Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Moment of Self-Reassurance: Cultural Affirmation and the Movie-Going Experience

Title card from R. Kelly's rap opera Trapped in the Closet (2005-2012)

I never would have thought that attending a screening of R. Kelly's hiphopera Trapped in the Closet, along with sing-a-longs to some of his favorite hits and the film itself, and experiencing all of this in an independent art house in the Five College/Western Massachusetts/Pioneer Valley region (wow, I didn't realize that this area had so many names for about identity politics.  No wonder why living in this region comes with so many challenges) would be synonymous with affirming culture.

This past Friday, I accompanied several of my closest friends to a late night showing of the first 22 chapters of R. Kelly's project.  Though apprehensive from the moment that I found out that Amherst Cinema was going to be screening this, I had a great time!  Yes, I still find the stock characters, heightened stereotypes, and how tropes are confronted in this endeavor are problematic.  However, it was one of the first times that I felt as if I could enjoy myself in a public place in the "valley."

The experience was filled with everything you typically wouldn't find happening in a theatre like Amherst Cinema, I think, anywhere in the country whether its in the city or the country (region does play an important role in participating in a live entertainment experience).  There are norms and implied rules that are to be followed when you attend a film at Amherst Cinema or any art house in the country.  Cell phones are to be turned off, talking with your neighbor is prohibited, and everyone must stay in their self-selected seat for the duration of the movie with the exception of answering the occasional (and sometimes disruptive - for both you and other audience members) call of nature.  All of these rules went out the window that night!  We were asked to dance to the three music videos that were played prior to the feature of the evening, cell phones were out for the duration of the screening with people either taking photos of themselves and others dancing and singing the familiar lyrics or capturing footage from the film, and there was talking among groups of people during the film either serving a forecast of the outcome of the various plot lines or yelling at the screen, communicating the distaste for a choice made by one of the characters.  A regular at Amherst Cinema, it felt so nice to be able to really enjoy the film and the experience rather than worry about whether or not my neighbor is policing my friends and I to ensure that we don't ruin the movie for them.

I've been very outspoken since Trapped in the Closet premiered in 2005 about how problematic it is.  I'm going to admit that I'm a little bit of a bigot because guess what, I am proud to say that I've seen all 22 chapters multiple times (watching it got me through time that I was trapped at home - pun intended - with a severe injury that kept me off of my feet for months).  As a scholar and critic, I can talk to the cows come home and pigs fly about what this project does to amplify stereotypes rather than challenge them.  But, the spectator in me found Trapped in the Closet to be extremely entertaining for the fact that, despite the problematic stereotypes and tropes, I was able to relate to many of the characters and their experiences given that (though heightened) I know someone who recently got out of prison, have had numerous nosy neighbors, engage in gossip about the town harlot every once in a while, and have encouraged someone to follow the call when the doors of the church opened.

R. Kelly was on to something when he created Trapped in the Closet.  Who would have known that watching it at Amherst Cinema while in the company of mostly undergraduate students from Amherst College who identify as people of color would reaffirm that my experience in the body I embody is valid, even if the representations are troublesome?!  This experience provided me with the comfort and relief that I needed after an extremely stressful week and reassured me that I really need to be around "my people" every once in a while.

I'd like to swallow my pride and words utter many weeks ago that Trapped in the Closet has not earned the status of being labelled a "masterpiece" and cultural phenom.  Hell, South Park parodied it in an episode several seasons ago.  Didn't I declare that once Sesame Street or South Park has parodied you that you've marked your importance in U.S. Culture?  Congratulations, R. Kelly!  You have and will continue to rise beyond your "piss on you" days.  Continue on and prosper.  Now, onto seeing what awaits us in the next 11 chapters of Trapped in the Closet.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dear Detroit: Hello, My Friend!

A photo of the city I call "home."

Detroit, my hometown, is in this "interesting" moment of both standstill and motion.  While the city, as a whole, is collapsing, there are small pockets in the city that are undergoing rejuvenation, thanks to gentrification (BTW, I don't think that all gentrification is bad, especially if it is happening in abandoned neighborhoods like many of the projects that are currently happening in Detroit).  The largest municipality to file bankruptcy in the history of American debt, you can find stories about Detroit's recent filing everywhere in the news.  From Time to The Economist and even Detroit's own newspapers, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, everyone's getting their bite of the story and offering their own interpretation. 

In all honesty, Detroit, at least in the neighborhoods, has been recreating itself for decades.  From the Heidelberg Project to the recent increase in film production tax credits, Detroiters have been invested in creating a new industry and newer, more sustainable sources of income since the auto industry departed many decades ago (I think that the Big 3 slowly started to strip away from us even before I was born).  Detroiters doing it for themselves is not a new concept.  It's just now making headlines because the city government is now getting called out for it's insensible and irresponsible practices over the past 30+ years.

For those who know me best, you know that I "call out" my city all of the time for mistakes and bad decisions.  Hell, isn't that what we do for the ones we love?!  

One way to call out my city is to embrace the things that I love about it.  A couple of days ago, I spotted a list entitled "32 Signs You Grew Up in the Metro Detroit Area" and found that I could not connect to anything on that list.  In response to that list, I've compiled this list of things that are special about Detroit.  You can interpret it how you like.  It can either be "you know you're from Detroit when" or "you're in love with the city if you've done five or more of these things."  For me, I claim this list to be "you can't claim Detroit as home until you've done at least 4 of the following."  For those who have lived in Detroit, were born in Detroit, or have visited Detroit more than once, which ones have you done?  For those who haven't visited Detroit before or lately, make sure you choose a handful of these and make time to do them while you're in town.

  1. Enjoyed a casual drive down Jefferson Avenue
  2. Attended a wedding on Belle Isle  
  3. Ordering a Hot-n-Ready from Little Caesars
  4. Never been able to get a table at Slow's BBQ
  5. Planned a trip to camp out at the Thanksgiving Day Parade
  6. Remembered when Macy's was Hudsons 
  7. Sang karaoke at Temple Bar
  8. Remembers Tubby's Submarines
  9. Remembers the Boblo boat
  10. Reps Vernors like you were hired as the product's spokesperson
  11. Had to decide between grabbing a coney dog at Lafayette or American 
  12. Attended a festival in Hart Plaza, yes even attending the UniverSoul Circus counts
  13. Either attended or watched the Dream Cruise on television
  14. Rooted for the Lions despite never bringing home a championship trophy
  15. When the Tigers' home was on Michigan and Trumbull
  16. Ate a sack of White Castle burgers
  17. Remembers, attended, or marched in the Broadstreet Parade
  18. Remembers the marching bands of King, Cody, Cass Tech, Cooley, Central, and Mackenzie High Schools (please let me know if I'm missing any) 
  19. Taken either a Checker or City Cab anywhere in the city
  20. Played an arcade game when you waited for your food at a Coney Island (this is a special shout out to my dad)
  21. Hung out at Northland, Eastland, or Fairlane Malls either on the weekends or skipped school
  22. Went to the Michigan State Fair and spent about $50 on a family of 3 (including admission and parking) prior to even stepping foot past the gate
  23. Visit the Detroit Institute of Arts and spend most of your trip in Rivera Court (FYI:  for all residents of Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland County, due to a recently passed mileage, you get into the museum for free!  Take advantage of it!) 
  24. Get excited about riding the Detroit Zoo train
  25. Keep tabs on the meterperson (I have no idea what the proper name of this job is) in Midtown/Cass Corridor/Wayne State University area or Downtown to make sure that your car doesn't get a ticket
  26. Spend an evening at one of the casinos and don't spend any money
  27. Watch the fireworks either on television from home or along the riverfront
  28. Cannot recall when Carmen Harlan or Chuck Gaidica started their news broadcast careers
  29. Remember when Bill Bonds was on Channel 7 News
  30. Saw an episode of Kelly and Company 
  31. Danced in their living rooms to an episode of The New Dance Show or The Scene (now, y'all must also remember the dude who wore fishnet shirts on The New Dance Show!  He had one in every color of the neon rainbow!  "Don't hurt 'em!") 
  32. Shopped at a store in the Fisher Building or the Guardian building 
  33. Detroiters, please feel free to add your own!*******
For those who are current Detroit residents and are concerned about the state of the city, do at least one thing on this list.  At least, it will keep you engaged with others in the city and (even in a small way) participate in local commerce.  Trust me, that 50 cents on the People Mover or buying a small bag of Hot Better Made Potato Chips will go a long way.  Support your own!  For people who are vying Detroit as their future home, please consider how you engage with the city.  Think about where you will invest your money, both in a home and in commerce (shopping in the suburbs doesn't count).  Get to know your (future) neighbors.  Really consider where you're moving.  For those who are visiting Detroit, venture the city a little bit.  Don't let the (somewhat fabled) crime statistics keep you locked up in your hotel room near the airport.  Visit one of the historic neighborhoods, like Boston Edison or Grandmont-Rosedale, and enjoy its beautiful, breath-taking homes.  BTW, Grandmont-Rosedale is filled with people who love and adore their neighborhood.    

Though I may have rambled a lot, trust that what I've said here comes from an honest and loving place.  But, for those who may doubt what I have to say (especially since I don't live there now) and may want to dispute how I said it, know that I have love for my city and have faith in every bone of my body that it will recreate itself.  It doesn't have to wait for a "savior" (we see what's happening with the Emergency Manager).  We don't even have to save ourselves for we never perished.  For those of you who doubt Detroit, it's your loss.  For those who still believe, thank you!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Americans Abroad: An Online Film Festival

WOW!  It's been a while since I've blogged.  Try March...many months ago.  I'm sorry that I was away for so long.  With full-time work and graduate school, I got lost in all of those obligations.  With summer upon us and plenty of time for me as I am not working as much, I will have more time to blog and I am very much looking forward to that.

Here's the first blog post of the series entitled "Online Film Festivals Curated by Me."

 Americans' experiences abroad and its discontent.  I've always wanted to write on this very subject for there's a bountiful list of films that deal with this topic, especially films that I've viewed recently.  Do you find it highly ironic that many of the films that have made this list are recent Woody Allen films?!

I became interested in this topic when I first saw Julie Delpy's film 2 Days in Paris.  Out of his element, Julie's boyfriend Jack (played by Adam Goldberg), who is from the U.S., was tested throughout his entire trip abroad.  Though I loved the film, it made me really uncomfortable (yet intrigued) watching Jack feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar settings.  From a visit with Julie's parents to an outing at Julie's father's art gallery opening, Jack was put on display regularly given his naivety and unwillingness to learn new things and appreciate diversity.  His masculinity was tested as well, given that there's a lingering stereotype about both American and European men, one being more feminine than the other.

After watching this film, I became interested in other films where other Americans travel to unfamiliar territory.  Interestingly enough, it was very easy to find other films on this topic, with many of the films made in the late 2000s to early 2010s.

Here's a list of suggested films to view that are related to the theme of Americans Abroad:

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, dir. Woody Allen, 2008, United States

A romantic comedy/drama written and directed by Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona centers on two women, Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson) during their trip to Spain.  Both women become smitten with Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem), an artist whose still madly in love with his ex-wife Maria Elena (played by Bardem's real-life wife Penelope Cruz; they weren't married at the time of production for the film).  This film is perfect for the list because we get to see two very different perspectives on traveling abroad through two very different experiences.  Vicky, whose a graduate student studying Catalan identity and an engaged woman, approaches her experience in Spain completely different from that of Cristina, a single woman whose open and excited to explore new things and meet new people.  Vicky's practicality and conservative attitude don't shield her from what she ends up experiencing.  Which character do you think would have the most enriching, life-changing, eye-opening experience:  Vicky or Cristina?

Midnight in Paris, dir. Woody Allen, 2011, Spain/United States

The only fantasy film on this list, Midnight in Paris stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, an unfulfilled, unhappy Hollywood screenwriter whose preparing to marry his fiancee, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) and finish writing his first novel.  The film takes us to the beginning of Gil's (dreaded) trip to France with Inez and her parents.  Once he stumbles upon a 1920s Peugeot Type 176 car and some of his favorite writers from that era, Gil's life is transformed (or so we think...again, I'm not trying to give the movie away).

To Rome with Love, dir. Woody Allen, 2012, United States/Italy/Spain

To Rome with Love was filled with multiple storylines but the two most relevant to this list of films is the one dealing with Hayley (played by Alison Pill) and John (played by Alec Baldwin).  Though I do not want to give away the film, I want to recommend paying close attention to John's story arc, especially given that it quickly becomes about Jack (played by Jesse Eisenberg).  Director Woody Allen makes an appearance in the film as Hayley's father, Jerry.  A refreshing role for Allen, this character possesses the many nuisances and quirks that we've come to love about Allen in real life.  However, it is laced with uncomfortability in the unfamiliar.

2 Days in Paris, dir. Julie Delpy, 2007, France/Germany

There is so much to love about 2 Days in Paris!  Where shall I begin?  First off, this film is on several lists of mine including the "constantly remind my friends to watch this film and call me immediately after viewing it and then recommend it to others" list.  The relevant fact about this film that is applicable to this particular list is the evolution or deconstruction of Jack, a character played by actor Adam Goldberg.  Jack, Marion's boyfriend, is traveling abroad for the first time.  He feels out of sorts.  Jack is put in many situations where both his "manhood" and patience are tested.  I do not want to give the film away (given that I am recommending it on this list), but this non-traditional romantic comedy (it has an unpredictable ending) is intriguing in that it puts a male character, a figure who tends to be the shining hero with no flaws in most films, in some very unsettling situations, some that I think might have been unfair to the actor playing the role (there's some gossip that Adam Goldberg not only didn't appreciate his character in 2 Days in Paris, but when asked to reunite with Delpy for the remake, he declined).  

The Darjeeling Limited, dir. Wes Anderson, 2007, United States

This is a film that I haven't watched yet, so we'll be watching it together!  From what I've gathered in the synoposis for the film available on it's IMDB page, The Darjeeling Limited should definitely be on this list.  Here's what IMDB offered as a brief synopsis for the film:  "One year after their father's funeral, three brothers travel across India by train in an attempt to bond with one another."  The film stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman.  From the title (Darjeeling, a town in the Indian state of West Bengal, is famous for its tea industry...let's hope that I don't hear too many references to tea and Indians - insert face palm), poster, and cast list alone, I think this movie might get "high ratings" on the American Exceptionist scale.  But, honestly, I want to be proven wrong with this film.  Adapting one of my favorite lines from the film Warm Bodies:  "don't be stupid, don't be stupid, don't be stupid!"  I don't like to presume anything, but these days with cultural products, I can set my expectation's bar pretty low.

19 Kids and Counting:  Duggars Do Asia

This last selection happens to be a reality television series.  Airing on TLC, 19 Kids and Counting has moved its 10th season to Asia.  The family was invited abroad for a handful of interviews and television appearances.  I've had an opportunity to watch one episode from this current season and I must say that it sums up pretty much everything that I have to say about Americans Abroad. 

Here's a couple of books (both fiction and nonfiction selections) on Americans Abroad that can be read alongside with viewing these films:
  1. Tsukioka, Dorian.  How to Travel Abroad Even If You Are a Stupid American:  10 Tips to Keep You From Disgracing Yourself or Your Country, 2013 (published by Amazon, this book is available digitally on Kindle)
  2. Vines, Carolyn E.  Black and Abroad: Traveling Beyond the Limitations of Identity.  2010
Visit Goodreads for their list of popular books on traveling abroad.

I hope that watching these films and reading these books together with friends and family will begin some interesting discussions.  Please feel free to share in the comments section on your experiences watching any of these films or readings any of these books.  I don't want to (re)present Americans as being ignorant, stupid, or selfish when traveling abroad, however, this is a theme that continues to come up in literature and film.  I definitely understand the "uncomfortability" that can come along with being amongst the "unfamiliar."  However, one can enjoy learning about the world around us and the beauty that is available to us when we step outside of our "familiar."

So, for those who are looking to travel abroad, remember, don't let your American Exceptionalism show, for we are guests in other people's homelands.  Be prepared to learn a lot.  Take on the scenery like you're from the area (i.e., do not rent limos or hire taxi services when you know that people in the area may not be able to afford it), try new foods, visit the non-touristy parts of the region.

Here's a couple of questions that I'd like to pose to everyone.  Please do not address these questions until after watching most (or all) of the films as it would be difficult to do so otherwise.  Are any of these characters your typical protagonist?  Do they experience significant change and if so, what is it? If there is not significant change, why do you think that is?

Next up:  Important and Influential Women Filmmakers - writers, directors, producers....oh my!!!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Online Film Festivals Curated by Me

I'm really excited for the next few blog posts!  One of my dream jobs is to work as a freelance film festival curator.  Instead of waiting for the opportunity to come my way, why not seize the moment now?!  I've decided to curate lists of films based on similar themes and topics, creating mini film festivals for people to enjoy at home with friends.  The only thing that I ask is that you rent or purchase these films rather than download them for free online.  As an artist, I respect the craft and the effort (both time, personal, and financial resources) that goes into producing these films.  To be fair, I will predominately recommend independent films rather than projects with large budgets and large recoups via the box office.

The themes I'm exploring includes:

  • Americans Abroad
  • Women Filmmakers
  • Black Love
  • Romantic Comedies that challenge the typical tropes of the genre
  • Documentaries
  • Fictional portrayals of important political figures and social movements
I will also recommend articles and books that you and your friends can read as educational enrichment, points of engagement beyond spectating, similar to offerings of in-person film festivals.

If you have topics that you'd like to recommend, please feel free to post a comment or e-mail me at

Thanks and I look forward to sharing these films with you!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Unchaining Tarantino

"I'm just a lil' more used to Americans than he is."
~Django (Django Unchained) in reference to Dr. Schultz (a German bounty hunter) who isn't used to humanity (or lack thereof) in the United States during pre-Civil War.

Ahh!  It feels so great to be back!  I was on hiatus for the past couple of months as I embarked on 1) transitioning jobs and 2) a hefty graduate school course load.

I hope that my readers can appreciate that my first blog post in some time would be on a topic that many people have already talked about.  What I have to say may be redundant and not adding anything new to the conversation.  I just hope that it offers a different perspective, a fresh pair of "eyes" to look at the situation at hand.  Of course, I'm going to speak on Quentin Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained.  I have to as I am a huge fan of his work!

Prior to seeing Django Unchained, I (re)watched Alex Haley's Roots.  All 20+ hours of it.  BET ran a marathon of Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generation (1979), Roots: The Gift (1988), and Queen (1993) right around the time of Django Unchained's release in theatres.  Roots was a television miniseries based on Alex Haley's book Roots:  The Saga of an American Family.  Tagged a biography, Haley's book was the result of researching seven generations of his familial lineage, tracing his ancestry back to Africa.  Both the book and the films have been acknowledged as "historically accurate." This is some of the smartest programming I've seen on BET!  While airing the Roots marathon, BET squeezed in Django Unchained commercials mixed in with commercials for their original programming.  I don't recall seeing too many commercials for products or other films.  Though I appreciated this programming, BET still didn't lock me in as a fan.  But, that's beside the point.  I viewed the miniseries on BET from Sunday through Tuesday (Christmas Day and the release date of Django Unchained).  Though I think that both projects have different missions, it was interesting to watch Roots prior to seeing Django Unchained.

This isn't the first time I've seen Roots.  The first time I watched it was in a packed elementary school auditorium with other third and fourth graders during the month of February aka Black History Month.  For school-aged children who grew up in a "embrace your Pan-Africanist" educational system like myself and other Detroit Public School graduates, you were reciting "Lift Every Voice and Sing" prior to writing in cursive.  We watched all 12 hours or so of the television miniseries (available on VHS at that time) in the duration of a month in the forum of occasional weekly assemblies.  This was my introduction to this tragic yet influential time in U.S. History.  I remember asking a lot of unanswered questions.  I remember lacking sleep because of all of the nightmares that I was having replaying various scenes in my vivid memory.

Many years later, my brother (who is significantly younger than I am) watched Roots in school, getting the same introduction to this period in history.  I remember my parents calling me, sharing with me the news that my brother "hated white people" after watching Roots. There's a reason why both my brother and I had negative experiences watching Roots.  There was no context.  Our teachers just stuck us in front of the television without giving us any background information, without any notion that 1) this miniseries reflects a moment in history; 2) our country has changed and evolved since the time reflected in the film and that many of the actions committed in Roots are now against the law and deemed morally wrong; 3) it was a film and depictions sometimes go overboard for shock value.

Fast forward to 2012.  I'm quite a bit older and have a substantial amount of knowledge under my belt with regards to the Middle Passage, the industry born out of slavery, the numerous human rights movements that emerged to free enslaved Africans in the Americas, film narratives, and the commercial industry of filmmaking.  All with interests in capital gain, one must be versed in a good chunk of these topics to understand and appreciate the worlds in which both projects (Roots and Django Unchained) exist.

I would like to commend the artists that worked on both projects for taking depictions of slavery is such a daunting task.  I'm going to be honest, as an artist, I don't want to touch anything as controversial as slavery or even the use of the N-word (even though most of my work deems on the side of offense to some).  Yet, as these topics continue to incite rage and heated debates, with both extreme conservatives and extreme liberals fighting for the title of "I'm right," 

I have so many points to begin conversation on this film.  Below is not a list of reasons why I liked the film but topics to begin a discussion about the film and why it's receiving so much attention:
  1. It is a very long movie.  However, to me, it didn't feel like a long movie.  Thinking about other recent films I've seen, they are overridden with overdone spectacle.  In Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn't underscore the dialogue with music.  The dialogue stands on it's own.  I've read multiple posts that say that Tarantino could have easily shaved off 45 minutes from this film.  I could easily say that about his earlier work.  With this film, I think that Tarantino is beginning to really master the art of dialogue and holding his audience's attention for long periods of time without us questioning his rationale.
  2. Though this film was extremely violent, the blood was over the top.  I hope that my readership would agree with me that though the overuse of blood was unsettling, it was more appetizing to the eyes to see cartoonish blood.  I've read in previous interviews with Tarantino that he dislikes guns and a lot of violence, yet he makes violent movies.  I actually use a lot of guns in my work.  In my award-winning play get (t)his, you would see about 6 guns....all within 10 minutes!  I use guns in my work as an extension of the self, as many people do in reality.  I absolutely hate guns and would like more done with gun control in this country.  However, I know that guns provide many families a sustainable living (i.e., hunters).  But, I think that what guns and gun usage has become in the U.S. is ridiculous.  As an artist/writer, I use a lot of violence as a critique of the reality.  Maybe Tarantino is attempting the same thing.  I don't think this question has ever come his way.
  3. A black female actor got to play a damsel in distress.  Yes, Kerry Washington had maybe 10 words in the film.  However, she got to play a role that's normally assigned to white actresses.  This made me smile a lot.  Black women don't have to be the "mule" or "work horse" or breaking through the glass ceiling all the time.
  4. Kerry Washington's character is multilingual, which is a privilege in itself.  If you've seen the miniseries Roots or Queen, there were many conversations about limiting access for blacks by not teaching them how to read.  Though reading and speaking are two different forms of communication, to know that Tarantino allowed for one of his characters to have multiple modes to communicate is definitely revisionist.  But, however Tarantino is trying to change history, this is an important point of conversation to talk about how history unfolded and how it may have led us to our own feelings about literary and education in communities of color. 
  5. Yes, Kerry Washington's character only has about 10 words in the entire film and ensures severely violent punishment (i.e., the hot box, whipping, etc).  However, these forms of punishment were dramatized (or lack thereof...a lot, we didn't see onscreen or completely played out) because Washington's character attempted to escape the plantation multiple times.  She is rebellious.  That's having agency within itself.
  6. Christoph Waltz's character's consciousness.  Does this stem from the fact that he's not American?
  7. An enslaved black man with some agency!  Django is really smart (see the quote above that opens up this post).  Though I wasn't that impressed with Jamie Foxx's performance, I really enjoyed watching his character unfold on screen.
  8. This is one of the best performances I've ever seen of Leonardo DiCaprio!  He played a spoiled, privileged brat.  This had to be a very difficult role to play.
  9. There was a black producer behind this film!  Reginald Hudlin, known for his work on the films House Party and Boomerang, on music videos, on BET, and Black Panther (the series based on the Marvel Comics character), was interviewed about working on the film.
  10. There was so much humor!  I can't remember when and if I laughed during Roots.  I'm not saying that I needed to laugh during Roots.  Laughter helps an audience to connect with the work, as my experience as a playwright and poet of difficult material has taught me.  However, it becomes easier to enjoy a film with difficult content if I had a moment to breathe.  I'm not saying that all times were not hard for enslaved people but damn.  This leads me to the conversation on Roots as a victimization film.  BTW, I think that people forgot how many times they used the N-word in Roots.  I'm about done with all of the commentary on Tarantino's use of the N-word in Django Unchained.  If he were to take out the word, he would be rewriting history.  Sometimes, being politically correct makes us ignorant.  Though I believe that Roots is a must-see, I do believe that there needs to be some dialogue around viewings of this miniseries series.
  11. This film is being coined as a love story.  When was the last time we saw a black couple at the head of a love story?  It is rare when I can see "my people" in a mainstream film falling in love and fighting for each other.  I see a lot of us fighting each other.
I really like what Tarantino is doing with the revenge narrative that he takes on in his latest films:  Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.  The oppressed assuming positions of the oppressor.  I'm not saying that it's right but who wouldn't want to get revenge on someone who has done them wrong?!  I know that I'd love to do that.

I also really appreciate that Tarantino has taken on the genre of alternative history, which has been a staple of science fiction and fantasy for sometime.  But, why alternative history?  Why the revenge narrative?  Why a spaghetti western?  Think about Complicating my love and admiration for Tarantino, is he abusing his privilege as a white male filmmaker with a lot of autonomy to insert his voice as a storyteller for narratives of marginalized people?  I think that all of his critics (whether for the love of his work or for all of the haters), it is time for us to tackle these questions rather than automatically bashing or swooning over his work.

Here's another point for conversation:  Even in watching the trailers for each of the projects, I noticed significant differences in the narrative.  Please view the trailers below and let's chat.  I realize that it might be unfair to compare a "biopic" to a spaghetti western, films that reflect the culture and worlds in which they were produced.  But, others have been doing it.  So, let's join that party!

The trailer for Roots (1977)

The trailer for Django Unchained (2012)

I have multiple issues with Roots. To my knowledge, the only black person working on the film behind the scenes was Alex Haley and being the author of the source material, there is no telling how much or how closely he worked on the project.  There's some debate as to whether Haley was able to trace that far back into his family history (remember, and DNA projects of today didn't exist in the 1960s/1970s).  There was also claim to his book being plagiarized.  I don't want to discredit Mr. Haley's work at all.  I just want to state the facts.

Also, my biggest issue with Roots was the narrative.  It was violence and sad black people all the time.  Everyone was a victim in this film!  And, though violent acts weren't depicted on screen, they were suggested and talked about immensely (i.e., Toby/Kunte Kinte having half of his foot cut off after an attempted escape).  I don't remember hearing anyone complain about the bare breasts or the use of the N-word or how black people were treated in this film or how white people were rendered as bad without a conscience in Roots because "it's the truth."  I'm sorry but I am an informed spectator who will question every supposed "biopic."  And, I hope that members of my readership would as well.

The other "beef" that I have with Roots is the spectator's interaction with the film.  Unlike Django Unchained, there was a time that Roots was readily available for home viewing.  It first aired on CBS in January of 1977 (Happy New Year to families of that time period!).  For many families (I know mine was one of them at a time), there was only one television in the household.  Whatever was on that TV, if you were interested in watching something, it had to be what the head of the household was watching at that given time.  Considering the viewership of Roots during its first airing (quoting the Wikipedia entry for Roots:  "the finale still stands as the third-highest rated U.S. television program ever"), I'm guessing that many heads of households watched some portion of Roots during its eight-day airing schedule.

I do think that Roots is an important film and that everyone should see some points of it at some time, but with some context and also ways to discuss the film after viewing it.  Roots serves as a great point of entry for viewing other films about representations of chattel slavery and the Middle Passage.

Yes, I really enjoyed Django Unchained, aesthetically and for the dialogue starter.  When was the last time we talked about a film this much?!

What makes both of these films, especially Django Unchained, is how it gets us to talking about cultural production, the production of culture, and how race has shaped this country.  As a cultural critic, it is important for me to both write on culture and to facilitate/encourage conversations on culture.  We define culture.  How will culture change unless we're the change agents?

As spectators/film consumers, we can enjoy or dislike these films or anything that we watch.  I'm ready to listen and digest opinions about Tarantino's work, Django Unchained in particular, from people who hate this work.  However, I'm not willing to have a conversation with anyone regarding this film and any other films about slavery if the following issues are not considered:  just because someone is white doesn't mean that they can't contribute artistic responses about and on the black experience in the Americas, rendering art about negative experiences in our history isn't necessary because we shouldn't talk about them, and deeming one film/novel/slave narrative as an authentic account on slavery while dismissing others just because of its author.  So, before we lynch or chain Tarantino to higher artistic expectations, please become aware of other representations of slavery.  Don't just depend on our usual suspects to tell this story nor hold one artist to a set of standards that you wouldn't hold against another.