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.”


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!

Madness, Messages and Madea

This past Easter weekend, I revisited my Southern African-American family roots and joined the masses for a religious experience… I went to see “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family”.

When it comes to Tyler Perry, my emotions are occasionally conflicted.  His personal story is touching, inspiring, and emboldens me as a survivor of abuse.  His contributions to the Black community are indisputably generous.  

His movies…?  This is where my love/hate emerges. 

While MBHF genuinely had entertaining and some laugh-out-loud moments, one could get the sense that Perry was giving you “everything and the kitchen sink” in the course of an hour and forty-five minutes.  The movie covered health issues in the Black community such as Diabetes, Cancer and the importance of a colonoscopy, angry Black women, rape and incest amongst many other topics.  Of course, most of his movies are like that.  In fact, my head is still spinning from “Why Did I Get Married Too?”.  I’m officially a little afraid of Janet Jackson now after that meltdown scene where she smashes up her house.  Somewhere, Jermaine Dupri is breathing a little easier.  

The movies are often based on the plays that made Perry a household name, and have become almost mandatory annual pilgrimages for church groups.  In both movie and play, the writer/actor/producer/director — who stands six-feet-five — dresses up in drag as Madea, a gun-toting, hell raising old lady who’s also a straight shooter from the mouth.  Madea is the glue that binds families on the verge of falling apart from secrets and lies; she reveals and then counsels in one fell swoop, wrapping her message in spirituality… even while maintaining that her own relationship with God is sketchy.  It’s the kind of entertainment cleverly packaged as a comedy, but figures while they have your attention, they might as well throw in some church and therapy (which, when you think of it, is really quite economical).

What irritated me about the movie were the moments that had comedic potential but came up short: Madea’s encounter with the “Ghetto Girl” character played by Teyanna Taylor — who’s intentionally irritating voice was just a bit extra — was missing something.  There also tends to be a penchant for overacting from the cast, almost as if they are performing on stage and want to make sure the audience is alert and gets the jokes or the big dramatic climax.  And as funny as the Madea character can be, I tend to have difficulty retaining pertinent messages about relationships and the decline of the youth when the message is coming from someone with grapefruits swinging under a bad floral dress that my own grandmother would have lit on fire. 

In addition to being funny, thought-provoking, and uplifting (I’m not telling you anything specific because I want you to get off your butt and go see it and support this man, dammit!), the film provides a little eye candy for the ladies and gentlemen… although we fare better since the females are either gold-diggers or harpies.  Which begs the question: Why are the only sensible, calm, female characters elders?  Are younger women really that high-strung and wayward? 

Oh, right… yes we are.

Whatever.  At least we get to see the Old Spice guy be all sensitive for more than the usual thirty second commercial spot. 

Thank you, TP.  All is forgiven after “For Colored Girls”.  Side note: Can we ease up on the casting of Janet in bitch roles?  She really does scare me now.