American racial politics can be heard loud and clear, without a laugh track in site.  In the parlance of the 70s, Pryor here is as serious as a heart attack.  The deep conviction that can be detected in Pryor’s voice speaks to the transition that he had undergone while contemplating life in Berkeley. When he emerged from this self-imposed exile, he was a new man.  He had discovered gold underneath the trash.  The old imitator of Cosby had been laid to rest.  In his place the newly discovered Richard Pryor would emerge.
Pryor’s sojourn in Berkeley had revealed to him that his best assets lie in his own colorful upbringing.  The voices inside Richard’s head were the ghosts of ghettoes past.  The comedian went to the dark side of American life so as to introduce the nation to the long lost underground characters who populated the nefarious confines of a Dickensian urban environment seldom seen by the outside world.  The brothels, juke joints, street corners, dope dens, and the jailhouses that had defined Richard’s own life became familiar landmarks in his newly energized comedy.  Pimps, winos, and dope fiends now had a voice. Serving as their agent, Richard was going to make sure that everyone heard what these people had to say. 
Take for example, Pryor’s detailed description of “the backroom where the Negroes shoot craps,” on “Crap Game,” included here, which originally appeared on Craps (After Hours).  Complete with sound effects, Pryor describes the motley crew that inhabits this colorful underworld space; the old man who observes the crap game but never bets, two white “hillbillies” trying to acquire the services of black prostitutes, Big Black Bertha with her 280-pound “sculptured ass”, the Uncle Tom ebony and awkward ivory cop tandem looking for the elusive Jesse, Raymond who “ain’t seen nobody since 1922,” and the aptly titled Cool Breeze, who needs his money “like a hog needs slop.”
Not only did Pryor bring a new class of ghetto inhabitants to the party with him, but he brought their unique take on language to bear as well.  Pryor worked with the precision of a linguist when he articulated the sounds of the urban streets.  His liberal deployment of what by the time of the OJ Simpson trial in the 90s would be known as the “n word” provoked some, while embarrassing others.  Yet Richard was not simply in search of shock value, he was using the word “nigger” like a surgeon wielding a scalpel as he went about dissecting the rhetorical heritage of a nation’s ugly racial past, while demonstrating the liberating properties of unfettered free speech in the process. 
Prior to Pryor, the “nigger” was a passive, helpless victim of white verbal abuse. Pryor would turn this hapless victim of racism into an empowered representation of a newly defiant black urban identity, an identity that merged an aggressive disdain for bullshit with an impassioned performance of enlightened indifference. In the process, he had transformed the “nigger” into a “nigga;” though it would take a new generation of rappers to fully recognize what Pryor had unearthed in his groundbreaking urban research.  It is this reconsideration of a word like nigga by the hip hop generation that truly demonstrates Pryor’s lasting influence.  The impact had moved from one generation to the next, here offering evidence of Pryor’s profound cultural contribution long after he had initially made his presence felt. 
In the 1970s people were experimenting with a range of new social freedoms, previously denied them.  In the age of Deep Throat (1972), Plato’s Retreat, and suburban key parties like those portrayed in Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, Pryor’s open and frank discussions about sex provided an X-rated voice-over commentary that was directly in line with the mood of the times.  In the decade after the introduction of the birth control pill and in the lead up to and aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Pryor’s comically explicit reflections on his own wildly abundant sex life helped solidify that the personal was indeed political. With Pryor nothing was off limits, no matter how embarrassing.  The awkwardness of personal intimacy co-existed alongside the at times sheer absurdity of it.  Again, Pryor put words to a topic that was challenging this Puritanical society at its very core.
Another social taboo that Pryor tackled in his 70s comedy involved dissecting his own prodigious drug use.  This emerged at a time when Richard Nixon was declaring a so-called “war on drugs” that lingers on to this day.  As underworld drugs stared to flood the urban landscape and as many Vietnam vets returned home with their own debilitating drug habits, Pryor wore his drug usage like a badge of honor.  It was his choice to get high and he wanted the world to know that this was an act of liberty not to be confused with an uncontrollable addiction.  Pryor had the money and access to “cop” as much dope as he wanted, choosing to live in the nether world where being high was the password for admittance to this secret society.  Yet he willingly talked about his penchant for an elevated mind state in spite of the destruction that such activities could have on one’s life.  In this regard, Pryor was like Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday, before him, indulging in a sort of method acting performance that offered equals parts creative genius and self-destructive tendencies. Burning the candle at both ends allowed Pryor a unique vantage point from which to observe and comment on a picture of America that was not always pretty to look at.  The greatest performers often give as much of themselves as they do their art.  Pryor was no different in this regard.  He got high on cocaine, while his listeners in turn got high on him.
There was something radical about Pryor’s very being during this time.  In an era when black people were supposed to be transitioning into the mainstream, as demonstrated by the numerous first-time black mayors who were being elected in major cities during the 70s, Richard took it back to the streets.  Pryor embraced the streets over politics and the pulpit, though his mocking renditions of the black preacher still prompt uncontrollable laughter.  Standing a healthy distance from the masses, observing the action through a mind-altered scope, Pryor was able to speak truth to power through his embodiment of this indifferent street persona.  He gave life to the clandestine locales exclusive to those to prefer the darkness of night to the light of day. 
Yet as Pryor introduced America to the ghetto streets his own success in the entertainment industry began to challenge his connections to these very roots.  Pryor had survived life in the nation’s underbelly.  The question had become whether or not he would survive the roller coaster ride of success in white America that his incredible comedic skills had afforded him.  Making it out of the ghetto was one thing.   Surviving the unexpected drama of fame was another thing entirely.  The man who had risen to the top by deconstructing America, now had to exist in the America that he had deconstructed. 
Pryor’s mantra through all of this is best summed up on a track in this collection entitled “I Don’t Give a Fuck.”  Echoing the sentiment embedded in his friend Miles Davis’ classic “So What,” Pryor relishes having come to a point in his life where the anger he once felt so deeply had been replaced by evolved feelings of extreme indifference. The reality is however that Pryor never really “gave a fuck,” as it were.  It was his indifference to the dictates of the status quo that had always made him so important. If he had given a fuck, in his life and in his work, then he certainly would not have been as funny nor as revolutionary as he turned out to be. As an audience we would have all been deprived of his ability to channel that anger into conscious reflective comedy.  Thank you for the sacrifice Richard.
The material contained in this box set covers the breadth and depth of Pryor’s illustrious career as a stand-up comedian. The collected comedy is representative of an entire body of work. This is no one hit wonder we’re talking about.  The opportunity to accumulate a body of work was certainly not a given for a black man when Pryor started out in the entertainment industry. In many ways the very existence of the material assembled here demonstrates his massive success. Richard Pryor was a major American artist and the voluminous nature of this material implies just that.  
In studying a career worth of work, one gets the opportunity to experience a long journey, one that stretches from obscurity to superstardom.  Noticing the developments along the way can provide as much fulfillment as reaching the destination.  One gets to listen to the ideas as they take shape, the characters as they develop, and the bits as they become perfected over time.  This box set represents what one might call “The Richard Pryor Experience.”  One should indulge this experience to the fullest, as it is a uniquely American experience.   Thanks to the numerous changes that have reshaped American since Richard first emerged on the scene one shouldn’t expect such an experience to unfurl again.   Richard was an American original and originals are of course one of a kind.

Jan 25, 2013

Goin' Down Slow

I've had my fun/if I don't get well no more/my health is failing me/and I'm goin' down slow/please write my mother/tell her the shape I'm in/tell her to pray for me/forgive me for my sin.  
                             Howlin' Wolf, "Goin' Down Slow"

The last time that there was an NFL team in LA, Bill Clinton was still in his first term, no one had ever heard of a tweet, and Moby Dick was still a minnow.  In spite of this glaring absence, the city, short of a few entrepreneurs contemplating stadium deals, has really seemed not to care that the NFL brand has had no home in the nation's second largest city.  One of the main reasons that this has seemed not to matter is due to the large shadow cast by the Los Angeles Lakers.

There is always a lot of nostalgia around the Dodgers in this town, but beyond that, as far as pro sports are concerned, the Lakers have since the 1980s ruled the LA sports landscape with an iron fist.  No pro football team has meant no big deal as the Lakers have continually provided drama and intrigue even when it wasn't basketball season.  There is no doubt that LA is a basketball town.  To say that LA is a basketball town though is really to say that it's a Laker town, as the purple and gold are synonymous with basketball in this city.  Or perhaps I'm speaking in past tense here?

The City of Angles is at a precarious moment in its basketball history. The Lakers are sinking deeper and deeper into irrelevance, in spite of a roster that includes two former league MVPs, two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners, a Sixth Man of the Year award winner, and six current or former All Stars.  This precipitous decline would be one thing if it were only that, but as the Lakers have sunk to unforeseen lows, the Los Angeles Clippers, the city's orphaned stepchild of a franchise, has developed into one of the best teams in the league. 

The Lakers have been unraveling every since Andrew Bynum pulled off his jersey and walked off the court when he, along with Lamar Odom, were tossed while the team was being swept off the floor during Game 4 of the second round playoff series against Dallas in 2011.  When that game ended Phil Jackson drifted into retirement, while the Lakers began their drift into mediocrity.  In that series Pau Gasol looked more like the soft Pau who showed up in the 2008 Finals against Boston, than the skilled big man who showed up during successful '09 and '10 championship campaigns.  Kobe Bryant was unremarkable in this series also, though many would blame this on a lingering knee injury.  The Lakers, a team with three seven footers, who a year earlier had outlasted Boston in seven games to win another NBA title, suddenly looked old and slow.  The Dallas Mavericks, the team who went on to win the '11 title, were not a young team, so exposing the Lakers in this way spoke volumes beyond the actual embarrassment of the sweep.

As the summer of 2011 turned into lockout summer, with NBA players barnstorming across the country playing in pick up games, the Lakers made the first of several mistakes when Jim Buss decided to fire a number of important team support personnel, including  assistant general manager Ronnie Lester, who had been with the club for 24 years.  As Lester was quoted as saying at the time, "You think of the Lakers and you think they are a great organization. But if you work inside the organization, it's only a perception of being a great organization. It's probably not a great organization, because great organizations don't treat their personnel like they've done."

Great franchises not only have great people on the court and in the coach's chair, but they also have top notch support staff who work behind the scenes spread throughout the organization.  Well, at least this was the case during the reign of Jerry Buss.  Jim Buss, like George Bush 43, seemed as though he was now calling on a "higher power" when making decisions that looked like the undoing of his father's handiwork.

Buss then hired Mike Brown to take over for Phil Jackson.   While no one could realistically replace the Zen Master, Brown was always an odd choice to run a franchise with the history and magnitude of the Lakers.  Brown never seemed to have the proper disposition to run the Hollywood blockbuster of a franchise that is the Los Angeles Lakers.  He only lasted a season and five games into a second before figuring in the third fastest coach change in NBA history.  While Brown was never a good fit, he deserved better treatment, especially when one considers his inferior "seven seconds or less" replacement Mike D'Antoni.

Jim Buss fumbled the Brown hire, fumbled the firing, fumbled in the communication with Phil Jackson and then fumbled again with the D'Antoni coaching hire.  Excuse me while I mix metaphors here but Jim Buss has put the ball on the ground more times than a Nebraska fumblerooski.

Many Lakers' fans point to the aborted Chris Paul trade last year as reason for the team's struggles.  After the protracted lock out where small market franchises were complaining about being at a competitive disadvantage, there was no way the league could allow a trade that would have surely benefited the Lakers immensely, not as long as the league's twenty-nine other owners were subsidizing the New Orleans franchise.  Chris Paul, as it turns out, is a powerful man.  While the aborted trade helped sink the Lakers, it concurrently made the Clippers a title contender.

The Lakers and their fans have won so much that like the GOP they became entitled, assuming that some new superstar was always going to come along to prolong their dynasty.  Yet the long view of sports suggests that every team's fortunes ebb and flow.  No one wins forever, nor does any one team enjoy only good fortune.  As Kurt Blow once said, "these are the breaks." 

Yet the fun doesn't stop with the coaching carousel or the post aborted trade angst. The Lakers, who were again exposed as old and more out of touch than Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign in losing to OKC in the 2012 playoffs, decided to sign a petulant man-child who was coming off of back surgery and an aging point guard who had seen better days as a way of doubling down on their entitlement. In spite of Kobe's numbers, it should be obvious to any objective onlooker that his production against the better teams in the playoffs is no longer enough to carry his squad.  So just adding stars to a spotty roster was never going to make any difference.

When the petulant man-child with his free shooting woes didn't immediately gel with the team's resident Don Diva and the aging point guard struggled to even get on the floor, things went from bad to worse.  Recently it is said that the petulant man-child was supposedly confronted by the team's aging superstar and resident grande dame.  The petulant man-child demurred.  The thought of Kobe Bryant verbally punkin' an NBA player of Dwight's caliber is still hard to imagine, but we are talking about a petulant man-child after all.

The Lakers are done for all intents and purposes.  As Kobe piles up stats for the record books on his way to a retirement that certainly is sooner than later at this point, the team faces some dark days ahead.  One of the reasons that the Lakers have been so good for so long has been the presence of Jerry Buss.  Yet as the son takes over for his father, making one bad decision after another, people shouldn't expect the same success that has defined the Lakers for so long to continue.  You can hire and fire coaches, sign, trade, and cut players, but if the man who really calls the shots doesn't know his ass from a hole in the defense then it is all for naught.

During Michael Jordan's reign in the 1990s, Chicago Bulls GM Jerry "Crumbs" Krause was famous for suggesting that players don't championships, organizations do. Considering that the Bulls have nary a title without Michael Jordan,  Crumbs was wrong.  However when one considers that the Lakers have been the most dominant franchise in the NBA since the 80s, a span that has seen four of the best players in NBA history-Kareem, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe-at the forefront of teams that won titles, Crumbs' assessment celebrating the organization would now seem to apply.  Though Lakers' fans have become accustomed to winning, the absence of names like Jerry Buss, Jerry West, and Phil Jackson suggest that it would be wise for these fans to disabuse themselves of such lofty notions going forward. 

Jan 13, 2013

One in Ten Thousand ("The Extraordinary Nigga")

                         I ain't no ordinary nigga/look around this ain't what ordinary gets 
                        you/extraordinary figures/I'm an extra-ordinary nigga.   

                                                               Jay-Z, Say Hello

There are many gems of knowledge embedded in Django Unchained.  Though this film has prompted a larger public discussion, much of this discussion has been uninformed at best.  Haters harp on, but what are they really hatin' about?  I have yet to run across a critique of the film that does anything other than regurgitate tired, old, irrelevant handkerchief-head laments.  This comment from jack-leg racial huckster Tavis Smiley typifies the unenlightened drivel that has circulated in regards to this film.  Though Smiley has not seen Django Unchained he feels quite comfortable dismissing it, stating  "I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it. But I’ve read the screenplay, and I have 25 family members and friends who have seen it, and have had thousands of conversations about this movie, so I can tell you frame by frame what happens."

First of all, Smiley doesn't have to pay to see the film.  A public figure like Smiley would not have a problem getting an invitation to a private screening or obtaining an industry "screener" of the film. He's puckered up to enough of Hollywood on his talk show to assure such access, but he doesn't say this.  He does make it a monetary issue however.  Smiley seldom does an interview without name dropping or engaging in passive aggressive attempts to let the world know how much money he has. When one considers some of the dubious corporate relationships that Smiley has engaged in over the years, it's fair to assume that money is not an issue.  Or at least it shouldn't be.  Maybe he's short?

Beyond this, reading a screenplay is not the same as watching the finished product on the screen.  The "25 family members and friends" he mentions might offer their own subjective memories of seeing the film, but the inconsistent recollections of others is not the same as seeing for oneself.  No, sorry Tavis, you can't tell anyone "frame by frame what happens" if you haven't seen the film.  You can comment on other people's unreliable memory about a film you haven't seen, but this is not commenting on the film.  Don't get it twisted.  But Smiley and others like him aren't interested in an intelligent discourse they are interested in pushing their own imbecilic dogma. The restrictive world that these zealous reactionaries live in is one where The Taliban would most certainly be comfortable. 

Every since the days of Blaxploitation, haters like Lerone Bennett, editor of Ebony, and Junius Griffin, head of Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP, have complained about larger-than-life empowered black male imagery on screen.  The hateration that began during this time continued through the emergence of hip hop and the subsequent evolution of gangsta cinema in the 90s. Other echoes of this hateration could also be heard, for example, amongst the rampant naysayers as they gnashed their teeth during the triumphant reign of Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch The Throne in 2011, the landmark album that signaled the full maturation of hip hop's "extraordinary nigga" ethos. Such toxic hateration lingers, polluting the air of cultural discourse to this very day.

Much of the tepid criticism directed towards Django Unchained operates in the same vein.  (Forgive me, but I'm reluctant to continue naming names, as it were, for fear of giving these charlatans more light than they've already received.  As Mom Dukes used to say, " a hurt dog will holla," so when you haters start screaming, the world will know who you are.)  These would-be critics see no value in the swagger of cool defiance that has infused American culture since the days of legendary boxer Jack Johnson.  Thus they don't understand the revolutionary potential represented by Django.

Many of these haters, so-called black intellectuals and other cultural gatekeepers, prefer victimization.  They like their heroes to be weak.  They seek sympathy through guilt.  True empowerment is not on their agenda.  The haters would rather sit in their lil' group-think bubbles and complain about how their collective feelings are being hurt than embrace what NWA once defined as "the strength of street knowledge."  Yes there are those, believe it or not, who would rather see Precious steal a buck of chicken than see Django enact righteous revenge on his oppressors.

Allow me to polish one of those gems of knowledge that I referenced earlier...

A recurring motif in Django Unchained is the metaphor of "one in ten thousand."  This is what Django comes to represents, the exception to the rule, "the extraordinary nigga."  The history of the African-American struggle in this country has often been defined as a group struggle.  The only problem with this is that America imagines itself as a land of individual opportunity.  The inherent conflict is one where a group is trying to succeed in a game designed for individuals.  Thus, the group tends to remain frustrated, though individuals may have broken through.  Those individuals who have embraced the unfortunate reality of this unique challenge have tended to be the ones to rise above the limitations. In many cases, those who have embraced this individual mandate have transformed the culture in the process.  Yet in so doing, these same individuals have often rubbed up against the myopic views of their own people who see the rise of a uniquely empowered individual as a threat to their own comfortable feeling of irrelevant complacency.  The thinking is, it's better for all of us to suffer than for a few of us to thrive.

Jack Johnson, the patron saint of black male defiance, was a threat to white society sure, but he had a large share of black haters to contend with as well.  Johnson's choices in his personal life, his desire to be a man truly free from the limitations of both white and black restrictions makes him a figure difficult to embrace for many.  His attitude alone though makes him significant.  Johnson introduced the concept of "not givin' a fuck" to the American consciousness.  This concept would evolve and come to define a philosophy, while informing a range of future rebellious sorts going forward.  Cats like Bird, Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Richard Pryor are descendants of this tradition.  Malcolm X represents the tradition's imminent philosopher, figures like Frantz Fanon, Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, it's shining literary lights.  Hip hop is in many ways founded upon this very tradition.  Fictional characters from Youngblood Priest in Super Fly to Django demonstrate the influences of this tradition in popular culture.

The rare individual who has the willingness to go against the grain, to chart one's own path, to defy the expectation of haters whoever they may be, is what defines the extraordinary nigga.  This is about using whatever is available to the individual in question as a way of transforming the world around them.  Though the group may talk about it, the individual must be about it.  This is the sort of inspiration that I found articulated in Django Unchained.

 When Calvin Candie says to Django, "You'll hafta excuse Mr. Stonesipher's slack jawed gaze. He ain't never seen a nigger like you ever in his life....nor have I" he speaks to the shock and awe that often results when bold individuals dare to exist outside their prescribed place.  Yes, this is the same shock that momentarily paralyzed those who had never seen "a nigger on a horse."  This assertive individuality has often left a lot of shook ones in its wake.

One of the purposes of art is to help us imagine newly creative ways of seeing the world; past, present, and future.   Provoking haters is a time honored tradition in and of itself.  The dismissive response to Django Unchained from haters of all stripes is consistent with the film's profound message.  The emergence of the extraordinary nigga guarantees a negative response from those more comfortable with the status quo. Such a representation would never be roundly popular as it's too threatening.  Those who are truly hip get it regardless of race, while a rainbow coalition of squares are left to choke on their own vomit. The film's value lies in its ability to provoke the masses, while flattering those who remain committed, trying to keep it real, compared to what.

Sleep on, haters.  Get your Rip Van Winkle on, while the world continues to pass you by. 

Dec 27, 2012

God Forgives, I Don't

Django Unchained, the latest offering from celebrated auteur Quentin Tarantino was sure to incite controversy.  Like all of Tarantino's films, Django is what one might call a built environment.  The world constructed in the film is one drawn from the filmmaker's expansive imagination and his encyclopedic knowledge of pop genres like Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation.  Set below the Mason-Dixon line in the years immediately prior to the start of the Civil War, employing elements of both the western and the slave narrative, this unique construction is one Tarantino calls a "Southern."  At issue of course is the central role that the "peculiar institution" otherwise known as slavery plays in the film.

Slavery is that thing that America would rather forget.  For all those who love to talk about American Exceptionalism, slavery punches a gaping hole in this self-serving thesis.   The horrors of slavery and the reality that this nation was built upon the backs of those enslaved has created a situation riff with explosive possibilities.  Some cringe at the inconvenient mention of slavery, while others recoil at the deafening silence surrounding its articulation.  Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey have both made movies about slavery.  Neither Amistad (1997) nor Beloved (1998) were very successful though, in spite of the uber popularity of both of the figures behind these respective films.  In other words, if Spielberg and Oprah can't sell slavery chances are it can't be sold.

The problem with well-meaning representations like those seen in Amistad and Beloved is the earnest, self-righteous tone, a tone dripping with morally indignant sentimentality at every conceivable turn. While Roots may serve as the blueprint for representations of slavery in American popular culture, Tarantino rejects this model, instead drawing inspiration from another 70s cultural form, Blaxploitation, referencing a film like The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972)

and Mandingo (1975)

both of which predated Roots by a few years.  One could even argue that the popularity of Blaxploitation films in the theaters during the early 70s helped create a climate for the eventual airing of the more mainstream Roots mini-series on television in 1977. As groundbreaking a cultural moment as Roots was, it had more to do with black suffering than it did black empowerment.

In Mandingo, Ken Norton's character Meade, the film's resident Mandingo, dies in a pot of boiling water, while the plantation's Uncle Tom character, Agamemnon, surprisingly shoots his beloved Master Hammond Maxwell in response.  Though the film allows for the cathartic killing of Master Hammond at the hands of one of his slaves, Meade dies, while Uncle Tom lives. In the years since Mandingo, America has seen the rise of a newly empowered class of real life characters whose resemblance to the old Uncle Tom archetype makes it difficult to discern whether one is looking at a fictional character or the real thing? The fabled Uncle Ruckus from the Boondooks series is fictional, though one need not look far to find real life versions of the same thing scattered amongst us.    Recognizing this, Django realizes that for the film to be relevant in contemporary society, Uncle Tom deserves a fate similar to that of his Master in order for good to truly triumph over evil.  Thus it is fitting that Django saves his last act of retribution for Samuel L. Jackson's vile "house nigger" character Stephen, who after being shot in both knees, dies a horrific death as the Master's mansion explodes with him in it, thanks to Django setting off a dynamite blast.  

Django's mind may be immersed in the Spaghetti Western's of Corbucci or the choreographed mayhem of a Sam Peckinpah, for example, but the film's heart remains in Blaxploitation.  Back in 1971 Melvin Van Peebles promised that there was a "baad asssss nigger" who was "coming back to collect some dues," at the end of his groundbreaking classic Sweetsweetback's Baadasssss Song.  Some forty-one years later, Jamie Foxx's Django has fulfilled this prophecy.  The brilliance of Blaxploitation as a genre was its ability to rewrite common narratives so that black characters triumph over white oppression and do so in high style.  There was a life affirming message of what Obama calls "old testament justice" combined with an extravagance of style that made these films so popular.  Coming in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and informed by the politics of Black Power, the films recognized, in spite of budgetary limitations, that James Brown's notion of "payback" was real indeed in the minds of its audience members.  Django modernizes this mythology in an age when super heroes now dominate the box office and such is fitting as Foxx's Django becomes the super hero of the slave era.

Blaxploitation, of course, would eventually have a strong influence on hip hop.   As the genre experienced a re-birth in the late 80s, thanks to the rise of gangsta rap, films once dismissed as shlock began to experience a second life.  In the 90s, Tarantino forged an aesthetic that finally took Blaxploitation seriously as an influence.  The filmmaker's mash up of various styles, mixing both the sacred and the profane, without regard to time and place, has become the epitome of postmodern cinematic expression. Yet the aesthetic itself owes a lot to hip hop as Tarantino recently discussed in his appearance on The Charlie Rose Show.

The art of the remix, creative sampling of pop cultural ephemera, a love of retro as aesthetic, and the overall ability to give old forms new meaning, pitched to just the right in-crowd, defines a style of cinematic hipness that Tarantino has now perfected.  Make no mistake about it though, Django Unchained is hip hop cinema at its finest.  There is no place else in the world where Wagner, Alexandre Dumas, Ennio Morricone, Jim Croce, Tupac, and Rick Ross can co-exist with Sergio Leone and Fred Williamson other than in hip hop and a Tarantino movie. 

In spite of Tarantino's achievement, many, aided by the ubiquitous echo chamber of social media, have quickly lodged their complaints.  This is not surprising.  Tarantino is a popular filmmaker who often prompts an equally critical response from his numerous detractors.  Though popular, Tarantino's films are quite studious as well.  His approach to cinema is often over the heads of those who want their film going experience to be a moral affirmation of their own tightly held beliefs.  Tarantino is abstract, but these erstwhile critics only want the literal.  His overt embrace of style strikes the detractors as not severely entrenched enough in victimization for their taste.

Some have complained about what they see as the film's excessive violence, failing however to recognize the utter violence that was slavery.  Further the repeated use of the word "nigger" in the film gives haters an easy excuse to discredit the effort.  For a film set in 1858, what else would you expect the characters to say, African American?!  Where do these self righteous saints think the contested word came from in the first place?  The repeated utterance of this word in the film is in keeping with the era that the film is set.  Django, again like both Blaxploitation and hip hop, deploys the word in a most effective manner, liberating the word from the bondage of disingenuous social censorship in the process. In spite of what others may say, the use of the word is both humorous and appropriate given the context.

Simply stated, Django Unchained is an instant classic.  In an era when movie experiences often resemble an amusement park ride, where comic books, sequels, and the expanses of digital technology often determine what gets made and what does not, Tarantino has consistently crafted a cinema where story and dialogue still reign supreme.  This is very old school, but old school in the best possible way.  On the other hand, Tarantino's ability to make traditional concepts like story and dialogue relevant in a contemporary context through modern practices like cut and paste, remix, and mash-up demonstrates that old school inevitably informs the creation of the new school.  To do all of this while rewriting the slave narrative as one where ethical vengeance trumps saintly victimization is something that Nat Turner would have most certainly been proud of.