Monday, April 16, 2012

Pulitzers Awarded: Manning Marable Wins Recognition for Bio of Malcolm X

The late Manning Marable's nonfiction book on Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X was awarded a Pulitzer prize today. A well deserved honor. But what's up with the Pulitzers not awarding anything in the fiction category? That's a question that's on everybody's mind today.

A list of all the award winners can be found at the pulitzer site, Congrats to all the winners!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Title: The Flame Alphabet
Author: Ben Marcus
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Year: 2012
Length: 289 pgs

Viruses run rampant in literature. There’s something appealing about setting a virus loose in a story and letting it do its damage. It makes writing a lot easier. After all you don’t have to fret over killing off your babies. You can just let the virus take its course.

In Ben Marcus’s latest novel The Flame Alphabet he’s found a novel virus to kill off many of his characters. Language is corrupted, when delivered from the mouths of babes, sickening and killing adults. In a world polluted by noise, that’s a pretty scary way to go.

Sam and his wife Claire fight to survive this deadly virus, while their daughter Esther who pollutes the air with her vile language thrives. Only it’s a matter of time before Esther will succumb to the disease as she ages. While Claire continues to cling to whatever love she has left for her daughter, Sam wavers between love and disgust for what Esther is doing to their family. Marcus doesn’t explain what causes the disease, except that it seems to originate within the Jewish community and that it infects the alphabet as well. Adults are now unable to speak, listen, or read any form of language.

Sam tries to find medical relief for himself and his wife. First he attempts to create a medicine based on various drugs he’s distilled into smoke or a liquid he injects into his wife. He and Claire travel to the woods near their home where they’ve set up a hut that is a makeshift synagogue. There they listen to sermons and instructions from Rabbi Burke in an underground Jewish network. Murphy, an interloper, wants to learn their secrets. He thinks they have answers to why this is happening. Murphy turns out to be the leading scientist LeBov who has blamed Jews for the virus and whose unorthodox research has led him to become both pariah and soothsayer. Needless to say, after the children are quarantined and the adults sent to LeBov’s laboratory, Sam is forced to work on a new alphabet that will provide relief to sufferers. He finally escapes and returns to his former hut in the hopes of finding his daughter and become the father he had denied himself before. The novel ends with Sam still waiting, resolved to his new life of silence.

While The Flame Alphabet has a plot that's more discernible than Marcus’s previous novels, it is still experimental. It forces the reader to contemplate each sentence to parse meaning and understanding. Marcus, who several years ago defended experimentalism against an attack by Jonathan Franzen, is also committed to language even as he imagines a world without one. His observations are fully enveloped in the world of its narrator so that the two become one: “The lights of Rochester were only mildly brighter than the darkness, small pale stains oiling the air.”

While the language is beautifully observed, it is also oblique. There were parts where I wasn’t quite certain what was happening. That’s largely because the story rests somewhat on understanding Judaism, which left me at a disadvantage. Yet at its core the story is about relationships and how language and the spoken and written word bonds us. As Sam shrewdly observed, “I was never very good at knowing Claire’s feelings, even, unfortunately, after she’d shared them with me. Somehow I still didn’t understand. Now, in silence, insights into my wife were out of reach entirely.” Without language societies break down and all one is left with is oneself.

The Flame Alphabet is a difficult and sad book. I was reminded of the ways in which language today has been polluted by nonsense and meaninglessness. Marcus offers no such hope that once this language is lost that it will ever be regained. That depressing thought should bring everyone to pause.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Crosetti" - Homicide: Life on the Street

"Crosetti," Teleplay by James Yoshimura, Story by Tom Fontana & James Yoshimura, Directed by Whitney Ransick. Air date: 12/2/94. NBC Home Entertainment. 1994-1995.

Jon Polito and Clark Johnson
Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) from Homicide: Life on the Street was as far removed as possible from anything seen on primetime TV, certainly not in most police procedurals. He wasn’t a hunk. He was older, fat, balding, and complained endlessly about his ex-wife and daughter. He also had a fetish for jazz and Lincoln assassination conspiracies. He, like Ned Beatty’s Det. Stan Bolander and Yaphet Kotto’s Lt. Al Giardello, was the elder statesman on the show, less defined by his superior detective skills and more by his crankiness. He was a man who’d seen enough and wasn’t having much of it.

Homicide: Life on the Street distinguished itself with its characters. During its later seasons, under pressure from network execs to add more telegenic actors to its cast, the show started to resemble more of the police procedurals it was trying to depart from. This move away from seasoned performers who looked reasonably like homicide detectives and more toward eye candy was telegraphed early on with the firing of actor Jon Polito.

Now, there are plenty of stories out there about why exec producer Tom Fontana let Polito go. I won’t go into any of them because that's so much water under the bridge. However, the firing of Polito did two things to the show---one unfortunate and the other quite brilliant. When Polito was let go, Fontana decided to use that as an occasion to deliver one of the finest hours of primetime ever.

“Crosetti” was the sixth episode in the lineup during the third season, though it was originally meant to be the fourth episode. I mentioned before that network executives would often toy with air dates and, in this one episode, their interference also made for very confusing storytelling. In short Steve Crosetti commits suicide. Audiences learned of his death before the episode aired in “A Model Citizen.” The DVD set corrects this error by placing “Crosetti” in the exact lineup that the showrunners intended, but I can only imagine the confusion the actual air dates caused for viewers at the time.

Crosetti’s death comes as a surprise. Nothing in the episodes prior to “Crosetti” foreshadows this. In fact, in the three-parter episode which opened the season---“Nearer My God to Thee,” “Fits Like a Glove,” and “Extreme Unction”---Crosetti is only mentioned in passing.

The episode opens with a sequence of the Coast Guard pulling a body out of the water. The scene is underscored with Buddy Guy’s version of “On the Waterfront.” This haunting sequence sets the mood for what will follow. Dets. Bolander and John Munch (Richard Belzer) arrive on the docks to investigate. Right off Munch calls the death a suicide. Though his instincts prove correct from the start, they nonetheless draw the divide that will occur between Stan and Crosetti’s partner, Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson).

“Crosetti” is in fact, more about Lewis than it is about Crosetti. The reason for Crosetti’s suicide remains a mystery, as it is often the case. And just like many sudden deaths, the living is left with the responsibility of processing it all. Crosetti’s sudden passing hangs a dark cloud over the unit, but Lewis feels the impact most brutally. When Giardello delivers the news, it’s apparent that he is emotionally crushed. He quickly goes into denial and seeks out another explanation for the death. For a homicide detective, the explanation is clear: Crosetti was the victim of foul play. Lewis’s reaction might not make sense. A seasoned detective might be more willing to look at the facts as they exist. But the show set up Lewis’s worldview early on in the second season episode “See No Evil.” When Det. Beau Felton’s friend is questioned by Lewis and Crosetti for the mercy killing of his father (played by an always gruff Wilford Brimley), Felton asks Lewis to look past the evidence and drop the case. Lewis’s response is matter-of-fact: “You go when you’re supposed to go, and everything else is homicide.” To accept that his partner may have committed suicide goes far beyond what Lewis comprehends of the world.

Determined to protect his partner’s reputation, Lewis asks Giardello to let him investigate the case. Giardello nixes that idea (Bolander is the primary), but allows Lewis to do his own side investigation. Lewis doesn’t so much investigate but interferes by stifling Bolander's investigation with Crosetti's family and friends. Though Bolander is certain that Crosetti committed suicide, he is nonetheless willing to investigate the case as thoroughly as any that comes across his desk. In fact, Bolander’s insistence on treating Crosetti’s death as any case causes friction between the detectives.

Gee isn’t exactly thrilled that Crosetti’s death may go down as a suicide either. As shift commander, he often runs interference between his squad and the brass, whose politicking stands in the way of good leg work from his detectives. When Capt. Barnfather (Clayton LeBeouf) shoots down the idea of an honor guard at Crosetti’s funeral (Crosetti’s death wasn’t the only recent suicide in the police force), Gee is faced with the prospect of what such a mark on Crosetti's record might mean. Barnfather, on the other hand, is circumspect. When reminded of the previous suicide, in which a detective slashed his wrists in a hotel bathtub, he replies, “What’s to get upset about. He knew when he did it we’d find him like that.” The brass is rather heartless in its concern for PR, but their reaction isn’t really that far removed from Gee’s or Lewis’s. Everybody is concerned about appearances, willing to smooth over the truth to soothe his own fears. Even Munch, who called the death a suicide before he learned who the victim was, is willing to entertain the idea of murder. Crosetti’s actions defy appearances as well. As Lewis would later admit to Bolander, even he was unaware of Crosetti's pain.

While Lewis and Bolander clash over the investigation, the rest of the detectives plan the funeral. Pembleton (Andre Braugher) whose Catholic faith was severely tested in the three-parter season premiere, refuses to attend the service. He has no interest in stepping inside another Catholic church again (while it isn't directly stated Crosetti was also Catholic given that he was Italian). Crosetti’s suicide only compounds his lack of faith in a God that will allow evil to flourish. The rest of the squad reacts as usual to his grandstanding. They're more preoccupied with supporting their fallen colleague. How will it look when Pembleton doesn’t show up for the funeral? However Pembleton is less concerned with appearances than he is with hypocrisy. After having been smitten with the truth, he cannot very well deny that truth than he can deny being a cop. In the end Pembleton is still struggling with his Jesuit upbringing.

There are two scenes in “Crosetti” which really stand out. The first involves Lewis when he finally realizes that his friend and partner committed suicide. Johnson does a superb job with Lewis's break down. He is a subtle actor whose naturalism fits perfectly with the show’s aesthetic. Check out his performance in “The City That Bleeds” when Gee breaks down over the shooting of three of his detectives. Johnson doesn’t say or do very much but listens and lets Kotto take center stage. He is a true player who is thoroughly engaged with the material even when he is asked to support his cast mates.

The second compelling scene occurs at the end with Pembleton when he honors Crosetti in his unique way. Pembleton’s act reveals that he has more respect for Crosetti as both a person and detective than he does for his faith or for that matter the higher-ups. Here duty becomes more than just an obligation to appearances but one that speaks truthfully to how he feels. This scene more than enough sets up the many contradictions and complexities that makes Pembleton such a fascinating character.

Both of these scenes elevate “Crosetti” from a good episode to a brilliant one. I should also throw out praise to scriptwriter James Yoshimura, who would go on to write the equally compelling and intelligent episodes “Every Mother’s Son” and “Subway,” both of which appear on my list of all-time greats. Yoshimura is able to delve deeply into the psyche of these characters and mine truths that often go unnoticed in primetime television.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Passing Love by Jacqueline E. Luckett: A Review

Passing Love, Jacqueline E. Luckett. New York: Grand Central Publishing; Pg. 297; 2012.

Ah, Paris. The City of Love, the City of Lights. Paris looms large in the literary imagination. Writers from Charles Dickens to James Baldwin has written about this romantic city and now Jacqueline E. Luckett (Searching for Tina Turner) joins their ranks with her 2012 novel Passing Love. Paris takes center stage in this tale about two women whose lives intertwine despite passages of time, the separation of two continents, and family secrets.

Nicole-Marie Handy, fifty and divorced, travels to Paris after her friend’s death and a surprise marriage proposal from her married lover. A teenaged RubyMae Garrett escapes from her racially stultifying Mississippi home with an older jazz musician who takes her to New Orleans, New York, and finally to the fabled Paris of her dreams. Nicole and RubyMae’s lives intersect when Nicole finds a photograph of her father, a WWII veteran who also studied at the Sorbonne, among a Parisian street vendor’s wares. On the back of the photo is a message written to RubyMae in her father’s handwriting. After realizing that this RubyMae is the same mysterious and beautiful woman in a photograph she recollects from her childhood, she calls back home for answers. Rather than answering her questions, Nicole's mother instead mails a packet of letters which slowly reveal who RubyMae is and the connection that binds them all together.

The secrets Nicole discovers are needless to say rather predictable. Yet Luckett wields this story with enough of a steady hand, alternating between the present and 1950s Paris, that the cliches don’t overwhelm her tale. Luckett’s greatest achievement however is in the creation of RubyMae Garrett, a fascinating, complex creation of naked ambition and endearing vulnerability. RubyMae, desperate to escape the racism of her small home town, remakes herself into Ruby Garrett, a jazz singer who performs along with her lover, Arnett Dupree, who, unlike Ruby, is unable to escape his own insecurities as an artist in a town that is now swept away by bebop. After tragedy sweeps into their lives, Ruby strikes it on her own, attempting to pursue a career as a singer, sleeping with one of Arnett's old jazz compatriots to get a gig or to pay her rent. When Ruby's plans don't pan out (Ruby’s ambitions far outweigh her talent), the ambitious social climber changes her name again to Josette Dupree and decides to go after a wealthy Frenchman who might be able to provide her with the lifestyle she feels she deserves. Ruby’s determination to break out of the narrow confines of racial identity leads her to a decision that will also decide Nicole’s fate.

Luckett addresses the matter of light-skinned blacks who passed into white society a bit too late in the novel to give the subject the depth it deserves, yet she does foreshadow Ruby’s decision throughout the novel. As Luckett writes early on, “Though she had never seen that huge ball of light covered in such a way, RubyMae knew it was different and so, too, was she.” Refusing to allow others to define her, Ruby sets out on a path all her own regardless of social conventions. Luckett neither excuses Ruby’s decision nor entirely condemns it. Rather she writes a character whose actions are both infuriating as well as empathetic. RubyMae could easily have been turned into a villain, but her rather naive vulnerability makes her a deeply sympathetic character. RubyMae is a woman who is as much shaped by the times as she is one who is determined to transcend them. 

Nicole’s story, on the other hand, isn’t as entirely successful. It veers toward cliches (cheating men, a friend dead from cancer), but Luckett smartly limits Nicole’s story on her search for RubyMae, for it is RubyMae who gives the novel its power. She bursts from the pages with such verve and imagination that she towers above the novel’s weaknesses and becomes as intriguing as her adopted city itself.   

Monday, February 13, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God - 75th Anniversary

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, New York: Harper & Row. 1937

This year is the 75th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. When it was first published in 1937, it won both critical praise and criticism within the black community for its perceived stereotypical portrayals of black southern life. Over the years it fell out of favor until it was rescued from oblivion by Alice Walker in the 1970s. Since then it has ranked high on the canon in English Lit, African American, and Women’s Studies.

Hurston’s novel has gone on to inspire many writers, including myself. I first heard of Their Eyes Were Watching God after reading Alice Walker’s essay “Finding Zora,” in her book of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and made it high on a list of books I wanted to read. When I finally read it I was swept away by Hurston’s rich language and languorous imagery of the 1930s South. Janie Crawford is a young, beautiful woman who battles both racism and sexism to find love and happiness. Unlike most heroines in romance novels, Janie doesn’t wait for things to happen to her, but reaches out and grabs at life, for both good and bad. As Janie herself understands early on, she “saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” After her grandmother marries a teenage Janie off to farmer Logan Killicks so that she can spare her granddaughter the hard life she believes is the fate of all black women, Janie languishes on the farm, dreaming that something better soon will come along to whisk her away. That “something better” arrives in the form of Joe “Jody” Starks, who indeed whisks Janie off the farm and delivers her to Eatonville, Florida, where he becomes both the town’s mayor and its successful businessman. Yet Joe’s early promise of liberation turns into another form of enslavement for Janie. In Jody’s store she is put up on a pedestal, prized more for her light skin than her mind and heart. Janie suffers for years under Jody’s abuse until he finally passes away, allowing Janie to free herself physically and emotionally from his chains.

Janie’s third and final chance at love comes in the form of the much younger Tea Cake Woods, a man who arrives in Eatonville with his guitar and harmonica and quickly sweeps the widow off her feet. In Tea Cake, Janie finally finds the love and freedom she has longed for since childhood. Unlike Logan and Jody, Tea Cake is Janie’s soulmate, as much comfortable in nature and song as Janie. In fact, Tea Cake woos Janie by taking her out on picnics and “making flower beds in Janie’s yard and seeding the garden for her.” Nature unites them as lovers:

[Janie] couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom---a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.

Janie follows Tea Cake to the Everglades where they work side-by-side in the bean fields. While Janie is working as she did when she was living on Killicks farm, she does so because she chooses to. Janie’s choice to be with Tea Cake, to go with him to the Everglades, are all her choices, even when those decisions rub against the resistance of the Eatonville community. Janie is neither a pretty doll to be put up on a pedestal nor a mule, but a woman who is slowly coming into own. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about one black woman’s struggle toward self-realization.

One of the strengths in this novel is its metaphoric language. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” so begins the novel. “For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.” This is the life Janie is born into, but it is the life she escapes from with Tea Cake. She is not content to be the “Watcher” bearing witnesses to the fulfillment of others. Trees, bees, and blossoms are also repetitive motifs which represent the flowering of Janie’s physical, emotional, and sexual maturation. The novel’s other greatest strength however is in its dialect. I usually detest dialect in novels. They’re rarely done well and often call attention to themselves in the worst way. Yet Hurston had a sharp ear for the musicality of black vernacular:

“It takes money tuh feed pretty women. Dey gits uh lavish uh talk.”

“Not lak mine. Dey loves to hear me talk because dey can’t understand it. Mah co-talkin’ is too deep. Too much co to it.”


“You ain’t never seen me when Ah’m out pleasurin’ and givin’ pleasure.”


“It’s uh good thing he married her befo’ she seen me. Ah kin be some trouble when Ah take uh notion.”


“Ah’m uh bitch’s baby round lady people.”

Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Florida with a father, like Jody Starks, who was also its mayor, used to sit on the porch of her home, listening to the men talk and trade jokes. Her ability to draw from their stories and distinctive way of speech resonates strongly in her work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is effecting precisely because she was a sharp observer of human behavior (Hurston also studied under anthropologist Franz Boas and spent several years in the field collecting folk tales and legends before she became a writer).

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not without flaws. There is one curious scene where Tea Cake, Janie’s soul mate, physically hits her to keep her from running off with Mrs. Taylor’s son. Mrs. Taylor, a woman in the camp, latches onto Janie for her light skin and nearly Caucasian features. She dislikes Tea Cake and thinks her son would be a more appropriate husband for Janie. While Tea Cake acknowledges he has no reason to believe that she would leave him for Taylor’s son, Tea Cake, mostly out of insecurity, conjures up this plan to keep her dependent on him. While there might be many arguments for why Hurston included this episode, much of which could center on the prevalence of colorism (blacks judging each other based on skin tone) within the black community, it’s still a bit shocking considering that Tea Cake was otherwise very tender toward Janie and treated her as his equal.

Nonetheless, Janie’s journey toward self-actualization grows deeper when both she and Tea Cake brave the hurricane and floods which ravage the Everglades. After Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, he goes mad. After Janie is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to save herself, she is put on trial. Janie’s character is held in judgment as the black community of the Everglades blame her for killing Tea Cake.

[Colored people] were all against her, she could see. So many were there against her that a light slap from each one of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks.
Hurston rarely deals with racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God, focusing instead on her beloved Eatonville and the Everglades communities which existed wholly without the white gaze. Hurston’s refusal to tell stories that reduced life to sociological study earned her the derision of writers like Richard Wright, who felt it was his responsibility as a writer to shine a light on the social condition of black people. However, Hurston’s work nonetheless strikes a nerve for the way it presents black folks as complex human beings, as burdened by problems of love, friendship, community, and gender as it was by race. On the surface, Janie’s pursuit of love might seem frivolous next to works such as Wright’s Pulitzer prizewinning Native Son, but it is in fact every bit as important for its insistence that the sexual liberation of black women is a revolutionary statement. Her voice, along with Hurston's, is a powerful one and certainly worth reading again 75 years later.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bop Gun - Homicide: Life on the Street

This review is a series of reviews of the ten best episodes of the 1990s TV drama Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Bop Gun, Story by Tom Fontana, Teleplay by David Mills and David Simon, Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. Aired 1/6/1994. NBC Home Entertainment. 1994.

"(Endangered species) Shoot them with the bop gun" -- Parliament/Funkadelic.

NBC ordered 9 episodes of the series Homicide: Life on the Street mid-season in 1993. When it showed moderate success in the ratings following its Super Bowl premiere, the network ordered 4 more, which it aired the next year. Considered its second season, these 4 episodes moved away from the de-saturated, grainy look of the year before, but kept the gritty realism that made the show a departure from other police procedurals. "Bop Gun," which was supposed to end the truncated season, instead opened it, mainly because of its guest-starring turn with comedian and actor Robin Williams. NBC executives had a habit of switching episode air dates beginning the previous year when they took the episode "Night of the Dead Living" out of its third episode line-up for fear that its unconventional storytelling (on a hot day, the detectives sit around the squad room, chewing the fat about this or that) would scare off potential viewers. They'd not only continue to interfere with the show’s air dates, but with the cast and stories as well. Still, during the second season, the series continued to maintain its gritty vision with "Bop Gun."

"Bop Gun" was written by the late David Mills, a former journalist for the Washington Post, and David Simon, whose book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets about his year spent in the Baltimore homicide department, became the basis for the series. This pedigree lends to surprising and interesting details about homicide investigations and its effects on all those involved. Dets. Kay Howard and Beau Felton investigate the murder of a young mother who was mugged and killed while touring Baltimore with her family. Unlike most police procedurals, which would focus on the investigation throughout show's running time, the detectives quickly arrest the young man responsible. Most of the episode, however, examines the emotional maelstrom the victims’ husband, Robert Ellison (Robin Williams), and his children (a young Jake Gyllenhaal plays his son Matt) experience. Williams, whose manic acting style has put off viewers, dials it down in this episode. He does a masterful job of portraying a man who is grieving for the sudden and violent death of his wife and his powerlessness to protect her even after death. When Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) jokes with his colleagues about how the red ball case (cases that the higher brass consider important enough to expend the department’s entire manpower and resources to investigate) will give him overtime pay, Ellison angrily demands that Felton be taken off the case. Williams presents Ellison as a man who is desperate to assert himself in any way no matter how fruitless to overcome the impotence he feels in his failure to protect his family. He bristles with a barely restrained anger and hostility that only lends to more frustration since his anger is directed mostly toward himself. You sense a man who wishes he could be as tough and heartless as the men who killed his wife, but knows all too well that even if he had a gun in his possession, as he suggests in another scene with Det. Bayliss when he asks to hold his gun, that he wouldn’t have had the courage to pull the trigger. As he tells Felton during the photograph line-up when he’s unable to pick out the perpetrators:

I bet if someone murdered your wife you’d remember all the faces, wouldn’t you? But I’m just an average guy; all I remember is the gun. I just stood there, staring at it. I just stood there and watched them kill my wife.

He fears that in the end he is a coward and that his own son knows this as well as he does.

The rest of the episode addresses Kay Howard’s (Melissa Leo) refusal to accept that the man who was arrested for the homicide, Vaughn Perkins (Lloyd Goodman), was indeed the perpetrator. Too much about the case---the fact that he didn’t have any major priors on his record and his remorse---doesn’t gel so, after asking for shift commander Lt. Al Giardello’s (Yaphet Kotto) permission, decides to do a shadow investigation to uncover the truth. Howard is less concerned with how, but why. This is a theme that runs throughout the series: the idea that investigating the motivations of the crimes won’t get you any closer to solving murders or will offer any satisfactory answers about why the killing happened in the first place. Much of Tim Bayliss’s stories focused on his obsession with understanding why. Here, Howard, who is the lone female investigator in the homicide unit, is the first one to obsesses over this question. Why would Vaughn, who was raised in a good home by an aunt and uncle and had all the advantages to succeed in life, so willingly squander these opportunities? Yet Vaughn’s life, fraught with the tragedy of losing his father to murder and coping with a mother with a drug habit, is anything but simple. Still, his older brother, who went through the same struggles as Vaughn, successfully avoided the traps Vaughn fell into. Howard’s investigation only leads to more questions and the inevitability of Vaughn’s guilt. When she meets him one last time in hold up, he admits to her about what happened in those seconds before tragedy struck. Hoping he could protect everyone from getting hurt, he instead became disoriented as the situation grew out of hand. Here, the episode presents a dichotomy. Whereas Ellison is powerless to protect his family, Vaughn is likewise powerless over events that quickly spin out of his control.

In the end, both men are caught in a situation where neither has control over their actions and are struggling to deal with the aftermath of what they did or didn't do. Both characters pull together themes that subtly give "Bop Gun" its emotional power---themes about masculinity and fatherhood (Robert and Matt; Vaughn and his deceased father) and how the boundaries of what define each have become blurred in a world where violence has become the only unambiguous definition of what it means to be a man.

Monday, February 6, 2012

America in Primetime: A Review

Last November, PBS aired a series called America in Primetime, which looked at television over the years and how it reflected the changing times. Broken down into four categories---Independent Woman, Man of the House, the Misfit, and The Crusader---the series, in which a number of TV stars, writers, and producers were interviewed, offered some unique perspectives about the power of television to address contemporary issues such as feminism, the changing roles of men in society, racism and so on. But while the series is pretty strong in arguing the significant role television has played in the arts, it nonetheless only scratches at the surface and fails to dig a little deeper in what television can and does say about America today.

Shondra Rhimes, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice
This is all the more apparent in one of the weaker episodes Independent Woman. Independent Woman addresses the changing roles of women in primetime television, drawing a distinct line between 1950s family sitcoms, when homemakers Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver were the epitome of feminine perfection, to the more complex and realistic portrayals of women in shows like Nurse Jackie, the Good Wife, Roseanne, and Grey’s Anatomy. The episode makes the argument that these sitcoms set up unrealistic expectations of women as housewives and mothers. Actresses such as Roseanne Barr and Julianna Margulies and producer Shondra Rhimes hammer this point home ad nauseum. This is an argument we’ve heard before. What the episode ignores however is how the depictions of women of color has had its own trajectory. While the show argues that sitcoms like Leave it the Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Dick Van Dyke Show praised stay-at-home moms, it leaves out the fact that some of the first depictions of working women in television were in fact black. The 1950s sitcom Beulah, starring Louise Beavers, which was undoubtably stereotypical in the worst way, nonetheless featured a woman who had to earn her own keep as a maid (the show played up the mammy stereotype where Beulah’s only concern was helping the befuddled white family through their daily problems, ignoring the fact that women such Beulah had to work to support their families). In the 1960s, both Nichelle Nichols and Diahann Carroll helped elevate the presence of black women in primetime on Star Trek and Julia respectively. While these portrayals were complicated in their own right (Nichols had threatened to leave the show because she was given very little to do until Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her that staying on would be a cultural blow for civil rights), they nonetheless showed black women as intelligent, competent, and independent.

Given the time constraints, it might be understandable that these groundbreaking roles would be ignored, but it’s completely bizarre that it would skip over Clair Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad, on the Cosby Show. Rashad’s portrayal of the competent and intelligent Clair was as important as Roseanne Connor on Roseanne in their diverse representation of independent women on television. Roseanne Barr, likewise, who was the only commentator to bring up the issue of class, correctly points out the lack of working class people in television and how her show was meant to address that omission. The episode fails to pick up this thread as it moves forward into the 1990s and the oughts, as cable television began to dominate quality television production. From Father Knows Best to Sex and the City to The Sopranos to Desperate Housewives, the lives of women have always been portrayed within the confines of the professional middle class. And while the series makes the point that cable television freed up writers and producers to pursue topics that aren’t advertiser-friendly, it fails to bring up the fact that even cable television continues to portray a decidedly narrow vision of the world through a middle class lens (the only notable exceptions of course are the HBO dramas The Wire, Treme, and True Blood).

Norman Lear, All In the Family
The second episode, Man of the House, fairs a little better in terms of diversity. Here, The Cosby Show and The Bernie Mac Show are shown alongside such series as Mad Men, Big Love, Breaking Bad, and Men of A Certain Age in their depiction of the modern day man. As with Independent Women, Man of the House compares the portrayals of men in the 1950s with contemporary depictions, revealing how the feminist movement have left men adrift in their effort to redefine their role in society. The argument is largely a sympathetic one with writers/producers like Shondra Rhimes and Diablo Cody offering their own empathies about the difficulty men have had in finding a balance in a world where the rules have become more ambiguous. Whereas men like Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver were the kings of their castles, today’s men are either bumbling buffoons like Homer Simpson or complicated and self-doubting as the characters on Men of A Certain Age. While this episode does a good job of covering its subject, I still wish it could have gone even deeper. For instance, when The Simpsons writer, Al Jean, says “I’ve always had this theory that people want the mother in the family to be stable and not a buffoon, and the father you can really get away with a lot,” I wanted to know more about what other writers and showrunners, particularly those who are attempting to create a more complex portrayal of men, might think or feel about that. And how does the AMC drama Breaking Bad touch on the affect of socio-economics on men in these changing times? It would also have been nice if they’d given a shout-out to John Goodman’s character on Roseanne. While not as showy as Roseanne’s character, his Dan Connor also set new standards in the depiction of blue collar, working-class men.

Michael K. Williams, The Wire, Boardwalk Emp
The next two episodes do far better jobs of covering the groundwork in their subjects. The Misfit addresses the way in which outsiders, nonconformists, and loners have become significant archetypes in TV, particularly in sitcoms, though dramas and dramedies such as Twin Peaks, Six Feet Under, and Freaks and Geeks are also explored. The final episode The Crusader is the only one that offers a glimpse of what the three previous episodes could have become. The Crusader addresses another popular television archetype, the (anti)heroic crusader who seeks justice. Here, the episode covers everything from M*A*S*H to The X-Files to The Wire and goes over the typical comments you’d expect from such a topic, but where it dovetails from the previous episodes is how it allows the principal players themselves to argue and counter argue on various points. When some commentators remark on how television is able to go into far greater character depth than film, David Chase, who executive produced The Sopranos, counters that film can be every bit as complex as television. During a segment on the Showtime series Dexter, executive producers David Simon and Tom Fontana (both of whom worked on Homicide: Life on The Street, as well as The Wire, Treme, and Oz respectively) weigh in with their abhorrence over a show that glorifies a serial killer. I wanted more of this back and forth because it elevated the conversation beyond the usual comments. 

Needless to say, with only four hour-long episodes to cover each topic, America in Primetime wasn’t able to cover everything. What it does cover offers a primer on the direction television has taken in the last fifty years. Still, it had the opportunity to take a much bolder approach by asking serious questions about how America is depicted in television, both positive and negative. Does a show like Sex and the City conform to old stereotypes about women in new packages? Has cable television become just as formulaic as broadcast networks? Does television do an adequate job on issues of class and race? And what about sexuality and the role cable has had in breaking down those barriers? Considering how important television has become in the last fifteen years, I think the medium deserves a deeper analysis.

All episodes of the series can be viewed on the site.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Homicide: Life on the Street Premiered Nineteen years Ago Today

Nineteen years ago today, Homicide: Life on the Street premiered on NBC after the Superbowl. Executive produced by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, Homicide aired nine episodes that season and another four the following year. Shot in grainy, desaturated footage on hand-held cameras, the NBC drama quietly revolutionized television by offering a more realistic approach to police procedurals. This show wasn’t as concerned about the cases or about showing cops as all-heroic figures chasing after the bad guys, but as prickly, sometimes unlikable human beings who cared as much about their overtime pay as putting down cases. Based on the nonfiction work Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon (who would go on to produce HBO’s The Wire and Treme), Homicide: Life on the Street survived for seven years despite low ratings and little Emmy recognition.

To be honest, I slept on this series during much of its run (though I did catch the last five minutes of that premiere episode). I didn’t get into it until I started catching late-night reruns on Court TV and became a fan. While the quality of the show waxed and waned during the later seasons, mostly due to network executive interference, it continued to be a pretty high mark in broadcast television.

I came up with a list of the ten best episodes from the show, which I will post intermittently over the next few months. These episodes I think are pretty good examples of how Homicide excelled at delivering great drama.

"Three Men & Adena," written by Tom Fontana, Directed by Martin Campbell. Air date: 3/3/93. NBC Home Entertainment. 1993.

The Adena Watson case, the sexual assault and murder of an eleven year old girl, would become the white whale for not only rookie detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), who was the primary on the case, but for the show as well. During its seven seasons, the writers would refer back to this case. Unlike other police procedurals, Adena Watson’s murder was never closed. This was the real genius of Homicide: it realistically addressed the fact that some cases are never solved, that some people really do get away with murder. During the first nine-episode season, the Adena Watson murder often crowded out other, equally compelling cases. It certainly became apparent to the writers that this case, along with the lead actors playing Bayliss and Det. Frank Pembleton (the always impeccable Andre Braugher) could deliver scintillating drama on the screen. Case in point: Three Men & Adena. Airing five weeks into the original run (it’s the sixth episode on the DVD set), Three Men & Adena is as exactly as its title implies: three men Dets. Bayliss and Pembleton and their prime suspect, Risley Tucker aka The Arabber (Moses Gunn’s final performance here, also equally compelling) are holed up in the box (the detectives’ clever name for the interrogation room). That’s it, the entire episode. And yet so much drama and action occurs in this enclosed anteroom. Both Bayliss and Pembleton try to force a confession out of the Arabber. Since they have no other evidence that will hold up in court to charge him with, they have exactly twelve hours to wring one out of him (the Arabber had been interviewed many times before and the law stipulated a limitation to the number of interviews detectives can subject a suspect without charging him with a crime, so both Pembleton and Bayliss were literally on the line with this one). The Arabber however proves to be a formidable opponent and, at one point even turns the tables on both detectives and starts reading their numbers.

The episode is a tour-de-force of television drama. Braugher, Secor, and Gunn are like jazz saxophonists here, playing in perfect harmony and yet capable of delivering great, improvisational solos. But what I love most about this episode is the ebbs and flows to the drama, the way the action and dramatic beats are paced to keep the episode from becoming melodramatic. Each dramatic flourish is carefully calibrated so that by the end of the episode you really feel as if twelve hours have passed and much ground has been covered and yet so very little has changed. Well, that’s not entirely true. While the detectives fail to get the confession they need to close this case, they have been changed by the experience, though not always for the better. The mercurial Pembleton, who never wanted a partner, realizes that for better or worse, Bayliss is his, and despite differences in style, attitude, and outlooks on being murder police, will become his rabbi. Eager and wet-behind-the-ears Bayliss has been wrung through his own crucible, one which will haunt him throughout the course of the series. Bayliss starts off certain that the Arabber did it, but by the end of the episode he is riddled with doubt, not only about The Arabber’s guilt but about his own skills as a detective. Since Bayliss is both the eyes and ears of the audience into this world, his doubts become our own. All the baggage we bring into police procedurals, all the cliches and expectations, are suddenly upended. Was the Arabber guilty? Was he innocent? Homicide never answers these questions. And here the show’s genius reveals itself again: Homicide was never interested in presenting clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong. The world it was creating was much grayer, less certain, but always compelling.

The episode has a lot in common with Twelve Angry Men, which got its start as a network drama in the 1950s before it was produced as a major film starring Henry Fonda. The drama relies on dialogue to move the action forward. And the dialogue here crackles with tension. While the show wasn’t lavished with many Emmy recognitions the way other lesser shows have during this period, it didn’t always go home empty-handed. Producer Tom Fontana, who wrote the episode, was awarded with Best Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Simon and the late David Mills also won an Emmy for writing the second-season episode Bop Gun, which will be reviewed later; and Braugher took home a Best Actor award as well).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Half Of A Yellow Sun - A Review

Yesterday I found out that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's second novel Half Of A Yellow Sun is being adapted into a film. Yesterday it was announced that Thandie Newton has joined the production, which will begin shooting this March. This is all great news because I loved reading Half Of A Yellow Sun and look forward to the film. I wrote a review of the novel several years ago for another site, so I'm bringing it here for the occasion. 

 Not since the Civil War have Americans experienced the gut reality of war in their own backyards. Although the U.S. has engaged in various excursions over the centuries, including at present in Iraq, and many Americans have lost friends and family members to war, most civilians have as much experience with the mundane realities of life during wartime as they have experiencing life on Mars. War has become a foreign concept to many of us, which is a shame because, unfortunately, our literature reflects this lack of experience. While we have had writers such as Ernest Hemingway or Tim O'Brien who have written about their war experiences (WWI and Vietnam respectively) they usually write from the perspective of veterans. It is rare for an American writer to explore what life is like for civilians under the constant threat of death and destruction unless she is writing from an historical perspective.

9/11, of course, could change that. But even the terrorist attacks against the United States doesn't compare to the daily terror citizens face in other countries under the auspices of war. Therefore, writers from other countries who have experienced war have often been left to pick up the slack, exploring the very ways in which violence infiltrates the most intimate and mundane facts of life. One such writer who has taken up this mantle is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her latest novel Half of A Yellow Sun, which depicts the war which ripped her native Nigeria apart during the 1960s. Described as the "21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe" by the Washington Post Book World, Adichie captures the horror, mystery, and insanity of war, while also delving into the more intimate and personal daily struggles of her characters.

Half of A Yellow Sun depicts a Nigeria swept up in the turbulence of the period. Following the end of colonial rule, the country plunges into a war when Biafrans, who are majority Igbo, struggle to establish an independent sovereign nation. With the support of Britain and the United States, northern Nigeria engages in a brutal crackdown on Biafrans. Many Biafrans are slaughtered or are forced to flee from their homes. Adichie describes the horror of these events through the perspectives of three characters–Ugwu, a thirteen year old houseboy for the intellectual professor Odenigbo; Olanna, Odenigbo's lover and later wife; and Richard, the British ex-pat who falls in love with Olanna's twin sister, Kainene. Their personal lives are a backdrop to the epic drama, highlighting themes of reconciliation, independence, and identity.

The personal dramas of her characters involve familial estrangements, affairs, illegitimate children, class and racial differences, and self-hatred. In the hands of a lesser writer, these themes would disintegrate into melodrama, but Adichie applies a quiet and subtle self-assurance to her material that respects and heightens these little dramas under the backdrop of the greater horrors that take place during war. War is treated with an even-handedness that likewise becomes frighteningly mundane. When Olanna, after being caught up in the ethnic cleansing against the Biafrans, travels home by a train crowded with other fleeing refugees, she is haunted by the image of the decapitated head of a woman's child, which the woman keeps in a calabash. Her language is direct, uncompromising, and shocking in its simplicity:

Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl's head with the ashy-gray skin and the braided hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed.

The woman closed the calabash. "Do you know," she said, "it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair."

Even in the face of such evil, the longing for the normal and mundane becomes a life raft for those caught up in the throes of war. When Kainene, against military orders, crosses enemy lines to continue her black market business to provide much needed goods and food to refugees in the camps, her actions are predicated less by the needs of these refugees but her own desire to find a semblance of order in her pre-war life as an independent and enigmatic entrepreneur running the family business. The ways in which war rips apart lives and complicates the often complex web of relationships between her characters are the main themes of Adichie's fine novel. Death is both brutal and arbitrary, as Richard soon discovers when an airport official is slaughtered by Nigerian soldiers after his Igbo origins are discovered. Most Americans might not be able to relate to the fears of being forcefully conscripted into army, which is the issue that commands much of houseboy Ugwu's story after the family flees to a refugee camp, but can certainly relate to his desire for love and his willingness and foolishness to risk danger when he walks a young sweetheart home. This one simple and endearing act sweeps Ugwu into the middle of the events that are ripping the country apart when he is snatched by Biafran soldiers and is forced to fight in the civil war. The sequence when Ugwu is sent to training camp is both heartrending and ironic as it becomes apparent that the Biafran army, lacking weaponry, training, and discipline, is unmatched against the better trained Nigerian forces. Yet Ugwu's need to place the conflicts that are tearing his country and people apart in context, such as his obsession with a paperback copy of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, do not spare him from becoming complicit in the evil and bloodshed he has witnessed thus far. The gang rape of a barmaid during a night of revelry by a group of soldiers whose youth and immaturity are exacerbated by the immorality of war haunts young Ugwu for the remainder of the novel.

While the story of Olanna and Odenigbo's marital discord might seem like an anomaly in the face of the greater horrors taking place, their relationship forms the moral heartbeat of the novel and reveals how even the normal problems of marriage–lack of communication, betrayal, commitment–parallels their compatriots' independent struggles. As Biafra attempts to break away from Nigeria and form a national identity, often in the face of its own political, social, and class differences, Olanna and Odenigbo struggle to keep their marriage together despite Odenigbo's betrayal. The glimmers of hope in their reconciliation during their journey from their home to refugee camps provide the glimmers of hope that Biafra and Nigeria will see through their regional differences and that both war-ravaged nations will find peace.

Adichie's novel, nonetheless, is not a fantasy, nor does it offer simple resolutions. Her characters' growth come from the hard-won realities of life and war. Adichie neither placates the reader nor presents a sanitized portrait of Biafrans–they can be every bit as snobbish, arrogant, enigmatic, confused, and complicated as they are passionate about their country's freedom. Rather, Adichie documents the history of her country and allows the reader to come to her own conclusions.

Half of A Yellow Sun, which represents the flag of the independent Biafra, is a crowning achievement for so young a writer. Adichie documents a moment in African history that is otherwise overlooked, bringing to the intimacies of war a clarity that is rarely experienced on American shores. Haunting and sparse, Half of A Yellow Sun joins a pantheon of great African literature documenting post-colonialism and its haunting and troubling aftermath.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Black Power Mix Tapes 1967-1975: A Review

Between the late 1960s and the 1970s, Black America had undergone huge transformations. This was due largely to the Civil Rights Movement, but the Black Power Movement not only heightened the social and political consciousness of black people in America, but also set trends in the look and attitude of young black people across the country. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), broke ranks with civil rights leader Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in terms of their philosophical attitudes regarding social and political movements, and pursued a more aggressive stance toward black liberation. Coining the phrase, “Black Power,” Carmichael embraced the philosophy of self-defense, inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, which was formed in the mid-60s by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton to resist political and economic oppression. By the late sixties, black folks were chanting “Black Power” and rejecting the non-violence philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement.

The radicalization of Black America has been chronicled in many works, including Henry Hampton’s award-winning documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” But, until recently, very few focused solely on the Black Power Movement. Last year, IFC Entertainment released The Black Power Mix Tapes 1967-1975, a documentary film based on archival footage shot by Swedish journalists. Written and directed by filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson, the film offers a more balanced look at that period in Black American history.

The archival footage that was shot during this period are edited in chronological order in the film and broken down into 9 chapters, beginning with 1967 and ending in 1975. The film not only covers Carmichael’s rejection of Dr. King’s philosophy, but the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam in the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy in the late 60s, as well as the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which destroyed the Black Panthers and other militant groups and the break down of the black community due to poverty and drugs in the ‘70s act as backdrops against the movement, offering as explanation its militancy and eventual tragedies.

The footage is strong and offers sides of the power players in the movement that weren’t available on American TV. In fact, the film brings up the notion of journalistic propaganda when an editor of TV Guide criticizes the anti-American negativity in much of the reporting in Sweden. While the editor concedes during an interview taken by the Swedish film crew that much of the news coming out of the States is negative, he goes on to state that Americans have a far more complex view of what was happening in the country at the time than the Swedes. This is hardly a winning argument, but it does reveal how propaganda against black radicals was filtered through even fluff publications like TV Guide. The footage the Swedish journalist shot is relevant because, unlike many American journalism, it offers a different, more balanced perspective of black radical politics.

Undercutting the footage are voice interviews of figures as diverse as Angela Davis, commenting much on her own experiences during that time; Harry Belafonte, Questlove of the Roots, singers Erykah Badu and John Forte, poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets and other philosophical and historical luminaries. Their reflections of that period offer a context that bridges the past with the present, drawing connections between the advances of the Black Power Movement and its failures.

While the film is informative and valuable, there are a few drawbacks. As the filmmakers Olssen contends, the Black Power Mix Tapes doesn’t cover everything that happened during that period. Nor should it have to. Yet the latter half of the film falters because of those omissions. During the 1974-1975 chapters, the documentary focuses on Harlem and how the drug war caused a terrible and irrevocable shift in the black community. The West coast, which had gotten some coverage due to the Black Panthers movement, is ignored, which is a shame since so much was happening here in the 1970s, from the rise of the Bloods and the Crips in the Los Angeles region due to the fractionalization of many Black Power groups to the disintegration of the Black Panthers and its leaders, including Huey Newton. Despite that one flaw, the documentary is a powerful chronicle of a movement that is largely warped in the American imagination and offers a primer to those who want to know more about this significant period in political history.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Schooling On MLK and the Civil Rights Movement

Today is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and as we honor this day I thought I’d make up a short list of works, both creative and scholarly, that are about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. One thing is for certain, there are very few people who know about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, outside of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. These works, I think, offer a broader perspective of who Dr. King was and what the civil rights movement actually did to fight for social justice. This is not an extensive list, by no means, but it does offer an entryway into a movement whose effects of social activism still touch us today.

Eyes on The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1964; Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Crossroads 1965-1985

In 1987 and 1990, PBS aired this award-winning 14-hour documentary about the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery Bus boycott to the legislative and electoral victories and failures of the 1980s. Produced by Henry Hampton, Eyes on the Prize uses news footage of all the important players and events in the movement from the bus boycott to the election of the first black mayor in Chicago, Harold Washington. Eyes on the Prize offers a more complex view of the Civil Rights movement and its longterm effects in American society.

America in the King Years Trilogy by Taylor Branch

Noted historian, Taylor Branch wrote a trilogy of books exhaustively documenting the Civil Rights movement much in the same way as Eyes on the Prize. Beginning with Parting the Water: America in the King Years 1954-1963, which won the Pulitzer, then leading into Pillar of Fire 1963-1965, and At Canaan’s Edge 1965-1968, the trilogy delves not only into the Civil Rights movement, but documents the Nation of Islam and the rise and assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther movement, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and their reactions to the Civil Rights movement, as well as the various men and woman, including Ella Baker, Montgomery N.A.A.C.P. chapter president E.D. Nixon, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Vernon Dahmer, Fannie Lou Hamer and others, who were as much if not more important figures in the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King.


In 2001, HBO aired this docu-drama about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King and directed by Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T., The Wire), Boycott captures a moment in civil rights history that catapulted Dr. King into national and international prominence. Wonderfully acted and directed, the film brings a modern edge to these historical events and make them more accessible to today’s young audiences.

Dreamer by Charles Johnson

Johnson’s 1999 novel about Dr. King takes a moment in the civil rights leader’s life---when he took his campaign north to Chicago---and extrapolates larger questions about race and inequality. Told from three perspectives---Dr. King, his aide Matthew Bishop, and a King lookalike Chaym Smith---Dreamer has an almost hallucinogenic quality to it as it goes back and forth between all three perspectives. While certainly not a novel for anyone who knows little to nothing about the history, it does offer different and more profound inquiries about both Dr. King and the movement toward social justice in general.

Freedom Riders

Earlier last year, PBS aired another documentary on the Civil Rights movement, this time focusing solely on the Freedom Rides campaign in 1961 to enforce desegregation laws in interstate traveling. The two hour documentary covered the thousands of people who were a part of the Freedom Rides as they boarded Trailways and Greyhound buses and traveled through the south, facing down some of the most virulent hatred and violence the movement faced up to date. The documentary does an excellent job of revealing the bravery of the young men and women who undertook the campaign and how this campaign became a significant turning point in the movement.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Thousand Lives, a new nonfiction account of the Jonestown Massacre by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres. New York: Free Press. 2011

909 people lost their lives in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, the majority of whom were children. Brought to the remote jungle compound in Guyana by Peoples Temple pastor, Rev. Jim Jones, many of the followers were people genuinely committed to building a socialist utopian society. Others were mesmerized by the fiery and charismatic leader himself, believing that Jones was God in the flesh. What they found in Peoples Temple and later in Jonestown was a nightmare that continues to haunt to this day.

Countless works both in print and film have sought to uncover exactly what led to this monstrous tragedy, from Tim Reiterman’s account of the Peoples Temple and his own experience as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in which he witnessed the assault and slaying of members of an American delegation, including the U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, who came to investigate the compound (Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People) to high-profile Jonestown defector Debbie Layton’s memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. Few accounts however attempted to the tell the story from the perspective of the rank-and-file members (in 1995, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown massacre, Hyacinth Thrash, published The Onliest One Alive, Surviving Jonestown, a memoir of her experiences in the religious sect; and Stanley Nelson’s PBS produced documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple likewise examines the history from the perspective of other survivors and defectors). Julia Scheeres’ latest book A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, offers another look at what life was actually like in Jonestown leading up to the massacre.

Scheeres comes to this latest account with some personal background. In her memoir, Jesus Land, she wrote about growing up in a Christian conservative family. Therefore she offers a unique perspective of people who are drawn to evangelical groups. While Scheeres covers a lot of familiar ground, her research looks beyond the stereotypes of brainwashed followers willing to drink the “Kool-Aid,” but of people genuinely committed to creating a more equitable society. The sensitivity she brings to the subject is apparent. As she writes, “You won’t find the word cult in this book, unless I’m directly citing a source that uses the word. My aim here is to help readers understand the reasons that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church...” And indeed you do not come across such reductive reasonings. Scheeres is careful to present her subjects with a sympathetic honesty that attempts to explain why so many people were willing to abandon reason.

I should state that, as with Scheeres, I attempted to write my own fictional account of the people of Jonestown, but realized that this story is too real, too vivid, too large for the imagination to wrap itself around. The voices that ring clearly throughout Scheeres’ work deserve to be heard unabridged. Here, Temple followers such as Thrash and her sister Zipporah, Edith Roller, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bogue, provide a more personal look at the lives of the ordinary people whose faith in Jones proved deadly (of the people whom Scheeres covers only Hyacinth Thrash, Stanley Clayton, and Jim and Tommy Bogue survived the massacre). Relying on previously published works as well as recently released FBI documents (along with transcripts of audiotapes and Edith Roller’s journals), she presents a far-reaching and more frightening portrait of life in Jonestown than before presented. Abuse was rampant. Family members were forced to turn on each other for fear of being punished, which included being set upon by other members, as was the case when young Tommy and his friend Brian attempted to escape Jonestown through the surrounding jungle. Recorded on audiotape, Jones and other members berate the two teens and even spat upon and physically assaulted them:

The recording shows Jones’s disturbing ability to switch from a gentle rebuke to an enraged bellow in the space between two words as he whips the crowd into an angry frenzy. A woman shrieked that the boys were “shameful bastards,” and “goddamn white fascist bigots.” More insults followed, and violence was expected, encouraged. “Vile filth,” Jones called them, before spitting several times. Tommy’s mother, Edith, rushed forward to slap her son’s face repeatedly until Jones told her “enough.”

Later, his mother suggested that “she cut the boys’ heads off, then commit suicide...”  Other dissenters were punished by being placed in a box, forced to perform menial duties while chained in irons, humiliated in front of other members (one couple who broke the rules against conjugal relations were forced to have sex in front of the group while an elderly woman was forced to parade naked for another infraction) or outright drugged. Madness reigned in Jonestown and very few people, including those who were not completely caught up in its throes, were able to reason themselves out of the trap they had fallen into.

Reading these accounts, one wonders why so many people tolerated such abuse and didn’t attempt to overthrow Jones. Yet the constant fear Jones installed in the atmosphere made it next to impossible. His drug-induced paranoia created a distrustful and paranoiac environment where everyone, from the U.S. and Guyanese governments, defectors, Concerned Relatives (defectors and families of members who sought to rescue loved ones still trapped in Jonestown) were all enemies ready to attack the Temple and torture children. Jones initiated what he referred to as “white nights,” all-night rallies in which he broke down his followers’ reluctance to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Jones, whose plan to commit mass suicide began long before any members arrived in Jonestown, would often test their loyalties and prepare them for the eventual act by forcing them to drink a supposedly poisoned concoction. The constant abuse and fear, the armed guards, the paranoia, and distrust created a dispiriting and ugly atmosphere in which many were left disoriented, confused, fearful, and demoralized. Isolated from the rest of the world (letters were routinely censored or withheld from members and world news was twisted to reveal a vast conspiracy against Jonestown), many of the victims were forced to rely on Jones’s increasingly twisted vision of the world.

Despite the constant manipulation, Jones’s followers were much more committed to the ideals that the Peoples Temple espoused rather than the ugly reality it became. How each of the followers arrived at the conclusion that Jones was not who he appeared to be is as varied as the individuals themselves. For Hyacinth Thrush, whose faith helped carry her through the ordeal, it was Jones’s blasphemous rejection of the Bible she held dear. For Jim Bogue, it was Jones’s lies, manipulations and interference in his marriage. For Jim’s son, Tommy, it was the constant abuse and punishment he suffered for even the slightest infractions. Likewise for Stanley Clayton, whose own infractions became the source of violent retribution. Edith Roller, who was committed to the progressive ideals which led her to Peoples Temple, was nonetheless disquieted by the contradictions she saw in Jones’s actions. Jones himself emerges not only as a megalomaniac who tortured and exploited the people he claimed to love, but a foulmouthed manipulator who boasted of his sexual prowess during sermons.  

I’ve read countless versions of this story and I am still shocked at the level of abuse people suffered at the hands of Jones and his most loyal followers. Thirty-three years have passed since that terrible event, and still it calls out to the present, a terrible warning of what happens when otherwise good people are manipulated. Above all else, as Scheeres states at the end of the book, these were “noble idealists” who “wanted to create a better, more equitable, society.” A Thousand Lives does a great service in keeping their stories and their memories alive as an object lesson. In a world that has grown increasingly unstable, we would do well to remember the lessons Jonestown teaches.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc. by Jonathan Lethem

Since his debut novel As She Climbed Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem has become one of the more noted contemporary writers of the past twenty years, listed alongside such names as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Rick Moody as voices of their generation. In the recently published collection of his nonfiction work over the past ten years, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc., Lethem tackles such topics as literature, comic books, cinema, art, music, etc. to expand the notions of what influences him as a writer and all writers of his generation.

Most of the essays included in the collection are culled from previous publications, but a few, like the much discussed essay “My Disappointment Critic/On Bad Faith,” where he goes head-to-head with preeminent critic James Wood, are new. The essays are a strange mix of reviews, introductions to books, interviews, and rambling musings (“The Drew Barrymore Stories” is but one prime example) and the effect often left me from disoriented and mildly amused to intrigued. Lethem is at his most convincing however when he leaves behind his experimental affectations and digs deeply into the heart of pop culture to unearth gems of observation. In "Donald Sutherland’s Buttocks," he writes affectingly about the film Don’t Look Now, starring Sutherland and Julie Christie, and how it’s celebrated and contested love scene still moves him years after his first viewing. He extrapolates even deeper by yearning for a cinema that can address sexuality with an honesty and forthrightness as expressed in that film. “Am I calling for a return to reticence, to mystery? No. I’m calling for what I don’t know to be calling for, I’m calling for surprise, for complicity delivered in an instant, I’m calling for filmic moments that lure and confuse me the way sex can, at its best.”  Having seen Don’t Look Now, I was especially moved by his argument, not only in my response to and observations of this film but of my own work as well. In “Dancing About Architecture or Fifth Beatles,” he takes his memories of learning to dance and goes further to explore pop culture’s egalitarian pretenses both glorious and ridiculous. In “The Ecstasy of Influence,” he argues in favor of pop cultural piracy and how every artist in a way plagiarizes from other sources and influences. As he writes:

If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without the Flintstones---more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths---The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ that link Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T.S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.

He ends the essay with a bibliography of sorts of mishmashed ideas or outright lifting of previous sources to make his point. Written in 2007 for Harper’s, it’s an interesting argument, especially in light of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that has been winding through Congress as of late. Whether such an argument is compelling or not (and I’m not entirely convinced of it myself, though SOPA is an outright vulgarization of the original intent of copyright law), ought to have little bearing. Lethem makes you think and that is at best what a good writer ought to do.

While not all of his essays work, Lethem nonetheless writes compellingly and passionately about his subjects. His love and knowledge of literature is inarguable and his desire to elevate pop culture to the realm of high art, successfully or unsuccessfully, is certainly admirable. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc. could have used some more tight editing (leaving out some of the more nonsensical pieces that interrupted the flow of thought from one essay to the next) and there were a few typographical errors that were unfortunate glitches in otherwise well-written arguments. However the best of his essays far outweigh the weaknesses in the collection and I encourage anyone who is a fan of Lethem’s work or who simply wants to read and think about culture should pick up this collection.