Category Archives: NYC

Brian Alessandro’s Passionate Defense of a Cult Classic

The spiritual ascent in the final moments of As an Act of Protest

Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.

To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives. 

The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee, who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.

The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.

We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.” 

The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations. 

Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.

Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.

These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has. 

In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.  

Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.   

Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.

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As an Act of Protest: The film that won’t go away…

AVAILABLE DIGITALLY OCTOBER 30, 2020 ON “VIMEO ON DEMAND”!

A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.  Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that makes it explode….

“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”

             – Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)

When all is said and done

you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried.  Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING.  And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience.  The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee.  Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels.  There is no more time for games. This ends it all.  Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world.  And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.

After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.”  As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang.  It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him.  It is a direct descendant of singular films such as Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,  Christopher St. John’s The Top of the Heap Oscar Williams’ The Final Comedown and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.

Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,”  it was heralded by many on the underground and alternative Black film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it.  Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protest is a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do:  it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.

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For more information visit: https://dennisleroykangalee.wordpress.com/videos/as-an-act-of-protest/

And Pre-Order your digital download today!

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As an Act of Protest: The Funeral Scene

With another Black man murdered by police racism, it is no wonder this particular scene still gently resonates and affirms what I continue to feel, alone, at after midnight in the twilight hours while trying to both calm myself and keep myself agitated.  Wonderfully interpreted by Che Ayende (Luis Laporte) – we shot this scene in Harlem in the dead of night, January 2000.  Still drunk on the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo murder, we knew we could all be victims…and we knew just by making this film we were engaging in something special.  We just didn’t know how special.

 

Keep the anger, let it fuel you.  If you’re a revolutionary, by all means – find a new prescription for literal guerrilla warfare and share it with us all.
If you don’t at have the acumen for literal artillery:  don’t shoot bullets,  try shooting films.  Perhaps the creative uncharted territory of your soul must be explored.
The outraged  must make outrageous art.
Creating is even more dangerous than destroying. Some write songs. I wrote scripts. And when I was crazy and 24 and eternally angry I made a film about it. Now I am 44 and crazy and eternally angry.  Still crazy after all these years.  No folks. Things don’t change.  They simply get worse as we get older…
Rest in peace my murdered brothers and sisters.  And remain ever conscious my living brothers and sisters.
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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)

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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.

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‘A Saintly Madness’ – Vagabond artwork for the latest Cinematic Project by Brian Alessandro…

Speller St. Films recently asked Vagabond to do some artwork for Brian Alessandro’s demo short A Saintly Madness, the NY author and filmmaker’s latest cinematic project as he begins to make plans on the feature film itself.  I have the pleasure of working and developing this project with Brian Alessandro and A Saintly Madness marked my official return to acting in nearly two decades.   (Alessandro was the director of the  controversial Afghan Hound.)

A Saintly Madness is a true communal, Socialist project itself  &  is the result of the latest example in a humble group effort.  A reminder: As we cross-pollinate our talents and all we contain inside we will slowly leave something behind on the cave wall besides our bodies and our dust. It all starts here. These artistic collaborations are not important as they are necessary – and vital.

Ia-saintly-madness-dennis4x6

Vagabond’s Barbara Kruger inspired 1980’s NYC artwork for Brian Alessandro’s Urbane & Checkhovian ‘romantic comedy for rebels’

Vagabond, one of the last true DIY punk rock artists and a genuine Puerto-Rican-Protest Artist is one NYC’s unheralded master guerrilla filmmakers and a wonderful visual artist.  Read more about the artwork here:

https://nothingtobegainedhere.wordpress.com/2020/04/19/a-saintly-madness/

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Where Paintings Go to Die

“Great paintings shouldn’t be in museums…Great paintings should be where people hang out.  You can’t see great paintings.  You pay ½ a million and hang one in your house and one guest sees it.  That’s not art.  That’s a shame, a crime…it’s not the bomb that has to go, man.  It’s the museums.”

-Bob Dylan, August 1965

Interviewed by Nora Ephron & Susan Edmiston

A lonely Basquiat hangs on 57th Street…

At 9 West 57th street home of the Solow Art & Architecture foundation sits some of the most impressive famous modern art works known from Miro to Matisse…

Adjacent to the lobby on the left hand side 25 feet behind the large glass window hangs one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s later paintings, Parts that he created in 1984.  Appearing like a blurred collage, it is a bold dark red painting hosting a drawing of cooked chicken that appears pasted to the canvas, implying the tenets of his earlier street art or a pasted billboard.  Next to it – are charred fragments, his idiosyncratic scribblings, a flame and then to the right of the canvas one his cryptic texts in which the word SNAKES can be made out. The yellow and blue streaks added another layer to the image, granting it a strange tension it might not have otherwise…

But I’m no art critic or expert and I don’t need to be.  I’m simply relaying what I see and feel.

Seeing a Basquiat live is quite impressive.  Not unlike the awesome effect of a Rothko (one of which hung in Christie’s window all summer long during an auction)

In the Solow gallery, the lights come on at 8am and you are immediately impressed.

And then disappointed when you are realize you are not allowed to enter the foundation’s gallery so all the art work hangs on a white lonely wall collecting 5th Avenue dust at best and perhaps a strained glance.  With artwork with an estimated value of TWO HUNDRED MILION DOLLARS – donated to a private foundation of which the New York Real Estate mogul Sheldon Solow is the ONLY MEMBER of – this is a bunker that was created as a TAX SHELTER and since public accessibility is simply out of the question…it actually raises the stature and interest in these artworks because if they cant be seen by some everyday bum poet like me – it must be an important collection…You can make a private donation to the foundation but under no circumstances can you see the artwork up close and in person…you have to try your best to squint pass the glass windows and make out what you can of the Basquiat and Miro’s hanging in there.

Like forgotten bodies on a crucifix.   Which is what most art becomes anyway..there are more eyes that have laid upon a man hanging than a great painting…Lynchings have probably, cumulatively, brought together more people for free in public spaces – than great art work. And lynchings, too, in the end made money.  They pressed postcards of black men having been lynched.  People collected these.

I’ve always been curious about death and galleries such as the Solow Foundation , may be , in fact, where souls go to die.  You have to have had a soul in order to die. And most artwork – even their creators are malevolent – had souls…and continue to have them…they just eternally linger beneath dust and broken light.  Like vampires who can’t die.

But you don’t have to be John Berger to know that the statement Mr. Solow is making is simply: “I own this. You do not. And never will. ”

Far away from the public and his audience: a Basquiat hangs twenty feet away from the glass window in the lobby of the Solow Building. A painting surrounded by…uninhabited space…dust that will never fall upon a human shoulder…and light unbroken by a bobbing head or footfalls that go to kneel before the holy altar of powerful art. Do not weep for empty churches – for they at least can rejuvenate one.  Even an atheist can gain sense of his soul in an empty church. But it must be empty. It’s the cordoned off, hostile emptiness of a gallery or museum or “personal” foundation that should make us weep…

 Imagine if your lover hung on the wall, waiting for you.

   

 

*

 

 

Originally written for Kangalee’s Cave – © DLK – Revised May 17, 2019 

 

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Sometimes even an outlier becomes heard…

You cannot have a revolution without having an art to go alongside it.  Sometimes that art is living itself, sometimes it’s the expression of the angst through blood. Sometimes the tears mean more in the glimpse of 24 frames per second. Sometimes, often in actual life, there is no time for tears — and certainly no poetry that comes along with it.  There is nothing romantic about headaches nor oppression.  Yet we choose to ignore and malign our beautiful crazy visions and inner horror for the sanctity of a television news report or streamed web video of the apocalypse we’ve been led to believe in and worship.  We opt for the button-downed pathology of Wynton Marsalis as we step on Sun Ra.  We resist the spaceship for the bank teller.  While the world is as it is because we will it to be…it is also our responsibility to admit that we foolishly resist both the revolutionary visions of artists and the forlorn mad-men who have been misled and let down. “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets conceded in As an Act of Protest.  But it certainly helps to have those poems going up into the sky like fireworks…and hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final ax falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken.  You can’t clap with one hand.  But you can still wield a sword.  Or a pen.

Design for the 2014 Chicago screening (Ben Starr)

[original design by Benn Starr, (c) 2014, originally created for the 2014 Chicago premiere]

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SPIT: A Hip Hop Sonata

A scene from Mtume Gant's debut film

A scene from Mtume Gant’s debut film “SPIT.”

Mtume Gant’s short film Spit is an impactful 16-minute Hip Hop sonata on one hand and a slightly precious, if not heartfelt, cinematic reflection on maturity, art, responsibility, and the decisions we all have to make as artists.

For some of us, the only option is death.  Literally, figuratively – you can interpret it any which way you want but the film’s thrust is about the crisis an artist goes through when unable to traverse or curtail the capitalist values and business mania of the zeitgeist that sees his work, culture, and spirit as nothing but fodder. The story of the artist being chewed up and spit out is not new – in fact, if there are any myths that still ring out in our world – this is one of them.  What is admirable however, is how Gant presents this struggle and how personal of a journey it becomes.

Gant’s strong directorial debut Spit follows Jeremiah “Monk-One” Sinclair (Gant himself) an underground NY Hip Hop artist, as he reaches conclusion to let his passion go because the pain of suffering as an artist is ultimately worse to him that the quotidian nightmares of civilian life or the cosmic rat race that nips at the artist’s heels.

Employing a first person POV (Gant has announced his admiration for Tarkovsky’s The Mirror) that gets shattered in moments of naked honesty such as the most moving moment in the film where, before a literal mirror, Monk-One tries to explain to his girlfriend Cassidy (Suzette Azariah Gunn) that he can no longer rely on her to support him and in just two minutes, a dialogue about love, trust, responsibility, and the existential crisis of black men come into full effect.  Scenes of this nature are rarely seen – anywhere.  And as one who has a particular interest in the revealing of our wounds and pathologies, I applaud the honesty between Gant and Gunn – in what is essentially a duo in the mirror; a dialogue of double-consciousness…and a soliloquy to the audience.

Spit is a ‘power ballad’ and it draws on multiple conventions more associated with musical techniques than recognizable cinematic expression.  But only because it is a “Hip Hop film” in terms of aesthetics – spiritually.  I want to state here that I firmly believe it is an “expressionistic hip-hop power ballad” – because it all takes place inside Monk-One’s head.  (The idea of sampling is also very prevalent. Monk-One “samples” his memory for context and pieces it all together for understanding.)

The rhythms, the vibration, the spare self-referencing, and the political consciousness all acknowledge the tight prism of true ‘conscious’ hip-hop as folk art and self-expression.  It is not an ersatz hip-hop film like 2013’s commercial atrocity The Great Gatsby (yes, the director Baz Luhrmann tried to bamboozle people into believing that it contained a hip-hop aesthetic film because he got Jay-Z to do the soundtrack!) nor is it a film that exploits the cross-cutting beats and rhythms of classic hip-hop in the way that, say, Darren Aronofsky used hip-hop as a frame of reference for his wonderful debut film Pi (1998).

Those films are referenced to give one an idea of what Spit is not. First off, those very different movies were done and conceived by white directors.  This is important to state because often when black artists are dealing with their own “folk arts” there is a tendency to coddle and patronize its audience as if they are tourists.  An example of this is just about any “culture” event taking place at any embassy on American soil or having anything to do with presenting something for a Western Audience.  Thankfully, Spit does not purport to make one understand anything about hip-hop nor does it try to appeal to the white gaze (a lesser and insecure African-American director would do that, in hopes of not “alienating” white mainstream viewers or the blacks who have been led to believe that Kanye West’s persona and music are representative of “true hip-hop.”)  It is a drama that turns a stringent coming of age ritual into a severe rumination on art, vocation, and identity in the 21stcentury. (As an aside, if there is a film that I had to refer Spit to it could be Larry Clark’s  [the African-American director, not the exploitive-schlock-White American photographer who made Kids] 1977 Passing Through.  A movie about a jazz musician struggling with his demons.  Both Spit and Passing Through share a thematic and emotional core, however different.)

Through a taut assembly of scenes reiterating the overriding theme of honoring one’s gifts (in the case of Monk-One’s artistic talents), personal family crisis (Che Ayende and a solicitous Erica Chamblee self-consciously staged to great effect emulating Monk One’s POV – as they relay the fears and hopes of his parents), monologues exploring the relationship of purity and art (or analog Vs digital in the case of Lameen Witter’s droll cameo as Fingers) and an explosive diatribe against the corporatization and perversion of hip-hop music – wonderfully performed with a very palpable frustration by Lance Coadie Williams, who plays Fryor, Monk-One’s manager; a figure caught in a “No Exit” situation; Williams’ burning eyes  captured in a funky hem-hawing long take imbues the scene with tremendous soul that makes up for weaker moments in the film, rendering them benign) the script is intelligent and personal and does not weigh itself down or cut its own knees off by wallowing in clichés or sentimental tripe or counter-revolutionary vulgar language and self-hating dialogue that I’m sure mainstream festivals and the State Department itself would have preferred.  The lyrical screenplay reveals itself plainly in its coming-of-age moments when it digs deep into lingering questions such as: What do fathers pass on to their sons? What is fear?  What does it mean for Black Men, in particular, to be responsible?

The uncomfortability of Spit resides in that last particular question – not because it criticizes or tries to flagellate in front of an audience, but because Monk-One is a highly conscious individual.  He knows exactly what his problems are, have been, will be – and the intellectual knowingness of his character puts a damper on any kind of Hallmark resolution or “Sundance” ghetto chic story.  In a Black context, Spit is a step forward because its characters are just that  – characters.  Shades of colors.  And by allowing scraps and fragments to reveal behavior, they become real.  And that is always the challenge for the dramatist.  Real people are not the issue.  It’s expressing truth – that’s where we often falter.  In both a Black context and a national one, truth is still the number one problem with independent cinema – which prefers to relay Hollywood lies and Liberal-media-sanctioned sentiments over the raw and strange truth of individual lives.

In the context of cinema at large, Spit (which I declare to be a Hip Hop sonata – because a sonata must be played as opposed to the Latin cantata – which is sung; so in this way – a musical piece can be broken down and expressed on a screen.  In essence, the song is broken down and “played” out cinematically as opposed to being a song) takes a small, but powerful step forward in the realm of non-linear cinema, because it does have something to say.  Its formal qualities do not overwhelm its human desire to want to genuinely say and express something.  Either “experimental” dramas allude to twenty other movies or they commit themselves to being abstract in a jokesy-vaudeville way.  Americans have a problem taking themselves seriously. (An aside: All those who prefer their stories of struggle or “hip hop” celebrations in the Hollywood sense will reject Spit on the basis that it is too naked or too dark – one of the greatest ironies coming from the “Hip Hop community” which traditionally championed the raw truth, but which has done virtually nothing to support this film…they’re too busy heralding Straight Outta Compton I suppose.)

Spit is a tragedy.  One cannot be shocked by its ending. The film progresses towards an ending that an audience mature enough and deep enough will understand.  Bleak endings are necessary.  Sometimes we have to step back.  Or even, simply, waive the white flag and give up.  Artists suffer for their art, for the people they speak for, and for their own un-reconciled demons and desires often torn and ripped out of so many years of dreaming and conceiving, doing and daring…sometimes we run out of steam.  As the director himself stated to me, “People are always miffed how artists can find such joy in art but struggle so much with existence. But if we choose a different pathway where does that lead us?”

And that is what Mtume Gant’s movie spits.

Update: As of August 28, 2015 Spit has screened in several national film festivals, notably Aspen Shortsfest and Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival. It will be screening soon in the Harlem International Film Festival. It was a recipient of a San Francisco Film Award.

 Dennis Leroy Kangalee (“As an Act of Protest,” Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World,”) is a poet & filmmaker living in NYC. He is the co-founder of New Poet Cinema. Mtume Gant starred in Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s production of Amiri Baraka’s “The Toilet” at the Here Theater in 1998. It was their first collaboration in the theater.

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Mtume Gant: Remembering “As an Act of Protest”

Fellow filmmaker and colleague for nearly 20 years, Mtume Gant, has written a touching commemorative piece for my 2001 cult film “As an Act of Protest,” which recently received a revival screening in Chicago via Floyd Webb’s Black World Cinema…Click the link below to read his liner notes for this “retrospective” which will be included in the DVD package at the end of this year. 

Maverick Intentions: By Mtume Gant 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee's "As an Act of Protest" starring Che Ayende

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “As an Act of Protest” starring Che Ayende

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A Cinematic Protest Returns to the Screen!

Thursday, November 6, 2014 @ 7:00pm!

” The Best Black Film of The Year!”  – Kam Williams, 2002, The NJ Herald

After more than a decade, the 2002 cult classic AS AN ACT OF PROTEST will finally get its Chicago ‘premiere’ at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater, 201 West 87th Street, courtesy of Floyd Webb and Black World Cinema.

A cinematic “line in the sand against racism,” it is provocative, disturbing, and emotionally arresting at times – this is a movie unlike any other made in the early part of the 21st century as it signified a new type of “protest art” within the dramatic arts, linking the political consciousness of 1960’s-1970’s radical theater with the cinematic urgency and simplicity of the “Dogme 95″ Digital Video revolution in world cinema.

Hopefully we can get some folks in the windy city to brave the weather and get a chance to see Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s seldom seen “missile from his youth”!

'As an Act of Protest' design by Benn Starr (2014)

‘As an Act of Protest’ design by Benn Starr (2014)

Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 7pm, Adm. $6.00

Black World Cinema @

Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater
210 W 87th Street

Additional information:

Click here for video excerpts or more information on the film itself.

Contact: Black World Cinema, 9 W Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602

Curated by: Floyd Webb, floydwebb@gmail.com

Visit http://aaaopfilm.wordpress.com/screenings/ for more information. 

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