'Criticism is the only thing that stands between the audience and advertising.' - Pauline Kael


Paul Robeson With Oakland, Ca. Shipyard Workers, 1942

Black August

So in order to best cover all bases, progressive film critics tend to consider three categories of assessment, rather than two: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The first two are self-explanatory. And the third category is reserved for movies that may have been impressively put together, but there's just something offensively anti-humanistic about them.

Stay tuned......

The Organizer

Monday, December 28, 2009

Race And Politics In Movies: Obama, Precious And The Blind Side

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the darkness of any given movie theatre, from Main Street USA to MLK Boulevard, they surround us: white America’s Hollywood objects of desire, playing romance and adventure in full amnesiac bloom. They taunt and entice, radiating spunk and derring-do in the face of strenuous man-hunting, universe-saving, dragon slaying and average hardworking Americana family-hood. Missing from the studio green light rosters are the tales of the ambitious, play by the rules black girls and boys newly-minted in the job market and beat down by underemployment. The ones who are initiated into adulthood on reverse discrimination screeds heralding the white working class as the last acceptably dumped on “minority.” The ones who are promised that the legions of Talented Tenth blacks armed with college degrees will level institutional racism. The ones who must quietly “absent” themselves from their resumes as white convicted felons, cashing in on their birthright, waltz through corporate doors.

A recent New York Times article on black college grads’ struggle to find jobs should be sobering for anyone with the deluded belief that Obama’s Talented Tenth magic will rub off on them. According to the Times, some black college grads, fearing that they will forever be consigned to fast food fryers or professional irrelevance, are changing their names from Rashida to Heidi, Omari to Chip (or Barack to Barry). Staggering black unemployment rates five percent above the national average have made black job applicants desperate to preempt racist discrimination by potential employers. In some instances, graduates of historically black colleges and universities have deleted all reference to their tenure and omitted mentions of involvement in ethnically suspect groups.

These trends point to the larger paradox of black invisibility. The Congressional Black Caucuses’ (CBC) futile White House lobby for targeted initiatives to address black unemployment underscores the divide between the image of black assimilation suggested by the hyper-telegenic Obama family and the reality of post-Jim Crow segregation. Jockeying for a white norm, blacks must effectively water themselves down, evacuate their social histories and memorialized sense of self and accomplishment. Racist death threats against Obama, coon/welfare mother cheat references on AOL news posts and Fox News fueled tea party insurgencies offer a steady avalanche of evidence that representations of blackness remain fixed in the white mainstream mind.

Indeed, the current crop of mainstream film narratives about blackness, from the blockbuster white woman’s burden romp The Blind Side to the lurid ghetto pathology of Precious—offer powerful affirmation of the seductive lure and redemptive powers of whiteness. Released in an era where the rhetoric of post-racialism has reached surreal fever pitch, both films are essentially bookended portraits of the perils of being an orphaned black child in a dysfunctional racial “subculture.” The character Precious initially achieves agency by fantasizing herself thin, “pretty” and white, while Blind Side protagonist Michael Oher escapes the “Moynihanian” churn of black poverty into the healing arms and tough love of a benevolent white mistress, or, rather, adoptive mama. Although Precious gets props for spotlighting the subjectivity of a non-traditional black female protagonist, it does nothing to disrupt patriarchal assumptions about black femininity or challenge the masculinist culture of violence that underlies Precious’ sexual abuse by her father. The unrelenting bleakness and solipsistic vacuum of Precious’ swaggering welfare mother’s den in the projects effectively lets the dominant culture off the hook. Lacking historical context or socioeconomic critique of the complicity of racist sexist social institutions, these films offer comforting retrograde portrayals of good and evil, where transformation of individual circumstance is the bellwether for social change.

Ultimately, these triumphal human spirit over adversity morality plays go down well with prevailing conservative bromides of bootstraps enterprise and white (or, in the case of Precious, light-skinned black) patronage. Popular culture messages such as these also bolster Obama’s trickle down doctrine of “benign” ghetto neglect. Bailing Wall Street and his corporate cronies out to mega-billions while kicking the CBC to the curb, Obama has symbolically wagged his finger and reminded us hardheaded Negroes once again that he never promised black America any kind of Rose Garden.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a commentator for Pacifica Sister Station Sister KPFK 90.7FM. She is a member of The Women Film Critics Circle and The James Agee Political Cinema Circle.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Capitalism, A Love Story: Workers Of The World, Unite!

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By Ed Rampell

Michael Moore is the foremost documentarian of our times. He is to 21st century America what the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the director of the Kino Pravda (Film Truth) series, was to the Russian Revolution: the man with the movie camera, who see and chronicles social rights and wrongs, interpreting reality through a roving, relentless, restless, rabblerousing camera lens, determined to tell all to the folks out there in movie-land.

The release of a new Moore doc is a major media event. Indeed, shortly before his latest work was released, the Oscar and Cannes winner appeared on Jay Leno’s revamped NBC-TV program and on Sept. 23 (the day it opened in L.A. and New York) was a guest on Larry King’s CNN gabfest, and scheduled to visit Bill Maher’s ”Real Time” HBO show at the end of the week. What other nonfiction cineaste has such ballyhoo heft and can say that?

The good news is that Capitalism, A Love Story is another Michael Moore instant classic, and in his considerable, 20-year-long oeuvre – which spurred revitalization of the documentary as an art form, as well as an entertainment medium -- is second in quality and power only to his 2004 masterpiece, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Premiering almost exactly a year after the financial meltdown, Capitalism, A Love Story has all of the usual suspects and ingredients of that film formula which makes Moore’s movie magic. It has the tongue and cheeky characteristic that has spread to TV parodies of news exemplified by the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert brand of topical comedy. Capitalism opens with security camera footage of real bank robberies – what better metaphor for bank bailouts and other debacles? (As well as a playful rumination on the nature of cinema verite by a practitioner of the documentary art form.) Then there are clips from other films – one on ancient Rome, another from an instructional piece on free enterprise, and hilarious “what would Jesus do” bits.

Capitalism features some insider exposes and incisive investigative reporting – another hallmark of Moore’s filmmaking technique -- which in Sicko exposed healthcare insurance scams, and in Fahrenheit revealed the battlefield costs of the so-called “cakewalk” in Iraq. The quintessential ingredient in Moore’s motion picture recipe has been his own proletarian persona, which works because like many movie fat men, he’s funny, and unlike most U.S. leftists, he is literally a son of the industrial proletariat. There’s lots about his boyhood at Flint, Michigan, where both his father and uncle worked on GM assembly lines, mass producing cars in some bygone autotopia, once upon a time before America was de-industrialized, downsized, outsourced and union busted.

Of course, there are the usual Moore merry prankster stunts – 20 years after Roger and Me, GM throws the prodigal proletarian son out of their HQ yet again. But correct me if I’m wrong: Moore’s current Wall Street shenanigans seem like replays of the escapades on his 1990s’ TV Nation and The Awful Truth television series, when he and Crackers, the corporate crime fighting chicken, confronted white collar criminals. While droll, Capitalism’s tomfoolery never rises to Sicko’s audacious, inventive level of Moore trying to bring a boatload of ailing Ground Zero survivors to the one place under U.S. jurisdiction that guarantees universal medical care: Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists are imprisoned. (He transports them to Castro’s Cuba instead, where socialism provides free healthcare to all.) Nor does Moore’s return to the scene of the crime in the Financial District in Capitalism match the sheer panache of his dispatching actors clad as Salem witch-hunters to the home of Pres. Bill Clinton’s grand inquisitor, Kenneth Starr (now ensconced, god help us, at Pepperdine!) during the multi-million dollar probe of the Monica Lewd-insky scandal and impeachment imbroglio.

Capitalism, A Love Story has its share of talking head notables – social critic Wally Shawn (of My Dinner With Andre fame), Catholic clergymen who denounce the capitalist system for its sinfulness, etc. But, more importantly and at the core of Moore’s movie method, is his putting the so-called “forgotten man” (and woman) front and center, giving them a prominent platform to tell their heartbreaking, gut wrenching stories of an America where uncontrolled greed has run amok, laying waste to the common people. (Moore defines capitalism as “legalized greed.”) Just as Roger and Me presented out-of-work autoworkers, including down on their luck Flint residents reduced to catching, skinning, eating and selling rabbits to survive in the wake of the economic cataclysm that destroyed their once thriving city. Here, in Capitalism, are Americans being evicted, including a family farmer close to snapping. As one victim of the capitalist system says onscreen: “There’s gotta be a rebellion between the people who it all and people who have nothing.”

This compassion is the heart and soul of Moore’s movies, and indeed, of the man who dared denounce Pres. Bush as the Iraq War started on live TV during his Oscar acceptance speech for 2002’s Bowling at Columbine. In Capitalism Moore raises serious points about the free market, pondering why a so-called democracy allows so many dictatorial practices in the workplace. (Jean-Luc Godard once asked why one boss has more power than 100 workers.) Moore also rails against America’s disparity in wealth, wondering what’s democratic – and Christian – about 1% of the population owning as much as the “bottom” 95% of the people.

Moore calls for an end to capitalism, but stops short of advocating revolution. He does not claim to have an economic blueprint to save us from unbridled greed and economic collapse, but he, more than any other popular artist and entertainer is asking the questions that need to be asked. Moore is a bellwether – his Fahrenheit preceded public disenchantment with Bush’s ill-fated war, while in Sicko he anticipated the healthcare debate we’re now having. Who knows where, a few years after his brilliant, must see Capitalism, the public debate will be at. Meanwhile, it’s interesting and amusing to note that the name of Godard’s next movie is Socialisme.

Ed Rampell
LA Journal

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College. After graduating, Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear free and independent Pacific movement for “20/20,” Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, NewsWeek, etc. He went on to co-write “The Finger” column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, AlterNet, etc.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary “Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise.” He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: “Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas” and “Pearl Harbor in the Movies.” Rampell is the sole author of “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.” He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle: [politicalfilmcritics.blogspot.com].

Monday, February 16, 2009


Ed Rampell Talks Progies On Burt Cohen's Roadside Radio Show: CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

: Recipient of The James Agee Cinema Circle Modern Times Award for Best Progressive Satire, is named after Charlie Chaplin, who made 1936's Modern Times and 1940's The Great Dictator. Religulous shares the award this year with War, Inc.

The Progies are the “Anti-Oscars” annually awarded by the James Agee Cinema Circle – an international group of left movie critics and historians -- for the Best Progressive Films and Filmmakers of conscience and consciousness.

1. THE TRUMBO: The Progie Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE PICTURE is named after Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, who was imprisoned for his beliefs and refusing to inform. Trumbo helped break the Blacklist when he received screen credit for "Spartacus" and "Exodus" in 1960.


2. THE GARFIELD: The Progie Award for BEST ACTOR is named after John Garfield, who rose from the proletarian theatre to star in progressive pictures such as "Gentleman's Agreement" and "Force of Evil," only to run afoul of the Hollywood Blacklist.


3. KAREN MORLEY AWARD: For BEST ACTRESS. Named for Karen Morley, who was driven out of Hollywood in the 1930s for her leftist views, but who maintained her militant political activism for the rest of her life, running for Lieutenant Governor on the American Labor Party ticket in 1954. She passed away in 2003, unrepentant to the end, at the age of 93.


4. THE RENOIR: The Progie Award for BEST ANTI-WAR FILM is named after the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who directed the 1937 anti-militarism masterpiece "Grand Illusion."


5. THE GILLO: The Progie Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE FOREIGN FILM is named after the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, who lensed the 1960s classics "The Battle of Algiers" and "Burn!"


6. THE DZIGA: The Progie Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE DOCUMENTARY is named after the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who directed 1920s nonfiction films such as the "Kino Pravda" ("Film Truth") series and "The Man With the Movie Camera."


7. ADRIENNE SHELLY AWARD: Named after brutally slain young actress, Adrienne Shelly. For the movie this year most opposing violence against women.


8. LA PASSIONARA AWARD: For the most positive female images in a movie, and in light of the historically demeaning portrayal of women in movies


9. OUR DAILY BREAD AWARD: For the most positive and inspiring working class images in a movie this year.


10. THE ROBESON AWARD: Named after courageous performing legend, Paul Robeson. The award is for the movie that best expresses the people of color in light of the historically demeaning portrayal of them in films.


11. THE BRANDO: The Progie Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE FILM ACTIVIST is named after Marlon Brando, who starred in movies such as the Black power-themed "Burn!" and 1987's anti-apartheid "A Dry White Season," and championed underdogs like the American Indian Movement offscreen.


12. THE TOMAS GUTIERREZ ALEA AWARD: Named after the late legendary Cuban filmmaker. For best depicting mass popular uprising or revolutionary transformation in a movie.


14. THE SERGEI: The Progie Award for Best Progressive LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT is named after the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who created Russian revolutionary classics such as 1925's "Potemkin" and 1927's "10 Days That Shook the World."


15. THE LAWSON: The Progie Award for BEST ANTI-FASCIST FILM this year, is named after screenwriter John Howard Lawson, one of the Hollywood Ten, who wrote Hollywood's first feature about the Spanish Civil War, 1938's "Blockade," with Henry Fonda, and anti-Nazi movies such as 1943's "Sahara," starring Humphrey Bogart.


16. THE MODERN TIMES: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Film SATIRE is named after Charlie Chaplin, who made 1936's "Modern Times" and 1940's "The Great Dictator."




17. THE ORSON: The Progie Award for BEST OVERLOOKED OR THEATRICALLY UNRELEASED [seen at festivals, or on TV or DVD only] Progressive Film is named after actor/director Orson Welles. After he directed the masterpiece "Citizen Kane" Welles had difficulty getting most of his other movies made.


18. THE LORENTZ: The Progie Award for Best ENVIRONMENTALIST film is named after Pare Lorentz, who directed the Depression era classic documentaries "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River."


19. THE PASOLINI: The Progie Award for Best PRO-GAY RIGHTS Film is named after Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed 1964's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" and "The Decameron" and "The Canterbury Tales" in the 1970S


20. THE LENNON: The Progie Award for Best Progressive MUSICAL OR FILM ABOUT MUSIC is named after peace activist and musician John Lennon, who co-starred in the 1967 satire "How I Won the War" and the 2006 doc "The U.S. vs. John Lennon."


ELIA KAZAN HALL OF SHAME 2008: Citations for the worst anti-workingclass and right wing movies of the year.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: For its reinforcement of the status quo on mass-es and un-Critic-call levels. And for its colonialist mentality, including refusal to honor or recognize for awards the Indian co-director Tandan Loveleen, and for not compensating the still impoverished Indian children playing impoverished Indian children in Slumdog Millionaire, while the movie amasses millions in profits.

CHE: Patronizing and exploitive artsy distortion of the real life and struggle of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. Cultural imperialism, alive and well at the movies.

ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED: A premeditated act of promotional propaganda masquerading as a balanced documentary. And in the service of exonerating - with a creative genius defense - the noted fugitive from justice filmmaker's rape of a drugged child.

THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES: Orthodox family values in fake free spirit female coed Columbine comeuppance clothing. Or in other words, a woman's place is in the delivery room. Not exactly a road movie, but certainly an anti-abortion mandatory teen motherhood guilt trip. All that's missing are the pamphlet tables in the theater lobbies.

HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES: A movie that might have been more aptly titled, Sexually Desirable When Drugged, the film allows lewd elderly director Vadim Glowna to star himself as molester and rapist of a series of nude adolescent slumbering sex slaves, in what may or may not be a fantasy brothel for necrophiliacs. Nothing less than a romanticized and lusty aesthetic portrayal of date rape.

DOUBT: African American mom confesses that she doesn't mind if her son is being molested by a pedophile priest, as long as he gets to graduate. Will all the mothers in the audience who have ever heard such an idea even hinted at from the lips of a fellow female parent, please raise your hands.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: For those black mammies still showing up on the screen, even when they're men. Include Hounddog, Nights In Rodanthe, The Secret Life Of Bees, and Miracle At St. Anna.

AN AMERICAN CAROL: Hyper-reactionary rant. And cast member John Voight, a once fine actor, for backing the insupportable Rudolph Giuliani, the left-baiter at the GOP convention, for president.


Military recruitment ads in theaters and on television.

Rick Warren's video on his church's website the week of Dec. 21st.

Mel Gibson, for his un-repented anti-Semitism.

Monday, February 2, 2009

JACC Member Lisa Collins Screens Film At Oscar Micheaux Event In NYC

The Columbia University School of the Arts Film Program, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and University Seminars on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation at Columbia University are presenting a landmark film event, Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux And The Pre-War Black Independent Cinema. The series takes place February 6th and 7th, and conferences are free and open to the public.

This unique presentation will focus on the work by the influential African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. Newly discovered prints and materials will be shown and discussed for the the first time ever by speakers at this conference. The Film Society at Lincoln Center will screen Micheaux's movies in conjunction with the conference.

A special event will be the presentation by Lisa Collins of her work-in-progress film short, Oscar's Comeback, on Friday February 6th at 3:45pm at Columbia's Schermerhorn Hall, Room 501. It's a sly, complex non-fiction feature set in rural South Dakota about a small, all-white town celebrating its most famous ‘native’ son - black, controversial early 1900s film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. Lisa is a member of The Women Film Critics Circle and the James Agee Cinema Circle, and she produced this film in collaboration with Mark Schwartzburt. A more extensive bio of Lisa Collins is below.

Lisa and Mark (center) shooting on location in Gregory, South Dakota

Professors and film critics and scholars from Columbia University, Yale University, University of Puerto Rico, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Emory University, Duke University, CUNY Graduate Center, Brooklyn College, Northwestern and more, will appear.

It has been more than fifteen years since the last conference on Micheaux's work, and a new generation of critical thinking and writing has since emerged. The full daytime conferences and evening screening schedule, and a full list of presenters, can be viewed at http://arts.columbia.edu.

Tickets for the screenings are available through the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The venues are: Columbia University Campus, Broadway and 116th Street, Schermerhorn Hall Room 501, and Saturday, February 7th, at The Film Society, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza. For all public inquiries, please contact SoAevents@columbia.edu

* Brooklyn-native, Lisa Collins earned her MFA in Screenwriting & Directing from Columbia University Film School, with a BA from Yale University in American Studies & Photography. She’s developing several feature projects and a TV pilot.

An all-round media-maker, Lisa is Sr. Editor/Sr. Segment Producer for Hollywood.com and Hollywood.com TV. Lisa wrote, directed and has produced two shorts: Miss Ruby's House, a mockumentary, which played in festivals across the country; and Tree Shade, a surreal black comedy that garnered the Gold Medal for Best Alternative Film at the Student Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Top honors include: a DGA East Coast Filmmaker award, Best American short at Avignon’s Film Festival, Polo Ralph Lauren Award, and two Rockefeller Foundation nominations. When broadcast, her film headlined PBS’s “Reel New York” series.

With a sharp eye for filmmaking, Lisa has been invited to speak at universities, museums and on panels about her film work; as well she’s been asked to serve on various film juries for festivals and grant fellowships. She also served as a teaching assistant at Columbia University, and has mentored other students. Lisa is a member of the James Agee Cinema Circle and the Women Film Critics Circle.

Lisa Collins was named by Filmmaker Magazine: 'One of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.' She was invited to workshop her feature-length script, The Grass Is Greener at the Sundance Writers, Filmmakers and Producers Labs, respectively. The project was also invited to participate in the IFFM / IFP’s No Borders Feature Project program.

Currently, Lisa is in post-production with Oscar’s Comeback. She is director/producer on the film with co-director/producer Mark Schwartzburt for Right on Time Productions. So far, the film-in-progress was awarded a prestigious NYSCA grant and two South Dakota Humanities Council grants, with Women Make Movies as its fiscal sponsor. In April 2007, the documentary’s 'presentation trailer' was invited to screen as part of a special program, Creatively Speaking, at BAM. In spring 2008 at Tribeca All Access Awards, Oscar’s Comeback won 2nd Top Prize for Creative Promise (Honorable Mention). Shortly thereafter, it was invited to screen at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

JACC Nominations Announced On WBAI Radio

TAKE-OUT: Nominated for OUR DAILY BREAD AWARD, for the most positive and inspiring workingclass images in a movie, and also for THE GILLO for Best Progressive Foreign Language Film, named after the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo who lensed the 1960s classics, The Battle of Algiers and Burn! TAKE-OUT signifies a commendable new direction in US filmmaking, in long overdue recognition of the multicultural reality of this country, as a foreign language film entry about the United States.


The JACC Progie nominations, also known as *THE ANTI-OSCARS* were presented with commentary on Pacifica Radio's WBAI Arts Magazine in NY 99.5 FM at 2pm, on 1/27/09 and archived at WBAI.org. The winners will be announced in mid-February on Air America Radio, just prior to and in oppositon to the Academy Awards.

Friday, January 9, 2009

JACC Member Sparks SLUMDOG Brouhaha in Wall Street Journal


Dear Friends of Women Filmmakers,

The SLUMDOG brouhaha has reached today's Wall Street Journal, with a few quotes from/references to yours truly, especially this:

"After the 2009 Golden Globe nominations were announced in December, a Chicago film critic launched an online campaign to question the governing Hollywood Foreign Press Association about why Ms. Tandan had not been nominated for best director along with Mr. Boyle. "If she's co-director during the filmmaking and marketing process, why isn't she co-nominee when the awards are passed out?" says campaign organizer Jan Lisa Huttner."

"Ms. Huttner hasn't dropped her effort. She says her real mission (with Oscar nominations coming Jan. 22) is to spotlight how rare it is for female directors to be in the awards race. Only three women have been nominated for best director Golden Globes (Barbara Streisand won for "Yentl"), and three have been nominated in that category at the Oscars, with no winners."

"Ms. Tandan's link to Hollywood has been as a casting director. Director Mira Nair hired the New Delhi native to fill the sprawling cast of her 2000 film "Monsoon Wedding" and recommended her to Mr. Boyle. "She is hugely responsible for the foundation of 'Slumdog,' " says Ms. Nair. "Once you trust that it is authentic, you can go with the pop quality of it. She had the nose for it."


Jan Lisa Huttner
JUF News/Fund for Women Artists
& Managing Editor of FILMS FOR TWO
Chicago Film Critics Association
James Agee Cinema Circle
Women Film Critics Circle

The next International SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now) will be on Saturday, March 28, 2009! Read all about it at: www.SwanDay.org

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: The Underbelly of Cadillac Records

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Midway through the recently released Cadillac Records, director Darnell Martin’s film on the groundbreaking record label Chess Records, Martin depicts rock pioneer Chuck Berry unleashing his signature “Sweet Little Sixteen” guitar riffs against scenes of surfing revelry. Berry’s song was notoriously pilfered by the Beach Boys in their song “Surfin’ USA,” a homage to white California youth subculture. Chewed up and spat out by an imperialist marketing machine, Berry’s music becomes yet another Jim Crow soundtrack for Americana pleasure. The first African American female to direct a studio film, Martin’s take on the Chess saga breathes new life into the all too familiar history of gifted black musicians ripped off by a white record promoter. Chronicling the rise of Chess artists Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Berry, Little Walter and Etta James, Martin highlights their struggle to gain just compensation and recognition in a culture whose appetite for “black music” would ripen into a multi-million dollar industry during the 1950s. The avarice of record company owner Leonard Chess, who amassed a fortune from the music of these artists, paying them off with Cadillac cars and shady contracts, is a vivid reminder of the plantation ethos that drives American pop music.

It’s no revelation to say that white appropriation of African American derived music and idioms has been a cornerstone of mainstream American cultural identity, yet Martin’s film throws the question of consumption, commerce and the capitalist subtext of white pleasure into vivid relief. In the film young white women flock to black guitar players at segregated concerts, parading their relative racial and sexual freedom, oblivious to the consequences for black men. For white Americana, the rise of 1950s rock and R&B transformed racial otherness into a more mainstream adventure, a resort vacation into unexplored vistas of self-discovery that even white consumers with a few cents for a 45 record could take. White postwar prosperity and suburbanization made blackness all the more appealing because of its transgressive potential. As long as actual black people remained “out there,” in segregated urban ghettos and rural communities, black cultural production would continue to be a seductive bromide. The 1956 Interstate Highway Act paved the way to white suburbia and ignited a car culture that was baptized in the sounds of rock and R&B. As suburban white flight exacerbated residential segregation, black music became the commodity of choice for a new generation of young white consumers. Yet in the film, scene after scene of crushing poverty, racist police abuse and public humiliation endured by Waters and company underscores the parasitic relationship between white consumption and spatial apartheid. For scores of white record buyers and musicians, classics such as Wolf and Willie Dixon’s “Backdoor Man” and Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” would become standards, while segregated black spectators would grow up watching Hollywood scenes of white romance and redemption against the backdrop of black music.

Like Motown, Stax Records and other black-dominated labels, the work of the Chess artists established a new language for white self-invention while foregrounding the disparity between white and black postwar opportunities. The parallels between this history and the commodification of hip hop are compelling. As hip hop has spanned the globe netting mega millions for white corporations it has become another metaphor for imperialist exploitation of black America. Though Berry ultimately won song writing credit on Surfin’ USA after a threatened lawsuit, the film leaves us with the image of the hip swiveling Elvis Presley; his legacy and global empire forged on the backs of African American geniuses unknown and unrecognized in American music history.

Sikivu Hutchinson is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor of blackfemlens.org, an online journal of feminist criticism. She is also on KPFK Radio's Beneath The Surface in Los Angeles, a member of the Women Film Critics Circle, the James Agee Cinema Circle, and a contributor to The WBAI Radio Womens Show in New York City.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Mumia Abu-Jamal On Eartha Kitt: Artist And Political Martyr

EARTHA KITT (1928-2008)

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

For generations, the name, Eartha Kitt, was synonymous with sexy, sultry, and outspoken.

In an industry where careers can sometimes be measured in minutes, Eartha Kitt was the real thing, for quite a while; dancer, singer, actress, and on occasion, a comedian.

Since the tender age of 14, she worked the stage, and for nearly 7 decades, she left her indelible imprint by her work on the big screen, TV, and on recordings.

On Jan. 26, 1928 she was born in South Carolina as Eartha Mae Kitt.

She danced, sang, and acted her way into the hearts of millions.

In 1968, she dared speak out against the Vietnam War, when the war was raging at it's hottest, and was both blacklisted and hounded for doing so. That's because she spoke at a photo op at the White House in the face of First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson (wife of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson). For daring to speak her mind at the heart of the empire, and for denouncing an Imperial war, the media and the state tried to 'disappear' her. She had to go abroad to find her freedom of speech, where she remained for nearly a decade.

For those who want to see her as a seductive chanteuse, the 1958 film, St. Louis Blues, starring Nat King Cole, Ruby Dee, Pearl Bailey and the gospel great, Mahalia Jackson, is a great source. For a slightly comic turn, see her as an amorous entrepreneurial cougar on the hunt for a young Eddie Murphy in the 1992 film Boomerang starring Halle Berry as the principal love interest.

Although she was known as the quintessential sex kitten for her acting, her public outspokenness came at quite a cost. Her comings, goings, doings and sayings were tracked by both the FBI and the CIA.

She moved through life with an intelligence, wit and nerve that made her distinctive and unforgettable.

Eartha Mae Kitt was 80.

--(c) '08 maj

[Source:African Arts and Letters, eds, Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (Phila., PA: Running Press, 2004.]

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