All The Rage

Like almost every African American in my social network timeline, I went to see “The Best Man Holiday” on its opening weekend.

While my reaction wasn’t as effusive as my peers, I did enjoyed it for what it was: an entertaining film that brought back the days when movies that featured a predominantly black cast didn’t play up to any stereotypes. The days when movies like “Boomerang”, “Love Jones”, “Soul Food”, “Brown Sugar”, “Love & Basketball” and the first “Best Man” gave us a view of educated professionals, creative people following their passions, and families that were achieving middle and upper middle class success.

That was an era when great and sometimes compelling storytelling and positive and realistic imagery — ushered in by “The Cosby Show” — promoted the renaissance of black entertainment… a time when neo-soul music was coming up, hip hop was socially conscious and infusing jazz in their sound, and both were being incorporated into legendary soundtracks.

For whatever reason, it appeared this era was too brief for that genre. The films that brought career success to Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, and Morris Chestnut –to name a few — faded into obscurity, and made way for a new brand of movies that often went straight to video or played for a certain type of audience who were content with watered down characters who were more caricatures than three dimensional.

Today, nearly fifteen years later, what should be a simple celebration of an entertaining movie and a revival of that craft, has now escalated into heated debates and unnecessary comparisons.

From a poorly worded USA Today article — where the author was dumfounded by the film’s ability to nearly keep pace with “Thor” despite being in a thousand fewer theaters and called it “race themed” — to a cavalcade of online militants who’ve grown tired of the crop of “slave genre” movies, Malcom D. Lee’s movie found itself with the unwanted and unwarranted baggage of other people’s expectations.

Although the film’s second half took an emotional turn, the overall romantic comedy was suddenly pitted against a juggernaut of a comic franchise that is Marvel (one that, it should be noted, had two black lead actors in the cast), and unfairly dubbed the antidote to more somber flicks such as “Fruitvale Station”, “The Butler”, and “12 Years a Slave”. Message boards still reeling from “Django Unchained” urged people to support the movie for reasons beyond its feel-good nature. Deep sighs of relief from people suffering “Tyler Perry backlash” could be heard across the nation. The shade being thrown was enough to blind you from the beautiful and seemingly ageless cast that just set out to make a warmhearted Christmas-themed sequel with friendship, love and forgiveness at its core.

I suppose these days, when movie-going has become a fairly expensive pastime, one tends to be a bit more selective and discerning when it comes to how and what your hard earned money is spent on. And when the caliber of entertainment being ladled down your throat on a regular basis comprises mostly of train-wreck reality programs where positive messages are severely lacking, then it’s no wonder when smartly written shows like “Scandal”, and anything where the lead characters are prominent African Americans in non-submissive roles conjure up the kind of emotion mostly felt on graduation day.

But the rage is just overwhelming. My fear is that our propensity to get fired up about everything is just going to end up burning bridges of opportunity time and again.

Granted, the onslaught of material tackling the disturbing subjects of slavery and racial discrimination appear excessive when you’ve been inundated by it in the past couple of years. It would also seem that the timing couldn’t be more unfortunate, as ignorant actions and statements appears to be on the rise. But where “Django” was a cartoonish revenge fantasy (much like “Inglorious Basterds”, which ironically didn’t fire up as much outrage in the Jewish community), this year’s crop of stories were either based on factual events and people, or derived from a true story. It’s an interesting commentary, given that decades ago Alex Haley was once heralded for sharing the story of his ancestors in his epic novel, which became the historic TV movie, “Roots”.

One would think at a time when Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team of historians launched the spectacular documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” on PBS, the time would be ripe for embracing and appreciating true stories that shine light and perspective on the hardships and triumphs faced by black people in general, and open up dialogue in communities starving for respect and recognition while struggling with identity and self-esteem in a continually shifting social and economic climate.

Which is probably why “TBMH” was such a breath of fresh air. Like its predecessors, it allowed the audience to view a world where the black people had success in their careers and relationships (or saw any challenges with them neatly resolved by the time the credits rolled), and were treated equally — and even adoringly in one case — by the white cast members.

Most importantly, race never had a starring role in this movie… Love did.

Perhaps the painful reminders of a flawed and tragic history and reality is still too much of a jagged pill to swallow, and we prefer our entertainment more diluted and, yes, a bit melodramatic as a means of escape.

It is, after all, entertainment. Maybe we do need to see a crying (and shirtless!) Morris Chestnut, a snarky Terrence Howard, and a New Edition tribute to make it all better… at least for two solid hours.

Given the sheer joy it’s brought millions of people thus far… I’m gonna go with a resounding “Yes.”


A Day In A Life

Yesterday, one of my awesome girlfriends and I went wherever the day took us… and it was quite an experience.

First, it took us to a diner downtown where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast while listening to songs from classic artists like Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and wondered aloud if the hits of today will ever deserve the longevity of the songs they often sample from. We also agreed that Rihanna’s raunchy songs have nothing on Miss Ella’s sweetly sung dirty ditties.

Next, it took us to One Police Plaza, to join the throngs of people who battled the sweltering temperatures to listen to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, as she choked back tears when she spoke of her son and her new fight to save the sons of others. Although she succeeded in fighting the tears from flowing through her speech, we were not so lucky.

Afterwards, it took us to the Shomburg in Harlem, where we viewed items documenting Nelson Mandela’s transformation from prisoner to president, and the works of Lois Mailou Jones — whose vibrant pieces influenced by African, Caribbean, post-Impression era Paris and African-American culture had us in awe.

Not finished with us, the day proceeded to carry us into a panel discussion around the corner at the Congee Library, where we listened intently as women discussed being single in America, and the rise of single people in comparison to those who chose to marry. Among the great insights was the observation that many factors have changed since the days when marriage was popular and, ostensibly, sacred (i.e. we died younger, met our spouses at school, and had more inventory and less online presence and options, etc.). By the end of the discussion, we all collectively agreed that there are no rules when it comes to relationships and marriage… only a requirement that you have to want to be in one and willing to put in the mutual work to get the mutual benefits. Afterwords, my friend an I were so determined to get the unspoken men’s perspective that we semi-cornered the lone man that sat in on the discussion, and spent another half hour standing in the hallway getting his take.

After a brief visit with another friend who was getting her jewelry hustle on at an outdoor festival, the day then ushered us down to Lincoln Square to see “Fruitvale Station“; the powerful film documenting the last hours of Oscar Grant’s life. Before Trayvon Martin, Grant was another young African-American man whose fleeting moments of bad judgement overshadowed his life struggle to be a good person and do the right thing — also with fatal results. More tears flowed. That the movie was released around the timing of the verdict was a mix of serendipity and shrewd marketing, and a strong reminder of just how blind the justice system can often be when it’s convenient.

Our final stop of the day was possibly the most endearing to me. During our day adventure, my girlfriend got a call from her mother informing her that there would be a feast of crabs at her home in Brooklyn. When we got there, the house was filled with family who gathered to eat seafood, talk, entertain the adorable newborn girl and make plans to meet for church and a birthday boy’s dinner the next day. While there is little that excites me more than the taste of crabmeat, the sight of a family gathering warms my heart to the highest level and gives me hope beyond any description I could give.

Yesterday, I witnessed life through the eyes of two African American sons whose lives were cut short, an outraged public, a mother who has unwittingly become the hope and voice of terrified mothers everywhere and one African-American woman raising her own son and grappling with what to say and do to protect him from becoming a statistic. As I spent the day absorbing how special it was, it didn’t escape my thoughts that the idea of bringing a male child into this word could conceivably be considered a dangerous thing in the future.

In a country where the victim’s character is often on trial more so than the person who ends or endangers their lives, it almost seems comical to expect drastic attitude adjustments. But history has shown us that persistence — and faith — can ultimately pay off in time.

Alas, that’s for another day… and if it’s going to be anything like yesterday (although I suspect it will be better), I don’t want to miss a minute.

For The Children

This week might have been one of the most enlightening and enriching I’ve experienced in quite some time… and it’s all due to an uncanny instinct that comes over me when children are involved.

Starting off rather tumultuously, it all took a turn Tuesday night at my Young Authors class.  In the past, the group of rambunctious kids who assemble to write stories they eventually read to their peers has always been a source of joy in my day and week — even when some of their tales borderline frightening. But this night, their stories renewed my faith in positive thinking, and I was immediately reminded of why I love being a volunteer… nevermind the fact that my heart bursts every time they hug me when I walk in the door!

Then Thursday came, and I had the pleasure of working a toy sale in an office filled with new and established mothers who brought in their little ones. The proceeds from the sale would go directly to St. Jude, the hospital that specializes in Pediatric Cancer care. At the end of the sale, I wasn’t sure if I was feeling delirium from starting the day so early, or from the amount of money raised, but my journey home was filled with smiles.

And then came Friday. While temping at an office, I made conversation with an employee who also happened to run a website, Teennewsnet, where young writers that he teaches and mentors contribute to the website. After telling him about the Young Authors, he immediately expressed an interest not only to volunteer for the program, but to speak with our current class to possibly recruit writers. Still on a high from that moment, I ran over to volunteer for Kevin Powell’s annual holiday party.  Powell, a well-known writer, activist, and public speaker, has used his influence and connections over the years to bring like-minded people together to promote change and awareness in African-American communities.  He has also used what has come to be a well attended event to collect funds and clothing for Safe Horizon, an organization that has been assisting homeless and abused youth and adults for thirty years. Until that night, I was unaware of their existence, but left with a personal goal to contribute my time and whatever resources I can give to assist not only in their cause, but to raise awareness that they exist.  (This is about the time I wish I had more readers.)

By the end of the week, it occurred to me that the events of it could very well have been a message I’d been ignoring for some time: that perhaps my calling may be related to children.  Why else would every seemingly natural career move fall through?  Perhaps my own dysfunctional upbringing has just made me extra sensitive about the environments and information that a young person is retaining their information from.  It doesn’t help that I hear reports in the media or stories from my friends who are educators that indicate a need for more adults who actually care about how a child is raised, treated and spoken to, and perhaps recognize that there is, in fact, a correlation between that and the path that child chooses through life… at least those who get a chance at life.

And in this moment, it hits me, everything about this week was about getting a better chance in life. I made tough choices and left my comfort zone in order to find the path that would build a better me, and in the process sought out anything that ensured that a child wouldn’t have to wait until they’re my age to recognize the potential they have for a life they deserve.

As it becomes clearer that the possibility of having my own child may not happen, it just seems selfish to not want to make sure other children in the world don’t benefit from the lessons learned, the mistakes made, and the many experiences and wisdom collected over time.

These days, time is all I have to give, but I’ll gladly give it all if it makes at least one kid aware of how special they are.

The Tao of Tavis

Last night, I was fortunate enough to score an invite via one of my awesome gal pals to attend an evening of conversation and questions between Tavis Smiley and Brian Lehrer, two award-winning public broadcasting hosts who I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t spent enough time watching or listening to.

The event, presented by WNYC and broadcasted on their radio program, was part of Smiley’s six-city “Changing the World One Conversation at a Time” tour; celebrating his 20th year in broadcasting and promoting his new book, “Fail Up”. 

Before being introduced, a clip reel of Smiley’s many interviews with a who’s who of Hollywood and Washington elite played for the audience — showing him chatting up everyone from Bill Cosby to Madeleine Albright.  Both thought-provoking and comically entertaining, the reel fittingly ends with Tavis speaking to Coretta Scott King.  After asking her why after all these years had she not remarried, Mrs. King — without missing a beat — responded by asking him why he wasn’t married.  By the end of the night, I was among several women wondering the same thing… one even asked him again during her question!

But the answer to that question is really simple… this man has been very busy!  When he wasn’t hosting his talk show on BET (now on PBS), or on the radio with Tom Joyner or his own syndicated radio show, Smiley has authored fifteen books, crusaded for African-American causes, and created and presented a “traveling exhibition celebrating the extraordinary impact of African-American contributions to our nation and to the world“.  In addition to all that, he has recently partnered with his good friend, Dr. Cornell West, whom he refers to as “the smartest Negro I know!” for the Smiley & West radio show.

During the evening’s question and answer segment, the media personality opened up about his humble beginnings; candidly discussing how he got his last name (an emotional story he only discovered in his adult life while applying for a passport to join Maya Angelou on a trip to Africa), the homicide of his aunt which led to her five children joining his own family of eight to live in a three-room mobile home, and spending his first eighteen years as a youth in Mississippi attending church daily.  He went on to cover topics such as financial responsibility in the African-American community and, more controversially, his feelings toward President Obama — the latter subject bringing audible gasps from the audience as Smiley revealed he has not received an invitation to the White House during the Obama Administration.  The admission was surprising, since Smiley became acquainted with then-unknown Barack Obama over fifteen years ago, invited him to speak at a youth workshop prior to his political rise (and allegedly before he became a great orator), and featured him as a guest on his show eight times. 

An evening of such supercharged racial pride and emotion could only get more so with the unexpected appearance of Paul Mooney, the iconic comedian responsible for writing most of Richard Pryor’s material and who also enjoyed a resurgence on Dave Chappelle’s much-missed show (I need a minute).  Mooney had the audience laughing out loud, and incited some shock and awe reactions with a few envelope-pushing comments that finally forced Smiley to humorously tell him to sit down.

My night would have been made if West was there.  I’ve seen him on Bill Maher on HBO, and must agree with Tavis’ assessment.  The man is friggin’ brilliant.  But I’m sure it would have been too much for the audience to handle having them all in the same room.  We’d all still be there. 

Now I’m sitting here wondering why the hell this man’s show isn’t on at a time or on a channel where people can see him at a decent hour and with a broader audience!  Where’s his HBO show?  Fresh off the Tyler Perry mass message in drag, I’m now a little disheartened by the thought that most African-Americans — the young ones at least — get their life lessons from dumbed-down entertainment like a Madea or any of the crap currently on view via Bravo, VH1, and even Smiley’s former home station, BET.

Yes, I did — and still do — support Tyler Perry.  He’s an incredible entrepreneur, entertainer and philanthropist.  While the concept of Madea may seem silly from an aesthetic standpoint, when you dig deeper into the commentary of the movie, you find that Perry is finding subliminal ways to get young men to pull up their pants, get parents to understand the repercussions of spoiling children and teach couples and families how to communicate, value and forgive each other.  Ultimately, it would be nice if someone didn’t have to portray a pistol-packing grandma to get Black people’s attention, but sometimes you gotta chase the medicine with something agreeable to the palate. 

With that, kudos to PBS and CNN for giving us voices like Tavis Smiley and Soledad O’Brien, who work tirelessly to inform Black Americans — and all Americans for that mater — in a mature and responsible format.  I haven’t had a desire to watch this much television since being introduced to cable and Nickelodeon as a kid (also known as the end of my book reading era).

Maybe we should campaign to have Tavis take over Oprah’s spot once she leaves… I mean, it’s only fair!