Monday, April 30, 2018

American Hollow A Film By Rory Kennedy (Documentary)

Fade to White by Ishmael Reed - Feb 4, 2010 NYT Opinion

Fade to White By ISHMAEL REEDFEB. 4, 2010 

Oakland, Calif.

JUDGING from the mail I’ve received, the conversations I’ve had and all that I’ve read, the responses to “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” fall largely along racial lines.
Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father. The author Jill Nelson wrote: “I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest and black-people-hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths.” One black radio broadcaster said that he felt under psychological assault for two hours. So did I.

The blacks who are enraged by “Precious” have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more “middle-class white Americans” to his film.

Is the enthusiasm of such white audiences and awards committees based on their being comfortable with the stereotypes shown? Barbara Bush, the former first lady, not only hosted a screening of “Precious” but also wrote about it in Newsweek, saying: “There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets.” Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement assisted the movie’s distribution and its acceptance among her white fanbase, said, “None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible.”

Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families? Statistics tell us that it’s certainly no more prevalent among blacks than whites. The National Center for Victims of Crime notes: “Incest does not discriminate. It happens in families that are financially privileged, as well as those of low socio-economic status. It happens to those of all racial and ethnic descent, and to those of all religious traditions.”

Given the news media’s tendency to use scandals involving black men, both fictional and real, to create “teaching tools” about the treatment of women, it was inevitable that a black male character associated with incest would be used to begin some national discussion about the state of black families.

This use of movies and books to cast collective shame upon an entire community doesn’t happen with works about white dysfunctional families. It wasn’t done, for instance, with “Requiem for a Dream,” starring the great Ellen Burstyn, about a white family dealing with drug addiction, or with “The Kiss,” a memoir about incest — in that case, a relationship between a white father and his adult daughter.
Such stereotyping has led to calamities being visited on minority communities. I’ve suggested that the Newseum in Washington create a Hall of Shame, which would include the front pages of newspapers whose inflammatory coverage led to explosions of racial hatred. I’m thinking, among many others, of 1921’s Tulsa riot, which started with a rumor that a black man had assaulted a white woman, and resulted in the murder of 300 blacks.

Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans. Problems that members of the black underclass encounter are a result of their culture, their lack of personal responsibility.

It’s no surprise either that white critics — eight out of the nine comments used on the publicity Web site for “Precious” were from white men and women — maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.
Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme. D. W. Griffith produced a series of movies in which Chinese, Indians and blacks were lifted from savagery through assimilation. A more recent example of climbing out of the ghetto through assimilation is “Dangerous Minds,” where black and Latino students are rescued by a curriculum that doesn’t include a single black or Latino writer.

By the movie’s end, Precious may be pushing toward literacy. But she is jobless, saddled with two children, one of whom has Down syndrome, and she’s learned that she has AIDS.

Some redemption.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

John A. Williams: Ishmael Reed, The Man Who Defied the Formula

title: The Man Who Defied the Formula by Ishmael Reed
The writer who has been appointed the perennial leading black writer by establishment critics was celebrating his receiving a major award by having dinner with two novelists. The scene was Paris. And the other two black writers, who were as good as the recipient of the award, or possibly better, were toasting the writer and offering congratulations. I imagine that the champagne flowed and the tongues became loose. “I guess you found the formula,” one writer said to the recipient. This was probably said in jest, but the winner of the award took strong offense. One could even say violent.

The winning novel was an outstanding achievement, but one could see why it would receive the praise of the literary brokers. Ironically, some of its strongest supporters, who were thrilled by the novelist’s hit at black nationalism, were and are nationalists themselves. The black writer who is chosen as Diva, or Divus, always feels uneasy about the praise heaped upon him. Maybe that was the reason for the violent response from the celebrant. As my grandmother used to say, his conscience was whipping him.

Whatever formula is necessary to please establishment critics has eluded John A. Williams. I have said that he is the best pure African-American novelist of the last hundred years. My judgment isn't based upon a theory, but upon writing everyday for over forty years. Among world novelists, he is one of the most cosmopolitan. As novelist Cecil Brown says, “Although he gives the world an intimate view of the life of the black American, he is capable of taking the reader outside of America, too. In my favorite of his many novels, The Man Who Cried I Am, he presented the image of black men living abroad, outside the pressure of racist America. His fiction is always suspenseful, well researched, and dramatic. As a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction (covering every genre), he is our Alexander Dumas.”

He writes fiction and nonfiction with settings in Europe and Africa as well as in the United States. He has delivered these scenes with knowledge of place and with craft. But the word craftsman doesn’t quite fit him. He is like the specialists who were called in to restore a Victorian house I toured last year. The house had been plundered by modernists, and the specialists were summoned to recreate this majestic dwelling with painstaking detail. Williams is like those artists. He turns over every sentence and pays attention to every word.

And so why has the recognition bestowed upon inferior writers been denied Williams? I think it’s because African-American writers are judged by a different standard from that used to judge other American writers. While white poets and prose writers are congratulated for their formalistic skills, African-American writers are judged on the basis of their content.

The works of John A. Williams, the late John O. Killens and Amiri Baraka, though of artistic excellence, come on too strong for some. Are too political. This is nothing new. Ida B. Wells was told by an agent that she could make fifty dollars per night, a fortune in those days, lecturing, if she’d just avoid the subject of lynching. bell hooks says that her white feminist audiences become uncomfortable when she brings up the subject of race.

While writers from all traditions have written about politics, including Blake, Shelley, Milton and Byron, the middle-class academics and critics who rule American tastes adhere to the bogus notion that art and politics don’t mix, unless, of course, it’s their politics. This is why both Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth have been praised for bashing Black Studies, a bone of contention among the kind of white academics who write for publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education. Others receive high praise for underwriting the neo-conservative philosophy that black male behavior is the source of the United States’s social problems.

John Williams and his colleague John Killens could never play by these rules, could not adhere to this formula. Williams’s best-known novel, The Man Who Cried I Am, exposes a government plot to round up black leaders in case of a national emergency. Dismissed as paranoia and fiction at the time, it was revealed years later, by the Miami Herald, that such a plan existed under FEMA. This is not the only literary hornet’s nest that he has stirred.

Miscegephobia might be at the core of our national psychosis, and so the relationships explored in Williams's novels were bound to anger miscegephobes, even those who’ve built careers by showing up to every freedom picket line.

One critic has said that the media images of black men today are similar to those that arose during the Reconstruction period: buffoons and rascals.

The men who run the Pulitzers rewarded a novel that attributed primitive motives to Nat Turner, motives that are regularly satirized in Woody Allen movies. It was as though the novel’s admirers had put a rope around the neck of a black American icon and sent it smashing to the pavement. The author has even become a martyr to “political correctness,” when even white scholars said that he hadn’t done his homework.

Nobody can accuse John A. Williams of not doing his homework. He traveled to Europe in order to research Clifford’s Blues, a novel that revealed to us that black Americans were also victims in Hitler’s concentration camps. Thorough research is also evident in Captain Blackman, a novel that reminds us that blacks have fought valiantly in every war, even when the enemy was their fellow white soldier. But lest one regard him as an uncritical booster of black heroes and culture, his book exposing the sometimes careless and compromising lifestyle of Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a vehement response from the kind of people who rejoiced when it was revealed that Thomas Jefferson had fathered black children. Williams has been even-handed. He has never played favorites. He calls them as he sees them.

By creating excellent prose and poetry, Williams has gone into territory that most American writers dare not go. By exploring the underside of the American experience, the virulent racism, the insistence upon white supremacy, by setting the historical record straight, one that has been shrouded by deception and propaganda, his vision has often been unwelcome, but nobody can accuse John A. Williams of shying away from the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.

Ishmael Reed
April 16, 2003