Thursday, February 12, 2015

Journey With Me to Sun Ra’s “Space is The Place”

“My whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” - Sun Ra

The Museum of African Diaspora (MOAD) and The Contemporary Jewish Museum recently held a 40th anniversary screening of jazz theorist and philosopher Sun Ra’s 1974 science-fiction cosmo-drama Space is The Place. In this complex, quasi-abstract, weird, militant Blaxploitation, visionary, Afrofuturistic, and hood-conscious film, Sun Ra takes viewers on a journey from space to Earth in hope of reclaiming Black minds using interstellar techniques, imagery, and Black Power consciousness colliding with the fashion sense of Shaft and Superfly.

The opening introduces us to a Black man dressed in head-to-toe Parliament-Funkadelic Egyptian regalia: Sun Ra. Coming from a bluish planet inhabited by Black people, he makes his entrance on Earth a spaceship evocative of a rubber raft with two blood-shot red eyeballs plastered on it. Sun Ra’s purpose for coming to Earth is to recruit more potential Black occupants, and spread a few philosophical lessons. His purpose becomes clear with his initial question: “Are you ready to alter your destiny?”

Sun Ra meets many challenges trip to Earth, ranging from a deferential reporter, to some teenagers who question his own existence: “How do we know you’re for real?” and dismiss him as “some old hippie” from Telegraph Ave.

Challenged in reclaiming the African and Black consciousness of his future inhabitants, Ra faces his greatest foe in his quest of freedom and liberation in the power structure that takes the form of “The Overseer” and his minion Jimmy Fey. The Overseer is a diabolical pimp and incarnation of evil in the Black community, in many ways a metaphor for the overseers from the U.S. slave trade, and Jimmy is reminiscent of present day Blacks trying to make it in the entertainment industry at any cost. As a ploy, The Overseer poses himself to be a community leader and a man of charity, while in fact being the tool of a dominant elite, hierarchal organization. In addition, to facing The Overseer, Ra must also combat White government agents (presumably from the FBI) who are attempting to eliminate him. From both racial angles, Black and White, Ra must fight to the death for the fate of the Black race.

The film’s strengths included Ra’s genius musical skills. With a complex, at times disjointed, storyline (i.e. cosmic card games, 1940s jazz club vignettes, and proselytizing at an inner city youth center), Space is The Place features Ra’s 12-member band, the Arkestra. Clearly heard and on occasion seen in the film, the band melds heavy, kinetic percussions, an electrifying synthesizer, flamboyant horn, and a brass section that elevate jazz to a new dimension. For some, the music may not be enough to stay engaged with the plot. Much like how Sun Ra was difficult to understand and grasp, Space is The Place incorporates that confusion with a small opening of clarity. The film is a brilliant statement that informs audiences about 1970s race.

Space Is The Place is fundamental viewing, particularly for those interested in jazz or African/African American-diasporic cinema. Despite poor distribution and few theater screenings, the 1950s and 1960s futuristic acid jazz soundtrack made the film an underground classic.

Although this is Ra’s only film (honestly, he only needed one to preach his philosophy) he also made strides in the academic arena. Prior to the film, in the Spring 1971 semester, Sun Ra served as an artist-in-residence here at UC Berkeley. He taught a course in the African American Studies department, “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” While in the Bay (particularly Oakland), Sun Ra caught the attention of film and television producer Jim Newman. Listening to Sun Ra's lectures makes it obvious that the course and the Arkestra band influenced the film. Ra’s teaching style consisted of lecture for the first part of the class, then treating the students to keyboard solos or perhaps Arkestra performances for the second half: the epitome of an informative and engaging class. Watching and listening to him push the envelope is truly a cosmic experience.

More than just a dark, super-sonic bootleg 85-minute film, Space is the Place is a filmic vision laced with Ra’s musical talent, which sought to expand the consciousness of African Americans in Oakland’s hoods. Combining elements and references from the King James Bible, Afrocentrism, science-fiction, occult philosophy, Egyptology, and his own “Arkestra” band, Sun Ra created futuristic free jazz while telling a story of empowerment and survival. Space is The Place is a timely film that incorporates amiable silliness while examining race relations blended with radical paranoia, all in the context of the Black Panther movement and the post-Vietnam era. Space is The Place is an enjoyable, imaginative film with a dramatically unique plot.

*As posted in The Berkeley Graduate

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hollywood's Whitewashed Diversity*

With the award season fully underway, eyebrow have been going up over the lack of diversity in the recent Academy Awards nominations announcement. Immediately after the January 15 announcements, social media, Twitter in particular, went into a major uproar. The hash tag #OscarsSoWhite went viral after the Academy revealed that all 20 male and female contenders in the acting categories are white.
The Academy’s first black woman president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, reported to New York magazine blog Vulture “that the organization does not have a diversity problem ‘at all.’” However, many fans, actors, and the like would have to disagree with this sentiment, considering the predominantly white list of artist nominations. This year’s Academy Awards is the whitest Oscars since 1998. Many people have expressed their frustrations as more disappointment than surprise, (i.e. CNN LA correspondent David Daniel “#OscarNoms No female directors, screenwriters, or cinematograhers. No actors of color. #diversity”) because this is neither the first, nor the second time that this has happened. In the last 30 years, the acting categories have been completely devoid of non-white nominees a total of five time (1989, 1992, 1996, 1998, and 2015). Though we supposedly live in a “post-racial” society, it seems the Academy has not received that memo.
This white-washing of the Oscars is quite significant, considering that one of the films snubbed, Selma only received two nominations: “Best Picture” and “Best Song” for Glory (John Legend and Common), without an actor or director nomination. Despite high marks from critics and having the best review for “Best Picture” (receiving a score of 99) of all the nominations, British actor David Oyelowo missed out on a nod for Best Actor for his powerful and chilling performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Academy failed recognize the visionary young black Ava DuVernay in the “Best Director” category. Had DuVernay been nominated, she would have made history as the first ever black female to be nominated in that category. Films like Selma remind audiences how relevant and worthy of a discussion the film’s poignant subject matter is. Particularly in light of the unrest over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Ferguson and New York, respectively, and even locally, echoing heavily on the American conscience, there’s a need for a film such as Selma to remind the country of what has happened and continues to happen…and how we still need change.
A year ago, it appeared as though the Academy had made some strides in diversity. 12 Years of Slave won “Best Picture” along with the ground-breaking win from Lupita Nyong’o in the Best Supporting Actress category. Additionally, Alfonso Cuaron was the first Hispanic man to win Best Director, while Chiwetel Ejiofor won “Best Actor” and Captain Phillips star Barkhad Abdi won “Best Supporting Actor”. Those seemed to be the major talking points, but this year, the nods made a drastic turn.

In response to this lack of diversity, many fans and actors took to Twitter to voice their support for fellow actors:
“So #OscarNoms hmm. Shout out to my brother #DavidOyelowo you’ve been robbed but you’re not defined by this and your talent can’t be taken.” ~ @NoelClarke

#OscarsSoWhite that even The Lego Movie didn't get nominated for Best Animated Film because Morgan Freeman voiced a character. ~ @ShaunKing
The significance of these awards has always been a controversial interest. Now some may argue that the Golden Globes was full of diversity, which is true; however, much of that diversity came from the television genre. Others have given up hope, realizing that waiting for the Academy to recognize diversity and talent may be an infinitely long wait. Since the Academy’s birth, African Americans have had a complex, abstruse relationship with the Academy Awards. Whether they are nominated for roles such as boxers, sharecroppers, drug addicts, abused or scorned women, welfare mothers, maids, psychics, drug dealers, prisoners, or simply not nominated at all, there is hardly an amicable relationship.
Although it is hard to ignore the righteous anger, one can’t help but ask: do actors, actresses, and directors really need the Academy’s approval of their acting talents and gifts?
*As seen also in The Berkeley Graduate

Friday, January 30, 2015

Women Taking Over the Television*

Now that we are well into 2015, many of our favorite television shows are returning for new seasons or mid-winter premieres. Many of these shows have female energy exuding from the cast and their respective storylines. One might say this year in television has been the “Year of the Woman.” According to The Atlantic, “strong female characters on network TV make up a sizable chunk of the pie…and network tv is becoming the land of women.” This trend is extremely significant, because women are not simply in the shows as side characters, but taking lead roles, dominating casts, and holding positions of authority with their roles.
Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills in FOX's "Sleepy Hollow"
On the Fox Network, “Gotham” and “Sleepy Hollow” made mid-season returns earlier this month. Still in its first season, Gotham is a notable show, particularly for comic book fans, giving viewers a two-fold look into the origin story of Bruce Wayne long before he becomes the “Dark Knight,” while also introducing many of Batman’s supporting characters. Although the show is centered on the rise of Gotham City Police detective Jim Gordon, several of the show’s women hold positions of power. Whether it is night club owner and mob boss Maria Mercedes “Fish” Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), or Selina “Cat” Kyle (Camren Bicondova), a clever homeless youth who has an intriguing influence and connection with young Bruce Wayne, or Captain Sarah Essen who is Jim Gordon’s boss in the Gotham City PD, women are not just sidekicks or eye-candy, but equals to their male counterparts. Staying with this theme of women in power, “Sleepy Hollow” employs a woman of color in the lead role. This casting is significant considering the original story of Sleepy Hollow does not include any women of color, so this series is a modern-day retelling of the 1820 Halloween short story that adds color to the storyline. Juilliard-trained actress Nicole Beharie (42, Shame) who plays Lieutenant Abbie Mills, an FBI-trained officer, provides a commentary that one might call the driving force in the future of understanding the new Sleepy Hollow. Shows like “Gotham” and “Sleepy Hollow” provide a fresh scripted story that helps to balance out the reality shows.

Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder"
Flipping through the TV guide, I realized that the ABC network seems to have the largest number of shows returning as well as some new additions to their line-up, such as the new series “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” where audiences get to see one of the original comic book heroines in her own lead series. This should be interesting and entertaining as we get to see a stylish action heroine rule the television screen. One of my personal faves premiered yesterday with the return “TGIT” (Thank God It’s Thursday). Creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes takes over Thursday nights with her female-dominated shows. “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” are veterans in Rhimes’ Thursday group, and her newest creation “How to Get Away With Murder” is well on its way to obtaining that same acclaim. Viola Davis plays hard-core, high-profile law professor Annalise Keating, commanding the attention of audiences such that Davis won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Drama, being the only African American nominated, and beating out some tough competition. A well-deserved winner, Davis exudes the confidence and humility of a sage actress. During her acceptance speech, she thanked the writers, producers, and creators for “thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49 year old dark-skinned African American woman who looks like me.” Her observation is significant in indirectly calling Hollywood out on its historical (and contemporary) racism, and ageism as well. Davis stated it best: “It’s a victory for people of color, it’s a victory for actors who aren’t ‘fresh-faced and in their 20’s.’” All in all, both Nicole Beharie’s and Viola Davis’ characters offer invigorating alternatives to the typical Jezebel or Mammy figures placed on African American women in television.

Women are not just dominating traditional TV networks, but they streaming onto internet channels as well. With the complete third season of “House of Cards” returning to Netflix on February 27th , we not only get to watch Golden Globe winner Kevin Spacey reprise his role as the ruthless, cunning Congressman turned Commander-in-Chief Francis Underwood; additionally, we get to tune in to his secret weapon, his gorgeous, ambitious, and equally conniving wife, Claire (Golden Globe winner Robin Wright). This Summer on Netflix, audiences will be able to watch the ladies of Litchfield prison return to our computer screens in season 3 of the SAG award winning (Outstanding Performance by an ensemble in a comedy series) “Orange is the New Black.” Hopefully, we will get to see more of “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba) too!

Netflix shows (l-r) "House of Cards" starring Robin Wright as Claire Underwood and "Orange is the New Black" with cast members Laura Prepon as Alex Vause and Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman.
There is lots of exciting television coming in 2015, full of leading ladies reminding viewers that they’re not going anywhere! Whether defying the odds, winning high-profile cases in fashion-forward styles, or saving lives, the strong women are here to stay! So whether you tune in to NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, HBO, or Netflix, there is a plethora of television shows to choose from for your viewing pleasure.

So what will YOU be watching this 2015??
*As seen also in The Berkeley Graduate

Friday, January 23, 2015

Taking A Trip Back in "Selma"*

Bringing certain historical events to the Hollywood screen can have a spellbinding, lingering effect. The historical drama Selma does just that for audiences. The candid film witnesses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign to secure equal voting rights, while it simultaneously chronicles a significant chapter in American History, the epic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Here is a film that is very difficult to expound in a few words, considering the obvious affect that it will have on viewers. Certainly, many historical films are tough to appreciate, especially when one already knows the story and the eventual outcome. As far back as we can remember, we have read, heard, taught, and maybe even experienced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts. There are numerous hours of footage and countless recounts of his modus operandi and the volumes of writings that give insight into his mind. This film is exceptional for examining deeper than King the dreamer, and providing an understanding of his humanity as a man.

Selma is possibly one of the most powerful films ever made regarding the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Sundance-winner and Golden Globe nominated director Ava DuVernay does an incredible job of capturing, what she refers to as, "small moments" that permit you to connect to King’s character on an intimate level. At the screening I attended, DuVernay spoke to these moments saying, "I knew that by doing a movie on King, we would have to do speeches, and early on I obsessed about the speeches. However, when I got on set, I began to focus on how to best capture the small moments that showed King's humanity." The film’s timeline was brilliantly constructed, neither exaggerating how much of King's life viewers needed to see, nor exhausting the moments.
As worthy a film as it is, "Selma" is not unblemished. For example, painting the relationship between King and LBJ as borderline confrontational. However, this may have had the purpose of making a point about the devastating, in many cases fatal, struggles and inequalities African Americans faced during the 1960s. Screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay present Dr. King as a fully rounded individual, even including his flaws, something rarely done when discussing King. Additionally, the majority of "Selma" points to of Dr. King’ strategies and adversities during the crusade.
One of the strong points towards the film’s credit is the cast, and their ability to showcase these amazing historical figures. The audience gets a front-row seat in the mind of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo, Lincoln and Jack Reacher), watching him work during this tumultuous time. Early on, Oyelowo is somewhat inconsistent in playing King, but as the film progresses, he visually and figuratively transforms and elevates the role to another level. We witness a spirited and vulnerable King unfolding. By the close of the film, his performance is so strong, were Oyelowo not actually shown on the screen, one might not be able to identify whether it was Oyelowo or an old recording of King himself. Additionally, Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy), offers a beautiful performance portraying Coretta Scott King with such depth and honesty that she's hard to overlook. Ejogo's performance is truly memorable.
Selma highlights other key figures, particularly women, from the Selma marches and the civil rights movement as a whole. For example, Amelia Boynton (played by Lorraine Toussaint “Orange is the New Black”) took part in the early activism and black voter registration drives in Selma, Alabama, and was part of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma. Another key figure was Diane Nash (played by Tessa Thompson, Dear White People), a bright, fearless leader and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Audiences also witness the work and diligence of other leaders close to MLK such James Bevel (played by Common, American Gangster), 1963 March on Washington, organizer and key leader in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement. Other leaders and key players portrayed in the film included Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Annie Lee Cooper, Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, and James Forman. By acknowledging these other leaders, the film shows viewers the numerous angles and thought-processes that happened during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Whether it is in films, daily conversations, and/or in the classroom often times certain leaders overshadow others who played just as much a role in these monumental moments. Overall, the selection of key figures that are portrayed in the film, and the casting of actors/actresses playing them, is very exceptional.
While the screenplay is solid and eloquent though not gut-wrenching, DuVernay's direction is impressive, with sharp cinematography and editing. The gifted cast shine, showing us vivid, detailed accounts of this significant historical event through each scene of the film. Viewers should take note that this is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic film, but more a film replaying the events leading up to and during the march in Selma. Freshman writer Paul Webb does a pleasing job of making this film “family friendly,” considering the sensitive nature of the subject. Leaving this film, your heart and soul cannot escape emotional impact. Think of watching Selma like engaging in a powerful, cinematic history lesson.

*As seen in The Berkeley Graduate

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Trying To Find My Spaceship So I Can Fly Far, Far Away...

"I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky...I wanna fly, I wanna fly...I said I want my chariot to pick me up and take me brother for a ride..."  ~Kanye West ,"Spaceship"

These words have been and continue to be my thoughts right now as I try to process what has happened in the recent weeks and years passed in relation to #BlackLives. Listening to this song from Kanye West’s seminal first album The College Dropout evoke a plethora of emotions. Fear. Anger. Passion. Frustration. After hearing the announcements of “no indictments” for the Mike Brown case in Ferguson, MO and the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, NY I wanted to buy that spaceship from Kanye; and even more I began to wonder and question how much does my #BlackLife really matter?  With all the events and protests happening in Oakland, at UC Berkeley, and nationwide I have to take a moment to reflect on what was and had happened to these #BlackLives.
One would think that the United States is simply numb to all of the #BlackLives that have been killed over the course of numerous years from the killing of Emmett Till and the lynch mobs, to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. It is very clear that Mike Brown and Eric Garner are not the first cases where I have sat wiping my tears in solace watching #BlackLives taken without hesitation, but these events opened my eyes to this ongoing #BlackLife trauma. These questions began to affect me in 1992 with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, CA—at the time I was only 11 years but I understood that an injustice had taken place. After this case it seemed as though the violence had simmered, at least from what I could remember. But then in 2006, my wounds opened again with the Jena Six case in Louisiana. Then three years later in the early hours of New Years Day in 2009, 23 year-old Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by a BART police officer in Oakland. In 2012 in the Midwest, CeCe McDonald suffered a racist and transphobic attack. In that same year, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot; in 2013, 19-year-old Renisha McBride was fatally shot in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. These are just a few cases that have been brought to our attention. There are many more #BlackLives whose names we do not know or have any audio or video of. #BlackLives continue to be targets whether they make the news, or simply become just another life taken.
At times I feel like the last words spoken from Eric Garner, “I Can’t Breathe” become what I am feeling as my thoughts and hopes are dashed and suffocated by “trigger happy” enemies and authority figures. As I watch the protestors literally pass by my home, the buildings where I study and have class, and stop traffic on the streets where I travel I am simultaneously frightened and overwhelmed by all the organized chaos. I had seen and heard about protests taking place through social media and news outlets and stories from my elders but, now I was witnessing with my own eyes. Even as I type this it is hard to fathom that I live in a nation where my life can be videotaped and taken in an instant without any recourse.Dissonantly, I recall when one of my mentors from undergrad told me, “the world is yours.”Yet, I wonder, if the nation does not even want to see me exist, and can act on that wish,…then how can anything be mine?
As the protestors pass my home, I contemplate my role as a Black woman PhD student in African American Studies. I grapple with where I fit in within the movement, I weigh my anger and my future aspirations. How do I contribute to the cause without being shamed or, worse, running away? I understand that I am not built to stand on the front lines, nor am I a voice to lead a movement, but I do play a part. Over the years, I am learning more and more that my voice may not be a physical one, but through my actions whether it is through my research on superhero constructions, my expertise in social media, or offering and participating in support systems. I recognize my role in the diversity of tactics required for the defense of #BlackLife. As long as #BlackLives continue to be abused, wounded, or worse killed my #BlackLife must always be alert. Everyday remains a struggle and I take temporary comfort in Kanye’s words, "I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky...I wanna fly, I wanna fly... I said I want my chariot to pick me up and take me brother for a ride..."

G-Breezy's Favorite Movies

  • Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum
  • Die Hard series
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Fracture
  • Idlewild
  • Imitation of Life
  • Inside Man
  • James Bond series
  • Love Jones
  • Malcolm X