How does the centennial of The Birth of a Nation show in 2010s media and other biases?

This year marks the centennial of David Wark (D.W.) Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. If you’ve heard of it and you don’t have grey hair then while the story is vague in your mind the bigotry is not. The primitiveness of Mr. Griffith’s masterpiece storytelling is as obvious to Millennial viewers as is its odeous bigotry; it represents a problematic page in our nation’s history of entertainment, and artistic innovation, marking American culture as much as it reflected it.

That problem from 1915 and its relevance in 2015 raises a question: How much of American culture, America’s capacity to embrace all has changed when the same bigotry and message expressed in 1915 seems to be shown and repeated in 2015? The last two years of police and zealous civilian attacks on unarmed black Americans in Sanford, FL, Ferguson, MO, Long Island, NY, and a seeming lynching in Mississippi, as well as locations that are far less publicized, presses Americans to ask some questions.

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A scene from “The Birth of a Nation”.

 

In the Millennial era when content is beamed into homes and onto smart phones, which resemble science fiction magic 100-years-ago, the film’s aesthetics are bluntly outdated. But, without would have been established movie artistry. The Birth of a Nation did not reflect that actual birth, it effected the birth of a new, powerful medium; it established the elements of film style.

Movies rarely mark America’s culture; most of them are forgettable, which is a waste; and fodder for a separate essay. Movies rarely mark or reflect America’s history. Movies rarely affect how America sees itself or is seen either within its borders or without. National Public Radio ran a piece commemorating the centennial, which makes its own contemporary comparisons.

The Birth of a Nation changed that. Film students and work-a-day movie geeks grab bragging rights by discussing the manner in which Citizen Kane marked a artistic mile stone. But if that marked a mile then The Birth of a Nation was the first mile & first paved road at once: it was the first feature length film, before that film there was no such thing as a close-up shot, or a transition between scenes, or shooting scenes with more than one camera, and other grammatical elements that movie goers take for granted.

That is why as much as Mr. Griffith’s hateful message churns people’s stomachs, cinephiles have not choice but to hold their noses while they praise his technical and artistic talent. As embarrassed as your Millennial mind may be by how this era responds to the 19th century limits to the techniques and technology it’s amazing to consider that movies were born when horses and buggies were the norm for personal and public transportation.

So in 2015 how shocking is it to see news headlines about a streak of violence that seems to harken to the 1910s when Americans were stricken sad but not surprised by it? According to various polls that viewers will see used on TV newscasts most Americans cannot see themselves as bigots and cannot see their own bigotry. Clearly American culture has a sort of identity crisis. It is probably a compound crisis. A piece from Deadline reflects that.

Too few Americans are confident, humble, introspective enough to confront simple questions without intimidating people or stepping on toes, much less those questions which try men’s souls. The hardest question: How much progress has America made against bigots in the 100 years since the film wrote America’s history in lightning?

Wright’s Words doesn’t exist in order to incite or stir anger. But when you consider the centennial of a film that reflects one person’s notion of social justice you expect to smile or even grin at the progress that has come. And yet, as with the opening voice over to Casablanca, “we wait, and wait, and wait,…”.

How the Irish Became White just in time for St. Paddy’s Day.

If you’re progressive enough then you wonder how the Irish American became “white”. They suffered about as much bigotry after they fled Ireland’s potato famine in 1847 and later, as black Americans did and after the Civil War were considered about as dirty as blacks.

When you imagine Irish or Irish Americans, you picture Michael Collins, literature, Roddy Doyle novels, the Potato Famine, Catholicism, drinking, or Good Will Hunting. You picture white Irish drinkers. The typical thumbnail for Irish. And a stereotype. There’s even a movie by that title; it’s remarkable and more profound with its wit than Good Will.

Guinness_Storehouse_St._Patrick's_Day_signIn rare moments you may think of the black Irish, which surprisingly has nothing to do with blacks or blackness as Americans understand them; But instead them mixing with the Spanish. If Spaniards, who are fair-skinned, are considered black in comparison to them then, oh my, what would they call an African Irish mix?

As “white” as the Irish-Americans are today, as American immigrants they were anything but: Noel Ignatiev wrote about How the Irish Became White describes, in its second chapter, the common trials and tribulations of them and blacks. They were the most expendable of America’s workforce, and occupied arguably equal pegs on the totem of American power.

Here’s a teasing excerpt from that book about their collective coziness.

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TheRoot.com ran a piece by Noel Ignatiev, author of the book, mysteriously without acknowledging that it was an excerpt from his book. This leaves a seductive question open: when is “white” not white in America?

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. But consider that Irishness or Irish-Americanness is less simple than most folks are happy to believe.

Is Cookie Lyons and her “Empire” making women’s history this month?

March marks Women’s History Month. Wright’s Words usually concentrate on movie matters. But who’s ignoring Cookie Lyon from Fox’s Empire? You could opine about the character, its meaning and substance, and attack it. But, with more content than ever on more screens of every kind, if you remember any character these days, then that actor (and the writers) have done something right!

Why is Cookie important to Women’s History Month? Well, let’s pose a different question or rather remind you of one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s truisms: Well-behaved women rarely make history.

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Taraji Henson’s is that kind of character. Her Cookie Lyons is not forgettable: She leaves an impression, and commands attention. Ms. Henson’s interpretation and portrayal of her might well be historical, making it easier and more likely that similarly lived-out-loud characters will be created for women.

Women want equality, and don’t want to have to fight for it. But since they do, presumably they appreciate seeing Cookie Lyons. She’s a singular character; hers is not the skin many women feel comfortable wearing. Instead, as Desmond Llewellyn, who played Q in the first James Bond movies, said “he’s the kind of man every man wants to be but knows damned well he can’t”! Well, Cookie’s the kind… you get the point.

Cookie provides a hero and catharsis for those who know that discomfort. In some ways she conveys a strength that rivals that of men. No. Perseverance. Very few such characters are found in movies, especially not in middle-aged women. She exemplifies a fully drawn character, which every actor wants to play, but women in particular.

An example

If Cookie doesn’t embody that virtue, even if not virtuously, then what female character does? You may not love her character. But you love to watch her.

The best known such characters in movies may be Thelma & Louise in 1991. But if you’re too young to remember and revere their story arc, then maybe Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady in 2011 is recent and relevant enough. Prime Minister Thatcher’s story also informs young viewers, especially females, of how much harder the realms of politics and business were for females two generations ago, and how negotiated between them. A more recent, better known but less apt example is Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone, which was a brilliant break out indie film from 2010. If that’s new to you, then look it up. she’s a great character with a great story.

As someone who finds women’s stories as interesting as men’s even if it’s because of the novelty, it’s disappointing to see characters as distinct as Cookie seldomly. But, in appreciate women’s history, it’s vital to likewise appreciate those who make it on-screen, by comforting & exciting some as well as discomforting others.

How central is Women’s History to America’s own?

March is for Women’s History. And March 8th is for International Woman’s Day. Unfortunately, both of these came as news too late to write a strong and cogent essay or column about how either of these connects to the arts.

Unless your rushed by your editor to provide mediocre copy it’s foolish to volunteer mediocrity. These annual commemorations are too vital to America’s identity and history to give them short shrift.

So, next week…

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After the Oscars and Fashion Week, some men are still afraid to dress well!

The hype over Fashion Week and Academy Award fashion choices has passed. That leaves us with those who are often the afterthought of the style scene: men. Now, they have an opportunity to scrape the blandness and timidness from their personal style.

Where women dominate the fashion scene, you’d think that men have no interest in it – And that’s often true. But, according to a woman who has been helping to clothe men at a British-themed boutique that’s inside a national retailer, some men are clueless about dressing up or dressing for work.

I went shopping for shirts that would be welcome in business circles but also make me stand out as distinctive. My wallet is tight. In my less than $70 range I found only the typical and timid choices: white and blue shirts with pointed down collars. I sought spread collars that would deemphasize my skinny frame. If you are a man who is self-possessed, sees meager value in dressing to fit in then a place where conformity is prized is the wrong one place to hope to find department stores that carry daring clothes.

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When I passed a British boutique that’s housed within a nationally known retailer in downtown Minneapolis I met a young woman who asked if she could help. With my sartorial ambition, I asked her why so many men make the safest, most conservative choices instead of those that distinguish them.

The candor of her response was novel: “I think that some men are afraid to dress well because they don’t wanna be mistaken for gay, and have men flirt with them,” Michaela said.

Then after having been pressed to elaborate, she said that the Millennials in Minnesota are a very different generation, and haven’t been taught to dress up. I don’t wanna generalize, and I don’t wanna say all men, because I don’t think all men are like that,” Michaela said. “But if a guy comes in I will ask him ‘is pink is a color he’d wear for a dress shirt”. Maybe he’ll say ‘yes’. I still have to preface the situation with… ‘would you do a pink, would you do a paisley, would you do a floral?’ And I ask these questions because I’ve learned to”, Michaela said.

Even though this essay is about men’s style and them dressing to make memorable first impressions, women also wear clothing that makes you want to knock your head against a brick wall.

“Oh, my god. My husband and I were driving home and… So we’re at a stop light and to the right of us there’s a bus stop for the #10. And it’s dark out. And this woman is smoking a cigarette. She has her coat on. Underneath she has her hoody. But she has these pajama pants on…tucked into her boots, and then she has a pale pink hoody to match.”

“And Rob (her husband) was like, ‘Oh, my god, when did it become acceptable to wear pajamas in public?’” And I went ‘yeah, you’re right’. And he’s a man. Doesn’t have to dress up for his job. But he clearly gets it. You know.”

Speaking generally, and avoiding judgment, “I also wanna say where are people’s priorities? I get it: Not everyone can afford to dress up..,” she said.

At some point during the conversation, she mentioned Pantones, and the Color of the Year. These being news, you have to ask a couple of questions:  What is Pantones? What is the Color of the Year. If those are work-a-day words for you then you’re one up on this essayist.

Pantones is a paint company. What is the Color of the Year? Michaela said that any paint company can chose a Color of the Year. But just because a paint company chooses a color to emphasize for the year, who are they say what color you should wear?

Her answer was solid: Because we have been, and historically they’ve been right on the money. I was talking about that Marsala color. These bright colors that are making a statement, and then you have something you would not expect.

Knowing about Pantone, why should men both younger and older care to know what Pantone is or what the Color of the Year is? “Men should know stylistically what’s going on in the world? The more you now about a color and how it works with you, she said.”

The hype over Academy Awards fashion emphasize women’s style. That’s because most men simply take a typical route by wearing something that is suitable, but not sensual: a typical tuxedo. Some of those men who attended the Academy Awards ventured beyond that banal black tuxedo; for some of them it was a success, for some not, and still others (Jared Leto) it was debatable. The Los Angeles Times reported on those choices.

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The star of Selma, David Oyelowo, wore tuxedo, yes. But what color was it? Black? No. White? No. It was Marsala. What’s that? It’s a shade of red. While Pantone may not admit to it, burgandy is synonymous. Mr. Oyelowo’s choice was dapper, daring and smart. And it complimented his brown skin.

Michaela saw a photo of him from the red carpet. Did it work? “Definitely, I think like a deeper jewel tone. It’s beautiful. I think it’s fun. I like how the vest and bowtie are set of just a little bit. A shade lighter, a shade richer.”

Using Pantone’s Color of the Year worked phenomenally with his skin color. That’s one reason why anyone who wears clothes should care about how they make them look, and needs to appreciate which colors flatter their skin, eye and hair colors.

But how doe the guy whose friends cling to college-age wardrobe, and who believes fashion is a code he can’t break? Well, dress for the occasion. But up a notch. Dress more smartly. Dress to make yourself feel a cut above the rest.

Malcolm X & Sidney Poitier’s birth (& death) days reveal clashing ideals in Hollywood, among blacks.

Black History Month can symbolize the heritages of black Americans in about as many ways as there are blacks. Unfortunately, the events often celebrate an exclusive group of historical icons, which includes Messrs I Have A Dream and The Ballot or the Bullet.

During Black History Month you might notice a surprising coincidence on the calendar: Malcolm X died on February 21st, and Sidney Poitier was born a day earlier, on February 20th. Those dates make this writer scratch his head and stroke his chin, and find a sliver of pop cultural resonance; together they stand as contradictory beacons.

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With the 87th Annual Academy Awards on the masses’ minds, this writer contends that in many ways Mr. Poitier’s do-no-wrong Negro was Dr. King’s cinematic counterpart. That’s something to chew in the wake Sony Picture’s hacked emails revealing its former chief’s candid and comfortable bigotry, and the whiteness of the latest list of Oscar nominees.

Mr. X is just as misunderstood today, in the Obama era, as he was in his own, 50-years-ago. During his 39-year life, he lived an odyssey, which few people bother to appreciate or consider. While he committed himself to peace in the end, few people know the man beyond the implicit violence, which he never advocated or acted on.

Mr. Poitier’s reputation and legacy aren’t yet complete but he undertook a disparate road from Malcolm X’s to become an icon. Astonishingly, he arrived when Hollywood was ready for or would only tolerate the safest and most neutered Negro. In him it saw and sought that.

The zenith of Mr. Poitier’s popularity burned brightest when black American movie-goers’ and activists’ patience with pleas for patience had worn out. Blacks wanted to see someone like a Malcolm on-screen (it wouldn’t until 1971 that John Shaft would venture on-screen kicking ass!) fighting the establishment with righteousness and indignence, and his wits.

What does the juxtaposition of these two men’s birth and death dates mean to our pop cultural or media mentality? Anything? Nothing? It depends on what background and baggage you bring to those questions; but they do merit discussions.

A new book about black movies says blacks helped invent the medium.

The Indiewire blog Shadow & Act told us about a new book, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life. According to that post’s title, New Book Shows African Americans Helped to Invent the Movies! If that is true, if the book by Cara Caddoo, a professor of American Studies at the University of Indiana, does find that black hands had a say in inventing the medium, then that’s a revelation.

But, in skimming the book’s introduction you can deduce that the title of Shadow & Act’s post is hype. Why? There is no clear evidence of black hands helping to invent the medium, or any of the filmmaking craft or technology. But the title commands attention.

The cover to Prof. Cara Caddoo's book "Envisioning Freedom".

The cover to Prof. Cara Caddoo’s book “Envisioning Freedom”.

That is disappointing. In a year when Sony Pictures’ hacked emails and the Oscar nominations were best summed up by the Oakland Tribune’s headline about the Oscar for the Best Caucasian Going To revealed the natural prejudices and bigotry of American movie culture and traditions, good news would refreshing. That revelation would be like a glass of icy water after a hike through the Gobi desert. Few people know much about American film history, much less those movies made by or for black American viewers. Those were considered race movies.

To talk, write about, or comment on film or video history with credibility you need to understand it from various vantage points and on various levels. The professor’s book will help movie geeks or students to understand the history of black movie goers and the aesthetic of the movies that were made for their eyes.

A former professor of music at the University of Minnesota, Geneva Southall, taught upper-level classes on the history of black American music. She opined that her class really should be a part of the foundational courses on the history of American music. It’s just as strong of a thread as any other in the quilt of America’s story; You could say that about the history of black American film and video makers.

Envisioning Freedom, while apparently not revealing that black Americans invented any film making technology, does introduce black American film-going and production culture, which preceded those of Messrs Micheaux, Williams, et. al.

Emails exchanged between this writer and the author, Prof. Caddoo, reveal that, while no blacks invented any of the production craft, she found that Moses Fleetwood Walker created “an alarm system that enabled film projectionists to switch seamlessly between reels of film,” as Shadow & Act reported. Looking professional and competent was vital to blacks who yearned for white Americans to perceive and acknowledge their equality.

Those who have studied the history of American movies beyond the fundamentals know about the lineage of pioneering black filmmakers: Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams and then a long pause before Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles emerged an innovators. They are rarely included in the basic lessons about American film history.

Why not begin on the right foot: After you find a copy of Envisioning Freedom check out Black Cinema Treasures, from the University of North Texas Press, and A Separate Cinema, for facts about the origins of a separate black American cinema.