Tag Archives: African-Americans

Movie Review: Dope (2015)

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Rating: B/ Puppy dog-eyed Shameik Moore plays geeky urban teen Malcolm, who lives in the Bottoms of Inglewood, California, where crime and desperation reign. With a setting like this, you’d expect Dope to be a depressing movie, but it’s not. It’s actually a very funny movie; not perfect by a long shot, but with some of the funniest, zaniest dialogue to come around in years. Malcolm is obsessed with 90’s Hip-Hop culture and plans to go to college, which makes him very uncool with the kids in his hood, who mostly end up joining gangs and dying young and never expect anything more of themselves. Continue reading Movie Review: Dope (2015)

Nightingale (2014)

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“Nightingale” is essentially a one-man show; you should know going in that David Owelowo is virtually the only actor in the film so you can avoid disappointment at not seeing a story play out in a more standard fashion. I payed no notice to Owelowo before seeing this movie, despite seeing him in some previous films, but I’ll make sure to keep a close eye on him now.

In this film he plays a homosexual, delusional ex-military man named Peter Snowden. Peter Snowden has been a bit of a mama’s boy most of his life; he is desperately at odds with her while still wanting her to see him for who he is and accepting him in earnest. Unfortunately,  his Conservative Mama only sees what she wants to see; his flamboyance, his limp-wristed sensibilities, and her Christian friends aren’t doing either of them any favors.

However, when Peter is first introduced to us, his mother is no longer in the picture, having been murdered by him in a fit of rage only hours before. Peter, psychotic and dangerous, essentially offers us a long monologue in the form of his video blog, telephone calls, and his back-and-forth conversations with himself (and sometimes with his murdered mother) as he prepares for a very special dinner party. His mother’s lifeless corpse is splayed out on the floor of her room, but that doesn’t put a damper on his plans or his overall positivity.

The ‘guest’ for the dinner date is Edward, an old army friend (a very close friend, if you get my drift *wink*) and the object of Peter’s unadulterated obsession. Perhaps Edward is long dead, we think, more likely, he doesn’t want to see the crazed Peter. We soon learn that Edward is married to a woman Peter despises, Gloria, and has a couple of kids and what no doubt is a clean-cut, traditional suburban life.

You couldn’t have in less than an actor of an exceptionally high caliber running this show, and Owelowo delivers on this promise and more. He’s commanding but not showy, if that makes sense. Intense and often darkly funny (but maybe that’s just me) Owelowo keeps your eyes glued to the screen for the whole 1 hour 20 minutes of him just talking. Delusional, murderous, and spectacularly self-absorbed, Peter is not a likable character, but you do sympathize with him at some points- maybe genuine empathy, maybe abject pity, it’s hard to tell.

He callously murders his mother with little remorse, holds no regard for the feelings of those close to her, and disparagingly remarks on the developmentally disabled employees he works with as ‘retards’ (I laughed when he used this word, mostly because he resembles me at my worst, making cruel sport of people who can no more be cunning or stick up for themselves than a person in a wheelchair can get up and walk.) He seems more concerned with what fabulous gear he’s going to wear for his big date than the fate of his much-despised mother.

Even though we understand somewhat the dark nooks and crannies Peter’s  mind by the closing credits, there’s a lot about him we don’t know. Were Edward and Peter lovers, and Edward, by extension, a closeted homosexual living a lie, or is Peter just a crazed stalker? What, exactly, is Peter’s illness? (I have seen he has been deemed a victim of PTSD online, but it seems his issues are rooted much deeper in his past, and frankly, he could just as easily be an unmedicated Bipolar patient or Paranoid Schizophrenic.)

Peter is complicated. He’s camp and tormented and fantastically manipulative and he makes a mean Salmon Steak with  Walnut Sauce. he’s kind of a black Norman Bates for the iPhone generation, but Norman didn’t have this much style. Along the way, we get vague feedback on how this mother-son relationship went so desperately  wrong (from the monumental, like her rejection of his sexual identity, to the infinitesimal, like how she’d rather spend her money on frivolous things than buy him a subscription to HBO.)

There’s certain symbolism to savor in the film’s intelligent script, from Adam and Eve, Peter’s new tropical fish pets (he buys them because they’re a favorite of Edward’s, and in fact, ‘Eve’ is just Adam’s reflection staring back at him) to the masculine military haircut and demeanor Peter adopts towards the end of the movie as he contemplates suicide (trying perhaps, in his own twisted way, to please Mother one last time.)

By the end of “Nightingale,” we cannot condone Peter’s actions, but we understand his point of view a little better, and ultimately, we feel a little more complete for having known him.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Esteemed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou chronicles her life from lonely, isolated black girlhood to sexual awakening and teen motherhood in this sad, poetic true-life account. Little Maya never believed much in her own self-worth, and racism was as rampant in the small community of Stamps, Arkansas, that she lived in with her Grandmama and disabled Uncle Willie as the wrenching poverty of both blacks and whites. Her unwavering sense of fatalism  forced her into the belief that she would live a brief, harsh life of subjugation before dying in a crazy dramatic way (in this sense, she is more like the modern youngster than she might think.)

But Maya (AKA Marguerite) had a  way to escape her tough circumstances- her love of books and writing, which kept her spirit strong and her mind sharp in the face of myriad staggering adversities. Through prejudice, sexual abuse, and eventually teen pregnancy, Maya not only survived, but slowly developed her sense of self and the belief that she and the African-American race deserved better than what they had been given.

Good writing is a prerequisite in an autobiography, but it also helps to have an interesting story that will grab the reader’s interest. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ has both. Angelou retreats so far into the mind of her younger self that the book seems free of Angelou’s adult beliefs and opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how she felt about a situation at the time she wrote the book. Maya Angelou has had a fascinating, though frequently tragic life, and the prose she incorporates into the book rolls off the tongue like sweet honey.

I found the author’s own personal feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness following her rape at age eight at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend particularly heart-wrenching. No one should ever have to feel guilty for a act of sexual violence done unto them. But I was thrilled when Mr. Freeman (the name of the bottom-feeding pederast in question) was rubbed out by Maya’s mafioso relatives. Sweet justice! Of course, it would have been better if the abuse hadn’t occurred at all, but the killing of the child rapist gave me pleasure in an mostly bleak and depressing book.

The racism portrayed within these pages is shocking (the white dentist achieving a particular low,) but it makes the reader think about how far we’ve come as a society. Nowadays if someone cared to indulge in a ‘jigaboo walks into a bar’ joke they would be greeted by most with moral outrage and unlaughing silence. Back then racism wasn’t just a mindset- it was a way of life. People had never considered that blacks could be anything more than their drastically inferior dark-skinned servants,  and in many places- including the South- thinking that there might be an alternative to prejudice and hate was all too much for these white hicks to take in.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ended far too abruptly. It concluded on a hopeful note, but at the same time it just kind of left me hanging. It’s funny, a lot of the behavior exhibited by Maya’s most well-regarded relatives would be considered child abuse by today’s standards.

She just kind of laughs countless whippings and frankly psychotic behavior (for instance her stuttering Uncle Willie  threatening to burn her and her brother Bailey on the stove) off, but nowadays that kind of acting out by unhinged grown-ups would now be followed by a visit by CPS. People talk about the ‘good old days,’ where kids were hard-working and respectful and everything was more wholesome, but were the old days really that great? This book, and others, answer my question with an emphatic no.

If you like kind of slow books that love each word onto paper, rather than simply writing them in the way of popular writers, you’ll adore Angelou’s precisely, and gorgeously written memoir. And, grim as it is, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is not without it’s humor. “Preach it, Brother Thomas!” In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death the world lost a great literary voice. She brings barbed honesty and haunting lyricism into what could have been a standard coming-of-age narrative.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

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Occasional bad luck is inevitable. Dana, the protagonist of ‘Kindred”s luck is cataclysmic. A strong willed and -minded black woman married happily to a white older man, she is transported through time and space without so much as a how-do-you-do to slavery-era Baltimore to save her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, from an untimely death. Without Rufus’ inevitable union with a slave woman, little Dana will never come to be- or so she believes as she returns time and time again throughout Rufus’ life to save him, increasingly cognizant of what a sadistically self-obsessed monster he is gradually becoming.

“Kindred” is my first book by Octavia E. Butler, and I was struck by how well it delivers on it’s sumptuously creative premise. It is a speculative work of fiction, but is anything but fantastical when dealing with the hardships of the slaves on the Weylins’ plantation. Seeing Dana try to hide her education and her fierce independence in attempts to play the role of a ignorant, subservient slave held a kind of morbid fascination for me. In Rome, do as the Romans do. But in this case you pretty much have the equivalent of a red target painted against your cursedly brown flesh.

As it turns out, time travel works in this kind of like the wormhole to Narnia. Dana is summoned back to the past only to find that was hours for her, turns out to be years for the people left behind in the past. ‘Kindred’ never lets you forget the spiraling disorientation of living in such a changeable reality.

Dana is a well-developed character, weakened but not weak, strong but not infallible. Even Rufus himself, sniveling bastard that he grows up to be, is painted with nuance and ambiguity, rather than thick, derisive strokes. You can see that Rufus is a worthless chode, but you can comprehend how he came to be that way, and hopefully regard him at brief moments with pity, rather than with all-consuming (and for all intents and purposes, well deserved) hatred.

I found the writing in “Kindred” both pragmatic (no frills to be found) and compelling. I was a little put off by how careless Dana, and later, her husband Kevin are at changing the timeline. Actions have consequences, every science fiction-slash- time travel buff knows that. But Dana and Kevin take no heed of the drastic ways they effect historical events.

Also, it was weirdly icky how Butler described Rufus’ continual sexual exploitation of the slave girl, Alice, as love, albeit, a ‘destructive love.’ It was old-fashioned and sometimes downright gross, and I thought that Butler , as a feminist and a woman , would no better than to call assault anything but what it is, assault. Love is wanting what’s best for someone. Rufus certainly didn’t want what was best for Alice, he wanted what was best for himself.

He was a sad little boy who grew into a nasty, pathetically small-minded man, having learned nothing but cruelty and hatred from his father. I liked how his relationship with Dana, his savior, stayed ambiguous throughout (until the end when thing went down in a big way.) It made the book so much more interesting than if she had just hated and been repulsed by him.

More than a science fiction novel, ‘Kindred’ goes beyond mere concept, delivering a pulse-pounding story with a compelling cast of characters. In a time and culture where slavery is a distant concept hidden away in history books, ‘Kindred’ takes it to the forefront of our attention as we watch history unfold with Dana. Like Dana, we are riveted and deeply moved. Unlike Dana, we experience it from the comfort of our own home. ‘Kindred’ isn’t just a must read for science fiction lovers. It’s a must read, period. Fin.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

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A work of fiction chronicling a life from the time of slavery to the civil rights era? Wow, I feel smarter already.

Meet Miss Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old black woman who lives on a plantation making meager wages from her white boss. She’s not a slave anymore, but she might as well be. She and her fellow  workers break their backs on the farm and receive next to nothing. Undereducated but smart as a whip, Miss Jane is quite a character. An unnamed schoolteacher convinces her to let him document her life in a series of audio recordings, suspecting Jane might have quite a story to tell. Oh, and does she ever!

Jane’s story encompasses almost a hundred years, dozens of characters, and a multitude of historical events. Jane has suffered years of abuse and heartbreak and has aged into quite a fine woman. She’s loved and lost, suffered and lost some more. But ages of struggle have given her a wise outlook on life. She’s been a slave. She’s been a wife, an adoptive mother, a warrior. But mostly she’s been quintessentially Jane, a experienced lady with a life time of memories to share.

I had never read anything by Ernest J. Gaines before The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but I had heard many good things about him. As soon as I got ahold of a copy, I devoured it relatively quickly (for a slow reader like me, mind). A slim volume with a lot of ground to cover, Jane Pittman maintains the no-nonsense and the plain speech of it’s protagonist. I must confess I liked Jane a lot. I adored her strength and her offbeat spirituality.

I found this book to be an enlightening and educational experience without being too preachy. It certainly contains a refreshing lack of white guilt. You’ve got your basically good, decent white men and your dreadful minorities, and vice versa. Your black characters are not above racism and barbarism and your whites are not incapable of compassion. I got the impression Mr. Ernest J. Gaines has a good head on his shoulders and has bigger fish to fry than moaning about the ghastly whites, while still accurately portraying how the white man has fucked things up for many.

On the down side, I found the take of keeping all the characters straight daunting, to say the least. There were about two Marys, two Alberts, and innumerable Joes scattered throughout this narrative. Characters are introduced erratically never to be heard from again. Also, I didn’t find myself liking the last segment of the book as much as I enjoyed the first few parts. Miss Jane Pittman is best when dealing with Jane’s early years or the white Tee Bob’s doomed infatuation with a mixed-race schoolteacher.

However, when Jimmy, a precocious black boy who Jane mystically insisted could be ‘the one,’ showed up, I was just about ready for the book to end. I guess after introducing a strong, progressive African-American character like Ned earlier on and leaving Jimmy little room to develop, Jimmy just seemed like an extension of Ned. Now I know the decision was somewhat deliberate, but I still found the part of the book focusing primarily on Jimmy to be a bit of a bore.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fascinating novel featuring a delightful heroine. It’s brilliance is in it’s artful simplicity, and I am looking forward to catching up with Gaines’ other books.