Thursday, October 30, 2008

Election Benediction

The blog Daily Kos, known far and wide as one of the best sources for progressive political thought and action, has just featured the writing of a rising star in the literary world.  

Her name is Susan Markman.  She is my mother.  I am incredibly proud of her and her achievement tonight.  Her piece expresses the breathlessness that stirs in people when presented with profound possiblity.  I've been talking a lot to people about searching out plays and art that deal in human truths.  Well, here it is.

You can read her poem Election Benediction here.   

I'll post the entire text on its own tomorrow.  For now, just checking it out on Daily Kos is worth it.  The site is famous and seeing her work there sent Kate and I into fits of starry-eyed adoration.  Not for the first time.  


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008


The Soul Samurai workshop approaches.  

One of the best parts about working with Vampire Cowboys is that in the researching of roles for the show you fall in love with the genres you're mashing up.  I have recently taken in the delights of Shaft, Superfly, Black Mama White Mama, Foxy Brown, Samurai Champloo, and Hara Kiri.  The Mack, Shogun Assassin, and (my favorite title so far) Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song are lined up for this weekend. 
Blaxploitation.  The genre is controversial, and a few people have come up to me saying is it cool to do that in this day and age? Didn't that genre cherry-pick the worst aspects of black culture and then help codify and normalize those stereotypes nationwide?  Well, yes and no.  In my opinion, the answer needs to be contextualized.  

In the beginning (as I understand from the documentary Badassss Cinema--absolutely required viewing), the films coming out reflected the revolutionary energy of the times. They featured potent, powerful and proud black characters who were impervious to racists and suffered no fools.  They offered performers of color the opportunity to play lead roles of substance that Hollywood had always denied them.  Because these were initially independent movies, they afforded entrepeneurial outlets, a sense of cultural ownership, and again, pride in black craftsmanship.   They celebrated the slogan "Black is Beautiful" and put the day-to-day worlds of Harlem and the ghettos of LA on the big screen.  
(Superfly has a still photography montage that is basically a photo essay on Harlem in the 70's.)  Combined with the soul and funk music of the legendary artists Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, the result was a profound experience at the movies for people of color who were desperate for stories and images that spoke to them and their lives.  

As with most film, the characters were larger-than-life icons.  Shaft was a detective who was cooler and badder than anyone in the room--a black 007.  Preacher, the pusher from Superfly, commanded a small army and lived like a king, enjoying clothes, money, women, and prestige.  Foxy Brown was a sexy afro'd independent woman who could infiltrate and take down a prostitution ring (and whose boyfriend was a black DEA agent!  What?)

A lot of characters were pimps and ho's, crime bosses and hitmen, this is true.  However, that negativity was usually counter-balanced by the appearance of Black Power activist characters and/or community watch groups who confronted the underworld figures about the damage they were doing to the neighborhood.  

To me, these are usually the best scenes and provide the most dramatic fireworks.  In Superfly, the confrontation is in a diner.  A watchdog gang in daishikis accost Preacher about his peddling drugs and his disregard for his own people, as it is blacks who are buying his cocaine.  Characteristically, Preacher responds, "What you need to do is get a gun.  And then get guns for all those blacks you care so much about.  And when you do that, I'll join you and be there on the front line shootin' whitey.  But until then, stay the fuck outta my way."  Or something similar, but the politics and concern with social justice and cultural elevation was usually put front and center at some point.   John Shaft enlists the aid of his former friend, now an activist, in the rescue of a mobster's daughter, and they spar over who's helping the people the most.  There's an incredibly powerful scene in The Mack where the pimp's brother says that instead of visiting him in jail, he created a people's movement that would actually do some good.  The empowerment of the people was worth more than some phone calls or envelopes of money because it would truly help his brother when he got out.  He argues that the pimp is essentially still in a prison of the mind because he's playing right into The Man's hands by selling drugs and women.  The Mack responds by saying he has a right to pursue his business anyway he likes. . . because this is America.  He says, "Being rich and black means something, don't you know that? It's crazy to stay in the ghetto once you've seen the way out." Or something similar, but essentially, huge questions are raised and social justice is prioritized in the middle of a film about an unrepentent pimp.

After this initial period, Hollywood saw how popular the movies were and how much they made.  They began cranking out shitty versions of their own, replacing the black artistic staff behind the camera, and turning the style into formulaic crap and wildly over the top characterizations.  The negative aspects were seized upon, commoditized, and encouraged by the industry (not unlike the gangstery thuggish hip-hop of the past ten years).  

Eventually people cooled to the nonsense.  This is the heartbreaking part, because they eventually screwed the black artists.  When they saw that they had taken an art form and turned it into a trend--and that that trend had run it's course--they again shut the door in the faces of actors they had made famous.  Many were never hired again despite being matinee idols and stars in their own right.

So, yes and no.  Blaxploitation, in my opinion, began as something incredibly empowering and beautiful and devolved into something cheap and harmful.  There was always a sense of whimsy and silliness and overblown characterization, but with the influx of money and studio interference, the movement got away from its roots and became another cliche of hollywood genres like the western and the romantic comedy.

I think what we are setting out to do with Soul Samurai is honor the essence of this tradition and have a lot of fun with a style that is inherently theatrical and dramatic.  Everyone is doing research on their own to inform the characters they play.  We talk a lot about what Pam Grier movie we saw last night or what we're excited about incorporating and how it relates to what we have to play in our scenes.  Who should see X to get an example of Y.  

It's a challenging task, but we're endeavoring to do it with honor and respect. 

We're aiming to blow your mind.  

And your soooul.