Black History Month: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures does its job well, telling the uplifting story of three trailblazing black women at NASA in the ’60s by showing some Obviously Racist Policies that the main characters Resist With Dignity until Good-at-Heart White People learn some Valuable Lessons and Civil Rights Are Won and Racism Defeated, all in Tasteful Period Costumes. Well, that’s a little bit how the movie works, and it’s no surprise that it does; if you’re going to get a major studio picture made about race in America, and pick up those Oscar nominations, you have to take the prestige approach. But what I liked best about this movie was that it doesn’t just stick to the template. There are wonderfully powerful and subversive moments throughout Hidden Figures.

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Black History Month: Black Panther

Some movies have such a build-up, and so many people’s expectations riding on them, that the chance of the actual movie living up to all that is slim. I remember when Bridesmaids came out, there was this huge push for people to go see it, because it was being used as a litmus test for whether big-budget woman-led comedies were viable (as you know, women aren’t funny, or at least, not as universally funny as men). And then the film itself was funny and fun, but maybe not the most mindblowing comedy you’ve ever seen. Still, after that we got Bad Moms and Girls Trip and some other big-budget women-led comedies, so maybe Hollywood decided it was worth all the fuss. If that’s the case, then they’d better listen up good to what everyone’s saying (in print and with their money) about the new Marvel movie, Black Panther: enough with all-white casts and the secondary black characters, give us more of this. Because it lives up to the hype. As my friend said after watching it, THE SHEER JOY.

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Black History Month: Dear White People

TV recommendations seem to be as popular a part of small talk as the weather and traffic patterns. People tend to recommend hour-long dramas, but what I want are 20- or 30-minute comedies, something funny, smart, and thoughtful. The Netflix series Dear White People, based on the movie of the same name, is all those things. If we’re talking and we’ve covered how rainy it’s been and how crowded the Tube is, expect me to bring up this show.

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Black History Month: The Wiz

Up until now, I’ve reviewed only movies with black directors, but I’m making an exception today because although Sidney Lumet directed The Wiz, it’s one of the few all-black musicals and was a big deal on its release in 1978. Transferred from the stage to the screen in what was then the most expensive musical production ever, the film was shot on location in New York and in studio space in Queens, and it starred Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Forty years after its release, the movie doesn’t stand out as one of the great musicals committed to film, but it does have many wonderful numbers and a great cast.
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Black History Month: I Am Not Your Negro

The screenwriting credit for I Am Not Your Negro is James Baldwin. This is quite the claim for director Raoul Peck to make, considering that he made this movie about Baldwin thirty years after the great writer’s death. Peck took words that Baldwin wrote, and clips of words he spoke, and wove a narrative about race in America, and what the future of the country might be on that front. I started watching this movie thinking it was a biopic on Baldwin, and found that instead it was a biopic on America.

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In speeches he gave at Cambridge and in France, in essays he published and personal letters he wrote to friends, Baldwin patiently explained just how deep the wounds of slavery are in the US, and how impossible it is to move forward on issues of true equality until those wounds are addressed.

One of the most striking moments in the film is when Baldwin is on a talk show and an old white man joins him onstage. He’s a professor of philosophy, and he comes out to decry the identity politics that he sees as becoming increasingly popular — why must we be so hung up on these issues of identity? Baldwin’s reply, that when your identity makes you a target for very real violence, that discussing political issues is always tinged with the personal because of what might happen to you personally, is piercing. It’s the answer to every #AllLivesMatter complaint.

Peck doesn’t shy from making explicit connections between the problems of Baldwin’s time and the problems of our time — because they’re the same problems, ones we as a nation refuse to face head-on. As Samuel L. Jackson reads words from Baldwin’s letters and essays, videos from the march on Selma and the protests in Ferguson play, and photos of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin flash on the screen.

The title of the film is a slight alteration of a James Baldwin quote from near the end of the film. As with so much of what he said and wrote, it’s a brilliant, difficult statement that we have to grapple with urgently. “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n***er in the first place, because I’m not a n***er,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a n***er, it means you need it… If I’m not a n***er and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

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Black History Month: The Black Panther Party — Vanguard of a Revolution

I never learned about the Black Panther Party in school, but whenever it was I did first hear about them, I remember thinking only, “They sound dangerous.” As I was a white girl from the suburbs, I suppose that’s not so surprising. After watching Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of a Revolution, I might even say I was half right. The Panthers were dangerous — dangerous to the system that made black urban life so hard, dangerous to the racist law enforcement officials who brutally kept the system in place, dangerous to the idea that the way things were was the way things had to be.

“We don’t hate nobody because of their color. We hate oppression. We hate murder of black people in our communities.”Bobby Seale, in an early speech

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Black History Month: Belle

I described Belle to a friend as “an 18th-century period piece interrogating race and class — with romance, and pretty dresses.” The poster alone sends a little jolt: here’s a typical Jane Austen adaptation-type poster, with a pretty young woman in a gorgeous dress, in a well-appointed room, hands demurely clasped in front of her, awaiting the man that will be a good match for her. But this pretty young woman isn’t white, as all the others in all the other posters are; she’s black.

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Black History Month: Visual Artists from the 1960s and ’70s

Today was so packed that I’m afraid I haven’t had time to write up anything new for this post, so let me point you back to another post on black artists that I really enjoyed writing and even more enjoyed researching: the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern from the autumn. It was one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. It highlighted artists from across the United States during the period of Black Power — Malcolm X, the Panthers, explicit resistance, self-protection, declarations of self-worth and ability, communal action. Black American visual artists from this time covered the spectrum from paintings to sculptures, abstract to meticulously detailed realist, purposely political to more personal explorations. Many of the issues of representation and artistic responsibility or freedom which were explored then resonate today. Take a look at the artists mentioned in that post and I’m sure you’ll find someone whose work speaks to you.

Black History Month: Lucille Clifton

In my writing classes in college, one of the poets I often tried to imitate was Lucille Clifton. She had the wonderful ability to use as few words as possible to convey an idea beautifully and completely — by many definitions, that is exactly what poetry is, but so often length, rhyme, form, and complex wordplay clutter it up. Not in Clifton’s poetry. She wrote short lines, often adding up to just a few stanzas, using all lowercase letters and only necessary punctuation. Adjectives were used sparingly, and somehow metaphor was rarely necessary; these two loom so large in poetry in general, but after reading the few, perfect words Clifton chooses in each poem, you begin to wonder why we need them at all.

Clifton’s poems are funny, quietly poignant, intimate, inclusive. Reading poems like “blessing the boats,” you do actually feel a holy hand upon your forehead, the warmth of a sincere wish for safe passage across the unknown ocean of the future: “may you kiss/the wind then turn from it/certain that it will/love your back.” (And of course, this is the poem that is all metaphor, so okay.) Reading “here rests,” you delight in the picture of Clifton’s sister, who brought her pimp with her to read to her ailing father, getting her just reward after death: “may heaven be filled/with literate men/may they bed you/with respect.”

There’s no mistaking that Clifton grew up black in the Jim Crow era, that being a black woman informed much of what she wrote. Her eulogy for James Byrd Jr., lynched by white supremacists in 1998, echoes with the thousands of lynchings that came before and the fear of more to come: “why and why and why/should i call a white man brother?/who is the human in this place,/the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” Even “homage to my hips,” a joyous celebration of the particular curves of her body, doesn’t forget the wrongs done to bodies like hers for centuries in the United States: “these hips/are free hips./they don’t like to be held back./these hips have never been enslaved,/they go where they want to go/they do what they want to do.”

Clifton wrote about family, biblical characters, sensual encounters, the cancer she survived, the baby she had who didn’t. She often wrote about death and life and the shimmering, barely-there line between the two. She never wrote anything trite or superficial, but even her poems that grieve most openly about personal or historic tragedy are imbued with hope, a sense that there is always something in this world to celebrate — and to share with one another.

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Black History Month: Girls Trip

In recent years, Hollywood has seen #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp, and it has generally responded with a shrug of the shoulders and a few token awards and wider releases to appease the masses of us who just want better representation, fair pay, and a safe and equal place to work. In this context, enter 2017’s Girls Trip, which is at once a reflection of real issues in women’s lives (love, career, friendship) and a raunchy group comedy that gloriously pushes the bounds of what we’re used to seeing on screen in a major studio release.

In this movie, black women are allowed to let loose and let fly like they rarely are in movies and indeed in real life. Part of this is the privilege of class — these are upper-middle-class women, except for Regina Hall’s character, who is rich and about to get richer — but also it’s because reality is only allowed so much rein here. The women get into a fistfight in a club and then sneak out the side door, no one the wiser. They get off their faces on absinthe and laugh about it later, rather than being kicked out for inappropriate behavior. In short, they’re friends goofing around and getting into mild trouble, like in The Hangover or Bridesmaids or any other film that allows groups of friends to kick back without any real consequence. Continue reading