Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story (ABC-TV, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was an odd documentary on ABC with the awkward title The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story, which as you might expect from the title was about how the three surviving members of Queen — guitarist (and one of the band’s two principal songwriters) Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (their original bassist, John Deacon, left in 1997) — revived the band after the death (from AIDS complications in 1991) of their original lead singer (and the other principal songwriter), Freddie Mercury. I ended up watching this show even though I’ve never been a big Queen fan — during their heyday they were a band I sort-of liked but never enough to buy any of their albums, and I thought some of their songs were great (I did have the single “Bicycle Race” b/w “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” which I got free as part of the slush pile from the student radio station at San Francisco State, and among the songs featured in the usual bits-and-pieces snippets last night was “Fat-Bottomed Girls”) and some were at least pleasant ear candy. I had no idea how revered they were in some circles — one of the interviewees on this show, Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, even called Queen the greatest rock band of all time — greater than The Beatles? I don’t think so! A number of people on the program, including Adam Lambert — the more or less openly Gay singer who placed second on the 2009 American Idol competition after rumors about his sexuality started to surface, and who definitively came out after the show ended and he landed a record deal (where he made a disappointing album, For Your Entertainment — disappointing, at least to me, because he basically has a rock voice but his producers steered him into dance-pop, I suspect because they made the equation, “Gay singer = dance-pop” —though judging from the snippets presented last night, his later solo oeuvre might be worth investigating). Queen had previously gone out on tour in the post-Mercury age with Paul Rodgers of the band Free as their lead singer, and that lasted for four years (2004 to 2008) but according to Brian May (who still has the great shock of long, curly hair he had in the band’s heyday, only now it’s grey) it didn’t work out because Rodgers was a blues-rock singer. (He also insisted that the “Queen + Paul Rodgers” sets include his biggest hit, Free’s “All Right Now” — a song which, quite frankly, I liked a lot better than almost anything by Queen.)

I’ve written about Queen before in my comments on the most recent Grammy and Oscar shows — the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody won the Best Actor Academy Award for Rami Malek, who played Mercury (and who irked me for saying in his acceptance speech that Mercury was Gay — for the last time, folks, Freddie Mercury wasn’t Gay, he was Bi! — though I haven’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody and it’s possible the film’s writers omitted any scenes of Mercury sexually involved with women) — and my impression of Queen at the time of their initial success was they were a band uneasily perched between progressive-rock pretensions and a devil-may-care campiness. I generally liked them better when they were just being entertainers and writing clever songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” and the retro-rockabilly “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and I hadn’t heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” until I saw the film Wayne’s World. The moment I heard it, my thought was, “This is what the Beach Boys’ Smile album would have sounded like if Brian Wilson had finished it in 1967.” I still hear a great deal of Beach Boys’ influence in Queen in general and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in particular — the close vocal harmonies of the opening are pure Beach Boys and the sound effects aren’t that different from what Wilson and Van Dyke Parks were working towards on the Smile project — and one should remember that in the late 1960’s, while most American rock fans had written the Beach Boys off as impossibly retro, British rock musicians (including Paul McCartney!), critics and fans were hailing Brian Wilson’s ground-breaking genius. What makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” work, at least for me (though it’s hardly on the level of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” or the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” as a multi-theme rock song with major production effects), is that it’s at once an expression of progressive rock’s pretensions and an hilarious send-up of them. I suspect the reason I wasn’t all that big a Queen fan was that I could never get a handle on them artistically: they radically changed their styles and experimented with a lot of different sounds, as did The Beatles, but where with the Beaties I had the impression that they were growing artistically and deepening their sound appropriately, I didn’t have the sense that Queen were making a similar artistic progression. It seemed more like Queen was just throwing out any sort of music they thought they could make and hoping some of it would stick, artistically or commercially.

The film Bohemian Rhapsody ends with a climax depicting Queen’s supposedly show-stopping performance at the 1985 Live Aid concerts — which I vividly remember watching at the time and not being particularly impressed by: the band I remember falling in love with after Live Aid was one I’d never heard before, U2, and compared to their tight musicianship and the emotional fervor of Bono’s voice on the two songs they performed there, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Bad,” Queen’s set just sounded silly. (Ironically, in addition to the band’s set at Live Aid Freddie Mercury sat at a piano and played a solo song, “Is This the World We Created?,” which reflected the social purpose behind the Live Aid concert — to relieve famine in Africa — and was just about the only time in Mercury’s career he wrote a socially conscious song. The simplicity and haunting power of its refrain and the understatement with which he sang it — so different from the over-the-top performances he was known for as the lead singer of Queen — make it still by far the best thing I’ve heard from him.) The Show Must Go On documentary cut back and forth, in the usual fashion of music documentaries (do people who make these movies think there’s a special circle of hell to which they will be consigned if they actually show a complete, start-to-finish performance of a song?), between snippets of Queen with Lambert, interview segments with the surviving Queensters (as well as Spike Edney, who’s in the current touring incarnation of Queen but is just on salary instead of being a full band member) and various people involved in the music industry, and archival clips of Freddie Mercury’s interviews. Mercury makes some gnomic observations about music stardom but what’s most interesting about hearing his speaking voice is his strong Turkish accent (he was part-British and part-Turkish, and he said he identified with Jimi Hendrix because Hendrix was also mixed-race, part African-American and part Native American), which he completely eradicated when he sang (much the way the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and most of the other “British Invasion” bands of the 1960’s eradicated their British accents when they sang and sounded like natives of the American South).

In the interview segments Adam Lambert talks about the difference between being an openly Queer musician in the 2010’s and being one in the 1980’s — there was still enough homophobia in the music business that Elton John’s career had plummeted when he came out as Bisexual in the 1970’s (his record sales only perked up again after he married a woman — his German sound engineer, Renate Mueller — and even then they never regained their former stratospheric heights) and Rob Halford, founding lead singer of Judas Priest, was fired from that band after he came out. Of course, Mercury was Bisexual and Lambert, at least by his own account, is Gay — and there’s a big difference between them even now. All too often Bisexuals feel torn between the straight and Queer camps, and fully accepted by neither; when I attended the San Diego Bisexual Forum meetings one of their most frequent complaints was “Bisexual invisibility” — and the continued insistence of people who write about Freddie Mercury referring to him as “Gay” instead of Bisexual (including Mikal Gilmore, whose Rolling Stone profile of Mercury post-mortem may be the best thing ever written about him but who called him “Gay” even though his own article documented at least two long-term sexual relationships Mercury had with women) is Bisexual invisibility big-time. (Other famous Bisexuals who frequently get referred to as “Gay” include Oscar Wilde, Leonard Bernstein, Anthony Perkins and James Dean.) I suspect Lambert would have had a harder time starting and sustaining a career if he were Bi than he’s had being Gay — there’s still a lack of trust of Bisexuals in both the straight and Queer communities, at least in part because (as Lindsay Maracotta put it in her late-1970’s account of the singles bar scene) dating a Bisexual means “twice as many people to be jealous of.”

The continued popularity of Queen remains an enigma to me — judging from the bits and pieces of it in this show, I suspect I’d find a live Queen show overwhelming in all the wrong ways: all those flamboyant costumes, all those stage effects, all those pyrotechnics. One of my biases in music is that an artist who tricks up his or her stage show that way is doing so to conceal basic shortcomings in their purely musical talent — and when I see a bizarre, flamboyant show from someone with real musical chops, like Michael Jackson, Madonna or Pink, I’m likely to think, “You don’t need to do that. You’re a good enough singer just to project on the basis of your voice alone.” (At the same time, Madonna has — as feminist Camille Paglia noted in her intellectual defense of Madonna —turned her elaborate stage spectacles into social critiques of women’s sexuality and how it’s been perceived by men over the centuries.) Queen are having a comeback now due to the success of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie — this show was, among other things, intended to promote the 2019 Queen + Adam Lambert tour — and I’m having a hard time understanding their peculiar longevity even though one point some of the interviewees made is that they’re rekindling interest among young people in rock as a musical form even though, as the music of the young, it’s been as thoroughly displaced by hip-hop and electronic dance music as rock once displaced big-band swing and vocal pop as the music of the young in the 1950’s.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Red Line, episodes 1 and 2 (Berlanti Productions, Forward Movement, CBS, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 8 p.m. yesterday I settled in to watch The Red Line, the first two episodes of an eight-part mini-series dealing with the police shooting of an unarmed Black man and its consequences. I was interested in seeing this (enough that I bypassed what appeared to be a typical piece of engaging Lifetime sleaze, The Twisted Son, to watch it) partly because of the participation of Selma director Ava DuVernay as one of the executive producers and partly because of the sheer audacity of the theme. As things turned out, it encompassed not only racial divisions but Gay and Trans people as well: the Black man who gets himself killed early on in a convenience store in Chicago is Dr. Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds), who’s in a relationship with the white series lead, history teacher Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle) — I’m old enough to remember when an interracial straight couple would have been too controversial to show on screen, let alone an interracial Gay one! — though we never actually see the two men together. We see Dr. Brennan get a text from Daniel asking him if he can please pick up some milk on the way home, and Brennan stops into a convenience store to do just that — only while he’s there another Black men enters the store to rob it at gunpoint. The robber shoots the store’s proprietor and leaves. Brennan goes up to the guy to offer aid, but — apparently not being able to tell one Black person from another — the proprietor starts screaming at him. Just then two police officers answer the call for the robbery and one of them, a young white patrol officer named Paul Evans (Noel Fisher), shoots Brennan in the back, killing him. We then meet the rest of the dramatis personae, including Brennan’s adoptive daughter Jira (Aliyah Royale) whom Calder later co-adopted, and who’s shown traumatized by the incident and beset by the comments of a white schoolmate who thinks she’s being sensitive when she’s just rubbing salt into the wounds; Jira’s birth mom, Tia Young (Emayatzi Corinealdi — if these are their real names the parents of these actors have a lot to answer for), who’s running an insurgent campaign for City Council (or “Board of Aldermen,” as it’s called in Chicago) against an entrenched Black politician named Nathan Gordon (Glynn Turman) — I suspect the writers were thinking of Barack Obama’s early campaign for the Illinois state legislature against a similarly entrenched Black Chicago politician who handed Obama the only election defeat of his career — and Officer Evans’ extended family.

It seems the Evanses are to the Chicago Police Department what the Reagans are to New York’s in the fascinating series Blue Bloods — police work is the family tradition and the Evanses band together to shield Paul from the consequences of the shooting. Unable to get either the state or federal authorities to prosecute Evans, Calder files a $5 million wrongful-death suit against the city (while one of Tia Young’s campaign issues is that Chicago has too many police officers and instead of expanding the force, as Gordon advocates, needs to train them better so they don’t keep shooting unarmed Black people and costing the city money in lawsuit settlements). Meanwhile Jira decides that the only way she’s going to start overcoming the trauma of losing dad #1 is to find her birth mom — only Tia doesn’t want herself to be found, both out of the trauma of having had a child out of wedlock (she’s got an advanced degree in economics — ironically, she’s “married down” and her husband is a Chicago bus driver — but she figures that if people know she had a baby as a teenager she’d be just another Black slut in the eyes of potential voters) and partly due to fear over what the revelation would do to her political career. Daniel is invited to speak about his loss at the big political gala fundraiser held every year for the “LGBTQ” community (goodness, how I hate the ever-expanding set of initials to describe us!) and his daughter originally bails out of attending, only she shows up later with her female-to-male Transgender boyfriend. (What did I tell you? This is definitely not your grandfather’s TV.) The show — or at least these first two episodes of what’s supposed to be an eight-part mini-series — ends at the Queer gala, with Tia Young spotting her daughter across the room and Jira, of course, having no idea her birth mom is in the room.

Meanwhile, there are also tensions involving the Evans family — Paul has an older brother, Jim (Michael Patrick Thornton), who was also a cop until he was wounded in the line of duty and left needing a wheelchair (and who’s more openly and obnoxiously racist than Paul, coming close to actual congratulations that Paul took one of them off the street), and his former partner, a woman, stole the security camera footage of the incident (still recorded on a VHS tape — memo to the writers, this is 2019!) and hid it in her safe, from which Paul retrieves it. Paul also gets assigned to a new partner, a Latino, and in his first traffic stop after the incident Paul stops two Blacks in a car, notices they’re filming him with a cell phone, gets obnoxious and tries to order them out of the car until his saner partner talks him down — and of course the video of this officer who’s already killed one Black man and is intimidating another gets posted on the Internet and “goes viral.” The Red Line overall is a quite moving piece of work (I found myself flashed back to my own loss of a partner during the scene in which Calder memorializes his partner at the gala and so totally loses it he stops reading his speech — I was crying at the scene and I reacted so strongly I got Charles crying as well!), though with some risible moments: Charles said it reminded him of the first three episodes of Wagner’s Ring cycle in there being so few characters and them seemingly all being related to each other (he said he expected to be told that the god Wotan was the father of all of them, and I said, “Or the Black version of Wotan they worshiped in Wakanda”), and the actresses playing Tia, Jira and Tia’s campaign-manager sister looked so dramatically different from each other I wondered if the casting director was so determined to refute the stereotype that all Black people look alike that they cast strikingly different-looking people even as three Black characters who, because they were supposed to be biological relations, one would expect to look similar!

Seduced by a Killer (Cartel Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards I got my Lifetime “fix” for the weekend after all when I switched to that channel for Seduced by a Killer, a title similar enough to fare I’ve watched there previously I checked both my hard drive and the moviemagg blog to see if I’d written about it before. I hadn’t, though it seemed relatively familiar: written by Bo Joseph and directed by Danny Buday for our old friends Cartel Pictures and Reel One Entertainment, Seduced by a Killer begins with a wordless sequence in which a college girl is being chased across campus by an assailant wearing a hoodie. Most of the people she passes ignore her cries for help, but two other people start screaming and this scares the attacker away. Since there isn’t a chyron explaining the passage of time, we don’t know whether this is a flash-forward to a scene of the killer’s seducee running away from him lest she become his latest victim or a flashback prologue (it turns out to be the latter, but we don’t learn what it was until about three-quarters through the film); instead there’s a simple cut to the nice suburban home of beauty salon owner Jessica (Clare Kramer) — for some reason her establishment is called the Salon Lujon even though that isn’t her last name — and her daughter Tessa (Mia Topalian), who’s just turned 18 and is getting ready to go to the prestigious Vanderton University, also known as VIT (an obvious not on Joseph’s part to the real Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT) with her boyfriend Will Radford (the gorgeous young blond Connor McRaith).

Alas, just as Will has asked Tessa to have sex with him on her mom’s couch and she’s sent him away with the usual case of blue balls, an assailant wearing a hoodie comes up behind him and murders him on Jessica’s and Tessa’s front porch. (Jessica has been raising Tessa as a single mom and we have no idea who her dad was or what happened to him, though we presume he’s dead since if he were alive the writer would have re-introduced him later as the daughter got in more and more peril.) Then we get a chyron reading “Six Months Later,” and six months later Tessa has lost all interest in going to that prestigious school and instead is moping around the house. Jessica urges her daughter to go online and meet new people, only the new person she meets is a mystery man named Eric (David Fumero) who’s twice her age and who claims to be a corporate CEO but is really an employee of the public transit system who lives in a tumble-down shack in the woods outside of town. The moment she sees them together, Jessica is convinced Eric is a rotter — though at first all she thinks is he’s a Humbert Humbert type cruising delectable nymphets half his age —but her attempts to keep them apart naturally have the opposite effect. (I couldn’t help but joke, “Memo to Jessica: do the names ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ mean anything to you?”)

Of course, the police — in the person of an avuncular bald Black detective who naturally is the most sensible character in the film — originally do nothing, saying that since Tessa is of age there’s nothing illegal about her dating a rather squirrelly guy twice her age — but eventually Jessica, her boyfriend Dr. Christian (Ron Melendez, who despite his Latino last name is tall, blond and looks like Connor McRaith’s older brother — are we supposed to believe this is the only sort of man either mom or daughter is interested in?) and her friend Nancy (Heather McComb), who works in Jessica’s salon even though she has a law degree because her internship at a local law firm doesn’t pay anything, realize that “Eric” is really Joseph, the man who attacked Jessica in her college days in the scene we’ve already watched as a prologue but without understanding its significance. For this Eric was arrested and incarcerated in a mental institution for 18 years before he was finally released, and now he’s decided to avenge himself against Jessica by killing Tessa, Nancy, Christian and everyone else important in Jessica’s life, and also destroying her salon (which he does by breaking in and smashing everything with a baseball bat) so she’ll have no way to make a living and her life will be as ruined as his was by his incarceration. Eventually Eric kidnaps Nancy — at first both we and Jessica assume he’s killed her, but she’s ultimately found alive at the end — only Jessica comes upon him as he’s tied up both Tessa and Christian and, with the gun Nancy tried to give her but Jessica turned down earlier (Anton Chekhov, call your plagiarism attorney!), she shoots Eric dead and saves both her daughter and her boyfriend. Seduced by a Killer is typical Lifetime fare, nothing special but at least delivering the goods, though cinematographer Brooks Ludwick’s idea of how to create Gothic atmosphere is to make just about every nighttime interior glow a burnished orange, and one wants to tell Jessica, “Your life will seem a lot less scary if you take out all those orange lightbulbs and put in normal white ones!”

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Smart Justice: The Jayme Closs Story (Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime TV-movie was based on a story that broke last October 15 — 13-year-old girl Jayme Closs was kidnapped from her home in Barron, Wisconsin by a man named Jake Patterson, who had apparently been stalking her for weeks just waiting to make his move on her. What made this story particularly bitter was that before kidnapping Jayme, Patterson shot and killed her parents — Jayme literally watched her mother die — and she was held in captivity for three months before she finally got the chance to escape. She ran from the locale in which Patterson had held her and literally ran into the right person, retired social worker Jeanne Nutter, who was able to calm her down and to get a local family to take her in until the police could arrive. Nutter was also able to talk Jayme down and help her start the healing process. I remember hearing about this story when it first “broke” and wondering — perhaps from seeing too many Lifetime movies — if Jayme were herself the perpetrator: if she had wanted her parents dead, gone online to recruit someone she could seduce, psychologically and sexually, into doing the job for her, and enlisted her alleged “abductor” as her co-conspirator. That would have frankly made a more interesting bit of drama than the truth, which was that Jayme Closs was a Room-style abductee whose kidnapper held her in bondage (physical and psychological) and subjected her to physical violence as well as sexual abuse. 

Alas, instead of the good-clean-dirty-fun I was hoping for from a Lifetime dramatic movie on the subject, the producers decided to go the documentary route, enlisting — of all people — Elizabeth Smart, the good little Mormon girl who was kidnapped by a couple who wanted her to be the man’s second wife. There’ve been two TV-movies about her but both have been hampered by their “official” nature — the first was sponsored by Smart’s parents and the second by Smart herself — and in particular the fact that none of the Smarts seem to have questioned their faith despite the obvious “theodicy” problem (the theological term for the contradiction between the allegedly peaceful, loving nature of God and the fact that He, She or It allows terrible things to happen) raised by Elizabeth Smart having been kidnapped by a man who wanted her to fulfill the darker sides of Mormonism while she clung to the white-bread Mormon beliefs with which she’d been raised. For this show —which Lifetime called Smart Justice: The Jayme Closs Story, which makes it seem like they’re planning a series of periodic specials in which Elizabeth Smart, in all her blonde goody-two-shoes Mormonism homespun beauty and waving her husband and two kids in front of us as if to say that the experience of being captured and turned into a sex slave doesn’t have to turn you off from holy reproduction and the bothersome necessity of getting fucked in order to do it, will dredge up fellow victims of similar crimes. 

Smart hosted the show and featured other victims of similar crimes — all teenagers when they were abducted, though some were sexually mature and some weren’t; some were held for just days while others were captive for a month or more — one of them was one of the Cleveland abductees who got their own Lifetime movie — though, disappointingly, the show did not feature Jayme Closs herself or any members of her family (including the aunt who took her in following the murder of her parents and who is raising her now). A New York Post article on the program says that was on the advice of law enforcement — “Members of the Closs family cooperated with the show’s producers but were advised by the Department of Justice to decline interviews, according to Lifetime” — which seems a bit odd given that Patterson pleaded guilty and is already serving a life sentence for the crime, so it’s not like the Closses giving public interviews will screw up the case against Jayme’s kidnapper. The show lasted only an hour and a half — a half-hour shorter than the Lifetime norm (were they hoping for an interview with Jayme and leaving space open for it?) — and was immediately rerun right after it was over. Bereft of an appearance by the central character, what emerged most strongly in this program was what I’ve called the democratization of extreme S/M. It used to be that only people in the upper reaches of society — like the two people who gave sadomasochism its name, the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade — could afford to kidnap people and rape and torture them for their own sexual thrills. Now it seems like a crime anyone can do, and indeed what came through most strongly in the accounts of Smart and her fellow victims (Gina DeJesus — the Cleveland abductee — Kara Robinson, Sarah Maynard, Katie Beers, Denise Huskins and Alicia Kozakiewicz) is how similar the stories are, how much sexual abductions — like mass shootings — have become so much of the social fabric that they’ve largely lost their sensational appeal. 

The horrors these women were subjected to (no doubt there are male victims of this sort of sick crime, and if anything they probably suffer even more once they are rescued; a straight man subjected to Gay rape is going to have not only the same issues as a woman subjected to heterosexual rape but additional ones as well, including confusion and questioning about his own sexual identity) are terrible but also follow such a tight pattern that if Hannah Arendt were still alive she could probably cite them as yet more evidence of “the banality of evil.” I’m not sure Elizabeth Smart is the best interlocutor we could ask for on this trip to the dark side — though she said that as soon as she was kidnapped “the old Elizabeth Smart died,” in fact she seems to have grown up to be pretty much the same sort of person she’d have become if she’d never been abducted, a good little white-bread Mormon housewife with the obligatory husband and kids — and a lot of this show is couched in the language of “support,” not only helping the women survive psychologically but achieve normal relationships with men. That would seem to be the hardest part: I can’t help but think that if your introduction to sex was at the hands of a sick kidnapper who wanted you precisely because you were an underage little virgin, you’d likely never lose that loathing of the whole idea of sex and grow up with the thought that sex was a horrible thing to which people subjected you because they wanted to overpower you and deny you your humanity. (My own limited acquaintance with molestation victims would tend to support this; the ones I’ve known have an odd balance between projecting themselves in highly sexualized situations and drawing back in horror from the actual sex act, as if they learned from their molestations that sex is a basically evil thing but something you have to endure in order to be allowed to survive.)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Breakthrough, episode 2: “The Airplane” (PBS-TV, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 10 p.m. last night I switched away from MS-NBC to watch the second episode of the PBS series Breakthrough, “The Airplane,” which wasn’t as interesting as the first episode, “The Telescope,” but like “The Telescope” it made the important point that human progress occurs in small but steady leaps. It’s the point Cory Doctorow made in his recent speech at the San Diego Central Library when he argued that the concept of “intellectual property” has its limits and doesn’t really analogize well to physical property because when physical property is stolen, it changes hands, so the thief owns it and its rightful owner doesn’t. When intellectual property is appropriated, both the original owner and the one who comes after it have possession of it — and, this show argues (and Doctorow would agree), there need to be restrictions on copyrights and other intellectual property laws because each new writer, artist or researcher builds on what others have done before him or her, and unless we allow that process to happen we don’t have progress. The show began with a 9th Century Arab whose name escapes me (and PBS has become woefully deficient on documenting their programs — their Web site is designed more for people who want to stream the program than for those who’ve already seen it and want to know who made it and who their sources were), who threw himself off a cliff and actually flew (he basically invented hang gliding), landing more or less safely after the wind no longer held his wings aloft. “The Airplane” discussed the various technologies for heavier-than-air flight that were either confined to the drawing board (like Leonardo da Vinci’s, which might have worked if the technology of the time had had an engine capable of supplying motive power for it) or didn’t work, largely because for centuries humans had the misconception that the reason birds could fly was the energy they created by flapping their wings.

One of the heroes of this show was Sir George Cayley, a 19th century British polymath who was actually called “the British Leonardo,” who not only realized (by observing seagulls and the long glides they make without flapping their wings) that flapping is not the way birds generate lift, but the trick is they angle their wings so they can catch the air currents and not only propel themselves forwards in the air but also steer. The show also noted that there was a competing technology for human flight — balloons — which already existed by the end of the 18th century, well over 100 years before powered flight in heavier-than-air craft, and for quite some time, until the disastrous crashes of the U.S.S. Shenandoah in 1925 and the Hindenburg in 1937, it was unclear whether the future of human flight lay in lighter-than-air dirigibles or heavier-than-air planes. One of the quirkier figures mentioned is the German glider designer and pilot Otto Lilienthal, who spent his family’s fortunes devising more and more sophisticated gliders until in 1896 he crashed and was killed in one. The show mentions the Wright Brothers and treats them in an unusual way; a really hot-looking blond British inventor (whom Charles thought looked oddly like a priest, to which I replied, “Only if there’s a church out there that dresses their priests in leather”) reconstructed not the Wright Brothers’ first powered plane in 1903, but the glider they tested at the same location — Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — in 1902, on which they figured out the “wing-warping” system that enabled them to steer. (Oddly, one aviation pioneer the show did not mention was Glenn Curtiss, who improved the Wright brothers’ design by inventing the aileron, the flap on a plane’s wing that provides a more effective and reliable way to steer it than warping its entire wing. His contribution was so important that when his and the Wright Brothers’ companies merged, he got top-billing and the combined company’s name was Curtiss-Wright.)

The show took a detour to Isombard Kingdom Brunel, who had nothing to do with aviation but who built the first ocean-crossing ship made of iron, and the researcher who figured out how to navigate that ship by putting a compass inside water and suspending it with a gyroscope, since magnetic compasses didn’t work with all that iron around attracting their needles and sending them haywire — the significance of this invention for aviation was it provided a way for airplane pilots to navigate by instruments without necessarily being able to see where they were going (although not all pilots possess this skill — Buddy Holly and John Kennedy, Jr. both died because they flew in conditions that required navigation by instruments with pilots that didn’t know how to do that — in Kennedy’s case, himself). The show then went on to cover later developments in aviation, particularly the pressurized cabin system invented by Wiley Post (who, ironically, would die in a plane crash in the Arctic in 1935 while flying with the entertainer Will Rogers) and the jet engine, which they credit to a British researcher named Frank Whittie who apparently worked out the basic principle in 1928, though he wasn’t ready to deploy it until 1941 — which makes it really ironic that the British did not build jet planes for use in World War II, while the Germans (using a similar design by Hans de Ohain from 1936) did fly jets (though by the time they started making them their production infrastructure had suffered so much from Allied bombing they weren’t able to make very many, and by 1944 Hitler was more interested in using jet engines to power the V-1 drone bombers than building and deploying jet fighters). The show ends on a futuristic note, suggesting a revival of interest in supersonic commercial airliners as well as offering a design for an all-electric plane (one which would use electricity, rather than combustible fuel, to power a jet). Though not as compelling as “The Telescope,” “The Airplane” was quite a good program and once again made the point that scientific discoveries are made by one researcher building on the work of his or her predecessors, and another researcher building on that work, and so on in a kind of invention daisy chain — and while patents can encourage invention by promising the inventor a chance at a monopoly and the income deriving from it, they can also discourage invention by keeping one researcher away from a topic that seems to be “owned” by another.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Motown “Grammy Celebration” a Disappointment

Too Many Song Snippets by Barely Identified Artists, and Too Much Whitewashing


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” for last night was the long-awaited and heavily hyped Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration on CBS, which turned out to be a horrendous disappointment, mainly because instead of the way the previous Grammy tributes to the Beatles, Elton John and Stevie Wonder  (who, as one of the few survivors from Motown’s glory days, was prominently featured last night) have done — both veterans and modern singers doing complete songs from the artists being paid tribute to — the show was co-hosted by Smokey Robinson and the thoroughly repulsive piece of garbage known as “Cedric the Entertainer,” whose attempts to pose as a D.J. in various historical eras of Motown music were disgusting and took the edge off the show.
It opened magnificently with Wonder leading the house band in a performance of his beautiful song “Sir Duke,” in which one of the great Black musical geniuses of the 20th century paid tribute to another, Duke Ellington, reflecting a sense of history that got lost in the relentless “first-itis” (my term for the tendency of biographers in any medium claiming that the person, people or institution they’re biographing were the first to do a particular thing, when there are plenty of other people who did it before them) of this program. The main problem with Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration was that all too many of the songs and singers were reduced to mere snippets — among the first numbers was a weird round-robin in which some white women singers with long blonde hair were given bits of Motown songs to warble, but no one bothered to provide anything more than a quickly barked announcement of who any of these people were.
After “Sir Duke” the show introduced Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, who was prominently featured throughout the program. Not surprisingly, he’s so old he seemed like an éminence noir haunting the show, and of course his presence ensured that the show wouldn’t cover some of the darker aspects of the Motown legacy and the extent to which Motown sometimes seemed like an ante-bellum plantation whose evils were onmy mitigated by the plantation owner’s being the same color as his sharecroppers. One case in point is the abruptness with which he relocated the company from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early 1970’s without any notice to the members of his staff, including the Funk Brothers, the great backing band that had played on virtually all Motown’s great early records. They suddenly found themselves out of work and reduced to scuffling in jazz clubs, playing the sorts of gigs that had more or less supported them before Berry Gordy founded his label in 1959.
Robinson and Gordy did a reproduction of the scene in which Robinson demonstrated the song “Shop Around,” Motown’s first hit, to Gordy — who released the record and then, after it was already on the market, demanded that the song be redone so he’d have a tighter master that would have a better shot at becoming a hit. Then we got Robinson doing a complete version of “Shop Around,” and after that a great film clip from the August 25, 1966 Ed Sullivan Show featuring Diana Ross and the Supremes doing “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Unfortunately, they cut away from that clip to a modern-day blonde-haired white singer doing the same song, followed by other mediocre modern would-be divas doing “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” (a title almost too ironic in this context!) and “Please, Mr. Postman.”
Then another singer whose name sounded like “Fontane Bell” in the quickly barked-out intro did a nice version of Mary Wells’ hit “My Guy.” Wells had one of the saddest stories of any of the Motown pioneers. After “My Guy,” the biggest hit of her career, she abruptly left Motown and signed with 20th Century-Fox Records, which had absolutely no idea of how to record or promote a Black singer, and her career plummeted before she got deathly ill and died way too soon. The medley ended with Thelma Houston, who at least got the dignity of a proper introduction and the opportunity to perform a complete song, doing her 1977 hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way” — which I couldn’t help but joke to Charles, “A song from that brief period in which disco was actually good.”
After that John Legend was brought on to do two songs from Marvin Gaye’s classic 1970 album What’s Going On, the first time anyone at Motown had performed socially conscious material on record. Legend’s voice has seemed awfully anemic to me in other contexts but here he rose to the material, doing heartfelt versions of “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “What’s Going On” that were better than almost anyone else currently alive could have done. That was the good part; the bad part was the rank example of first-itis in which he introduced the songs by saying that nobody else before Gaye had combined music and activism.
With my usual snottiness, I yelled at the TV, “Does the name ‘Woody Guthrie’ mean anything to you?” — and Charles followed me by naming other Black performers who had combined music and activism, including Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. (We could also have mentioned Black jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Max Roach — in 1960 Roach and his then-wife Abbey Lincoln collaborated on the album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a Black concept album about civil rights and liberation a decade before What’s Going On.) Then a heavy-set older Black woman whom I presumed was Gladys Knight was pulled out of the audience to sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and an old Black guy was put on stage to do the Temptations’ big hit, “My Girl.”
Of course the show didn’t mention that Marvin Gaye had had to fight with Berry Gordy to be allowed to make What’s Goin’ On and it was only the huge success of his version of “Grapevine” — he released the biggest hit of his career just when his Motown contract was expiring — that enabled Gaye to overcome Gordy’s prejudice against political material. Coming off the huge success of “Grapevine.” Gaye was able to give Gordy an ultimatum: “If you want me to stay on the label, What’s Goin’ On is my next record.” Following those two odd bits, the show did a tribute to Motown’s previous TV specials, highlighted by a weird clip of Diana Ross in drag as Charlie Chaplin in a rather lame tribute to silent-movie comedy.
Then the show moved on to Motown in the 1970’s and did something surprisingly creative — a modern woman singer named Sierra got to do a cover of Rick James’ “Super Freak” — it’s still not a great song but it takes on a quite different, and more liberating, affect when sung by a woman! Then Smokey Robinson did a medley of some of his hits that began with one of the show’s most moving moments — a chorus of “Tracks of My Tears” backed only by a softly played electric guitar — and while the rest of the medley (“Ooh, Baby, Baby,” “Tears of a Clown” and “Just to See Her”) didn’t sustain the intimate mood it was still quite capable singing from a veteran whose voice has held up remarkably well.
After that they did an expanded version of Jennifer Lopez’s God-awful tribute to Motown from the last Grammy Awards show, which was criticized at the time because the Latina Lopez was performing songs created and introduced by African-Americans. That didn’t bother me as much as the whole ultra-sexual context of Lopez’s act. Motown’s own performers had moved in tight, respectable moves worked out by veteran Black tap dancer “Honi” Coles, but they hadn’t dressed in spangled street-hooker outfits and shaken their asses at the audience the way Lopez did.
Then there was a tribute to Motown’s great songwriters — Eddie and Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Valerie Simpson, Mickey Stevenson — and after that the show reached higher ground with Stevie Wonder singing a great version of “Higher Ground.” (His voice has deteriorated more than Robinson’s has but he’s still a great performer with enough vocal chops to put over his classics.) He followed it with “Never Thought You’d Leave in Summer,” the song he wrote for his first wife, Syreeta Wright, who died young of cancer just as her own career was taking off. Wonder’s song to his late wife was followed by an “In Memoriam” segment that rather gave short shrift to the Funk Brothers (especially James Jamerson, whose famous hesitation bass beat basically was the Motown sound) and oddly showed Michael Jackson via a Bad-era picture with his face bleached a ghostly white (how did he do that?). “Couldn’t they have found a more Black-looking photo of him?” I asked, and Charles agreed.
After that Ne-Yo, the surprisingly good retro-soul singer (from his stage name I expected him to be a rapper, but blessedly he isn’t), did a medley of miscellaneous Motown hits including “I Need You,” the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” (I’m still bitter that Richie won the 1984 Grammy Album of the Year award over the year’s two towering masterpieces, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain.)
Then came Diana Ross’s segment, which featured songs from the two movies she made under Motown’s auspices — her botched Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (I can barely type out a reference to that film without wanting to barf!) and Mahogany, the latter directed by Berry Gordy himself and a lousy but delightfully campy film best remembered as a 90-minute music video for one of Ross’s greatest post-Supremes records, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” That’s the song she led off with last night, following it with two Billie Holiday covers — “Good Morning, Heartache” and “My Man” — that showed off both her strengths (a basically attractive voice that has survived the years remarkably well) and her weaknesses (almost no instinct for phrasing — at which Billie was, of course, the Master — and a tendency for just the sort of overwrought melodrama Billie eschewed).
Of course, on “My Man” she’s competing not only with Billie Holiday (whose first recording from 1937 features a different, less abject lyric on the verse and an altogether tougher attitude than her two remakes from 1948 and 1952) but with Fanny Brice (who first introduced this song, originally a French piece called “Mon Homme,” to American audiences in 1920), Alice Faye (who sang it surprisingly movingly in the unofficial Brice biopic Rose of Washington Square in 1939) and Barbra Streisand (who sang it in the official Brice biopic Funny Girl in 1968).
Then there was a speech by Berry Gordy in which he said, “Motown made music for all people” — which has become the company’s party-line response to the criticism they and the Grammy organization got for picking Lopez instead of an African-American artist for the Grammy Awards’ Motown tribute, but which has a great deal of truth. Berry Gordy famously turned down Aretha Franklin as “too rough” — the same words a previous Black record entrepreneur, W. C. Handy, had used in turning down Bessie Smith — meaning he didn’t think Aretha’s voice would appeal to white audiences. It eventually did, but as I wrote in my obituary for Aretha it’s certainly arguable that white listeners needed to be acclimated to Black music via the pop-soul of Motown before they could accept the unvarnished soul of Aretha in 1967.
The show went out on a high note with a finale led by Stevie Wonder doing the great song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” — a great ending to a show that missed as many points as it made, and would have been considerably better if they’d treated both the material and the artists with more respect.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Gill Man Sequence: Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal-International, 1954); Revenge of the Creature (Universal-International, 1955); The Creature Walks Among Us (Universal-International, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s San Diego Vintage Sci-Fi screening (http://sdvsf.org/) was a bit of a marathon: all three of Universal-International’s “Gill Man” movies in sequence: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. I’ve written extensively about these movies on my movie blog, https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2011/11/gill-man-sequence-creature-from-black.html, based on our screenings of all three movies from the Universal Legacy boxed set for our Hallowe’en features in 2011. I didn’t think I’d have that much more to add about them, but this time around Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t seem as strong as I remembered it (there were some awfully ponderous longueurs in between the excellent action scenes) and the other two movies actually seemed stronger. There was surprisingly little overlap between them either in cast or behind the camera. Nestor Païva as the captain of the Amazon fishing boat in which the scientists explore the titular Black Lagoon in the first film was the only actor, at least one playing a human, who carried over between the first two films. Champion swimmer Ricou Browning played the aquatic version of the Creature in all three but his land incarnation was a different stunt actor each time: Ben Chapman in Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tom Hennessy in Revenge of the Creature and Don Megowan in The Creature Walks Among Us (and you can see the progression because each new Creature was stouter than the previous one had been — I guess they had to keep letting out the Gill Man costume each time). Jack Arnold directed the first two films but was replaced by John Sherwood for The Creature Walks Among Us, and the first two were shot in 3-D (Revenge of the Creature is so far the only sequel to a 3-D film that was also shot in 3-D, and is likely to remain so until James Cameron gets off his throne and makes Avatar 2 already) but the third one wasn’t. Charles and I have both seen Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D and the film gains a lot from the dimensional effects — aspects of Arnold’s direction that had always puzzled me before just seemed more right in 3-D — and I only wish the Vintage Sci-Fi proprietor’s video projector could accommodate 3-D so we could have seen both the first film and Revenge that way.

What comes off most strongly seeing the films in sequence — “binge-watching,” as they call it today — is that in each new movie, with a different set of writers each time, the filmmakers went farther in trying to make the Gill Man a figure of real pathos. In Creature from the Black Lagoon he’s pretty much just an unmotivated machine of destruction — though they gave him a crush on leading lady Julia Adams (in all three films he falls for a woman wearing a white swimsuit — if he were human that would be called a fetish) à la Kong’s thing for Fay Wray in the original 1933 King Kong. In Revenge he gets a lot more screen time and becomes a figure of almost Frankensteinian pathos. Revenge is usually considered the weakest of the three films — partly because in terms of power and authority, the human leads, John Agar and Lori Nelson, are far below Richard Carlson and Julia Adams in the first film (you could believe Julia Adams as a dedicated, committed scientist interested in partnering Carlson’s character both professionally and personally, while Nelson seems much less interested in her supposed career than in getting John Agar to marry her —she’s your typical movie dumb-blonde of the 1950’s and Agar doesn’t help; he was a close friend of John Wayne and tried mimicking Wayne’s physical and vocal mannerisms even in roles, like this one, for which they were totally wrong) — but this time around I found it considerably better than I remembered it in making the Gill Man someone you would feel sorry for, especially when he’s being poked and shocked with a cattle prod in the tank at Ocean World (“played” by Marineland, Florida, the world’s first aquatic theme park and the prototype of Sea World) to get him to recognize the command “Stop!” I’ve also been struck that in a way Revenge of the Creature is a prototype for Jurassic Park: a living prehistoric animal is put on exhibit by an unscrupulous entrepreneur, escapes and causes havoc. (I particularly like the scene in which the real Gill Man knocks over the wooden cut-out of him at the entrance to Ocean World which advertises his exhibit.)

The Creature Walks Among Us is an even stronger — though stranger — movie, which mashes up not only the first two Gill Man movies and Frankenstein but also Written on the Wind, a property Universal-International was filming at the same time with Douglas Sirk directing and showing off his ability to bring depth and power to a pretty typical soap-opera script. The Creature Walks Among Us reunited the two male leads from Universal-International’s big color science-fiction film from the previous year, This Island Earth, Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason. They gave Morrow the equivalent to the Robert Stack role in Written on the Wind — the wealthy and insanely jealous husband who gets more and more convinced that his wife is a no-account tramp — while Reason got the Rock Hudson part of the hunky guy on her husband’s staff whom she’s clearly falling for. As the wife, who in Written on the Wind was played by Lauren Bacall (who said in her autobiography she didn’t understand why that film got such a cult reputation later — she said she thought it was a nothing script she took only because making a movie seemed healthier for her psyche than just sitting around the house waiting for her then-husband, Humphrey Bogart, to die), they got an actress named Leigh Snowden whose career went nowhere but who seemed quite capable and could have become a star with the right buildup.

The plot of The Creature Walks Among Us, written by Arthur A. Ross, is a doozy: Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) is determined to capture the Gill Man where it was last seen — the Florida Everglades — and find out if it has lungs and can be converted into an air-breathing creature, which he thinks would help solve the problem of how humans could survive in outer space. His assistant Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) thinks he’s nuts and doesn’t want to be part of such a diabolical experiment, but Barton is convinced that he can create an entirely new form of life out of the Gill Man. (In an age in which genetic engineering has become almost routine this plot “plays” quite differently than it no doubt did in 1956.) Morgan doesn’t want to do the experiment, but in the end they have to because in order to capture the Gill Man, they threw a flaming bomb of gasoline at him and it irreparably burned his gills. They not only make him over into an air-breather but put clothes (made from sail canvas) on his as well, making him oddly resemble Tor Johnson from Ed Wood’s movies — though Charles “read” him as an artificially created Black person, an artifact of the “scientific racism” of the early 20th century that held that Blacks weren’t fully human but just a lower step on the evolutionary ladder between apes and white people. (Charles says he’s encountered this attitude mostly in the novels of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, who apparently got his view of Black people at least largely from the scientific racists.) The Gill Man ends up attacking and killing a lion that’s threatening some sheep on Barton’s private estate in Sausalito (near where I did a lot of my growing up, which alone makes this a special movie for me!) — Barton has, among other things, his own private zoo with all sorts of exotic animals on the ground — and at the end the Gill Man walks towards a beach and returns to the water for an ambiguous ending which I’ve always wondered about — did Arthur A. Ross mean us to believe that the Gill Man didn’t realize he could no longer breathe water (or did Arthur A. Ross himself forget that according to the previous scenes of his script, the Gill Man could no longer breathe water), or did he mean it — the reading I’d prefer given my affection for doomed romanticism — as the Gill Man deliberately committing suicide because he’s no longer at home either on water or land?

Captain Scarlet: Three Episodes (Anderson Production Company, Indestructible Production, 2005-2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Friday night’s Mars movie screenings (http://marsmovieguide.com/) were supposed to be a 1981 Gerry and Sylvia Anderson puppet film from England called Captain Scarlet: Revenge of the Mysterons and some of the TV shows it was edited from giving the back story of the Mysterons in the first place and why they would want revenge against Earth people in general and Captain Scarlet (Wayne Forester) and Captain Blue (Robbie Stevens) in the first place. Alas, the screening proprietor couldn’t get his old VHS tape of Revenge of the Mysterons to track properly, so instead he ran three shows from a later incarnation of the series — Instrument of Destruction, parts 1 and 2, and Mercury Falling — and followed it up with Red Faction, a 2011 production of Universal Cable Television for the science-fiction channel that used to be called the Sci-Fi Channel but now bears the preposterous name “syfy” — they wanted a name they could copyright — which is supposedly pronounced the same as “sci-fi” but which I insist on calling “see-fee” as a comment on its ridiculousness. Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia started making science-fiction TV shows with puppets for British commercial television in the 1960’s, and they had a kind of dorky charm; more recently Gerry Anderson continued, until his death in 2012 (along the way he and Sylvia broke up and she died in 2016), to rework this material to take advantage of improvements in special-effects technology, first to remake his old black-and-white TV shows in color and then to redo the puppet effects with CGI, in honor of which change he renamed the process they were supposedly filmed in from “Supermarionation” to “Hypermarionation.”

Last night we got the “Hypermarionation” versions of the two parts of “Instrument of Destruction” and the lamer “Supermarionation” version of “Mercury Falling,” and together they told a story of the Mysterons, the indigenous race on the planet Mars, who get understandably angry at the entire population of Earth when two astronauts landing on Mars accidentally destroy an entire Martian city. The city reappears, however, with a bunch of pissed-off Mysterons who decide to avenge themselves against the Earthlings by capturing two of them, Captain Scarlet and Captain Black (Nigel Plaskitt), and remodeling them into Mysteron-controlled killing machines, then sending them back to their headquarters at SPECTRUM, the international consortium that by this time has taken over all Earth explorations of space. (I couldn’t resist the idea of a story in which the good guys of SPECTRUM would take on the bad guys of SPECTRE, James Bond’s nemeses.) When Captain Scarlet and Captain Black are supposedly killed in an auto accident, Scarlet recovers and regains his original moral sense but gets to keep the near-indestructibility the Mysterons conferred on him, giving him a biological process called “retro-metabolism” in which, if he’s shot, the bullet will wound him and he’ll feel pain but his body will retro-metabolize and he will overcome the effects of the bullet and heal back to normal. So the ever-resourceful Mysterons — whom we never see, at least in their normal form, though we hear a deep, sepulchral and electronically altered voice that supposedly represents their collective consciousness, and we get to see two green circles to indicate when they are in action — revive Captain Black from the dead, enabling him to break out of his grave from inside à la Plan Nine from Outer Space, and turning him into a permanent Mysteron agent moving about the Earthlings and trying to screw things up.

The Mysterons also have a shape-shifting feature which they use to kidnap a super-industrialist, Hank McGill (also Nigel Plaskitt — remember that the characters are puppets or CGI creations and so the actors credited are only voice performers), which they do by kidnapping his chauffeur, taking over his car, driving him to a junkyard and crushing the car, with him in it, à la Goldfinger. Then a Mysteron impersonates him and has him order his staff to aim their missiles at targets which are natural ones for the Russians, thereby launching a first strike and an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers (or something). In “Mercury Falling” the intrigue centers around a satellite Earth has just launched around Mars, and the Mysterons’ successful shoot-down of it because they don’t want anyone from the Enemy Planet photographing them and thereby revealing what they look like au naturel. This is O.K. kids’ entertainment but nothing more, and one wonders of the persistence of Gerry Anderson in remaking his old scripts over and over and over again just to take advantage of technological improvements — not that they mattered much, since the characters even in CGI still look tacky and blocky, they have virtually no facial expressions, and though Anderson and his crews eventually got the people’s mouths to move when they were supposedly talking, they didn’t get them to move very much.

Red Faction: Origins (THQ, Universal Cable Television, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Red Faction: Origins was over, I described it to Charles as “a Nietzschean movie — beyond good and bad.” That about sums it up. The big gimmick is that Mars was colonized by Earth, only the Earthlings who came to Mars started rebelling and therefore the planet was taken over by something called the Earth Defense Force ( EDF), which ran the place in such a high-handed, arbitrary and ruthlessly cruel fashion Saddam Hussein’s Iraq looked like a summer camp by comparison. Earthling leader Alec Mason (Robert Patrick, older and considerably heavier than he was in the early 2000’s as the second Terminator) led a revolution against EDF in coalition with the native-born Martians (who look the same as humans) under the leadership of “The Matriarch” (Kate Vernon), who keeps appearing as a hologram à la the first Star Wars (a reference not lost on our science fiction-knowledgeable audience!) and isn’t seen as a fully live character until the final scene. Alas, once they defeated the EDF the Earth colonists and the native Martians started a war against each other, while remnants of the EDF escaped and formed their own redoubt in the Martian underground. There they trained a race of storm troopers who look like a low-rent version of the ones in Star Wars (they’re dressed in all-white uniforms, but made of cloth instead of plastic) and attacked Alec Mason, kidnapping his son Jake (Samuel Davies) and daughter Lyra (Isabelle Blake-Thomas).

Jake eventually escaped and became the leader of the Red Faction, descendants of the colonists from Earth who fight both the White Faction (as the surviving EDF’ers are known, no doubt a deliberate parallel to the 1917-1921 Russian civil war that followed the Revolution, in which the Bolshevik forces were known as the Red Army and the counter-revolutionaries who wanted to restore the Tsar were the White Army) and the native Martians. Lyra, however, has gone all Stockholm on us, joining the White Faction, allying herself with it and even falling in love with a White Faction leader, Adam Hale (Gareth David-Lloyd). As befits a movie which originated as a video game and was essentially a prequel to it, Red Faction has virtually no plot development at all — it’s basically an updated Republic serial, a series of action highlights with long, ponderous exposition sequences between them — and it unfolded before me without giving me much of any emotional response at all, either good or bad. It didn’t help that the female lead, Tess de la Vega (Danielle Nicolet), was drawn as the typical stupid ninny of an old-fashioned action-adventure film, supposedly there as a love interest in the final reel but doing little or nothing to help him and just annoying him and getting in the way — 44 years after Carrie Fisher liberated the sci-fi heroine by picking up a Blaster in the first Star Wars and firing away at the baddies along with the male good guys, there’s no excuse for this sort of woman character anymore!

Even the final sequence — Alec Cross, who descended into an alcoholic torpor following the kidnapping of his kids, redeems himself by flying a suicide mission to destroy the “Dreadnought,” the gigantic EDF craft which will attack both the Red Faction and the indigenous Martians to get them to go to war with and destroy each other, thereby leaving the planet safe for the EDF’ers to take over — which was supposed to be moving, fell more or less flat because we’ve seen this far too many times in far too many better movies. It also doesn’t help that director Michael Nankin and writers Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Andrew Kreisberg cop from all too many older and far better movies — not only the first Star Wars but also 2001, three of whose most famous scenes get quoted in just the first reel of Red Faction: Origins!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Breakthrough, episode 1: The Telescope (PBS-TV, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a surprisingly compelling show on PBS, the premiere of a new mini-series called Breakthrough: The Ideas That Changed the World. This episode was called “The Telescope” and it featured an object lesson in how scientific discoveries are collaborative processes and the success of one scientist in one time and place is dependent on other people who’ve made discoveries in other times and places. The idea of using artificial means to better study the sky began, according to this program, in Portugal 6,000 years ago, where the primitive people built elaborate structures to cut off sunlight during the say so their eyes could become acclimated to the dark and therefore they could make stronger, more accurate observations of the stars. The show then cuts to Baghdad in the 9th Century C.E. where a scientist named Ibn al-Kindi invented the camera obscura (though Wikipedia lists other claimants) and definitively proved that light is a phenomenon from outside the human body rather than something generated from the human eyes and beamed outward to the objects we see. The show describes Baghdad as the international center of learning and progress in that era — proof that science and Islam are not incompatible (Muslims had the early advantage in developing modern technology until they started getting ultra-religious and doing things like imposing Sharia law and getting ultra-strict in their interpretations of the Quran — the Western Christian world went through an Enlightenment that exalted human reason and the Islamic world went through what might be described as a de-enlightenment and lost their competitive advantage in science). It also mentions a plant that fixes salt from ocean water, purifies it and is known in England as “glassweed” because it’s essential in the manufacture of absolutely clear glass.

he show details 14th century Venetian art that depicts the use of eyeglasses (though it was my understanding that glasses were originally invented in China) and then moves on to Hans Lippershey, the Dutch optometrist who put two lenses, a convex and a concave one, together and invented the telescope. Lippershey applied for a patent to the Dutch government and incredibly was turned down, meaning his invention immediately became public domain and anyone who could figure out how to make a telescope could do so. The show then moves on to Galileo and how he manufactured a telescope far superior to Lippershey’s — it magnified 10 times as much and produced a far clearer image — and how he used it to map the surface of the moon and discover the moons of Jupiter. Then the show digresses to cover Louis Daguerre and the invention of photography, which meant people could actually take pictures of the stars in the night sky instead of having to rely on drawings, and on through the 19th century and one of the unsung heroines of science, Henrietta Levitt, who discovered a means of measuring not only how bright the stars were in the sky but how far away they were. After that they discussed Edwin Hubble and his pioneering night-sky photographs, from which he discovered that the so-called “Andromeda nebula” was actually another galaxy; that there were innumerable additional galaxies; and that the universe was actually expanding — from which derived the so-called “Big Bang theory” that originally everything was just one gigantic ball of undifferentiated matter and energy until it exploded … and the explosion is still going on. Finally the show depicted the space-borne telescope named after Hubble and the way it enabled us to photograph the stars without the earth’s atmosphere getting in the way. Though afflicted by the overall gee-whiz attitude of a lot of PBS’s science shows, Breakthrough: The Telescope is a fascinating look on how scientific discoveries really are made — by collaborators reaching out to each other over the generations — and it reinforces Cory Doctorow’s point in his recent San Diego Central Library lecture that intellectual property really resists commodification. Being able to claim you “own” a discovery, and no one else can use it without paying you a royalty (or, if you really want to be an asshole, you don’t license it so no one else can use it at all), does not facilitate scientific progress: quite the contrary, it retards it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, parts 3 and 4 (WGBH, PBS-TV, McGee Media, Inkwell Films, 2019)


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At 9 p.m. yesterday I watched the remaining two hours of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS mini-series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The first two hours, shown last week, dealt with the Reconstruction period itself (1865-1877), when for much of the time the South was literally occupied by the U.S. military and, under the rule of a Republican Congress whose leaders took the rights of African-Americans seriously and used federal troops to enforce them, Black Americans became landowners, businesspeople and even elected officials.
Alas, the brave dream of achieving racial equality in America as an aftermath of the Civil War faded quickly under the lash of Southern terror — the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations were founded, often by former Confederate Army officers, and their purpose was to destroy Black-owned property and intimidate Black people into abandoning their dreams of equality and accepting a perpetual state of servitude almost indistinguishable from slavery — and Northern war-weariness.
By the 1890’s Blacks had been driven from power and fortune through a series of increasingly restrictive measures, including voter suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests and bizarre qualifications (dramatized in the opening scene of the movie Selma in which a would-be Black voter, played in a cameo by Oprah Winfrey, is obliged to guess correctly how many jellybeans are in a large jar of them) that had the side effect of disenfranchising a lot of poor white people as well, along with outright terror — including an infamous massacre of Black officeholders and their supporters in Wilmington, North Carolina (the last redoubt of Black political power in the South at the end of the 19th century) that left 600 people dead and the Cape Fear River literally running red with blood.
Gates makes powerful points about the persistence and unscrupulousness of white supremacists in the South and how they’re still operating today — including the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia two years ago in which gangs of neo-Nazi and neo-Klan activists tried to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee against the efforts of a multiracial city government to have it taken down. Gates also discusses the history of these Confederate monuments in the first place, saying that they were part of a Southern propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War as a noble “Lost Cause” in what paternal whites enslaved Blacks with deep kindness and humility and for their own good because these people simply weren’t as good as us. (Barf.)
The combination of racist propaganda, spread throughout the country via books, plays, posters, cartoons, and ultimately movies — including D. W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, both a landmark in the history of cinema as an art form and a bizarre piece of racist propaganda (Gates shows the infamous scene in which Mae Marsh, as the film’s second white female lead, jumps off a cliff to her death rather than allow herself the Fate Worse than Death of being raped by a Black man — played by a white actor in preposterously unconvincing blackface; for once Griffith’s racism overpowered his filmmaking acumen) which won the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson and became the most popular movie of the entire silent era.
The racist propaganda campaign also extended into the halls of academe; not only did history departments rewrite the history of Reconstruction according to the Southern propaganda blueprint (as I’ve noted before, if anyone in 1915 had seen The Birth of a Nation or read about the controversy surrounding it and gone to a library to research whether the film was historically accurate, the books they would have found would have said it was), biologists and anthropologists published elaborate racial typographies to indicate that Blacks were a lower order of humanity, not fully human but simply intermediate stages on our evolution from apes. (I remember being startled, though not really surprised, to read reports at a recent Right-wing convention that they were presenting speakers denouncing the early 20th-century anthropologist Franz Boas, the first scientist to take on the scientific racists and debunk their ridiculous theories.)
Fortunately, Gates’s Reconstruction is not all gloom and doom; he also dramatizes the people in the Black community who fought back, including journalist Ida B. Wells, who traveled the country collecting stories of lynchings and wrote for a Black paper, the New York Age, after she was driven out of Memphis, Tennessee, her home town (I encountered her in an earlier PBS documentary on the Black press and said her story would make a great feature film — I even named Halle Berry as the actress who should play her) and W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor of such giant intellect it’s hard to categorize him into any one discipline, who published sociological studies of Black communities in Northern cities and “made his bones” in 1903 with a collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk that directly challenged the leading African-American leader of his time, Booker T. Washington.
Washington (a name he chose for himself; the “T.” stood for the name of his former slavemaster, Taliaferro, pronounced “Tolliver”) had become a media superstar in 1895 through a speech he’d made at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition in which he basically said that Blacks should be content to be farmers and manual laborers, and Black schools should train them for these sorts of jobs and to be teachers in Black-only schools, and forget about voting or political power or building businesses or pursuing intellectual careers. Nuts to that, said Du Bois; he thought the Black community should not only aspire to anything whites could do, but should develop what he called a “Talented Tenth” — an intellectual elite who would not only lead the struggle for racial equality but would serve, by their own examples, as a response to the racist arguments about what Blacks were and weren’t capable of doing.
Du Bois also wrote the first major book by a qualified historian challenging the Southern white-supremacist version of Reconstruction, Black Reconstruction in America (1935) — a quarter-century before white historians like Erle McKitrick, Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner (the last of whom is still alive and was interviewed for this program, one of the few white people Gates and the filmmakers cited as a source — in using mostly Black experts for his talking heads Gates was clearly doing a little Talented Tenthing of his own) — though by then he had become a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. and he had adopted a Marxist analysis of Reconstruction for which Adam Gopnik, reviewing the Reconstruction film and Gates’s book Stony the Road, published in conjunction with the documentary, for the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/how-the-south-won-the-civil-war), rather oddly faults him:

Du Bois tries strenuously to fit the story of the end of Reconstruction into a Marxist framework: the Southern capitalists were forcing serfdom upon their agricultural laborers in parallel to the way that the Northern ones were forcing it on their industrial workers. His effort is still echoed in some contemporary scholarship. But an agricultural class reduced to serfdom is exactly the kind of stagnant arrangement that capitalism chafes against. Sharecropping is not shareholding.

Not surprisingly, I think Du Bois got it right and Gopnik got it wrong. The Northern industrialists, financiers and other capitalists who dominated the Republican Party in the last third of the 19th century wanted the South as a largely dispossessed area, a sort of American latifundia that would produce cheap cotton to feed the North’s highly developed textile industry and would also provide a source of cheap industrial labor in case Northern white workers got too uppity and started demanding things like decent wages, limited hours, health and safety regulations and the right to form unions. That’s why there were huge steel mills in Birmingham, Alabama (actually in Bessemer, a suburb created especially to house them and named after one of the inventors of modern steel-making) by the end of the 19th century.
Nothing sums up the change in the attitudes of Northern Republicans like the two statements by Ohio Congressmember John Bingham, the principal author of the Fourteenth Amendment, who in 1871 said he had definitively intended the Amendment to protect the rights of African-Americans — and in 1881 said equally definitively that he had intended it to protect the rights of corporations. In the last fourth of the 19th Century the U.S. Supreme Court swung hard Right on both economic and racial issues: it was in 1886 that the Court declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore protected by the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment — a doctrine that for the next 50 years would be used as a cudgel to strike down virtually any attempt to regulate giant corporations to protect workers, consumers or the environment.
It led to a concept called “substantive due process” which took the idea of “due process” beyond its surface meaning — that if you are going to be prosecuted or regulated, it has to be done within a legal process with certain safeguards to make it fair — and which ruled entire areas of potential government action, including minimum-wage legislation, health and safety regulation, and limits on the development and industrial exploitation of public lands, presumptively unconstitutional as a violation of the “substantive due process” rights of corporate “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
It was also in 1883 that the Supreme Court, in a series of consolidated actions called the Civil Rights Cases, ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act, passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress after Democrats swept the 1874 midterms and which was virtually identical to the landmark bill of the same title passed in 1964, was unconstitutional because government had no business telling private business owners whom they may or may not serve. This argument is still heard today; Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said during his campaign that if he’d been in Congress he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for that reason.
It was also the argument Barry Goldwater made when he did vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a key step in the historic “flip” of America’s two main political parties on civil rights that started in the ’teens but became final in the 1960’s. The Democrats, the party of slavery, segregation and the Klan, became the party of equal rights for African-Americans and, later, other oppressed groups; while the Republicans became the party of white supremacy and racism, still calling themselves the “Party of Lincoln” but losing all connection to what Lincoln and the other Republican Unionists had actually been fighting for in the Civil War and ending up on the other side.

Why Jazz Was Born in New Orleans

The famous test case of Plessy v. Ferguson followed 13 years later and basically enshrined racial segregation into American law. What Gates deserves credit for pointing out in the program is that Plessy v. Ferguson was actually a test case, initiated in 1892 to challenge a law in Louisiana that required separate railroad cars for white and Black passengers. The significance of the case originating in Louisiana and the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, having a French-sounding last name is that Plessy wasn’t visibly Black at all: he was one of the mixed-race New Orleans Creoles who, like the mixed-race “Coloreds” in South Africa during apartheid, had an ambiguous social position, lower than whites but higher than Blacks.
As the only part of the United States that had originally been settled by the French, who had at least a somewhat gentler attitude towards racial mixing and interracial people than the Anglos who had settled the first 13 colonies that formed the United States, Louisiana had given birth to a class of Creoles that identified with white Western culture, specifically French culture, and regarded France, not Africa, as their true homeland.
Plessy was selected for the test case, brought by the railroads who didn’t want the extra expense of having to maintain segregated cars, because he was a New Orleans Creole who was only one-sixteenth Black, and in order to get himself arrested so he could start the test case he had to cross over from a Black to a white car and announce to a train steward that he was Black and was refusing to leave the white car, so the steward would have him arrested. Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1896 and ruled that the equal protection clause did not bar segregation as long as the facilities were “separate but equal” — which, not surprisingly, they never were; the film contains plenty of photographs of separate white and Black facilities that show, better than any narration or talking-heads could, how decidedly unequal the Black facilities were to the white ones.
Gates doesn’t mention the cultural dynamics created by the segregation laws, especially in Louisiana — though his book (albeit not the show itself) argues that, instead of the elaborate literary and scholarly books published by African-American intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but popular music in general and jazz in particular: “There was, in fact, a genuine renaissance occurring during the Harlem literary renaissance, but it wasn’t among the writers. The renaissance was occurring among those great geniuses of Black vernacular culture, the musicians who created the world’s greatest art form in the twentieth century—jazz.”
What this ignores is that the creation of jazz was itself a direct result of racial segregation, and in particular its imposition in Louisiana, where the proud Creoles were thrown down from their perch midway up the racial hierarchy from Blacks to whites and forced into the same category as the Blacks. That, I’ve long believed, is why jazz was born when (the 1890’s) and where (New Orleans) it was: the Creoles brought their European conservatory training and command of the Western musical instruments to the mix, while the Blacks brought their folk traditions and in particular the spirit of gospel music and the blues.
Had segregation not jammed the Creoles and the Blacks of New Orleans into the same bands and the same venues, I suspect African-American popular music would have bifurcated into the sophisticated ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries on one hand, and the rough-hewn folk blues of the Black working class on the other — just as white American pop music split between the relative sophistication of Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway (and, later, Hollywood) musical scores that have become known as the “Great American Songbook” on one hand, and the folk traditions of bluegrass, hillbilly and Western music that became the basis of country music on the other.
Tbe extent to which the origin of jazz came from a fusion between the Creole and Black cultures of New Orleans is illustrated by the personnel listings of early jazz bands, which are full of both Anglo (Black) and French (Creole) names. One can hear the tension between the great Creole genius Sidney Bechet and the great Black genius Louis Armstrong on the records they made together with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babies in 1924.

Minstrelsy and Ethnic Humor in General

Gates’s discussion of Blacks in popular culture in the early 20th century is the one that’s become typical, presenting the whole minstrelsy tradition as racist propaganda and denying that the vaudeville and revue stages of the first 20 years of the 20th century contained equally insulting and stereotypical presentations of white ethnics. As I wrote in my article on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the demands by fellow Democrats for his resignation because he had posed in blackface during his college years:

One of the key elements of the Left-wing McCarthyist attack on Ralph Northam is an hysterical, ahistorical condemnation of the whole idea of blackface. Northam’s critics are speaking and acting as if Northam actually joined the Ku Klux Klan or led a lynch mob. To understand what blackface really means you have to look at it in historical context. It was part of a wide variety of ethnic stereotypes comedians and entertainers in the U.S. trafficked in from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Look at the products of classic Hollywood and you will see comedians who specialized in playing stereotyped Germans, stereotyped Swedes, stereotyped Irishmen, stereotyped Jews and stereotyped Blacks.
The Marx Brothers began their careers playing ethnic stereotypes: Groucho was the “comic Jew,” Chico the “comic Italian” and Harpo, until he gradually got fewer and fewer lines of dialogue until he stopped speaking on stage at all, was “Patsy Brannigan,” the “comic Irishman.” Since the Marx Brothers actually were Jewish, modern audiences watching their movies tend to regard Groucho as the most “authentic” of them — but the people who went to their vaudeville appearances, their Broadway musicals and the initial releases of their movies saw Groucho as just another ethnic comedian playing a Jew.
There’s evidence that at least some blackface performers regarded their work as a genuine, heartfelt tribute to authentic Black music and culture. One of the most interesting documents of this is the 1934 film Wonder Bar, in which Al Jolson — whose star power and status as the first person who played the lead in a successful sound film kept blackface and the minstrel-show tradition it sprang out of going for about two generations after it would have otherwise died out — has two large production numbers.
On his whiteface number, “Vive la France” (the film is set in Paris and casts Jolson as an American entertainer who owns a nightclub there), Jolson sings in a high, rather whiny tenor with a fast, irritating vibrato. On his blackface number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” he drops his register, sings from the chest instead of the throat, slows his vibrato and achieves a sound surprisingly like that of the genuinely African-American concert singers and Broadway performers of the time. The number itself, directed by Busby Berkeley, is a conglomeration of just about every racist stereotype you can imagine (which probably kept this film from being revived in the early 1970’s with Berkeley’s other major films), but Jolson’s sincerity and soul transcend the minstrelsy conventions and are genuinely moving.

Indeed, one of the most annoying aspects of the critique of blackface as ipso facto racism is it ignores the fact that many of the most prominent blackface performers, as well as the songwriters who supplied them material, were themselves members of a persecuted minority: they were Jews. That includes not only performers like Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker (whose star-making hit, “Some of These Days,” was written by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and who, though she didn’t perform in blackface, was advertised as a “coon shouter” — i.e., a white singer who could sound Black) but songwriters like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, as well as producers like Florenz Ziegfeld.
When PBS ran the three-part series Broadway: The American Musical I argued that the entire Broadway musical tradition was a fusion of Black and Jewish culture, to the point where Broadway show creators who weren’t either Black or Jewish consciously tried to emulate those who were. Cole Porter once said that the reason he became a successful songwriter in the late 1920’s after a decade of disappointments was “I learned to write Jewish,” and Jerome Kern’s biggest hit was the faux-spiritual “Ol’ Man River.”
That’s why I got annoyed with the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), real-life co-owner (with his brother) of a record label which marketed Black music to Black (and, later, white) audiences, is portrayed as so naïve about racism his Black artists have to explain it to him. Had I been writing the script, I would have had Chess respond, “Look, I know all about prejudice! I’m Jewish, and a lot of the people who don’t like you don’t like us, either!”
But then one of my problems with a lot of modern-day social criticism from African-Americans and their white supporters is they tend to lump everyone with fairer skin into an amorphous “white” category and ignore the often fierce ethnic and social prejudices between Euro-Americans depending on which part of Europe they came from. I was grimly amused when many of the white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville in 2017 had names that sounded Italian, Slavic or Celtic — i.e., they were people who wouldn’t have been considered “white” by previous generations of white supremacists in the 1890’s, the 1930’s or even the 1960’s.
One good thing Gates’s Reconstruction program did on the cultural front was mount a fairly long segment on the Black minstrel performer Bert Williams, who started out in a comedy team with George Walker and became a huge star on his own — he was the first Black performer featured in a Broadway musical and he joined the Ziegfeld Follies (where W. C. Fields met him and called him “the funniest man I’ve ever seen on stage — and the saddest man I’ve ever seen off stage”).
Gates argues that Williams was the pioneer of the “double act” a lot of Black performers trying to cross over to white audiences have done: played up to the stereotypes of the white audience while also giving his Black fans what Gates called “the wink,” the acknowledgment that he knew he was playing a stereotype that didn’t reflect what Blacks were really like, but he was also making fun of the stereotype and the whites who believed it was what Blacks were really like.
Williams took on the insulting designation of many Black performers, and characters in songs about Blacks, as “coons” and turned it on its head by advertising himself and Walker as “The Two Real Coons” — driving white minstrelsy performers up the wall with their bold claim that essentially said, “Don’t watch them pretending to be us. Watch the real deal!”
Gates compared them to the rap group N.W.A. (whose name stood for “Niggers with Attitude”), though I loathe rap — especially the so-called “gangsta rap” N.W.A. pioneered and personified, with its relentless glorification of murder, rape, crime in general and acquisition of material goods (including the horribly tasteless jewelry known as “bling”) — so much I get cold chills at any documentary that has anything nice to say about it. Still, the point is that Williams paved the way for a lot of Black performers (including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Richard Pryor) who built huge white followings by at once superficially depicting and actually lampooning racist stereotypes.

Reconstruction: The Sequel(s)

Gates races through the last parts of his story — perhaps someday he will be able to do a follow-up about African-American civil-rights activism in the first half of the 20th century, both the relatively sedate legal kind practiced by the NAACP (whose founding is depicted here as part of the segment on Du Bois, who moved from the Black-led Niagara Movement — so called because it had its inaugural convention at Niagara Falls — to the largely white-led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 and of which Du Bois was the only Black member of the founding board; instead of taking the group’s presidency he picked the role of what was essentially its information minister, editing and writing a great deal of its flagship magazine, The Crisis) and more upfront activism that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision invalidating racial segregation in education in 1954 and creating what I’ve argued elsewhere was a sort of “hunting license” to the African-American community.

Brown didn’t grant civil rights immediately but did spark the most intensive decade of African-American activism in U.S. history — even though, as I said when I wrote about the first half of this program, we shouldn’t make the easy assumption that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” One could read the reaction of America under President Trump and the resurgence of white supremacism and ethnic nationalism in general not only in this country but through much of the world as a temporary setback in the arc of history bending towards justice — or one could read the possibility that the gains of the 1960’s civil rights movement, which then and since has often been called “The Second Reconstruction,” will turn out to be as evanescent as the first, as the forces of white supremacism regain control of both America’s politics (which they’ve come close to achieving) and its culture (from which they’re a lot farther away) and make the idea that there ever was an African-American U.S. President as inconceivable as it was 100 years ago that there had ever been an African-American U.S. Senator.