Friday, May 16, 2008

Black and Tan Fantasy: A Review of "The Visitor"

Is it possible to exoticize a member of your own racial group? After catching a screening of “The Visitor” recently, I found myself wondering if this were possible. The Tom McCarthy film is about a dispirited academic who returns to the apartment he shared with his late wife to find a couple living there made up of a Senegalese woman, played by Danai Gurira, and a Syrian man, played by Haaz Sleiman.

At its core, the movie is about how the professor, who is white and nearing retirement, is rejuvenated by his encounter with the young, immigrant couple. But the professor’s personal growth was not at all my focus as I watched “The Visitor.” I was too taken with Gurira, with watching the beautiful, intricate jewelry that hung from her ears and the colorful garments that made her Snickers-colored skin look all the richer, to make the professor’s metamorphosis my first priority.

Watching “The Visitor” I was reminded of a scene from Toni Morrison’s novel Tar Baby. A light-skinned black model named Jadine is stunned by an African woman she sees while grocery shopping. She thinks:

“The vision itself was a woman much too tall. Under her long canary yellow dress Jadine knew there was too much hip, too much bust…, so why was she and everybody else in the store transfixed? The height? The skin like tar against the canary yellow dress...? She would deny it now, but along with everybody else in the market, Jadine gasped…Just a quick snatch of breath before that woman’s woman—that mother/sister/she; that unphotographable beauty—took it all away.”

Unlike Jadine, I’m not going to deny that I was mesmerized by “the vision” of a beautiful African woman, despite being African myself (I have a Nigerian father and an African American mother). After watching “The Visitor,” I’m still trying to process exactly why I had this reaction, and so far I’m pretty sure it’s due to a combination of factors. Firstly, I was struck by the simple appearance of an African woman in a film set in the West. It’s rare to see Africans on the silver screen in a setting outside of Africa, let alone see them not play characters who are victimized by war, AIDS or another atrocity. And even in films set in Africa, the women are usually relegated to the role of wife and, thus, never allowed full character development.

“The Visitor” turns this dynamic on its head to a degree. Yes, Zainab, the character Gurira plays, is a significant other. The movie mostly chronicles her love for her boyfriend, Tarek, but Zainab is developed in the sense that the audience knows about her passion—fashion—that she is introverted and cautious, yet capable of reaching out, that she’s not the type to bite her tongue when her boyfriend grates on her nerves and that she is annoyed by the customers who buy jewelry from her but have no clue about her homeland.

And while Zainab is a significant other, it’s important to note that she’s not a wife, but a love interest. The fact that she’s portrayed as sexually desirable is subversive simply because, as Morrison notes in Tar Baby, African women, mother/sister/she women, the genuine article, if you will, is not supposed to be desired. Such women are supposed to be “unphotographable.” So, yes, seeing the dark-skinned Gurira, with less than an inch of hair on her head, portrayed as anyone’s love interest, especially the love interest of a non-African man, challenges all sorts of cultural norms.

Interestingly enough, though, McCarthy doesn’t make a huge deal of the interracial romance between Zainab and Tarek, both of whom are Muslims. The most attention given to the interracial pairing is during a scene in which Tarek’s mother meets Zainab for the first time and is surprised that she is black and “very black” at that, but that is all. The mother’s only objection, and it is an implied objection, about Zainab’s relationship with her son is that the two were living together, a religious no-no. Overall, the characters’ Muslim background and immigrant status seem to outweigh their racial differences. And, in a post-9/11 world, a world in which the fact that Barack Obama’s estranged father was born into a Muslim family is a liability, it’s definitely refreshing to see Muslims shown as three-dimensional, loving people. It’s also refreshing to see McCarthy challenge the trend of depicting interracial couples as if they are exclusively made up of one white and one non-white person.

That said, “The Visitor” is by no means perfect. A cogent argument can be made that its immigrant characters function solely to bring about the white professor’s personal transformation. But the ground the film breaks throughout more than compensates for this. So, if you haven’t already, catch a screening of “The Visitor.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm Colson Whitehead's Newest Convert

I love me some Colson Whitehead! Okay, so that's not quite true. I never read any Whitehead until today when the New York Times ran an editorial of his called "Visible Man," a shout out to Ellison's Invisible Man. The piece pretty much wraps up everything I've wanted to say about the "elite" charges leveled against Sen. Barack Obama.

I knew the accusations of elitism were factually wrong. For one, Obama attended a private high school on scholarship and was raised, in part, in a single-parent home, but Whitehead goes beyond the facts of the matter to shed light on the insidious origins of the elite claims.

In a nutshell, to say that those blacks who managed to get a college degree and pave out a career in the face of racist psychological warfare designed to convince us that we should be dead, unwed, on welfare, strung out or in jail got where we are because we're black is absof__kinglutely ridiculous!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Goodbye "South of Nowhere": A Tribute

In late 2005, I was visiting my Aunt Joan in Chicago. The visit pretty much entailed me trying to avoid the cold and, thus, spending much time with her remote in hand, flipping through the gazillion channels offered by her Satellite provider. One day I stumbled across a network called The N and was thrilled to find out that the MTV subsidiary ran repeats of shows like “Degrassi Junior High” and “My So-Called Life.”

As I relived my youth by watching The N, I discovered a new show the network was promoting called “South of Nowhere.” I was instantly hooked. Now, I’m bummed to find out that The N is canceling the show, which is in its third season. “SoN,” as it is called by fans, was groundbreaking in many ways. It chronicled a high school girl’s budding awareness that she is a lesbian and the reactions that her classmates and conservative Catholic family have to that realization. Yes, the girl, Spencer Carlin, is hot and her love interest is even hotter, but the relationship they have isn’t depicted in an exploitative way. My only real criticism of the relationship is that the actresses don’t have much onscreen chemistry.

As Spencer begins to accept her sexual identity, her adopted black brother, Clay, struggles with his racial identity. I loved that the adoptee character wasn’t added to be gimmicky, i.e. Natalie Portman’s brother in “Garden State” and the black, deaf, gay love interest of a character in “The Family Stone.” Instead, there’s genuine exploration of how growing up in a white family shaped Clay’s perceptions of race, which make him vulnerable as a black teen in Los Angeles (the Carlins are Ohio transplants), and the stereotypes that he has of other blacks, like his street-savvy classmate Sean Miller.

I admit that while watching the show I fell a bit in love with Sean (hey, in real life he’s in his late 20s). But I digress. Sean is a character rarely seen on film and television. He’s a black, inner-city youth who can effortlessly dissect Poe’s “Tell-tale Heart” and spends his free time watching Wong Kar-wai films. He can be a bit intimidating at first but, as others get to know him, they find that he is sensitive, listens well and gives great advice. Oh, and did I mention that this guy regularly attends church with his grandmother? We just don’t find these kinds of young African American characters depicted on television—three dimensional, well-read and nonconformist.

Clay’s love interest, Chelsea, the first black girl he’s ever dated, is just as unconventional of a black Hollywood character. She’s covered in tattoos, has a bohemian style and is bent on going abroad to study art.

Even the head cheerleader at the school is not what one would expect. Rather than being a skinny blonde, she’s a shapely Latina named Madison. Portrayed as unbearably bitchy at first, Madison’s character deepens as the series progresses.

While there’s more development of characters like Madison in the second and third seasons of “SoN,” the show took a turn for the worst in that its plotlines began to mirror those of prototypical teenage dramas. The characters all begin to sleep with each other. Long-lost relatives emerge from nowhere. There’s an unexpected pregnancy and two unexpected deaths, one of which results in a character finding herself filthy rich.

Due to these storylines, not to mention sometimes underwhelming acting, I realize that maybe it was time for “SoN” to retire before its original, groundbreaking vision was tainted. Still, I’ll miss seeing how the show’s characters grow. If you like, view an episode of “SoN” here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's Baaack: Sweet Valley High Redux

Years ago my mother was an avid reader of the Harlequin Romance series, while I read what some would view as the young adult version of those books—Sweet Valley High. From about fourth through sixth grade, I was obsessed with the central characters of the series, a pair of blond, blue-eyed Southern California twins named Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Now, I’ve learned that the books, first published about 25 years ago, are back. The series has been updated to include references to contemporary technology, such as email, the Internet and cell phones. But the most controversial change is that the Wakefield sisters will now be a Size 4 instead of a Size 6. The downsizing of the girls’ much touted tan frames has sparked debates on, as well as at the Dairi Burger site, a blog named after fictitious Sweet Valley’s favorite teen hotspot.

I’ve been unsettled to read comments from visitors to these sites who say that the Sweet Valley series is to blame for their development of eating disorders. The readers say that the books ingrained in them the notion that Size 6 was the ideal. This isn’t surprising because, in each book in the series, the twins’ size and height (5 feet 6) are emphasized. What I’ve forgotten in adulthood, however, is that the books actually contain character after character with dietary habits that fall under the umbrella of bulimia or anorexia. One mother’s use of diet pills during pregnancy is responsible for her daughter being born deaf. And characters constantly criticize each other for doing things like eating full plates of food or looking fat in their jeans. Those who aren’t thin are almost always viewed as being impaired, if not downright sub-human.

Wrote one visitor to the Dairi Burger Web site:

“Here I was, thinking I was the only one who developed an eating disorder after reading SVH. This is fucking hilarious!”

From reading the site’s revisionist retellings of the books, not only does the Sweet Valley High series promote dysfunctional eating, they are also filled with episodes of attempted rape and sexual abuse that are completely forgotten about later. As if that weren’t enough, the books are filled with classist/racist/heterosexist rhetoric.

“I don’t know how she can date him,” a character says about a classmate who is dating a Latino student. “He’s so ethnic and working class.”

WTF? I know that Sweet Valley High got its start in the 1980s, but I’m still shocked that this line made it past the editors.

Later, the series explores the romantic relationship of the twins’ older brother, Steven, and the one black girl in town. In the end, however, Steven and the girl decide that there is no real chemistry between them and ultimately end up—where society dictates they should be—with their own “kinds.” Seems they were only together to make a social statement. What an enlightening commentary on why people enter interracial relationships. They do so to rebel, not because they actually care about each other.

In addition to the lone black girl in town, there is a Latina who passes for white. So ashamed is she of her Mexican heritage that she tells her white friends that her grandmother is her cleaning lady. This sounds like it was lifted straight out of the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.” Anyway, the character ends up revealing her heritage after she is forced to speak Spanish in a life or death situation. Not to worry, though, her friends tell her that they will overlook the fact that she’s a Mexican.

The treatment of sexual orientation in the Sweet Valley series isn’t much better than the treatment of race, as the blogger over at Dairi Burger observes with delicious snarkiness.

“Enid’s cousin Jake comes to visit, and everybody loves him, and Jess and Lila try to get with him. And Tom plays tennis with him and when he is with him, he feels warm and fuzzy …down there. Alas, Jake is GAY!!!! I didn’t think that gays existed in Sweet Valley. Or were allowed to set foot in the town. Enid is a big ol’ homophobe when Jake tells her and Tom gets all weird when he finds out because BAM! suddenly he realizes he is gay.”

God knows what effect this drivel, albeit very entertaining drivel, had on my 10-year-old brain. But the question now isn’t so much about those of us who survived Sweet Valley High when we were little, it's about the tween girls who will find themselves subject to its messages this time around. Can we expect a new crop of girls to take up bingeing and purging after their initiation into the series, where Size 4 is now the standard of beauty? And how will the new generation of readers counteract the suggestions about the superiority of blue eyes, that it’s only natural for guys to want to date rape their attractive classmates and that anyone who is queer or of color is destined for a life in the margins? Seems to me these books need to contain updates that address more than technological advances. They also need to reflect the advances that have been made in the realms of race, class and gender.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Remembering Brandon Bruce Lee (February 1, 1965-March 31, 1993) 15 Years Later

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”- Matthew 5:4

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Brandon Lee’s death. If you recall, Lee died while filming “The Crow” in Wilmington, N.C. During a scene in which his character, Eric Draven, was supposed to be shot and killed, Lee himself met his demise when a prop gun that was supposed to fire blanks discharged the tip of a .44 caliber bullet, due to a mishap involving a dummy cartridge. The bullet pierced Lee’s abdomen and damaged his internal organs, eventually settling in his spine. Despite surgery to save him, Lee died of internal injuries, blood loss and heart failure.

Following Lee’s tragic and senseless death, Edward R. Pressman, co-producer of “The Crow,” told Entertainment Weekly that he hoped the loss of Lee would become “less interesting than the movie itself. The point is not to remind people of the tragedy.”

Fifteen years later, however, it’s impossible to watch “The Crow” without being reminded of Lee’s death. For one, the tragedy changed the direction of the film—about a rock musician who rises from the dead to avenge his murder and his fiancée’s with help from a crow.

“It became about how you deal with grief,” film makeup artist Lance Anderson told Entertainment Weekly after Lee’s death. “What happens when someone you love is taken from you? How do you incorporate that into your life?"

Ernie Hudson, Lee’s costar, agreed. He told Entertainment Weekly that the film shifted from being a dark, vengeful tale into “a really nice, beautiful love story” following Lee’s death.

The tenderness that can be found in an otherwise dark film—more than two dozen murders take place amidst a dreary, industrial setting—isn’t the only reason Lee’s death comes to mind. There’s also the fact that Lee’s life so mirrored his character’s. Like Eric Draven, Lee was supposed to wed just days after the fatal mishap.

James O’Barr, creator of “The Crow” comic book the film was based on, noted this parallel in an interview. “And the fact that he was about to get married, and the fact that his fiancée, Eliza, was with him all the time, that perfected that image of Eric and Shelly I had in the book,” O’Barr said.

More than anything, though, it is Lee’s breakthrough performance in the film that seemingly most upsets fans about his death because we’ll never get to know how his acting would have advanced. I’ve watched a few of Lee’s earlier films—“Legacy of Rage,” “Showdown in Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire.” In none of these films do we get even a glimmer of the talent that Lee exhibits in “The Crow.” In Hong Kong film “Legacy of Rage,” we get a cute, boyish Brandon, but, because of the film’s poor quality and the fact that his voice is dubbed, it’s difficult for the viewer to get a real sense of Lee in the film. In “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” a gratuitously violent and misogynistic film, Lee is limited to being Dolph Lundgren’s sidekick. He’s on the sidelines as Lundgren saves the day and gets the girl. As if that weren’t emasculating enough, Lee’s character actually has to compliment Lundgren on the size of his manhood. “In Rapid Fire,” Lee is somewhat redeemed. It is he who gets the girl and saves the day, showing flashes of charisma. Unfortunately, his acting in the film is pretty cardboard.

In “The Crow” that changes for the Emerson College theater major. Unlike his earlier films, “The Crow” is in no way dependent on martial arts and is a step up from conventional vengeance tales in that it is filled with literary references—from the Bible to Paradise Lost to "The Raven." There’s also a wonderful soundtrack and poignant score.

“I think Brandon would have been very, very proud of the movie. He is so good in this,” Hudson told Entertainment Weekly. “All of the (qualities) he had as a person come through.”

O’Barr credits Lee’s performance in the film with giving him a career boost. “Eventually I had to accept that Brandon was a huge part of my success because he was so faithful to the character—so much to the point that now I can’t even picture anyone else in that role,” O’Barr told an interviewer. “I guess that says a lot for his performance and his impact on me.”

The reason “The Crow” has had a cult following since its 1994 release is because Lee manages to give a performance in which he is at points mad, heartbroken, comical and enraged, sometimes simultaneously. He gives one-word responses that are devastatingly bittersweet, such as when Sarah, a little girl his character is friends with, asks if he is a clown and he answers, “Sometimes.” In that very brief instance, the viewer feels Eric Draven’s humor and sadness, alike. There are many moments in which Lee says nothing at all but gets his point across, such as when a group of children, donning makeup similar to what his character wears, passes by, and he laughs in a maniacal manner that somehow manages to highlight Eric Draven’s loneliness as well. “The Crow” is filled with such moments, which, remarkably, don’t appear staged. It feels, as his costar Ernie Hudson hinted at, that we’re getting the authentic Brandon Lee in the film.

My only theory as to why Lee excelled so at playing a grief-stricken avenger is that he had experienced the loss of his father, martial arts icon Bruce Lee, at a young age. Based on interviews Lee gave, the loss left him both heartbroken and furious. Lee’s impending marriage to Eliza Hutton also allowed him to experiment with how crazed he would feel if a group of thugs raped and murdered his fiancée, he said in interviews.

Because he so masterfully channeled his life experiences, “The Crow” is a touching study in grief. And, yet, it goes beyond grief. The end of the film suggests that love survives even death, just as Brandon Lee’s brilliant work has survived him in death, comforting one group of mournful filmgoers after another.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Separate But (Un)Equal in Israel

When former President Jimmy Carter released his book Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid, there was public outcry about his decision to use the word “apartheid” in relationship to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. I wonder if now some of his detractors will change their views on the subject. That’s because the Supreme Court of Israel has backed a two-tier road system for Israelis and Palestinians, leading the Association for Civil Rights there to say that the policy constitutes apartheid.

The New York Times quoted Limor Yehuda, who argued the recent case for the civil rights association on behalf of six Palestinian villages, the paper reported.

“There is already a separate legal system in the territories for Israelis and Palestinians,” Yehuda was quoted in the Times as saying. “With the approval of separate roads, if it becomes a widespread policy, then the word for it will be ‘apartheid.’ ”

The road that has prompted the two-tier highway idea is Highway 443, a thoroughfare to Jerusalem. Mostly built on private, Palestinian land, the highway is now almost exclusively used for Israelis due to security reasons. In recent years, Israelis traveling on the road have been the victims of drive-by shootings and stone-throwing attacks by Palestinians, according to the Israeli government.

But Israel and its supporters bristle at the notion that a two-tier road system would constitute apartheid. Meanwhile, Palestinians complain that lack of access to the road adversely affects their quality of life, making them feel caged. Read the story in full here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

L.A. Times Explores Gang Violence, Sort of

The ghetto sucks.

This should have been the title of a Los Angeles Times article printed today called “Living with Staggering Violence in South L.A.” because that’s just about the only point it makes.

The article was written in light of a shooting that happened just over a month ago at a bus stop at the intersection of Vernon and Central. It involved a 24-year-old man police have identified as a Four Trey Crip opening fire on two men climbing off of a bus. Only, the man missed his targets and ended up shooting eight bystanders, five of whom were schoolchildren.

No one was killed in the shooting but, in its wake, the reporter said that residents expect little to change. After a round of community meetings, more police patrolling the streets and calls for jobs programs, after-school programs and the like, attention to gang crime will fade and a new bout of violence will begin, wrote the reporter.

The problem with the article, though, is that it, too, offers no solutions. There’s no examination of previous efforts to curb gang violence and why they didn’t work. There’s no interviews with lawmakers about what their plans are to tackle the problem.

Instead, we get one stereotype after another about life in South Central.

Exhibit A: Today, South-Central is synonymous with urban blight.
Exhibit B: Much of the community is now a transient, threadbare tapestry of people whose common thread is poverty.

After uttering the same stereotypes we have heard about South Central for decades, the reporter goes on to quote neighborhood residents who are fed up with life in the hood, but the remarks they make are just as tired as his observations. A beauty salon owner is sick of painting over graffiti, and a pastor calls for a return to old-fashioned values. “You have people who live next door to somebody and don’t even know their names,” he says. “People have no respect anymore.”

Another resident says that the answer to life in South Central is to keep on going. “The strong survive,” he says. That cliché may be true, but it, like the article as whole, offers no guidance for stemming violence in the community.

To pad this relatively hollow article with some meat, the reporter writes a two paragraph history of South Central. Its gist? South L.A. didn’t always suck. The neighborhood was once a cultural epicenter—filled with restaurants, hotels and music centers—the left coast version of Harlem during its renaissance, the reporter writes. Thrown in with that history is a brief description of area gangs and the turfs they control.

And that’s all.

At the end of the article, all we really know is that life in South Central is tough, has been tough and will continue to be so. Despite providing very little new information about gang violence in South Central and proposed strategies to combat the problem, “Living with Staggering Violence in South L.A.” is one of the most read articles on the Times’ Web site today.

The article’s popularity brings to mind a blog entry Christian Lander of the Web site “Stuff White People Like” wrote on the topic of awareness. He believes awareness is the “process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else, like the government, will fix it.”

In this case, we have an article with no fixes that describes a problem no one has fixed. What was the point?