All The Rage

Like almost every African American in my social network timeline, I went to see “The Best Man Holiday” on its opening weekend.

While my reaction wasn’t as effusive as my peers, I did enjoyed it for what it was: an entertaining film that brought back the days when movies that featured a predominantly black cast didn’t play up to any stereotypes. The days when movies like “Boomerang”, “Love Jones”, “Soul Food”, “Brown Sugar”, “Love & Basketball” and the first “Best Man” gave us a view of educated professionals, creative people following their passions, and families that were achieving middle and upper middle class success.

That was an era when great and sometimes compelling storytelling and positive and realistic imagery — ushered in by “The Cosby Show” — promoted the renaissance of black entertainment… a time when neo-soul music was coming up, hip hop was socially conscious and infusing jazz in their sound, and both were being incorporated into legendary soundtracks.

For whatever reason, it appeared this era was too brief for that genre. The films that brought career success to Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, and Morris Chestnut –to name a few — faded into obscurity, and made way for a new brand of movies that often went straight to video or played for a certain type of audience who were content with watered down characters who were more caricatures than three dimensional.

Today, nearly fifteen years later, what should be a simple celebration of an entertaining movie and a revival of that craft, has now escalated into heated debates and unnecessary comparisons.

From a poorly worded USA Today article — where the author was dumfounded by the film’s ability to nearly keep pace with “Thor” despite being in a thousand fewer theaters and called it “race themed” — to a cavalcade of online militants who’ve grown tired of the crop of “slave genre” movies, Malcom D. Lee’s movie found itself with the unwanted and unwarranted baggage of other people’s expectations.

Although the film’s second half took an emotional turn, the overall romantic comedy was suddenly pitted against a juggernaut of a comic franchise that is Marvel (one that, it should be noted, had two black lead actors in the cast), and unfairly dubbed the antidote to more somber flicks such as “Fruitvale Station”, “The Butler”, and “12 Years a Slave”. Message boards still reeling from “Django Unchained” urged people to support the movie for reasons beyond its feel-good nature. Deep sighs of relief from people suffering “Tyler Perry backlash” could be heard across the nation. The shade being thrown was enough to blind you from the beautiful and seemingly ageless cast that just set out to make a warmhearted Christmas-themed sequel with friendship, love and forgiveness at its core.

I suppose these days, when movie-going has become a fairly expensive pastime, one tends to be a bit more selective and discerning when it comes to how and what your hard earned money is spent on. And when the caliber of entertainment being ladled down your throat on a regular basis comprises mostly of train-wreck reality programs where positive messages are severely lacking, then it’s no wonder when smartly written shows like “Scandal”, and anything where the lead characters are prominent African Americans in non-submissive roles conjure up the kind of emotion mostly felt on graduation day.

But the rage is just overwhelming. My fear is that our propensity to get fired up about everything is just going to end up burning bridges of opportunity time and again.

Granted, the onslaught of material tackling the disturbing subjects of slavery and racial discrimination appear excessive when you’ve been inundated by it in the past couple of years. It would also seem that the timing couldn’t be more unfortunate, as ignorant actions and statements appears to be on the rise. But where “Django” was a cartoonish revenge fantasy (much like “Inglorious Basterds”, which ironically didn’t fire up as much outrage in the Jewish community), this year’s crop of stories were either based on factual events and people, or derived from a true story. It’s an interesting commentary, given that decades ago Alex Haley was once heralded for sharing the story of his ancestors in his epic novel, which became the historic TV movie, “Roots”.

One would think at a time when Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team of historians launched the spectacular documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” on PBS, the time would be ripe for embracing and appreciating true stories that shine light and perspective on the hardships and triumphs faced by black people in general, and open up dialogue in communities starving for respect and recognition while struggling with identity and self-esteem in a continually shifting social and economic climate.

Which is probably why “TBMH” was such a breath of fresh air. Like its predecessors, it allowed the audience to view a world where the black people had success in their careers and relationships (or saw any challenges with them neatly resolved by the time the credits rolled), and were treated equally — and even adoringly in one case — by the white cast members.

Most importantly, race never had a starring role in this movie… Love did.

Perhaps the painful reminders of a flawed and tragic history and reality is still too much of a jagged pill to swallow, and we prefer our entertainment more diluted and, yes, a bit melodramatic as a means of escape.

It is, after all, entertainment. Maybe we do need to see a crying (and shirtless!) Morris Chestnut, a snarky Terrence Howard, and a New Edition tribute to make it all better… at least for two solid hours.

Given the sheer joy it’s brought millions of people thus far… I’m gonna go with a resounding “Yes.”

 

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Tea and Empathy

Every now and then, my Anglophilia kicks in with a vengeance.

In the past, it has served me well when it comes to some of my career choices, music, fashion and entertainment interests and a few friends who are always solid sources of good times.

Adversely, it has also served me two of my last three significant love interests…

Ummm… yeah… how ’bout this year’s Wimbledon tournament? Well done, Andy Murray!

Anyway, this week it was tickled blue with the news of the Royal baby being born. Although I did not personally deliver this child, his arrival was exciting because I can briefly obsess about a Kate other than Moss, and be confident that his parents won’t name him something stupid like “Knot” Windsor. (For the record, I’m having difficulty with his birth name, George, because it always reminds me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon with the “abominable snowman”. Yes, I’m different.)  

Coming down from that high could only be done one way: by watching Idris Elba in “Pacific Rim”. While the crush I once had on him has gone the way of my days of wearing long hair, he’s still a great actor, and that movie restored the joy in sci-fi fantasy that “Iron Man 3” briefly snatched away (effectively nullifying my other crush, Don Cheadle — they’re dropping like flies).

What made this picture so great, you ask?

Besides it feeling like a sick mash-up of a live-action “Voltron vs. Godzilla and Friends”, the overall theme of the characters being “connected” mentally and emotionally is always a topic that resonates in my book.

“Drifting”, as they called it, was the concept of being in your partner’s thoughts and memories to enable a cohesive — and stronger — team. In other words, understanding and working with someone’s strengths and weaknesses can mean the difference between overcoming an enormous life-altering obstacle, or watching in horror as your brother gets snatched and eaten. (That last part is totally changeable to fit your own life story, by the way.)

It’s funny to me that I should come to watch a film that incites putting oneself in other’s minds when, just two days ago, a discussion with a guy friend about my writing “voice” prompted him to advise me to “be angrier” about my subjects. My first reaction was to laugh, as anyone who has irritated — or dated — me in this lifetime can attest that I have “hulk-like” abilities when it comes to temperament. That is, when I care to even feel any kind of way about something.  

These days, I feel the only thing worth fighting for is make-up sex. Watching the world get pissed off about everything from race to real-estate is more exhausting than empowering. Frankly, it’s all counter-productive. When people spend more time thinking about how they feel about something instead of actually finding a solution to the challenge, what, exactly, gets accomplished?

As much as I’d love to say I’ve conquered my anger, and have made great strides for the better in the last few years, there are of course moments that can’t be denied. It usually occurs when someone hurts women or children, or when someone close to me has shown me great inconsideration, betrayal or disrespect. When you have a history of childhood molestation and parental abandonment, it tends to come gift-wrapped with trust issues and an occasional desire to be a vigilante. Nowadays, I would prefer any baggage of mine to be by Samsonite or Tumi.

Of course, there’s never a easy transition. People often feel a lack of passion about their plight equates to dissidence. Perhaps choosing peace over war is a confusing concept, because historically “war” has always come before “peace” in sentences and titles of books and songs.

And that’s why it’s ironic that I’m drawn to British culture, given it’s history of wars and colonization… now known as the American way. It’s like watching “All About Eve” starring the Queen as Bette Davis’ character. (If you’ve never seen this movie, now’s the time.)

I’m not sure if I can attest this to my love of tea, or my sadomasochistic idolization of Naomi Campbell.

Just to play it safe, I’ll say it was a mix of things like Corinne Baily Rae, Laura M’vula, Adele, Burberry and all things Virgin.

Okay… and Idris. “Pacific Rim” was that good.

 

In Slave

It’s February already.

The shortest month of the year, and the only one where you could run into timekeeping issues with your age if you were born at the very end of it during a Leap one. Thankfully, my dad dodged that bullet by a day… although sometimes I felt it would’ve explained a lot of his behavior.

It is also most notably Black History Month, which used to mean reports and special school plays in honor of famous people of color during my childhood.

Today, it means I spend the weekend watching the NAACP awards, frying shrimp the way my grandmother taught me in Savannah, catching “Django Unchained” finally, and taking to Twitter to read and review commentary on the performances and ads during the Super Bowl while simultaneously trying to watch the game and contain my audible reactions to the game. All in that order.

Like most New Yorkers, I went into watching this game more for the ads and Beyonce’s halftime show because the Giants weren’t in it and could therefore care less who won. I moderately appreciate football as a sport, but fully enjoy the uniforms and the use of words like “tight end”. I’m crass. Get over it.

That said, it turned out to be an awesome game.

But the NFL went full-on “Sista-girl power” with a line up that began with Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys, and ended with that fem-bot Sasha Fierce leaving no questions about live performances… or why she now performs without the other members of Destiny’s Child. It was like a precursor to the Essence Music Festival.

Anyway, back to the point of this story…

The NAACP awards turned out to be emotionally overwhelming. After tearing up from the story of Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, I was then struck by the iconic moment of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte standing on stage together, as the former presented the latter with the Spingarin award in recognition of his tireless charity work. That’s when the cosmic shift in the room occurred.

Mr. Belafonte is no stranger to calling out black celebrities for not taking a more active role in enriching the lives and opportunities of the black youth. But on this particular night, he used his moment in the spotlight to challenge all of them to use their influence to make and be the change needed in the communities to ensure kids today are educated instead of incarcerated. His speech was so moving, it jarred Jamie Foxx to the point of getting him to stray from his rehearsed speech of the season (only briefly, unfortunately).

For me, it sparked thoughts of the days when black actors were “actorvists”, and entertainers were outspoken in their community and in turn the community responded. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Poitier and Belafonte, Paul Robeson. All walked alongside the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. Today, the number of celebrities willing to get their hands dirty are few, with exceptions such as Don Cheadle, who after making “Hotel Rwanda”, began campaigning and co-authored a book in efforts to end genocide in Darfur. The going trend is now to sign large tax-deductible checks or make photo-scripted appearances to boost one’s PR.

His speech stayed with me as I watched “Django”, which, when one isn’t focused on the graphic and gratuitous violence or the use of the N-word, you can appreciate for what it is: a good — no, great — revenge fantasy. Just like “Inglorious Basterds” before it, this movie takes a very real and very traumatic page in history for a race of people and asks the question “what if the tables were turned?” If you go looking for inaccuracies or expecting to be offended, you completely miss the true story buried within; the one where slaves were whipped, torn apart by dogs, put in “hot boxes”, and subjected to numerous atrocities — least of which is being called an N-word — worst of all being conditioned to betray and mistrust each other for their own survival.

And there it is… centuries later, we’ve become our worst enemies .

As Mr. Belafonte calls for an end to the penitentiary mindset that has been steadily crippling our communities over the last few decades, the city of Chicago has just tallied over forty homicides just in the month of January. Before the ball dropped to mark the end of 2012, they had notched over 500 murders in total for the year. Crime in minority neighborhoods have risen with the desperation of those who see more opportunity in guns, drugs, and professional sports than with degrees or specialized training for careers that can’t be outsourced.

It’s become customary to point the finger of blame at our lighter-hued counterparts for the lack of progression in our community, but we are squarely to blame for it. When we fail our children by denying them basic things such as quality education, stable and healthy home environments and just a strong sense of pride and self, we set up the future generations to follow suit.  When we put programs on where our women fight over men and money, put out songs that glorify violence and misogyny, and teach our kids at a young age to value expensive, high-tech and designer items they can’t possibly afford  — we are mixing a recipe for disaster. We are enslaving ourselves.

I’m sure they’d be remiss to admit it, but if Spike Lee had done that movie instead of Quentin Tarantino, they would be hailing him as a genius for sparking a conversation about slavery that hasn’t been explored since “Roots”. Personally, I think Spike should have done the film, so more people would be talking about it instead of fixating on a word.

It’s great that we celebrate the achievements of accomplished people of color. It would be even greater if we didn’t just allot a month out of an entire year to make them feel special. It’s almost akin to picking one day out of the other 364 to express your love for someone (hmmm… coincidence that it’s the same month?). It would be fantastic if we could make a habit out of excellence, instead of pointing people out like zoo animals, but I guess in some way it inspires one to aspire to something more.

But enough about this.

How about those Super Bowl commercials?

The Week of Champagne and Ice T

At the risk of having Cindy Adams come for me… I must express that the events of last week can truly happen “only in New York”.

Last week, I accompanied one of my girlfriends to a screening in Tribeca of Ice T’s directorial debut “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap”. The nearly two-hour long documentary was a love letter to the craft of the Rap/Hip Hop genre, in which the former rapper turned actor and reality television star waxes poetic and gets poetic with over thirty-five legendary (and soon to be) hip hop artists.

With a roster that included Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, Kool Keith, Run DMC, Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaataa, Mc Lyte, DJ Premier, Raekwon, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Nas and Kanye West — to name a few — it was a miracle that Ice was able to edit his four hours of footage to make an entertaining and still relevant movie. That he not only had them speak their mind and occasionally display their varied styles, and manage to squeeze a few classic tracks in for the soundtrack clearly shows his love of the art that got him where he is today, and shows what he’s learned from the lucrative one he currently embraces.

Of course, there will be some questions as to some notable omissions, but the OG director assured the audience it was more a matter of scheduling and content, and encouraged any potential filmmakers in attendance to carry the torch and continue the story. “The artists I included were the ones I had direct contact to,” he explained. “These were the people I came up with and the music I listened to. Y’all can make another movie!”

From my personal thoughts and experience, I felt Ice’s message and the movie was right on time. In a day and age where most “Hip Hop” currently being played on the radio is heavily materialistic and misogynistic, the original storytellers who created songs about struggling with poverty and racism  are becoming forgotten heroes. It’s his hope that the film becomes part of a curriculum for future students to understand the origin and history of the music they’ve come to identify with in various forms, and not to forget those who laid the foundation for the current crop of “entertainers”.

That being said, the move is a must-see for my generation and beyond, and not just for the nostalgia. Sitting across from Ice T (which was a moment in itself), it was hard not to catch the intensity in his face… somewhat akin to that of an artist who just unveiled his masterpiece for the world to interpret. While the rest of us laughed, cheered when we saw our favorite artists and bumped to the familiar tunes, he simply looked at the screen; pleased with the story he had begun and eager to see who would take on the next chapter.

A few days later, I would go from Hip Hop to the Horsey set.

Attending the Fifth Annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic is the only acceptable reason to dress up for a picnic. Although I sadly didn’t bring a large hat to wear, I managed to have a nifty basket on loan which drew lots of envy, and the dubious honor of being one of the relative few “ethnic” attendees.

While I frown upon the obscene markup of the champagne bottles, there is something to be said about taking  a ferry on a sunny Saturday to the picturesque Liberty Island and indulging in a day of watching and meeting beautiful people and Polo players like Nacho Figueras, while sipping bubbly. Yes, the game is essentially an abridged version of soccer played with horses, mallets and smaller balls, but there’s a grace and majesty in it nonetheless that should at least be experienced once.

…And the way I see it, if you’ve owned a garment or fragrance by Ralph Lauren or watched “Pretty Woman”, it’s sort of rite of passage, really.

It’s all the more fun when you’re there with a globe-trotting, social-climbing bestie, who serves up wicked commentary on fashion and feet faux pas while on the prowl for his next heiress. Sadly, he only got to take pictures with a bevy of leggy models and a few fierce sisters. Tough life. 

And what were they playing at this upscale soiree, where Clive Owen, Rachel Zoe, Zoe Saldana, and Padma Lakshmi whooped it up in VIP, and men wearing boater hats and cravats bought bottles of Veuve in nifty carrying cases to share with women dressed in their finest CFDA-approved outfits? Biggie, Jay-Z and Kanye, of course!

Upon return to the island of Manhattan, while the polo masses headed to Beauty & Essex — no doubt to partake of even more champagne in the ladies room (seriously, my friends and I spent a good half hour or more in there once) — I joined the rest of Brooklyn for a night of music, comradery and art with free admission at the Brooklyn Museum’s Target First Saturdays.  Surveying the crowd, I knew Ice T would have had a proud papa look to see the mass of men, women and children dancing to what is now old-school Hip Hop.

It only seemed appropriate to end the night having faux-southern cuisine at Pies N’ Thighs in the hipster enclave that is now Williamsburg. A day full of juxtapositions called for mac and cheese that seemed more “gourmet” than “Georgia”.

I can, and will, go so many places in this world, but only in New York can I have a week, a night, and a life that allows me to be all things and still remain true to myself… and have a blast learning in the process.

There might be a Jay-Z song for that…

 

 

Shade of “The Grey”

First, let me begin by saying I have a great deal of respect for Liam Neeson and enjoy his movies immensely. Anytime “Taken” or “Love Actually” is on television, I’m locked in for the duration.  Which is why I was looking forward to seeing his latest movie, “The Grey”.

The trailer promised an exciting man-vs.-wild story, complete with heart-stopping action scenes. Unfortunately, it felt more like I’d wandered into one of those man retreats where they learn how to be “real men”, coupled with survival instincts during an ill-fated orientation.

Granted, Neeson held up his end of the bargain by once again being the rugged yet sensitive character that keeps me watching his films, but if I want to spend a couple of hours watching a bunch of men cry, talk about their feelings and challenge each other’s manhood… I’d go to a sports bar. At least it’s slightly more entertaining when they’re drunk.

With that said, although the film fell short of my expectations, it was interesting to see a movie where the male leads all reveal a vulnerability and compassion towards each other — even while surviving fiery plane crashes, facing the threats of starvation, sickness, brutal cold and ultimately a vicious pack of wolves. Even the men with obvious personality flaws somehow became redeemed when it became evident they were on their way to becoming dog food.

The premise of “The Grey” may appeal to a male audience (and dialogue referring to “alpha” and “omega” and “dominance” seem to bolster that theory), but the fact that most of the characters expressed such a strong determination to return to their families — including Neeson’s character whose own longing for the woman he loves is repeatedly viewed in dream sequences — appeals more to a female audience.  Women also sympathize with Neeson’s personal story (he lost his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, after a tragic ski accident in 2009).

Overall, in an attempt to flesh out the characters and make the audience care about their fates, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to make a truly interesting movie. The action was scarce and almost predictable at points, which became a little unbearable when a movie starts to clock in at almost two hours. When the end finally does come, the audience is unsure of it being a payoff or a ripoff.

While the film, and especially Neeson’s performance, is engaging at times… audiences looking for the fast-paced action of “Taken” will likely think the latter.

I left thinking travel to the Alaskan wilderness is definitely not on my bucket list, and Sarah Palin can have it.