Saturday, January 28, 2012

They Shoot Black Movies...Don't They?

Pioneer African American Filmmaker, Oscar Michaeux

They Shoot Black Movies...Don't They? 
(The Realization of a Hustlerz Ambition)

By Barry Michael Cooper

At the dawn of the Black Hollywood Renaissance of the '90s, the sodality of filmmakers like Spike Lee, F. Gary Gray, The Hudlin Brothers, Bill Duke, Stan Lathan, John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, George Jackson, Doug McHenry, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Kevin Hooks, Fred "Fab Five Freddy" Braithwaite, Charles Stone, III, Nelson George and this writer, to name a few, felt like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We--like Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt at the height of their artistic revolt in the U.K. during the late 1800s--were cinematic reformers, rejecting the cartoonish mythos of African American life, as depicted in the Black Exploitation flicks of the 1970s. In the 1990's we were Dr. Martin Luther King, we were Malcolm X, we were Gordon Parks, we were Melvin Van Peebles. We were insatiable American Dreamers, like Oscar Michaeux; albeit with limos, first-class, transcontinental transport, five-star luxury hotels and cuisine, Armani-Brioni-Versace-Zegna-Valentino-Ferragamo gear, expanding bank accounts, and cell phones. We had Been To The Mountaintop and had G.P.S.'d that noble glide-path while tracking the Realization of a Negro's Ambition, guided by the voice from an ancestral control tower which intoned, By Any Means Necessary. 

We just knew The Dream would last forever.

Twenty years later Spike Lee--one of the most talented and prolific directors this country has produced in the 20th Century--can't get a green light for the sequel to Inside Man, despite the fact that the original film grossed nearly $200 million dollars worldwide. Twenty years later, two supremely talented actresses--Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer--are given Oscar nods for their portrayals of wise but weathered Mississippi domestics in a highly praised film titled The Help. 

Twenty years many black filmmakers (including myself) haven't had a movie financed by a major studio in over twenty years.

Twenty years later and America has its first African American President of the United States, seeking re-election for a second term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Twenty years later, African American filmmakers navigate a course that is slightly sticky, smelly, and saggy, the aftermath of an exploding Dream deferred by Hollywood's Grand Illusion of Inclusion.

Twenty years later, is this the way it's supposed to be?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

James McBride: "Being a Maid"

The late, great Oscar-winning African American actress, Hattie McDaniel

This is a powerful and thought-provoking essay written by the brilliant screenwriter and Spike Lee collaborator James McBride--his produced work includes "Miracle At St. Anna, and current Sundance Film Fest lighting rod "Red Hook"--regarding Hollywood's retrograde state-of-affairs, when it comes to African American film. It almost seems as if Hollywood--like the GOP--is lobbying for a new "Jim Crow" in Hi-Res HD. McBride's commentary is a most cogent and brutally honest assessment of life on the celluloid plantation, in the era of a Black Commander-In-Chief.

Being a Maid

by James McBride

Last night, President Obama, our first African American President, delivered his third State of the Union address. On that same day, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated two gifted African American actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the award for the same role – as a maid, and a slave maid at that, winning the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category on Feb. 29, 1940.

And here we are, in the year of our Lord, Jan 25, 2012. Maybe I’m getting old, but the irony of this is too much. Or perhaps I’ve heard this song before. In the 1970’s, when I was a freshman at Oberlin College, my white friends and I used to sit up and talk about racism and solving society’s problems all through the night until the sun rose. Not much good came from these talks, the least of which is I hoped to get laid, which rarely happened. But on those cold nights, I was convinced that when I walked out of college, racism would be just about finished. Instead, it smashed me across the face like a bottle when I walked into the real world. Now, 33 years later, I find myself talking about the same thing I talked about when I was a college freshman.

I have no take with Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer. They’re outstanding actresses. But the nomination of these two women by the Hollywood community 73 years after Hattie McDaniel won for the same role speaks for itself. As co-writer and co-producer of Spike Lee’s newest film “Red Hook Summer,” and his previous feature film “Miracle At St. Anna,” I have a clear eyed view of what the cultural display of African American life means to hearts in Hollywood, a land of feints and double meanings and as tricky to navigate as anything inside the Beltway. I wish someone had told me this when I was a freshman at Oberlin.

America is a super power not because we make the biggest guns. We’re a superpower because our culture has saturated the planet: Levis, Apple, Nike, Disney, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Jazz, Rhythm n Blues, Rock ‘n Roll, and Hip Hop. Our culture dominates the world far more than any nuclear bomb can. When you can make a person think a certain way, you don’t have to bomb them. Just give them some credit cards, a wide screen 3D TV, some potato chips, and watch what happens. This kind of cultural war, a war of propaganda and words, elements that both Hollywood and Washington know a lot about, makes America powerful beyond measure. The hard metal of this cultural weaponry, much of it, emanates from the soul of Blacks, the African American experience in music, dance, art and literature.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"THE LARRY DAVIS SHOW" (1988 Village Voice Cover Story)

By Barry Michael Cooper

(This is an excerpt from my 1988 Village Voice cover story, "The Larry Davis Show," which was both the source material and inspiration for the 23 October 2008 "Larry Davis: A Bronx Tale" episode that I produced for the BET crime doc series "American Gangster." You can read "The Larry Davis Show" excerpt below)

Published in the Village Voice: November 28th, 1988

Rambo Rocks The House

"The night the police came," Larry Davis smiled, "I was watching Rambo on my VCR."

Davis and I were sitting in the visitor's area of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. The MCC is a large fortress filled with orange paint, thick Plexiglas partitions, and steel door that constantly buzz, click, and whine like robots in heat. Davis had entered the visitor's area through one of those doors, shackled along the wrists, waist, and ankles, a postmodern Kunte Kinte in federal prison browns. He was trailed by five male guards, one of whom held a video camera to record his departure from the holding area. Even in the joint, Larry Davis is a star.
"Sometimes," Davis said quite seriously, "It's good to pay attention to movies, because you get what's really happening." Before the movie ended on November 19th, what was really happening in the apartment overwhelmed what was playing on the TV screen: Davis, who was wanted for the slayings of four suspected South Bronx crack dealers, faced down almost 30 cops in one of the wildest shootouts in New York history. it was all over by nine, in time for the 11 o'clock newscasts to make Larry Davis an outlaw celebrity. It was the night he became the talk of the town: a muscular young black man bursts his way out of small apartment seiged by a 27-member team of armed police officers, wounding all of them in the process. It was the night he became an urban legend, a black Billy the Kid, an adolescent gunslinger outshoots an army of cops and lives to tell about it. It was the night Larry Davis became mythic.

In the weeks after Davis shot the six cops, faked out the costly, nationwide manhunt for 17 days, and held a major portion of the NYPD to a standoff in the Twin Parks Houses near Fordham Road, huge black-and-white mug shot-like photos of a starry-eyed, baby-faced killer adorned the front pages of the tabloids under headlines like "They Won't Take Me Alive" and the local news anchors excitedly invoked his name at the top of every show. He was all the talk between assistant D.A.'s and reporters during court recesses, between rap DJ's and MCs during songs at the Latin Quarter, between old Jewish women and their doormen on the Upper East Side. Did Davis shoot and kill dopeboys and take off crack spots? Did he really decide (as a cop testified) that it was too crowded in his van one afternoon, and casually order a flunky to kill a man sitting in an orange Toyota for the extra room? Did he really cook a Chihuahua and eat it?

I started getting phone calls from friends who couldn't stop talking about the B-boy renegade from the South Bronx. "That kid used to rock the fresh jams in the summertime in the P.S. 145 schoolyard," one buddy remembered. Another told me that, in addition to playing cops and robbers, Davis had stroked the keyboards on Goldie's Hot Tracks, a hip hop show on Manhattan Cable. I was told that Davis also sang, danced, and virtually, "turned the show out."

Some of Davis's acquaintances later told me he used to watch a videotape of that show over and over in his bedroom--a space that was packed with drum machines and keyboards and doubled as an eight-track recording studio--with "that look" on his face, a sly grin and a faraway, star-struck expression. Family members say it's the look he had playing drums for the choir of the Rapture Preparation Church on Crotona Avenue in the Bronx. It's the look of an impressionable young kid who sees his name in lights on the marquee of a hit movie with a long line, or his face 70 feet high inside the darkened theater, with the crowd screaming out his name.

Larry Davis had a different expression on the morning of December 6, 1986. Not that he lost top billing; as if they were watching the final installment of a hit miniseries, many New Yorkers sat in front of their televisions, mesmerized through the wee hours, waiting to see if the police platoon, armed to its teeth, would kill the freaky-dangerous 20-year-old holed up in the Bronx. But as the winter sun climbed into the sky, Larry Davis surrendered peacefully, taken away amid a swarm of helicopters, a heavily armed NYPD battalion, city officials, reporters, detractors, and hero worshipers. As the short, muscular, and leather-jacketed fugitive climbed into the paddy wagon, bathed in the jubilant but, at least in some quarters, sarcastic chant of "Lah-ree! Lah-ree!" rising from the courtyard of the Twin Parks West housing project, his face registered foggy apprehension and uncertainty. In lieu of the faraway gaze of the visionary, Larry Davis had the glassy-eyed look of a little boy who had woken up in the middle of a nightmare.
Read the full "The Larry Davis Show" cover story in my debut anthology of street journalism from the 1980s (and more current essays), titled "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," which is now available on Kindle/Amazon. Don't have a Kindle? No problem; Amazon has a free app available for download, to read "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," on your PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. Click here to go to the Amazon site.