Matches for: “bill gunn” …

Flowers for Gunn: Remembering an Outlaw Artist

If John O. Killens was the soldier of darkness, James Baldwin the prophet of darkness, then Bill Gunn was the prince of darkness…
– Ishmael Reed, Airing Dirty Laundry (1990)

Bill Gunn: A revolutionary writer & filmmaker

Bill Gunn: A revolutionary writer & filmmaker



After reading Tambay Obenson’s reaction to Spike Lee’s vampire film, Da Blood of Jesus, a part of me sighed in accordance with Obenson’s exasperation as he simply implored audiences to just see Ganja & Hess instead.

Obenson is one of the most honest and dynamic critics and supporters of independent filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, that I have ever read. He does not mince words and he expects a lot from filmmakers. His honesty is refreshing.

I have not seen Da Blood of Jesus and I doubt if I will for some time. I already wrote last month when I went public with development plans for Octavia that I felt it was odd that Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee had both released vampire films as I was just about to start one. I thought I might have gone the way of “fashion.” But of course I realized that vampire films and vampires themselves are as different to dramatists as the gangster or romance genre might be. Everyone has their own idea of vampirism and what that could mean. And that’s a good thing.

However, I write this because Obenson knows cinema and he’s right to acknowledge one of the greatest films ever made: Ganja & Hess. A film so overlooked that most people are unfamiliar with it, and the ones that are think its some exploitation film. These people are shocked to hear its back-story that, already, has accrued a mythic status. And I’m often perplexed as to why more filmmakers don’t reference him or acknowledge his contributions publicly. What’s even more shocking is that Lee’s Blood is a remake of Gunn’s masterpiece and I find this all the more confounding. Instead of remaking a haunting delicate film into a virtuosic, ironic “art film,” why not simply acknowledge the original? Is a remake necessary? Spike Lee would have done us all a favor if he had simply written a monograph on Ganja & Hess and called it a day. The world needs to know more about Bill Gunn. And if artists want to pay homage to the masters, we should express what we know about life as opposed to cinema – and that would be enough…All the great masters express and teach us what they themselves know about life. And that’s what Gunn did.

Bill Gunn was a triple threat – an actor, writer, and a director. Chiz Schultz was familiar with Bill Gunn’s work,(he had written Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, for instance) and he produced Ganja & Hess in 1972 for a small amount of money. Gunn wrote a “double script” which led Kelly-Jordan distributors to believe he was making a “blaxploitation” picture — but instead made his own personal film. He was not out to “sell” blackness or capitulate to stereotypes for a buck. He wanted to make his own “cinematic poem.” One must understand the sheer guts it took to do this, to play the “spook who sat by the door” and say “yes, yes, yes” to the money men and run off and make a serious work of art that did not care or concern itself with any of the commercial interests of the filmmaking business enterprise. That’s righteous!

When Kelly-Jordan requested an exploitive commercial re-cut Gunn threw a chair through the window leading Kelly-Jordan to call him “crazy.” Gunn quipped, “I have more craziness in the top draw of my bureau than you will ever imagine.”

Now that took balls. If a white man had done that, they’d have branded him “passionate.” Because it was an African-American – a brilliant one at that – they had to dub him “crazy.”

Well, I always felt at home with Gunn’s fervent vision and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing. He is another example that filmmakers must be personal and unique in the way that a musician or painter is.

Directors Haile Gerima and Mario Van Peebles gave me permission to be angry and politically upfront, the absurdist Wendell B. Harris inspired me to be cerebral, but it was the “The Mighty Gunn” who affirmed my aversion to orthodoxy, who inspired my work to reflect the non-linearity, the odd rhythm, the surreal tones of life’s phases (past, present, and future), and who made me realize that a vampire film does not have to be sensational. Like Antonin Artaud, Bill Gunn knew the horror is not what is imagined, but in what is real. And Gunn’s vampire film is horrifying because of the layers and themes it weaves and does not resolve – colonization, cultural displacement, addiction, etc. Bill Gunn inspired a legion of underground and avant-garde painters and dramatists to be as strange as they actually were. The freedom in that alone is revolutionary. And quite dangerous to the Powers That Be since no system has been as aggressive in their approach to homogenize black artists as much as Hollywood.

I can immediately see how Ishmael Reed (who published Bill’s work and produced his Personal Problems) and Gunn may have connected as artists – as they both eschew rules and are informed by a multitude of things, bearing a collage aspect to their work. It was this that I always identified with as an artist and in the case of Gunn – his unabashed mixing of the impenetrable with the aggressively obvious. It was as if he blew his trumpet and muted at the same time. Those tones not only resonate within Ganja & Hess a film that will leave you haunted well after having watched it (even if you don’t like it) but are also implicated in his writing. After all, the man was a poet of the theater. I encourage everyone to read his brilliant “Rhinestone Sharecropping,” a chilling, Kafka-esque account of a black screenwriter’s experience in Hollywood and the hell that swallows him up. The actual ‘vampires’ in Bill Gunn’s book are the rich gangsters who of course don’t view themselves as racist and are quick to drain the artist of his soul and integrity. They need soul and integrity to suck on…because they don’t have any of their own.

My vampire film shall be quite different, as it should be, but I hope it bears the uniqueness and honesty that Gunn’s brought forth. My vampire is an outcast, a marginalized “alien” caught in between her past and future, as well as America’s. My vampires are artists – some are even literal artists. But they are all sensitive – almost too sensitive. And there is no blood that can sustain them. For man’s blood is tainted. Including Jesus’. And there is nothing to be addicted to – except truth. And that is what ultimately kills.

The fact that punk music as an artistic ethos plays a part in my work is no coincidence. All those who dare to be honest and to be themselves are “punk.” And Bill Gunn was creating his crowning achievements with the actual rise of punk and hip-hop; the first known black punk band Death were recording only two years after Ganja & Hess had been made. And Gunn died at the end of the 1980’s – when Hollywood’s Suits had already returned with a vengeance against all of the creativity set forth even by their own “establishment” pop star directors like Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola nearly a decade before. (The Empire did, in fact, strike back didn’t it?)

In memory of Bill Gunn, I post this remarkable letter written to the NY Times in 1973 as he was defending his art and trying to teach a few lessons in the process. Of course they probably had no idea why he was so “ornery” and they probably smirked and called him “just another bitter crazy black man.” And of course not even the great liberal East Coast critics could admit that THE ONLY AMERICAN FILM SHOWN IN CRITICS WEEK AT CANNES IN 1973 WAS “GANJA & HESS.” (Not other classics like Mean Streets. Not Serpico. But Ganja & Hess. Now that says something!)

I’m not shocked. Of course they labeled him “crazy.”
Somehow they don’t, and never will, understand not only the Black consciousness of the Diaspora, but the genius inherent in a handful of living artists. Why? Very simple: the establishment prefers their artists dead.

I love you Bill.

*
This is the text of a famous letter sent to the NY Times from Bill Gunn in 1973. Gunn was the legendary director of the cult classic “Ganja & Hess”, “Stop,” and the post-modern domestic drama “Personal Problems.”

To the Editor: (NY Times)

There are times when the white critic must sit down and listen. If he cannot listen and learn, then he must not concern himself with black creativity.
A children’s story I wrote speaks of a black male child that dreamed of a strong white golden haired prince who would come and save him from being black. He came, and as time passed and the relationship moved forward, it was discovered that indeed the black child was the prince and he had saved himself from being white. That, too, is possible.

I have always tried to imagine the producers waiting anxiously for the black reviewers’ opinions of “The Sound of Music” or “A Clockwork Orange.”
I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country – for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism.
One white critic left my film “Ganja and Hess,” after 20 minutes and reviewed the entire film. Another was to see three films in one day and review them all. This is a crime.

Three years of three different people’s lives grades in one afternoon by a complete stranger to the artist and to the culture. A.H. Weiler states in his review of “Ganja and Hess” that a doctor of anthropology killed his assistant and is infected by a blood disease and becomes immortal. But this is not so, Mr. Weiler, the assistant committed suicide. I know this film does not address you, but in that auditorium you might have heard more than you were able to over the sounds of your own voice. Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review.

If I were white, I would probably be called “fresh and different. If I were European, “Ganja and Hess” might be “that little film you must see.” Because I am black, do not even deserve the pride that one American feels for another when he discovers that a fellow countryman’s film has been selected as the only American film to be shown during “Critic’s Week” at the Cannes Film Festival, May 1973. Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.

I am very proud of my ancestors in “Ganja and Hess.” They worked hard, with a dedication to their art and race that is obviously foreign to the critics. I want to thank them and my black sisters and brothers who have expressed only gratitude and love for my effort.

When I first came into the “theatre,” black women who were actresses were referred to as “great gals” by white directors and critics. Marlene Clark, one of the most beautiful women and actresses I have ever known, was referred to as a “brown-skinned looker” (New York Post). That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken a good 250 years.

Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling black theater and film creativity with white criticism. Maybe if the black film craze continues, the white press might even find it necessary to employ black criticism. But if you can stop the craze in its tracks, maybe that won’t be necessary.

Bill Gunn
Author and director of “Ganja and Hess”
New York, 1973

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Notes from the Underground: Black Liberation & Rebel Cinema (2000)


“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”
– Screenwriter Paul Schrader , upon viewing Spike
Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
From Manthia Diawara’s book Black American Cinema
(p.194)

***

As an Act of Protest

The Anti-Spike Lee: “As an Act of Protest” promotes sweat, urgency, raw photography, theatrical acting and lo-fi production.  It was a bold gritty film that became the hallmark of revolutionary guerrilla film-making and represented a turn in independent Cinema in 2001. 

Guerrilla Filmmaking & Resistance 

Introduction to the original screenplay for the film As an Act of Protest

I wrote As an Act of Protest over a period of eleven sleepless nights.

It was completed at one a.m. on Friday, August 19, 2000.

The first draft was over 180 pages.

I had a sinus infection and this was also the morning I finally quit my “survival job.” The joke had been on me, though. Your day-job pays your bills, but it is your art that enables you to survive. It seems fair to say that over the past three years I have been doing just that: surviving. After staging various plays from the African-American canon throughout New York City’s feverish summers in Greenwich Village, the garment district, and in Harlem; and after dwelling in the melancholia that lingers in the air like a perfume in the midst of (and after) any of the recent police brutality or “racial incidences” (from Louima to Shaka Sankofa), and after turning to drugs for comfort since I’d been continuously alienated by some of my “living idols,” and several failed relationships with various women (long and short), and after cyclical family affairs that have always erupted and sometimes ended in police arrests, and after being a victim (yes,victim) of racial ploys and even brutal attacks causing me to feel like Joseph K – constantly finding myself “on the run,” from “them,” and after an honest, but failed, attempt to bring Ed Bullins’ play “Goin’a Buffalo,” (my ode to the American Dream) to the screen, I finally confronted myself. It had been at least three years since I really took a personal snapshot of my soul; I was always doing something to avoid the demons head on – trying to bury it in my art, always looking for a new play, always being busy.

Busy. Busy. Busy. After a while all you are doing is being busy. One mustn’t stage a play just to stage a play. Art for art’s sake is ridiculous. But if you allow yourself to stop, to refuel – then you realize we go up only to come down. And, once again, you are left to deal with yourself. Many lonely nights will force you to re-acquaint yourself with yourself. No sex. No drugs. No TV. No form of escape just naked introspection. He’s a real nowhere man living in his nowhere land…

Yes. That is what happens. When the camel meets the lion who meets the child – no matter how painful, you cannot escape it. And all three of you go at it in that four cornered room. It’s like going cold turkey when you have thoughts in your head that you know you have denied or repressed. Repression creates neurosis. It’s a dam that one has to break, and when the gates are flooded with these potentially dangerous honest emotions and ideas, the result is not unlike As an Act of Protest. I agree that most directors are frustrated writers. However in the theatre it is easier to create that common link; easy to bridge your own inclinations with the author’s if you really understand that author. In film, you are able to go even deeper into your own psyche. That is why, I suppose, it is voted as being the most definitive medium or form for the Director. Here I don’t have to compromise anything.

This is what attracted me to film in the first place, but also what scared me about it. To have bits and pieces of your self smeared all over the screen is some heavy shit. There’s nowhere to hide. It all hangs out. But if my favorite Hip Hop artists have used their styles of music to conquer their personal fears and espouse their political autobiographies – why can’t the new young black directors do the same? True auteurs should create movies about what they know, who they are, their interests, and about the strangeness of their lives. By looking at his movies, James Cameron does not strike me as particularly interesting. On the other hand, I watch Chameleon Street, and say to myself “Wendell Harris is a guy I’d like to have a cup of coffee with.” It’s all personal taste in the end (the most frustrating thing about art), but it proves that people will always appreciate honesty. We’re lied to way too much in our daily lives from the society we live in. Why pay ten bucks to have someone “lie” to you through bland, petty bourgeois, “entertainment”? That is the difference between Dead Prez and Busta Rhymes. The former does not lie, but the latter, unfortunately, basks in it. To create, to paint, or write, etc, – is to confess. You play both
parts: Priest and Sinner. And I would like to truly thank the people around me who allowed me to confess, to go inside and come back out when it was over – no matter how difficult, immature, tiring, arrogant, or abusive I may have been to them. I admit I am a brat.
I hate that part of me, but admit it nonetheless. Once I admit it, perhaps I can begin to change.

Fundamentally, that is what art does for its creator.
It helps to rehabilitate. And I hope I can stay strong, continue to be positive and not let them (you know who they are) get the best of me. Sometimes I feel like Cairo, the actor in As an Act of Protest. Obviously he’s part of me, all the characters are. I just hope those who feel as I do, who are as sensitive as I have become will not take that as a sign of defeat. It’s quite the opposite. Society wants to vaccinate us, cripple us emotionally. People actually didn’t understand why I was so fucked up the day of the Diallo verdict. Granted, I was not surprised at the outcome – but I was crushed, depressed even. Severely. And it has taken a toll on me. I just deal with it in a different way – I repress my anger, my frustration, which is why I am able to be so confrontational in the plays I stage or the scripts I write. There is a monkey on my back – and I am trying to get rid of it, you understand? Racism in all its forms is the most destructive force in the universe.
It has created men and women who suffer with it, of it, breathe it and are accustomed to it. It creates mad men. And everyone in America alone feels this sickness. And the ones who are the victims – suffer with it even more so than the carriers of the disease.

In 1995, I had a nervous breakdown while a drama student at the Juilliard Conservatory. I was nineteen years old. My mother, a strong, beautiful, but troubled woman, tried everything to get me better. I saw every therapist in New York, took every prescriptive drug in the book. Even spent two weeks in the ward at Paine Whitney Mental Health Clinic. Of course nothing worked. The problem was that the problems were not being confronted head on – I was at the whitest school in the world (where the teachers still brag about the good old days of Al Jolson! You want names? I can give them to you), I was torn between pursuing art and my dream of a new black theatre, which I was just discovering, and making quick money – which my family would have readily appreciated, but I was down. Deep down in the mire looking up thinking ”Why are there are no real established black art schools?” All my actor friends were stuck on that European classical-training crap and there was no talking to them. And these conservatory brothers actually called me “Militant.”
Militant? First of all at Juilliard I was doing Shakespeare  (not exactly the bastion of Black Nationalism) and second of all – anybody who knows me knows I am meek and mild. I have dated women of all races, am open to all kinds of positive influences and art and philosophies. I am quite layered. I am not into labels to begin with – “Militant,” “Nationalist,” “Communist,” “Revolutionary Democrat,” “Third World Revolutionary,” “Democrat,”
“Republican,” — that stuff means nothing to me.
I am a Human Being first and foremost. A Black Man second. An artist, third. That’s about as far as I take labels – strip things right down to their base that’s what I always say.

Anyway, at nineteen I found myself really wondering about my future and about the welfare of black people just in America alone. After I happily got kicked out of Juilliard (I swear I would have burned the place down anyway), I began to take time and really piece myself together. A sister I began to date once told me that if I really wanted to “do something” I should use my art to raise consciousness. Of course, nearly three years later when I ran into her in Columbus Circle, I scared her away when I told her my idea for As an Act of Protest:
a black actor who cracks up when his brother gets killed by white police officers, and the actor seeks revenge by killing the Mayor’s son – an ultimate “act.” She said I was crazy. To my face, she said I was crazy. This is a black woman who got on me for not being tough enough, who would not spend the night with me unless I ran out the grooves on a Bob Marley disc, and she’s now dressed in Donna Karan garb, hair straight as could be, and she’s telling me I’m crazy, that I hate the white man because they won’t give me a chance on Broadway.  I’m angry because I don’t have any “higher education,” no college degree, no nothing. She proceeds to say I have abandonment issues (which is the only thing that’s true here, I ain’t gonna lie to you) and that I should open my eyes to the New Black Renaissance taking place. The new Black Renaissance? I asked her what that was, where is it? And how come I wasn’t invited? You know what she did? She took out a magazine, it might have been Ebony I can’t remember, and beams at the cover which shows Puffy Combs and Jennifer Lopez and the headline says something about Martha Stewart “getting her groove on” in the Hamptons with Puffy Daddy and Jigga. “We’ve arrived,” she says.  The sister told me how I, if I wanted, could be living large in two years and then crosses the street to greet her white boyfriend, no younger than sixty, and a Lexus. Needless to say, this only continues to wrack one’s brain, brainwashed black people only continue to depress and mortify you. You realize how colonization continues to affect us. Also, you don’t know at times who you want to kill – the white racist pigs from Bush to Howard Stern or the sellouts like Robin Quivers or those “Institution Negroes.” This is enough to make you go insane. Enough for Nat Turner’s ghost (I swear) to visit me and talk to me at three a.m. when I’m stone cold sober for real. My thesis in Protest is that black young men and women need to be able to have as many outlets for these problems and ills they see and experience. In my film, one of the characters says “Black people don’t need therapists, we need our own conservatories.” It’s true. Very, very true. Take it from me. It is not the answer, but it will begin to help.

 

As an Act of Protest (2001)

Che Ayende (Luis Laporte) as the conflicted actor Cairo in “As an Act of Protest” (2001)

A psychiatrist at Paine Whitney asked me once to describe to him why I felt so paranoid, afraid of society, and “stuck on,” the race problem in America. Since I seemed so “paranoid and alienated,” he asked me if I had read Kafka. I told him I did and I told him if he could dig Kafka, how come he couldn’t understand my situation? In fact, more black people could probably understand Kafka and all these alienated white boys better than white people themselves. We don’t weep for them as these phony white intellectuals do, because we don’t have to. Any group of people who have the horror of slavery embedded in the back of their minds, in the recesses of their “ancestral remembrances,” you know that little portion of the brain that carries mother Africa in black people everywhere – don’t need to cry for anyone except ourselves. I told this young “hip” doctor that I felt like the Last Poets’ song “This is Madness!” He asked me who the Last Poets were. You see what I mean? Where’s the black hospital where we can run to in times of discouragement, times when you really understand the blues, and all that stuff.

Instead of Colin Powell cocktailing with Rudy Giuliani, he should be planning on ways of making sure that the younger brothers don’t end up screwed up like him! (I know, smile, though, we all gotta dream a little bit)

“…And Diana Ross
how can you be Supreme and sing songs of Black Love when your mouth is overrunning with the Sperm of the trigger.
And William Styron is going to commit suicide when he finds out that Nat Turner made love to his great great grandmother. And he has taken our most violent and militant leaders and
stuck lollipops up their asses to pacify their Black power farts. And he is beginning to assume that all of us were born under the sign Taurus the Bull because all we do is BULLSHIT!

This is Madness…
This is Madness…
All this madness is madness…
Madness this is…Please stop all this Madness!”

— The Last Poets

As an of Protest seeks to capture the essence of this poem. And if its madness around you, it is your duty to report on it.

Protest is also an attempt to re-ignite a new cinema.

I am a theatre director making a movie – that’s all it is. If I thought Protest could work as a play, I’d have staged it. Thus, I realized that the time had really caught up to me. It is well beyond the age of movies and mass media. It is a sort of “Age of Images.” For real. A kind of celluloid Halloween. A Neo-Icon-Figurine-Poseur-Fetishism.
Everything reeks of Entertainment Weekly or People magazine. More and more movies (from Hollywood ofcourse) look the same; even the so-called “independent film” movement has lost its luster. I mean, think about it: you can only tell a sex, drugs, and rock and roll movie so many ways. Within this barrage of images – TV, newspapers, films – the only way to compete and battle America’s freaky web of pop culture, blatant racism, not so blatant racism, and that beast called television (“the white man’s magic,”) is to align your own self behind a series of images, tie them to a missile, and set it off. And if constructed correctly, no matter how small, missiles will destroy.

“The theatre is dead.” The West has been saying that repeatedly over the past sixty years. They were wrong up till now. As an Act of Protest reflects some of this changing tide and I have tried to show its political implications. Because, in the end, after war, after our technological advancement folds in itself, the theatre will remain. It’s all around us.

 

A still from "As An Act of Protest" (2001)

Theatre is present in all life and the real new breed of American filmmakers need to turn a blind eye to the Reservoir Dogs of the American Beauties and find themselves. Express their thoughts for real. Black filmmakers, in particular, need to really wake up.
Spike Lee has always complained that cinema has not discovered its Miles Davis or Toni Morrison. He’s correct, but I do not know what he himself is doing to alter this besides producing “Black Hollywood” movies like The Best Man. The Best Man is, in artistic terms, what Diana Ross is compared to Billie Holiday. Yes, black folks need films showing us loving and fighting for and over each other – but that film does not even begin to come close to anybody I’ve ever seen or known in a relationship. Love is not simple or mundane as that movie. No, not all – it’s quite messy and very complicated. Black people will play Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” blast Wu-Tang’s most innovative tracks, and spout the poetry of Amiri Baraka or Sonia Sanchez and yet will still think that a film like The Best Man or Shaft is good enough for them. This strange affiliation and knowledge of directing, storytelling, and displaying of images must change. And I know there are a lot of talented, radical, sensitive people out there. But where are they? Certainly not behind the cameras.

As Hip Hop music (I’m not talking about Li’l Kim or Jay-Z here) evolves and moves into a whole new century, so does a new generation of consciousness and Black Art. Because contrary to the media and Eminem, hip-hop is, and always was, black expression. If white people have not found their own form, there new genuine styles, that is not our fault. And it will not be my responsibility to make them feel “included” in my world. When was the last time a cop or a white man in the street went out of his way to make you feel secure? That type of stuff doesn’t even occur in dreams. True Hip Hop is the highest evolution of the black
aesthetic: from the Spirituals to the blues to folk art and jazz to poetry and the Revolutionary Theatre; from be-bop to Rap. And somewhere in the middle of all this is Rock and Roll. Phew…(And they call us lazy)

In art, every genre/style will run its course, the band the Roots warn us of these traps. One can only take a style of art so far before the American System co-opts it, dilutes it down, bottle and sells it like Coca-Cola and soon what once was an expression of pain or joy becomes mass-produced and on sale like sneakers or cigarettes. Everything is up for grabs in the West and we all continue (black and white alike) to deny it. Look around you at the state of just about everything. ”You can’t think so much” – even this is a bold-face lie. How can we think too much about anything? We only use ten percent of our brains. We do not think enough that is the problem. You want freedom? Force yourself to find a way, never stop investigating…The same with art. If you don’t protect it (like your children) it will be taken from you, and then you will be forced to beg on your knees just to have an “opportunity” to have someone read your work.
What kind of nonsense is that? Why should I fight my way into Hollywood so some old white man can tell me if he wants to produce my script? As if he is going to tell me if I’m talented or not? How would he know? And shame on me if I do not listen to the encouragement of the Last Poets or my peers. What they say is real, is true. If I’m good, they’ll tell me. Not some old white man who runs some Hollywood Studio. And if I’m trying to win an Oscar that just proves how shackled my mind is from colonization. It’s a slave mentality. Miles Davis speaks quite eloquently about establishment awards in his autobiography. If you need more convincing, at least take it from him if not me…

So what else do I see? Well, I can see that theatre has been confined to the dusty annals of Conservatories and college programs and New York Times articles. Emerging black playwrights have never had it so hard. Unless, maybe, you are Suzan Lori-Parks or August Wilson no one will produce your full-length drama. And if they do, in some supposedly high brow theatre, your black play will be staged by a white director. That would be like Outkast begging David Geffen to produce their next album. Surreal? Read on, it gets worse.
In the states, the great black theatre directors, some perhaps by choice, have completely lost touch to the new ensuing generations because not only have they failed in coming together to sustain a Black American Repertory Theatre system, they have not had any cinematic ventures. Lloyd Richards, August Wilson’s famous director-collaborator, was not even allowed to adapt his landmark 1959 production of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to film. No, Hollywood had a white director do it. Why? Because they know the power of the image, of cinema. As we all know, it combines two essential ingredients imperative to any propaganda or mission statement: IMAGES (ideas) and MASS DISTRIBUTION. With film you have an opportunity to reach millions of people around the world. Like a novel. Just think of the movies available on videocassette. Your message, literally, can go on tour. It is a shame that the world (or just our country alone) does not recognize theatre-men like Gil Moses, Robert Macbeth, or Owen Dodson as major innovators and artists. Had they been able to direct films like white theatre masters such as Peter Brook or even Laurence Olivier, perhaps Gordon parks would not be the only “old” black filmmaker we know of in America.

There’s Oscar Micheaux, the great black film pioneer – but his name relates more to myth as opposed to actual work we can see since his films are pretty much out of print, lost, or destroyed. Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, and Ingmar Bergman were all theatre directors before they even thought about making movies. They conquered one form, then logically moved into another – spreading their wings that’s all.  Welles was my age when he landed in Hollywood to embark on the creation of his classic Citizen Kane.  The kid had never even seen a camera before, nonetheless know anything about montage or cuts or dubbing. I have had some ignorant people try to psyche me out by saying to me “Man, you can’t do a movie.  You’re a theatre director. You’re a stage man. What do you know about cinematography or editing? I bet you don’t even know who Lumiere was. You may be able to stage a play but that does not mean you can do a film.” That’s true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.  And if Welles was only twenty four when he made Citizen Kane then what is the difference between his youthful zeal, intelligence, talent, and desire to explore and say, Mos Def’s? Must I remind you that Michael Jackson was only twenty-four when he made Thriller? There is no difference here. I am a director, which in most quarters is a vague title. A lot of people don’t really understand a stage director or filmmaker. They equate it to an old white man’s medium. Which translates to: intelligence, sophistication, and “understanding of rules.”
Bullshit. Complete bullshit. I realized this when staging “Blues for Mister Charlie” at the National Black Theatre in 1999. A theatre rep from Lincoln Center refused to believe that such a young black man could direct a three and a half hour play and have it be a critical and financial success (whatever that means). If I were forty, she would have believed it.
Or, if I was homosexual perhaps or blind and deaf in one ear – they feel it would be more likely. Why?  Because it would mean to them that I was a little “off,” or different and this could account for my talent. If I made a hip hop record (which is what they prefer all young black male artists to do) than they would want to celebrate me. This is not good. Not good at all.

Where am I going with all this? What is my point? It’s
this: in order for a complete re-birth or renaissance, if you will, and I don’t use that word lightly – African American filmmakers need to get bold. All of us, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors. We need to get dirty. We need to be outrageous, unconventional, honest, clever, and as vicious as we have been in other art forms or musical genres. We need true Hip Hop films, aesthetically speaking. This could, ironically, even inspire a new theatre. But black auteurs need to look at ourselves for inspiration not Steven Speilberg, not the Coen Brothers, not Fellini. Admiring one’s work is one thing, using it as a model of a standard work from which to base your own work is another. Especially if its not someone from your own house. How could a black independent filmmaker way out on the fringe – look to Oliver Stone or Brian De Palma for practical advice or cultural support? Ideas he could get, even immediate inspiration, you may even learn something from any type of art – but then what? Something gets lost in the translation. It would be like Women using Men as a model on which to base parenting. Sure, we’re all fruits. But there is a difference between an apple and an orange. And what happens when you discover that your favorite Hollywood filmmaker has major split-racist tendencies or extreme right-winged proclivities in his movies. I appreciate honesty in art, and if you have hangs up show them in your films – but give me a break. That black film student will watch certain films and begin to really get depressed:
“Wow. Martin Scorsese has weird stuff about black people in almost all his movies. George Lucas merely makes fun of “colored” and Eastern peoples by converting Asian-African-rooted-type names into “fancy” futuristic Star Wars lingo: The degobah system? Obi-Wan Kenobi? Sounds vaguely Japanese, Middle Eastern with West Indian lilts to me. Allah must be shaking his head. It’s sick. I go into the video stores to buy more copies of the Godfather, Taxi Driver, the French Connection, Indiana Jones, The Deer Hunter, Saturday Night Fever, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Brasco, or even “light” Middle-class fare such as Chasing Amy or Jerry McGuire. Black people (or other people of color) are put down or killed off or severely mocked in any one of these pictures (we believe if they wouldn’t, then these films wouldn’t be gritty and “realistic”). Some of these movies are considered to be great works of American art. And some of them are – Coppola’s mysteriously cloaked The Godfather is not unlike a Shakespearean Tragedy play about a royal corrupt family. As brilliant as it is, shouldn’t I be spending more time watching Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess, which came out in 1973 and played in the theatres for only a week. The film is a classic and teaches me, an African-American, more about myself than Coppola or John Huston could. It’s also one of the most technically thrilling and artistically driven films I have ever seen. Spike Lee should spent his time on getting copies of Gunn’s work out on video as opposed to watching Knicks games and drooling over “dolly shots” in his movies. However, even Spike wants us to all believe that he is the only legitimate black filmmaker.

Poor Charles Burnett, the maker of the cult classic Killer of Sheep. This milestone came out the same year as Star Wars and has not been seen ever since. While brothers are applauding the heroes from a galaxy far, far away – they’re completely inured to their fellow brethren right in their backyards. Huey P.Newton wrote a stunning essay and review of Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasss Song and hailed it as a new vanguard cinema for black people – an example of real artistic-political storytelling that the black audience could appreciate.  Huey wrote that he hoped this would inspire a whole revolutionary genre of black pictures. Instead, the white people of Hollywood saw they could make money by having a brother on screen and decided to further the ante by “gambling” on pictures like Shaft (by Gordon Parks, ironically, whose brilliant The Learning Tree has been forgotten even though it was the first major Hollywood movie by a black Writer and Director! Of course, the rest is history and like they have done to Rap music – everything caved in; the Blaxploitation era arrived and all the racist, stereotypical White Man’s Nigger-Propaganda-movies flooded the world and artists like Bill Gun, Burnett, and even Van Peebles himself vanished into thin air. No wonder Huey P.Newton died in a crack house: he had no movies to go see.

How does one battle this? Well, if Charlie Parker walked into a room and all he heard was some ucky-ducky brass version of lily white tunes like “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?” and the standard Top 40 pop music before jazz, he’d walk over to the white band, pull the saxophone player by his neck and say in that English accent that he was known to have mocked “If I hear this shit one more time I’m a go insane. Somebody betta play that instrument and somebody betta play that shit right. Fuck these chords and lame rhythms, we better come up with our own ways of playing before we lose our souls like these white cats playin’ this shit.” You find your own way of playing the instrument. That’s it. An incident like this changes the course of history and brings black people into themselves again. You have your way of handling the camera, I have mine. Consciousness and talent is all I ask for. Of course Genius wouldn’t hurt either.

Black Americans along side, if not more than, (yes!) William Shakespeare have contributed more than any other group or individual to the English language than anyone in history. Even News Broadcasters try to sound “hip” on television. It’s absurd. It’s not a question of getting angry, it’s a matter of doing something constructive. We created Rap music with a cardboard box and some words, man! Like mighty magicians, we always created something out of nothing. Didn’t need this, didn’t need that. Didn’t need some big studio, eighteen guitars, twenty-four track recorders, thirty different percussion instruments or drums. Just a beat and our minds. Do you realize we have sent thousands upon thousands of dazzling messages into the night this way? So, how can a black filmmaker do the same thing? How can I learn to do in my art what the Last Poets, Public Enemy, Run DMC, Tupac Shakur, Outkast, Common, or Dead Prez have accomplished in their field?
Where is the key? What are the means I must have to do this? It’s right in front of us. We live in it: the digital age.

The answer is Digital Video.

DOGMA 95 & DIGITAL VIDEO

Every so often a movement in art comes along that clears the decks and allows the lion in us to roam.
Explore.

Enables us to see differently and experience something – otherwise too familiar – in a completely different context and allows the artist to re-define his way of working. Like Peter Brook’s classic treatise on theatre “The Empty Space,” the Danish filmmakers’ concept of Dogma 95 has introduced a fresh and new way of making movies. Conceived in 1995, the aim of Dogma 95-films is to “strip cinema naked.”  Meaning the goal is to “force the truth out of characters and settings,” by using the bare essentials of cinema: a hand-held digital video movie camera, natural light, on location sound, and real sets. To some degree this “actors cinema” (the focus here) is not new, of course, for John Cassavetes and even early Martin Scorsese championed these ideas decades ago. However, what Dogma 95 has achieved is remarkable. By just using a digital camera, a bare bones crew, no special effects, and an ensemble of daring actors (called “Liberators,” in the Black Revolutionary Theatre) they have proven that quality, not quantity is what counts. No string-budget films can now be made by using digital video (which have amazing resolution and splendid transfers when blown up to 35mm. Even your man, George Lucas is shooting his next Star Wars movie completely on digital).

Thomas Vinterberg’s stunning digital feature The Celebration is a perfect example of this vanguard cinema. Do you see what has happened here? The writer no longer needs a computer or typewriter – he can make his literary masterpiece with just a pad and pen!
Digital video and the Dogma 95 concept has empowered and enabled filmmakers all over the world who grew up thinking they needed Hollywood money and equipment – to produce their own personal feature films. All you need is a camera and a story. Guerilla filmmaking. The tide is slowly turning…

If Rap artists could get down with just two turntables, black directors – left out and fighting against the system, must quit their whining and look to digital video. Unless you want to spend years raising money to shoot on 35mm, which gets more expensive by the day, you’ve got to be practical and praise the lord that you now have the means. Power to the People, a poor man’s cinema verses the White Capitalist Power Structure-Epi-Center of the Western World. Why more African American filmmakers are not using this new technology to make their statements is beyond me. Like with our music, we need to assault cinema, tear it up, break it down, blow on it, scratch it, make it spin on its head. It’s there for us to redefine yet we are so colonized we continue to believe that White is better; that we have to compete with Hollywood’s standards of assembly-line filmmaking: Special effects, fancy lights, script convention. It’s as if we want to make bad movies as good as they do and neglect our very existence or representation in the process. If you have a million dollars at your disposal, perhaps we could have another (slightly different) discussion. Thus, take what you can learn – but don’t emulate what is not you or for you. Nina Simone had no desire to want to be the “next” Judy Garland. Similarly, Saul Williams was not trying to copy TS Eliot by rote.

So simple, yet so difficult. Those chains are hard to break. Sometimes I forget I even have them on. So the Dogma 95 films are now on the cutting edge and films worldwide are being produced on digital. Now, I ask “Where do the New Wave of Black Filmmakers really fit in here?”

THIRD CINEMA 2000

In the 1960’s, a film theory called Third Cinema was created in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These “third world filmmakers,” such as Indian master Satyajit Ray and African griot Haile Gerima joined to form Third Cinema in an effort to “transform society by educating and radicalizing the film audience through subversive cinema.” (Definitely sounds like what Miles Davis, Coltrane, or RZA from Wu-Tang did with music or sound itself). Adhering to the philosophy that all film is ideological, they experimented with film as a weapon against the cultural imperialism of Hollywood. Like a Katherine Dunham dance or one of Baraka’s plays. In Africa, specifically, filmmakers were inspired by the writings of Frantz Fanon and Marxist film criticism and formulated new revolutionary film theory that radically re-interpreted the relationship between film, the viewer, and the director. Third cinema characterizes traditional film directors of the West as agents of capitalism who “sell” to promote their passive audiences movies that promote colonial stereotypes and consumer-society values.

Latino filmmakers such as Fernando Solanas and Ocatvio Gettino produce “films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the system.” In present day United States of America, we make Hip Hop records that are incendiary and hold back on nothing. We need films to go along with these albums. I wanna see a film that’s as bold as the Aquemini album. Unfortunately, Umar Hassan still has it right: Niggers are scared of revolution…

Revolutionary cinema must resist the temptation to be “clean,” or sterile like the movies from Hollywood and television shows. The radical Hip Hop cinema of this new century must not limit itself to mere “denunciation,” or appeal simply for reflection, it must be a summons for action. Some of the techniques written into Protest in fact are examples of Third
Cinema: fusion of documentary with fiction and use of unresolved endings that are traditionally used to invite audience discussion. Our African brothers such as filmmaker Souleyman Cisse’ have been very successful at this.

By using the Dogma 95 techniques and the political and cultural urgency of Third Cinema, I am declaring As An Act of Protest a THIRD CINEMA 2000 picture and the first of its kind for the New Wave of Black Filmmaking in the Twenty First Century. These are the principles:

1. Your film must be shot on digital video (or Super
16mm).
You can only use standard 35mm if you easily have the money in your budget. (But to shoot on film and lose financing during post production and editing is ridiculous and can now be avoided at all costs!)

2. Your film must seek to be honest and revealing. How screwed up are Human Beings? Don’t answer it, ask it.
Exposure of the ills of our society, the racism, sexism, poverty, war, problems of communication between men and women various forms of prejudice must be attacked and criticized. These are the ingredients of humanity; what separates us from Animals are our emotional, psychological, spiritual, sexual, and political problems. We create these horrors. The
animals you so admire – don’t.

3. Your film must be a narrative “feature” film. Focus
on character driven stories that are surrounded by topical events of our time. If your film is a period piece, do not forsake authentic emotions and real situations for “real costumes” or period set pieces.
The Actor must be at the center of your film and you must exhaust all ways of getting true, raw, performances. Stop at nothing in order to reveal real moments of pain or joy in the lives of your characters. Never sacrifice a good performance for a “cool” shot or hip lighting. Use improvisation as a technique.

4. Ignore script convention: you don’t need to always
have the standard 120 pages of script, arcs, denouements, plot points, etc,. You are the author of your film and must make a film you would want to see, not what some screenwriting book advises that you make us see. The script must be written by an African American, if not you, and if it’s a collaboration at least one of the writers must be black. Likewise, lead characters must be black or of African Ancestry.

5. Your film must stress emotional and political
volatility, the confusion, and stress, and horror of living in whatever conditions you wish to explore – housing conditions, interracial relationships, the collision of Pop stars and real working people, capitalist terrain, etc,. You always have two goals:
to serve the socio-political message and to create emotionally laden stories through use of deep, complicated characters. Drama and Political Messages.
One must not overwrought the other.

6. Welcome various styles and ideas in one film. Like
life, it should capture aspects of the multi-faceted events of our daily lives, no matter how bizarre, funny, or sad. Also, do not be afraid of using varying musical styles to stress altering moods.

7. You must understand and use Hip Hop as a frame of
reference for the conception of your film. Meaning, you are, in essence, making a Hip Hop film and must apply its familiar characteristics: Bravado, Righteousness, Defiance, and Heart.

8. Explore ambiguity, minimalism, and excess at
various intervals of the film. Embrace unresolved endings.

9. Do not pander to your audience and you MUST NOT
show gratuitous jokes, nudity, drug use, or violence – unless that is the subject of your work. Do not try to appeal to pop culture or make attempts at being hip.
Trust yourself and your intelligence.

10. Understand that, before anything else, you are a
GRIOT and your main concern is to move,
enlighten, politically arouse, and teach your viewers.
Never stop challenging. And work with as many different types of people on your crew: a variable of energies is important during production.

Note: “Griot” must precede Director’s name if credits are employed. For example, “The Movie” Directed by Griot John X.

On stage it is important to “spill the blood” and fill that empty space. In cinema, it is important for black directors to use a camera the way the great musicians played their instruments or approach filmmaking as influential novelists did with the written word. There is so much to be explored. As many different types of black people there are throughout the world – that is how many ways of filmmaking there are. Dare to fail.
Find the jazz in you. Play your riffs, find your flows. And when you are finished, create your own way of taking a bow.

* * * *

Thanks to Amiri Baraka for writing “Dutchman,” Woodie King, Jr. for your landmark book “Black Theatre:
Present Condition,” one of the major influences that got me off my ass, the work of James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Lorraine Hansberry, Antonin Artaud, and Spike Lee – as well as John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, Raoul Peck, Bill Gunn, Wendell B. Harris, Euzhan Palcy, Haile Gerima, and Robert Bresson – for the brutal honesty in their work.

Thanks to the Last Poets – Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan. Your albums have astonished and provided me with inspiration throughout my short life. Umar and Dun, thank you specifically for our many telephone conversations and your honest words of wisdom and support. Umar, it was fate that brought us together at the Lenox Lounge on 125th street. Life does that and at the strangest moments, you meet the people who you have admired and you find that after having met them and re-reading their work, you admire them even more.
You have encouraged me as a writer and I have appreciated all of your comments and thoughts on my work.

Special Thanks to Rick Schmidt’s now classic book “Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices,” Steve Kahler in Florida for making me a true believer in DVD, Ray Carney, the people of Harlem, Ali Lynch for understanding, Haile Gerima’s stunning university speech on filmmaking, the music of Dead Prez and all “conscious” Hip Hop: the Language of the Underground Railroad.

Dennis Leroy Moore
(aka: Dennis Leroy Kangalee)
August 26, 2000
Harlem, NY

This was the original introductory note included in the very first draft of As an Act of Protest four months prior to the shoot.

An edited version was later read as a speech at the Oberia Dempsey center.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Gordon Parks: Reflecting, Connecting, Learning…

“I don’t make black exploitation films,” Parks stated to The Village Voice, the very year I was born, in 1976.

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

After working at Vogue magazine, a 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine.  For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway,poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of activists, artists, and athletes. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” (Lee D. Baker, 1992, Transforming Anthropology) 

***

One of the most underrated and rarely mentioned filmmakers is Gordon Parks – whose genius as a visual artist and photographer often hijacks the attention away from his dramatic works and his cinematic expeditions. His powerful photo-essays,his dignified pictures of urban and rural working class life, his career as a Life magazine photographer (the very first African-American on their staff!) alone has left an indelible mark on the 20th century and modern culture alone (find his haunting “Crisis in Latin America”/Poverty/Flavio series, “American Gothic,” or some of the Harlem photographs he took, or his iconic depiction of Ingrid Bergman in Italy, peering back out of the corner of her eye as three villagers admonish the affair she was having with Roberto Rossellini)

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

He is on my mind today because I overheard some moron in the Time Life Building (which still hosts Parks’ haunting portrait of Ingrid Bergman) – ignorantly yelp that he was the “Father of Blaxploitation cinema”. In my younger, meaner “old days” I’d have started to yell and promptly given it to this kid straight between the eyes.  But I’ve learned to ease into these situations, finesse it, try to charm the actual situation before…setting it on fire.

I had to explain to this young man that black filmmakers did not create “Blaxploitation” cinema and if they did they certainly would have come up with a better term.

I had to explain that because of the box-office success of Melvin Van Peebles powerful Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and Gordon Parks own cop thriller Shaft, white Hollywood executives and producers took note of this, saw dollar signs, and instantly jumped on the “craze” that was emanating out of protest music and black consciousness in art, literature, and theater in the early 70’s – spilling over into film. It was only natural that film would be influenced.

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

But instead of truly honoring the intentions of such grave filmmakers and writers (Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, etc) — many of these filmmakers were lucky if they made one personal film of their own that ever saw the light of day. And even when merely “hired,” they never resorted to exploitation or sided with the racism of the establishment by further peddling stereotypes and all kinds of bizarre images of African Americans that the seventies mainstream began to feverishly churn out (as if it were a return to the sickening images and propaganda published about blacks during the height of chattel slavery).

Not one black film writer or director or “artist” was involved in, promoted, or benefited from Hollywood’s exploitation of “black anger”, fashion, sexuality, or music. Instead white producers wrote garbage and “pimped” black men and women into portraying white fantasies and racist caricatures; often watering down the righteousness of the previous 1960’s visceral rage. And often – we allowed this to happen.

Some directors, like Michael Schultz, found ways to transcend Hollywood’s attempts at gross exploitation of the African American audience and community at large– check out his heartfelt, coming of age story Cooley High, and his hilarious Car Wash, — two films the bridge a universal satire/slapstick rooted with social commentary. Incidentally, Roger Ebert praised Car Wash comparing it to MASH. But despite the film having received a Golden Globe nomination and a nomination for Cannes 1977 Golden Palm — it was still considered a “bad” movie with mediocre reviews. What’s even stranger about the screenplay for Car Wash is that it is credited to Joel Schumacher (yes, the man who directed St. Elmo’s Fire and all the early 1990’s Michael Keaton-BATMAN movies. Don’t ask.) I have heard from at least four people that Schumacher’s simply plotted out the movie and all dialogue was improvised and rehearsed and honed by Schultz. (Schultz is a theater director and so this would not have been alarming for him to do as he came from a heavy ensemble and actor-oriented background. Look him up: he directed Waiting for Godot in 1966 at Princeton and directed for the Negro Ensemble Company. He is noted for having directed Lorraine Hansberry’s To be Young Gifted & Black, the most successful Off-Broadway play in 1968!)

Interesting to note – like one of our greatest playwrights – August Wilson – Schultz, too, was Black and German. I sometimes even wonder if this does not account for their conscientious and laborious way of working; taking two great work-ethic traditions and blending them into one to singularly express unique POV and varied experiences of the African American community. That’s what I expect from high-brow academic “cinema” magazines and essays to be writing. Not promoting salacious and atrocious lies depicting Gordon Parks as the “Father” of Blaxploitation Cinema, making him “easy” and “pat” for Movie academics and white kids in the suburbs. IMDB is so disrespectful and perverse – they attribute Parks’ Shaft to Blaxploitation while even acknowledging the quote that starts this very essay!

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

Getting back to Gordon: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once praised him as being a “black genius,” – he iterated Park’s race because the interviewer obviously had no clue who he was (can you imagine?)…For those of you who don’t know much about Parks either – treat yourself to one of his autobiographies “Fires in the Mirror”, “A Choice of Weapons”, borrow a book of his photos from the library, or at least watch the documentary on him Half Past Autumn (produced by Denzel Washington, in fact one of Denzel’s most sincere contributions to cinema).

“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his ‘The Learning Tree’ was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial.”
– Roger Ebert

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

Parks’ films seem boring today to a lot of the film establishment and are unnoticed or shoved aside by the independents because they are not formally aggressive and – aside from the ‘sexy’ Shaft and his gun-cop-adventure movies – are rather slow moving. His personal movies are not loud or stylistically excessive – they capture moments, like his photographs.  You can feel his colors, his environments, etc. They are distinguished – as he was – and they reek of cigar smoke and well kept sweaters. And they build and have a slow, gentle impact. They are not provocative, but they resonate. They are not fast and extravagant, but they are deep and conscientious. The Learning Tree of course is a perfect example – powerful due to its lean and delicate nature and how it depicts more complicated aspects of racism and reveals that everything is not what it seems. And yet…regarded as a strange anomaly. At the height of the civil rights revolution, the movie seemed tame and in a certain sense was, understandably, disregarded by the more progressive African-American arts community that were re-establishing and re-assessing how best to move on and create in America.  Some believe it is because Parks was telling a story set in the 1920’s and the accepted racism of that area did not strike a chord with the revolutionaries and the activists of the time who, in 1969, wanted nothing to do with any memory of the 1920’s…they wanted to destroy all that had abused and humiliated the preceding generation and their very own.  The Learning Tree, although well done, seemed “conservative” and passe at the end of the tumultuous sixties.

The Learning Tree has supposedly had little impact upon later African American artists and is seldom discussed as a significant work of art, despite Congress’ inclusion of it in their national registry as an “American treasure.”

Parks’ Leadbelly is an excellent ‘biopic’ (and I hate biopics) and a film that meanders somewhat tracing the life of this blues legend in a confident and understated way. Parks was a director who used understatement and slow-pacing in his own way, sometimes his films feel like they are trying to find themselves as it were — but while Schultz was definitely a better craftsmen, Parks was a better artist.

Even his minor works reveal something about the painful side of life — his version of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is under-cooked, but better than the overrated Steve McQueen version. But of course no one will mention this. Parks made his version for American Playhouse in 1984 with Avery Brooks. His version has more gravity and heart than McQueen’s. And yet he doesn’t push for it…McQueen pushed heavily for emotion and yet – I felt nothing after watching his film. There was a disturbing laissez faire quality the movie had and all I was left with was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beautifully weeping eyes – with nothing behind them. At all. Those eyes should have given Rene Falconetti’s (see Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc!) a run for her money and they didn’t. And that’s why ultimately I was angry at McQueen: he pushed and choreographed so much melodrama – that all we were left with were soap suds.

Did you know that it was the great original movie maverick himself, John Cassavetes, who demanded that Warner Brothers give Parks money to make an adaption of his own book, “The Learning Tree” into a movie? Parks recounts this in his autobiography. I’m always amazed when biographers of Cassavetes never bring it up: it took a lot of guts to go to bat for an “unknown” Black director in Hollywood in 1968! This warrants serious rumination. Who would do this today?

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Filmmakers are a selfish bunch, a part of us has to be cause we’re always nervous about financing our work, we often get derailed trying to organize our projects, we’re very competitive with other filmmakers (a good thing), etc. – but we seldom go to bat for other filmmakers.  And understand that Cassavetes was no Richard Burton or Marlon Brando, mind you – he never had that Hollywood power. Ever. And so he had a lot to lose – but he also had a reputation for being argumentative, righteous, intense, and “artistic.” This was a filmmaker who wrote and direct his own dramas at home, using his closest friends, and shooting films like a jazz musician.  Pure, unfettered feelings and emotions and thoughts – barely with a “story.”  It takes genius to recognize genius and this example proves it.  If there were two mavericks in Hollywood or American cinema at that time, it would be Parks and Cassavetes. Parks did not have the flair or showmanship that Van Peebles had and Cassavetes did not conform to genre or give audiences what they wanted the way some of his smarter contemporaries might have (Altman, for example) but they both created a very personal body of work. And a very important one.

1963 (Gordon Parks)

1963 (Gordon Parks)

A final interesting fact: Did you know that the great Gordon Parks — the pipe smoking, distinguished man of letters, music, civil rights, film, photography…was also Candace Bushnell’s boyfriend when she had fled Texas to live in NYC. He was 58. She was 18. According to Bushnell, she was too young to be in a real serious relationship with a genius, but declared Parks was “great” and that her mother thought Parks was the most charming man she’d ever met. Bushnell would, of course, go on to write and create Sex and The City. The only thing that disturbs me about all this is that Carrie Bradshaw always seemed too awkward and self consciously nervous to be around a man like Gordon Parks. It bothers me that Bushnell never tried to truthfully render a relationship between her characters and an African American man liked Parks. That would have been edgy. But her experience with Parks and Studio 54 was in the 1970’s. Her Sex & The City is like the 1970’s without the radicalism, intellectualism, politics, or danger. The 1990’s in NYC was interesting, yes – but if you remembered the show Sex & The City than you probably weren’t living it. And if you were – it wasn’t necessarily devoid of radical politics. When those incongruous worlds meet, it certainly makes for great drama. I’m mystified why it scares so many people.

Anyway, there you have it. Don’t ever say I didn’t give you any interesting gossip!

Lastly, please remember: it is this charming, elegant man — this High School dropout — named Gordon Parks, who lived life on his own terms, and tried hard to create a rich and varied artwork that would resonate with people who took just a little time to care and who were craving aspects of their own reflections..or society’s illness.

His films warrant a closer reading and “remastered” viewing.

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film "Shaft" (1970)

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film “Shaft” (1970)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As an Act of Protest

“Raw, provocative, and demanding.”
Cara Buckley, The Miami Herald June 17, 2002

As an Act of Protest (2001)

From gas masks/veins/
red, and stages.
Eyes/hands,
canted angles,
we’ve made the time & place to breathe in & breathe out…
— “the flickers on my wall” (2002)

A restored assembly of scenes has been uploaded and released on the web in an attempt to make parts of the film available to its cult fans and introduce it to a new generation as well. It has not been screened publicly in the USA since 2003 and the master tapes were destroyed by Kangalee while living in Europe. Renewed interest in the film came as a result of the publication of his poetry in 2010. Click here to go directly to clips, click on the stills, or simply continue reading below…


“While watching As an Act of Protest, as was true in a Cassavetes film, I felt as though the principal actors weren’t so much acting as they were pouring out before the camera, depictions of the way people really behave…it is in the scenes where Abner and Cairo discuss with each other, their rage as African American men, that the film is so compelling.”
– Hugh Pearson, author Shadow of a Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America

Che Ayende as Cairo


“…Through its frontal attack, it lets the audience seek solutions rather than presenting them as easy answers…The performances are solid–with the lead actors turning in gut-wrenching reality…It is so refreshing to see a movie that is raw, real–sweats–without glitzy effects or pabulum solutions.”
– Brent Buell, NY
Filmmaker/Author/Educator/Sing-Sing Prison Arts Instructor
http://www.imdb.com

*

AUTHOR’S STATEMENT
‘All I Wanted to Do Was Make a Cinematic Protest Poem’
By Dennis Leroy Kangalee

A still from "As An Act of Protest" (2001)
As an Act of Protest was the second greatest romance I have ever experienced.
It also nearly ended my life.

It was my greatest disaster, nearly ruined me in every way: professionally, creatively, socially, spiritually, psychologically, physically…Where some filmmakers end up emotionally — I started off. As an Act of Protest was a low point in my life and a peak artistically. It was the antidote that contained the poison. It was the culmination of my kamikaze-crash & burn-directing career (17-24) and my years as an actor. By the time I was 21 and full of vigor I was a gypsy — roaming from one theatrical boundary to another.

Disenchanted with the lack of spirituality, anarchy, consciousness, and creativity–I alienated my mainstream ‘mentors’ and gladly accepted the Juilliard School’s expulsion. Of course, an agent, representation, a manager — would have helped but it was at Juilliard that I realized who I was and what I most certainly was not going to be. Today, in my 30’s I haven’t the foggiest notion of who I am, but I still cling on to what I know I am not.
A robot is one of them.
A bootlicker is another.
Someone intent on “pleasing an audience” is somewhere on the list as well.

I went to Juilliard because I wasn’t accepted anywhere else and when I was 18 I still relished the idea of being a classical actor. However, as an actor, I rarely said the words I wanted to, expressed an aspect of myself, or addressed a feeling or idea that obsessed me. My problem was that I may have been perceived as a “natural performer” but cared more about how I felt as opposed to how the character felt or who he was. That is a huge problem for a traditional actor and it betrays the playwright. I found myself being attracted and influenced by more writers and musicians and painters as opposed to “actors.” I did, however, have a great love for the Living Theater and the Black Arts Movement, Circle Rep, Steppenwolf and a lot of the 1960’s-1970’s countercultural artistic movements. The problem was that by 1997, there was ONE culture: MAIN STREET. And the Internet Age quickly followed suit, arranging us all in the same line, the same row…so we all like everything.

I have always believed that every generation must fulfill its destiny or betray it, like Fanon said. We are responsible for expressing the torment and joy of our times.

I suppose it was a natural evolution to become a more creative artist as opposed to merely interpretive. And when of course I found the theater disenchanting, I realized I would have to start writing my own work. It was just a matter of time and building up the guts, having the courage to go at alone in a cage and beat the madness and honesty out of me. What did I want to say? Get it out!

The base of my art has always been as a writer. Someone who “makes up things” and expresses himself through those conceits. Tall tales. Big dreams. Strange fantasies. I’ve always written, I’ve always told stories. Some were real, some weren’t. But all were true. And the best ones are always sincere. Racism is something I have never had any tolerance for and I have a low threshold for it, lower than most people. It makes my blood boil and I knew I had to write something sincere– directly — like a rap song — about what was bothering me.

All I wanted to do was make a cinematic protest poem.

Anna Freud once wrote “If I prick you and you do not say ouch, something is wrong with you.” I can’t remember where I read that — but that sharp statement has always resonated with me. I wanted to make a film that was less a “movie” and more like a poem or more akin to an album, a collection of protest songs. Having been influenced early on from artists such as Phil Ochs, early Dylan, Bertolt Brecht, James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka — it only seemed natural that my political inclinations, my disapproval and anger in how we live and die in our society — would inform my art. My early directing projects were perhaps too heavy-handed, but I would never say they eschewed artistic consideration. Sure, some of it may have been provocative — but an arresting image does well when it reveals something deeper. When the soul lunges and the heart coils and the blood beats in your temple — you know it is visceral and it is real. It is love. It is rock and roll. It is dance. It is celebration. It is freedom.

I wanted to make a movie that sprang across the jungle-gym of my mind. I wanted to cast a net over the mania of my fervor, my discontent with our status quo, my acceptance of a racist world and an oppressive society. I wanted to do it with personal and colorful characters, people who were real to me, or were parts of me — and I wanted to let it rip. And I did, almost to my own detriment. But you can never be too personal. If anything is special about Protest — it is that it’s one of the few movies whose main characters actually feel and believe everything they’re saying. Singers are liable to get stomped on when they sing words they don’t believe. Despite its fictitious grandeur, it should be no different for the actor!

It was important to express the angst of the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo murder and I wanted to put my anger to use. I did not pick up a gun. I did not burn down a village. I did not smash windows. I wrote a script and a kind of spiritual autobiography of who I was at the time. It may have been a cop out – but it was a beautiful one.

The movie took a year to make. I spent a month shooting and nearly eight months editing. I finished the first cut days before 9/11, I was out on North 7th in Williamsburg where my editor lived and I remember walking all the way down to Bedford avenue each night to the L train and not seeing a soul in sight . And it was beautiful. I could re-cut and play out scenes in my head and not be distracted, disturbed, or annoyed by anyone with a latte or a carpool or fleet of backpacks. I was also abusing a great deal of drugs, which I do not recommend for any filmmaker. When you’re coked up, it’s not that you lose perspective or nuance or any of those other bourgeois attributes — it is that your work suffers in its expression. And what you think you are saying/feeling is actually something else. You become convoluted. Which is not at all a negative thing, but it gets in the way when you don’t trust your audience.

I have always had contempt for people who need to be shown or entertained or “explained” to. It probably comes from the fact that I myself had so many learning disabilities and academic problems at school…

Four months after the first cut of Protest, I went home to my apartment on 131st street between Malcolm X & 5th Ave; swallowed every pill I had in my bathroom, ingested as much cocaine as I possibly could, dressed in the best suit I had, lay down and waited for God (or someone) to shut my eyes.

I woke up three days later in Harlem Hospital with my entire family hovering over me. To this day, I still think about the fact that I was in that hellhole asylum for one month and no one even sent me a flower…

I tried to kill myself not just because I was tired of living, but mainly because I knew I had failed as an artist. I knew Protest was not the film it could have been, but then again — I am not the artist I “could” have been — so what does that mean? It is in the accepting of your limitations as an artist that you grow. It is, for better or for worse, what defines your work. It’s what you don’t do “well” that becomes your identity and this is where you must wear your genuine attempts as a badge of courage. Especially if those attempts fall short.


“Powerful…As an Act of Protest aims to teach and shock – and succeeds on both counts.”
Walter Dawkins
Variety, August 1, 2002

Orson Welles said a successful work of art is a piece that expresses the personality of its creator. I agree and yet I cannot watch As an Act of Protest without cringing. It is a young man’s movie, a murky coming-of-age-story and it is riddled with a rawness that is like an exposed nerve. Yet the fragmented, over-anxiousness of the movie is what I am most proud of, along with its unfettered rage. Just a scene or two rejuvenates my rebellious sensibilities — the way I felt when I first saw Network, Talk Radio, Animal Crackers, Dog Day Afternoon, Shadows, Woman Under the Influence or Ludwig or Chameleon Street or The Devil Probably, Ganja & Hess, Dr Strangelove, Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, Ashes & Embers, or Bush Mama. These films were like hard-core punk albums. They didn’t hold back and they had something to say. And I loved how most of them employed great amounts of drama and comedy and blurred the division. I wanted to make a film that felt like the Clash or Public Enemy could have made it had they been dramatists instead of musicians.

For all my “in-your-face” radical proclivities, it was the subtle and stately dismay of Bill Gunn, Sokurov, Bresson, Dreyer, Ozu, and Sembene that taught me a lot about stasis and inducing a state of grace and how to find the poetry in my own vision as a director. And I must tip my hat to Robert Kramer, the American Left’s great un-sung hero of cinema. Kramer gave me the freedom to simply “come out of the closet” and be me and not be afraid to express that on camera.

I lack the finesse of these great artists and movies mentioned above, but the writer must write what he knows and write what he feels. He must start there and go onward, and then you find yourself scrambling, lost, explored unmapped territory and really getting into the bush of it all. I know about truth because I know about lies. And I preach because I’m convinced that sooner or later — I will actually become a better human being, too. But mainly I do it because most artists are too effete, kind, and pander to what they have been led to believe that the masses want.

I may have been born to rage, to raise hell. Some of us are. But the art of it all is knowing how to push it, when to kick it, where to throw it.
And sometimes…when to jump off the edge. If there is no progress without struggle, there can be no evolution without contemplation, resolution without conflict, and consciousness…without rage.

So, this damn movie got me through my twenties and nearly killed me. I spent I spent the first half of my thirties crawling back out of the grave I had dug for myself. And although I’m rusty, not as polished — what I say comes through as clearly as the debt we are incurring and I no longer dwell how I am going to express the scream in my head. I just do it. And I thank God (or someone, or some thing) that I can.

There are no existing tapes or copies of Protest available. There are several butchered copies and bootlegs circulating, but none with my original edits, glitches, fingerprints, stains, or blessing. And in a bi-polaroidic episode, I threw the masters over the terrace, into the street in Berlin while we were living on the top floor of a Five-story walk up in Wedding. 22 Lohmeyerstrasse, to be exact. The tapes shattered into the air as they cascaded into the sidewalk, barely missing a parked car. Nina warned me I would regret it. I can only say I regret it now that people have written asking for copies and have taken a new interest in the film. The cast, the backers, the crew — they all hated it, no one helped me promote it. Che Ayende who plays the lead later conceded that it was a remarkable picture and the best thing he’s ever done. But initially, people were jealous, strange, scared, suspicious, offended. Some thought I was Spike Lee on acid. There were all sorts of reasons why the film “failed.” But I take responsibility as I am its father.

But despite the misunderstandings and the lack of patience some had with the film, I love the damn thing because it tried. It did the best it could do — with its allotment of talent, faith, and resilience. We are all responsible for our own failure and our own success. This desperate video taught me, gave me, showed me both sides of this coin. And I am much deeper and richer for having undergone such a traumatic experience — but one that was, in the very least, sincere.

It has been nice to revisit some of these feelings. Thanks for reading.   [December, 2008]

Film History:
• Pan African Film Festival, Los Angeles 2002
• American Black Film Festival, South Beach Miami 2002
• Anthology Film Archives, NYC – 2002
• Brecht Forum-Visual Liberation Film festival, NYC – September 2002
• Imagenation Cinema Cafe, Harlem NYC – Nov, 2002
• Afro-American Cultural Center, Charlotte, North Carolina 2003
• UNC, Chapel Hill Honorarium Screening – February 2003
• FESPACO Film Festival Burkina Faso, Africa February 2003
• The Oberia Dempsey Center Harlem 2003
• Cine Noir Black Film Festival, Wilmington NC April 2003
• Denver Pan African Film Festival, Denver, CO – April 2003
• Parish Art Gallery -sponsored by Awareness magazine, July 2003
• Florida State University-Tallahassee Honorarium Screening 2004
• Brecht Forum Downtown – Lower Manhattan NYC – August 2005
• Black International Cinema Festival, St.Louis, MO 2005
• Paris, France & Berlin, Germany 2005-2006

Set at the turn of the 21st century in NYC — just months before 9/11 –The film reveals the “rite-of-passage-stations-of-the-cross” journey of a young, passionate, African American actor named Cairo Medina.
As an Act of Protest (2001)
Cairo begins to question his role as an actor and artists’ seemingly futile contributions and dwindling impact in an increasingly oppressive, hypocritical, and apathetic world. After a series of dissolved relationships, betrayals, and confrontations with the system,
Cairo is pushed over the line from which there can be no retreat.
The film ends tragically with a comment on racism and the violence that it breeds and the unfortunate, never ending cycle of hate, prejudice, and ignorance of history and “original sin” that America must come to terms.



“As an Act of Protest – Best Black Movie Nobody Will See This Year.”
– Kam Williams
The Black World Today & The NJ Herald, Nov. 27, 2002

*
to request a copy of As an Act of Protest, contact outsiderartkangalee@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: