Saturday, June 6, 2020

Yes, Black Lives Matter

It's in response to the vicious murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, an unarmed and compliant black man handcuffed and suffocated by a white cop, and the international protests that sprung up demanding an end to the racism. He was not the first black man who made headlines by being unarmed and killed by armed white cops. That tragedy happened around the same time a white woman named "Amy Cooper" was breaking Central Park leash law rules in New York City. When a young black man who's a member of the city's Audubon Society asked her to put her dog on a leash, she got on her cell phone and called the cops with the lie that an African American man was threatening her life. This, like the murder of George Floyd, was caught on camera thanks to a cell phone. So was the racial hate killing of jogger Ahmaud Aubrey, an unarmed young black man trapped like a rabbit by racist gun-carrying white men in trucks. Millions of us Black folks felt "See? THIS is why we say 'Black Lives Matter'." This month, movies that could enlighten viewers to racism are streaming for free. Movies such as the recent and excellent prison drama, JUST MERCY, a 2019 Warner Bros release starring Michael B. Jordan  and Jamie Foxx. It's based on a true story and a book of the same name.
The Twitter account for Los Angeles Magazine, @ LAmag, posted "JUST MERCY is streaming for free on VOD all June. It's just one of our recs this week:" The list starts with JUST MERCY. The description of the film includes a quote from white critic, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post. The next recommendation is Spike Lee's MALCOLM X. The description of that film includes a quote from white critic, A.O. Scott of the New York Times. The next two recommendations, 13th, a scorching documentary from Ava DuVernay, and I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, a powerful documentary about author/activist James Baldwin, also have quotes from white critics. There are more features on the list.
I appreciate the list. However, this would've been the perfect time to quote some Black film critics of which there are many in America.

To see more features proving that Black Lives Matter, you can go to CriterionChannel.com.

The paywall there has been lifted so we can see Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and more Black films  for free. Criterion has established a fund to support organizations fighting racism in America, starting with a $25,000 initial contribution. I love the Criterion Collection.

However, I've noticed that African American film critics or historians are tapped mostly to do commentaries for films by Black filmmakers or address Black images. When it comes to classics by directors such as Ernest Lubitsch, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli, Hitchcock, Truffaut and Fellini, commentaries are done mostly by white critics. We are not blended into the overall film discussion. Did Mia Mask, an African American professor of film studies at Vassar, get to talk about all of George Stevens' wonderful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical, SWING TIME? No. She talks only about the "Bojangles of Harlem" number.  If Criterion invited me to do commentary for Vincente Minnelli work, could I talk about MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL? Or would I be limited to just CABIN IN THE SKY because I'm Black and that musical had an all-Black cast?

Racism, systemic racism, is not solely white cops beating and killing unarmed Black people. It's exclusion in housing and the workplace. It's not having equal opportunities and being treated like a second class citizen. It's your accomplishments not given the same regard as a white person's accomplishments. And then there's the frustration that comes when a few of your white friends, who consider themselves to be socially aware liberals, think that the playing field is level because they know you and you always seems to be employed.

I had an encounter with white Seattle cops during which my contained anger eclipsed my initial fear. I was on vacation. I had just come out of a coffee shop where I'd been reading a newspaper, eating a bagel and having coffee -- AND I'd chatted with the clerk behind the counter. I got an itemized receipt. I was walking back to the Four Seasons Hotel where I'd been staying for the weekend while I visited my dad.  On me and in my shoulder bag, I had my employee photo ID from Fox5 TV in New York City. I also had my passport, my plane ticket and my hotel room key. All of that was not enough. Three cop cars pulled up alongside me. Two cops questioned me, even after I produced photo ID, because "a Black man with a newspaper" had robbed a bank 10 minutes earlier. Two other cops came up to my hotel room later.

I've had an "Amy Cooper"-ish experience. A young blonde production assistant had two refrigerator-sized bodyguards escort me off the GOOD MORNING AMERICA set during a commercial break, claiming that I had "sandbagged" my way on-camera. I was on-camera because she asked me to be, as a few audience members witnessed. When I spoke up for myself to the bodyguards and when a few of the tourists in the audience verbally came to my defense, the bodyguards weren't listening. It was a white woman's word against mine. I was ordered and escorted out of the building. The irony is -- I worked for ABC News at the time. On a different show. I got an apology six months later.

Katie Couric loves Broadway musicals. She saw the 2008 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC. In her book, THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT, she wrote about seeing it and the impact of the song "Carefully Taught." She'd never really paid attention to it before and described it as "prescient." Here's the song as performed in the 1958 film adaptation.

When I was a middle school kid in South Central Los Angeles, we kids knew what that song was saying. We were children of the Civil Rights era. The SOUTH PACIFIC soundtrack was in our classroom and it was played sometimes on Fridays during music period. On my block in neighbors' homes, you could find a Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtrack mixed in with a family's Motown records. Why? Because we all knew that Rodgers & Hammerstein's best work musically shouted down bigotry and intolerance. And the music was great.

The TODAY Show had a special edition for its 50th anniversary in 2002. Katie was on it. Talents who worked on other networks but had once worked on TODAY made guest appearances for that special show. People like Barbara Walters and actress Florence Henderson. Henderson had been a contributor in TODAY's early years. One visual that jumped out at me during the anniversary show's "group photos" was that Bryant Gumble and Al Roker were the only two Black people who'd worked on the show. In half a century. I can tell you they were not the only ones who wanted to work on TODAY. I tried unsuccessfully to land a gig as a TODAY Show entertainment contributor.

Did Katie Couric noticed the minimal amount of Black talent on TODAY? Did she say anything about it? Did she think Gumble and Roker were the only two Black people in the country who wanted to work on the show?

Full disclosure. Katie was nice to me when I worked in 30 Rock for a then new show called WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK. It was a live, local weekend edition of TODAY. It premiered in September 1992 and I was approached to be a member of the show's original trio. For me, it was a part time job and I was paid as such. In the second month of the show, I managed to get some soundbites from Madonna at a downtown press event. Katie called me from her office to congratulate me because the TODAY contributor covering the event didn't have the same luck. Katie claimed to have been a fan of my 1988-89 prime time celebrity talk show on VH1.
I quit the WNBC show in January 1995 after my boss told me that, although my work was good and I was popular with viewers, I'd only be part-time, never full-time, and I would have no chance of moving up to doing features for the network edition of TODAY. My exposure would only be local, only on weekends and I would not be offered a contract. So I gave notice. I quit because I felt I was not getting the same opportunities as the white employees with national TV credits got. Like Matt Lauer. When the WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK show premiered, he was half of the anchor duo. I was hired to be the film reviewer/entertainment contributor. When we premiered, my news director boss changed my duties to "man on the street" covering community events like street fairs, church bazaars and such. No film reviews. I would, however, get to do an occasional celebrity interview. I was angry about this, but I needed the part-time.

Katie would see me occasionally in the building and say she thought I was as funny and talented wondered why my career wasn't bigger than it was. I would just smile. Those exchanges taught me that there's a big difference between "Why isn't your career bigger than it is? and "Why isn't your career bigger than it is? What can I do to help?"


Check those lists and watch some of the films, if you have time. Paramount Pictures is offering free rentals of SELMA for the rest of June. David Oyelowo is amazing as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in it. Many, including myself, expected to hear Ava DuVernay's name announced in the Oscar category for Best Director. It was not. SELMA was a nominee for Best Picture, but she was not nominated for Best Director and he was not nominated for Best Actor. The story broke this week that some Paramount executives and Academy members were angry because cast members wore T-shirts with "I Can't Breathe" on them to the New York City premiere. The cast and director did that in response to the recent death of New Yorker Eric Garner. Those were his last words as cops got him in a choke hold for selling cigarettes out of a pack. Loose cigarettes.

Now we can rent the 2014 film for free because another unarmed Black man was suffocated by a cop and his last words were also "I can't breathe." I wonder how those studio execs and Academy members feel now.


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