Category Archives: Film

“Endgame AIDS In Black America”: A Exercise in Drama And No Politics

This is an almost stream of conscious blog I was writing while watching the PBS premier of the Frontline Documentary “Endgame: AIDS In Black America.”

Remember the PBS hard hitting political documentary series Frontline? You know, the show you can often count on to give you the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that explains, in great painstaking detail, everything from Wall Street’s role in foreclosure crisis, the lies that were told to get us into the War in Iraq, how the health insurance industry bought Congress to get the Affordable Care Act?

So imagine that the story of the War in Iraq was told through the stories of the Iraqis, who are describing the day the bombs fell, but the documentary hardly mentions George Bush (Jr or Sr), oil, or 9-11 as the excuse for US invasion? You’re left with a story that seems to be about the inexplicable and yet seemingly inevitable mass death and destruction, but is absent of history, political and policy contexts. You’d begin to wonder, why didn’t people just move out of the way when the bombs were raining out of the sky?

That’s what tonight’s Frontline episode, Endgame: AIDS in Black America was like. The documentary was very unlike most Frontline documentaries, which use the personal narratives of people living through a particular issue as a window into the larger political story, where you’re left with both a micro and macro understanding of what’s going on. Instead, the way the documentary is constructed, heavy on the personal narrative, and with some good analysis by leading AIDS researchers and advocates, lacks any interview or in depth policy, political, or epidemiological analysis with a government official (with ONAP’s Greg Millet as the only exception, but he was not a govt official at the onset of the epidemic), from the 1980s, 1990s or now, that asks any tough questions about what the fuck they were doing about Black people with HIV/AIDS.

The kind of activism focuses on the work the women of ACT-UP did for women with AIDS, but doesn’t name any of the Black women who were living with the virus who were brave enough to organize and be present in that now famous action on the CDC. And Black trans women for whom the epidemic is particularly high aren’t even present AT ALL. And despite the issue of housing and homelessness as a major predictor of HIV infection…it is completely disappeared, especially in the context of the massive rise in homelessness in the 1980s.

It frames Magic Johnson’s announcement as the “wake up call” for Black people, but only brackets the deaths of Max Robinson, Sylvester, Jermaine Stewart, Alvin Ailey and not even mention Eazy E or Rev James Cleveland as other important moments for Black folks in the HIV/AIDS crisis. It also does not talk about Tongues Untied, and the Black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ film deals with HIV/AIDS and was a particular political lightening rod that was national news. It doesn’t talk about the work shows like A Different World did, or even artists like Salt-N-Pepa, Prince, or TLC who were talking about safe sex and HIV in their music before the government did anything. Contrary to Frontline’s usual style, they did not include an interview from C. Everett Koop or anybody from the CDC during Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, or Bush Jr.’s administrations. No political figures are held accountable for lack of funding, focus, or for instituting regressive policies that caused the HIV epidemic to rise in the Black community.

In fact, political leaders are treated as heroes. George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program is celebrated (with a sidenote from the narrator that it had controversial elements) without the many critiques that exist. Instead, we’re treated to scenes of the “backwards” South where people still will not eat behind people who have HIV. OK, but the question should be, why in 2012 are people not aware what we know about how AIDS is spread, or better yet, why don’t they believe it? The education system in the south being horrible (Alabama is where they focus the southern portion of the film), the disenfranchisement of Black people continually from all most aspects of political life is not raised. The continued federal funding for abstinence only sex education that is heavy on religious tropes and empty on sexual health information is depicted, but no policy makers are interrogated. And yet, homophobia in Black churches is discussed at length.

The narration, slow and intent on evoking too much “emotion” sounds more like a Lifetime movie of the week than what you normally have with the Frontline brand.

The best part of the film was the opening, dispelling the myth that the first gay men who presented as HIV positive when that MMWR was written in June of 1981, were white. Several were Black. The question the film should have been asking, “If white gay men weren’t the ‘original’ community the virus was discovered in the the US, why was it portrayed that way? Who’s decision was it to racialize the epidemic as such, and why was Black death always given a perfunctory nod, and not anything to be alarmed about to even mount the national hysteria, though not entirely helpful, at least took place? And making the political actors over the last 30 years account for that.

Or, a better framing could have been to open with the segment of analysis given by Dr. Bob Fullilove, Greg Millet, Phill Wilson and Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick at the very end of the film about Washington, DC, and then diving deeper into why DC’s epidemic is one of the worst in the world (if it were a country) and then pulling your happy ass up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and start asking some fucking questions.

Instead, we’re treated to a lot of personal narratives that continue to individualize the epidemic, straight black men with HIV are demonized (if for no other reason that they are almost entirely absent as narrators, but instead only show up as the infectors of Black women), and you walk away from this not understanding a single solitary issue about why the epidemic is so bad in Black communities despite no differences in sexual behaviors or drug use among Blacks.

Bette Davis says as Margo Channing in All About Eve, “I detest cheap sentiment.” She was talking at the time about music. I could say the same about this film. But in this case, cheap sentiment has really unfortunate political consequences.

Desiree Marshall: F*ck Facebook

You know one of the things that I am beginning to admit to myself: I am finding a lot of activist and organizing happening in the US pretty boring and uninteresting. Most of what is really inspiring me is art–and I usually hate those kind of people. You know the people who want to circumvent any kind of political implications of their work by declaring it art. Or the artist who declare that art is going to save the world, and that a revolution can happen without some kind of challenge, indirect dismantling, or radical transformation of state power–and the art that is produced in a society is a direct outgrowth of it.

That said, I am finding myself more interested in the manner in which people are using creative forms to express ideas for audiences. As a result, I am entertaining ideas of getting back on stage in some way, shape or form, or exploring other kinds of writing–more long form, narrative, nonfiction or even fiction, as a method of creativity, political protest, and artistic endeavor.

I’ve posted some of that work here–Yolo Akili’s video work, Brontez Purnell’s growing from punk kid to full fledged performance artist, Awkward Black Girl, and now, another friend, Desiree Marshall (Awkward Black Girl isn’t a friend. But the others are.)

I’ve known Des for many years as our work as organizers and trainers in activist spaces. I was always impressed by her intellect, and the charisma she brought to political work. I’ve known she was also a spoken word artist, and always liked her work, but seeing her here, delivering this poem, “F*ck Facebook” made me see the incredible power she brings to her work as a performer, and her ability to command the audience’s attention. In addition, the piece itself, took me to some internal places about my own uses and experiences of facebook, of failed relationships, and I guess she commanded me, cynical me, away from my critical eye, even my eye as a friend of Des’ into the world of the piece itself. She had me. I loveit when an artist/ performer makes me want to perform again, and inspires me to step my own game up.

I think Des should write a whole show and take it on the road. There’s a space for her in the world, and the gift she has.

Watch and see.

Brontez Purnell Dance Company–LOVE THIS SHORT FILM

So a week or two ago I wrote a blog about my friend Brontez Purnell under some unfortunate circumstances. But I wanted to post this really innovative and creative short film (which Brontez tells me is a part of a longer creative project), in which he is dancer, drummer/musician, singer, and choreographer. I just thought this would introduce his work and worth to you in a different moment, one not in a state of duress.

 

Morgan Freeman to Black People: “Get Over That Sh*t” Called Racism

Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman recently sat for an interview with BET.com. In it, he asserts that Black people complain too much about racism and white supremacy in Hollywood (and should follow the lead of the Chinese–his words, whom he asserts do no not complain about the lack of roles or racists depictions, which of course is not true. And even if it was, is shutting up about racism a model to be followed?), and that he does not consider the political impact on Blacks when he accepts different roles.

What’s your take on what’s been dubbed as the Black men blackout, i.e. the lack of African-American actors on stage, at this year’s Oscars?
I think we need to get over that s–t. How many Chinese do you see? You don’t see them out marching and s–t. Oh God please. I think … We need to get over it, that’s all.

Have you ever felt pressure to represent your people in a certain way in any of your films?
I don’t have any “my people.” I never had to deal with that part of my thing. Once, I straightened my hair when I was doing The Electric Company, and this woman comes up to me and says, “You…you… shouldn’t!” And I said, “Hold it. You don’t dictate my image. Get away from me.” And another one said, “But you’re a black man!” And I said, “Oh? Do tell!” After I played the president in Deep Impact, somebody said to me, “How does it feel to play a Black president?” And I was like, “Whoa, whoa. I didn’t play a ‘Black’ president. I played the president.” I don’t have to play Black.


And yet you’ve never shied away from controversial film portrayals of Black men like the pimp in Street Smart or the driver in Driving Miss Daisy. Has there been a special blueprint you’ve followed throughout your career?

I’m not shaped by anything at all except if it’s a good story and [has] an interesting character. I don’t have to worry about my image. My image has to do with my work. I’m not John Wayne. I’m an actor. I want to do anything that tells a good meaningful story. The part I play in it is just a part of that story.

Well I guess that helps explain why he wouldn’t cringe at playing Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy, and the Black side-kick in dozens of other films, giving him an estimated net worth of $90 million.

Wikipedia.com has an entire section on Freeman’s page called “Comments on Race.” It reads:

Freeman has publicly criticized the celebration of Black History Month and does not participate in any related events, saying, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”[14] He says the only way to end racism is to stop talking about it, and he notes that there is no “white history month”.[15] Freeman once said on an interview with 60 MinutesMike Wallace: “I am going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.”[14] Freeman supported the defeated proposal to change the Mississippi state flag, which contains the Confederate battle flag.[16][17]

I guess Wikipedia can add this BET interview to this section of his sketchy biography.

Video: Are We the Kind of Boys We Want?

I think I am gonna save Fridays for my favorite videos of the week. In this case, the clear winner is my good-Judy, Yolo Akili’s newest video offering, “Are We the Kind of Boy’s We Want?” The video is part performance of the poem of the same title, and part series of interviews with Black gay men about masculinity and who we desire.  It’s just great. Watch.

More Down Low TV: Wendell Pierce To Play Closeted Character in New Movie

Jesus, take the wheel!: It seems like yet another “down-low” story is about to hit the big screen.

Wendell Pierce, who recently starred as the trumpeter trombone player down on his luck in the HBO series Treme, will be starring in a upcoming movie called Four, playing a closeted man who meets a a 16-year old white boy on the internet. I just can’t. From the film’s website.

On the 4th of July in Hartford, CT, June, a 16-year-old white boy, meets up with Joe, a closeted, married black man he met on the Internet. On the same night, in the same city, the black man’s 16-year-old daughter Abigayle, agrees to go out with Dexter, a white 20-year-old low-level drug dealer. In and around the city, on the American night of Independence, these 2 couples get to know each other, moving from strangers to intimates. In lonely landscapes of movie theaters, fast food restaurants, darkened churches and public parks, they discover the limits of desire and the possibilities of transcendence. Four juxtaposes the relationships of the 2 couples struggling with their desires and demons.

So both father and daughter are having some kind of longing (from what I can tell from what I’ve read of the stage play reviews online) that seems to stem from a Black wife/mother who is never seen in the play, whom is ailing and taken to bed, seemingly from depression or some unknown psychosomatic ailment. So not only is this a creepy down-low story, both father and daughter seem to be escaping the black mother figure, and running to white men for escape. It sounds like Monster’s Ball meets…something else equally tacky.

According to the Black Hollywood newsite Shadow and Act, the film is an adaptation of the play of the same name, written by white playwright Christopher Shinn in 1998. I haven’t read the play in fairness, but it does make one wonder why this film and this depiction is getting any kind of backing. Think about it–it’s been three years since  Noah’s Arc: Jumpin the Broom was released–and it was the last film (that I know of) released featured black gay men who weren’t tragic, creepy or some homophobic punchline (see: Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married, Too).

Lost Documentary Featuring James Baldwin Restored!

Watch it in its entirety online!

Take This Hammer, follows author and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he’s driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community. He is escorted by Youth For Service’s Executive Director Orville Luster and intent on discovering: “The real situation of Negroes in the city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present.”

He declares: “There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. Someone’s got to tell it like it is. And that’s where it’s at.”

Includes frank exchanges with local people on the street, meetings with community leaders and extended point-of-view sequences shot from a moving vehicle, featuring the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin reflects on the racial inequality that African-Americans are forced to confront and at one point tries to lift the morale of a young man by expressing his conviction that: “There will be a Negro president of this country but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.”

I am so glad that this film is now available to help San Francisco avail itself of the idea that it is the most progressive and “multi-cultural” city.