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Monday, November 29, 2010

Spectacle Or Substance

Once upon a time in a land of soft lighting, demur glances and bodies clutched in silhouette there existed a mystical creature called celebrity. How celebrity spent its moments away from the celluloid dream screen were shrouded in a bit of mystery and noire. Extravagances were hinted at through tastefully decorated attire, homes and cars without excess. Even rollicking good times dressed themselves in metaphor and strolled down rain slick streets without pretense. It didn't require flash, open mouthed stares or spectacle to sell itself. Celebrity was a height to be reached by the most subtle of means.

Somewhere between counting the casualties of the war between the sexes and reinventing civil liberties celebrity found itself at the beginning of a life crisis and determining a newer, more liberated identity. Something that didn't adhere like cement glue to the notion of traditionalized roles or oppression. In short, something that didn't look like its parent's celebrity. In finding, it's twinkle dimmed, it's shine lacked a bit of luster...but struggled against the stimulant induced mania of the 80's and staggered broken and bewildered into the 90's. And as the page turns to 2011...celebrity is on life support.

Welcome to the age of garish attentions, gross spectacle and obnoxiously blatant gestures. Shiny, intangible objects dance in overlit rooms to inexplicably loud audial porn disguised as "love songs". Every moment devoted to intimacy is open to precisioned vivisection and less than tasteful staging...then ran repeatedly to effectively anesthetize the viewing public. We in turn, immortalize the tacky and hand it over to our much beleaguered friend, "celebrity".

It's fascinatingly sick and I'm as much patron as protester of this mishandling. My Sunday night postings about the RHOA notwithstanding, I've fallen victim to the phenomena of spectacle over substance. I'm lofty in my rationalization. I tell myself it's research for the next blog post or a sociological experiment to test the bounds mature thinking. I'm spiritual in my approach to my vice. I watch so that I'm able to pray for these poor misguided souls and gather wisdom about the importance of a Higher Power. I'm even in denial about my semi-obsession with Phaedra's delusions and Kim's inscrutable wig choices. "I don't watch it EVERYTIME it's on...and when I do... it is to give my huge, cynical, analytical brain a rest from solving the world's problems  it's only entertainment! Geeesh...

Or it would be...if we didn't call these reality show camera hounds, celebrities.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thunder Soul At Discovery Green

Houston, Texas 1975 in the heart of the Trinity Garden neighborhood, a small high school made history without even trying. Thunder Soul is a tribute to the band director who made it possible and documents their story. Discovery Green Houston plays host to the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and will feature an introduction by film director Mark Landsman, an outdoor screening of Thunder Soul and a follow up performance by the nationally known Kashmere Reunion Band on Saturday, November 13th at 6:45 p.m.

The documentary celebrates the Kashmere Stage Band's rise to prominence in the mid 7's despite facing poverty and limited notoriety as a band. Inspired by an Otis Redding concert, Conrad Johnson, known as "Prof" to his students, translated a jazzy the performance style to the Kashmere Stage Band. Under Johnson's tutelage, the KSB earned awards and accolades on a local, regional and national level.

Complete with file footage, photos and interviews with contributing members of the band known as Thunder Soul, viewers are transported to a time of afros and bellbottoms and treated to soul funk sounds that are currently lauded by hip hop dj's such as Handsome Boy Modeling School and DJ Shadow, who contributed to the film's soundtrack.

In February of 2008, Thunder Soul staged a reunion to honor the inimitable Johnson, who was 92 at the time. Participants ranged from members of the band who were still actively pursuing their musical aspirations to those who hadn't picked up their instruments in more than 2 decades, but all shared the common desire to pay homage to their mentor and leader.

For more information...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There’s something intriguing about the ability to be hot, cool, relevant, smart and real, simultaneously. So the fact that you find yourself slightly hypnotized by the hip hop stylings of H.I.S.D, don’t be surprised. In fact, be elated, because authentic music is making a comeback in the Space City. With a language, style and true substance of their own, enter the world according to The Houston Independent Spit District…(and by all means, don’t forget your Lando!).

Third Ward natives and long time friends, Savvi, L Da Voice, Scottie Spitten and Equality, collaborate with Golden Corner in the Golden Room, to present an odyssey between the space/time continuum, and it’s good. The basic story line, involves young men headed out for a night on the town, when approached by a mob identifying them as “something different”. Unexplained flashing lights and forward progression find our heroes in a tunnel of light and headed for the unknown.

Luckily for us, they take us along, where we learn their fate. Experiencing the Space City anew, they head to the District to get their space up. The Weakend is near.

H.I.S.D’S third release is rich in jazzy overtones without becoming lazy and monotonous. After multiple listens, you’ll find more than one lyric, sample, idea and layer that didn’t seem to be there the last time you heard it. And this, is what makes this album worth far more than the asking price. No place for “dumbed down” lyricism, repetitive themes or stereotypical euphemisms, there are tracks where you can pick any two who exemplify classic status.

During the Critical Analysis of The Weakend (talk about a concept album), audience members were treated to a list of terms and ideas to accurately portray how the Weakends. Being seen green, maintaining your Lando and getting your Space Up are all characteristics of inhabitants of The District. The explanations are as enriching as the music and you are the lucky recipient. Treat yourself to the Weakend! But before you do…

1) Be Seen Green
2) Don’t forget your Lando
3) Take your Cranberry
4) Keep Rockin
5) Beware of the Automatics

And visit

Monday, November 8, 2010

Our Image Fall Film & Arts Celebration

Our Image Festival appeals to the sense of "there is more to the movie going experience than explosions, popcorn, tears and hackneyed love~comedies" while refusing to diminish any of the above. The two day film festival featured highlights such as the African short Pumzi, local Houston performances, screenings of Canadian film, “NURSE.FIGHTER.BOY”, and novel reading of “DARK RAIN: A New Orleans Story” by author Mat Johnson, salsa dancing demonstrations and the documentary films, Welcome To The Terrordome and Black August. Our Image strives to provide consistent, uplifting images of ethnic groups who are too often typecast in negative portrayals. Through cooperative efforts, they are achieving positivity through film media.

Pumzi, a futuristic film set in Africa, 35 years after The Water War (WWIII), is reminiscent of Octavia Butler's sci-fi themes. In a place where water is scarce, the citizenry find themselves valued by the amount of water their bodies can produce and convert into a potable substance. Access is granted, employment gained and productivity measured in terms of water as currency. Main character and heroine, Asha discovers a mysterious soil sample that points to the world's ability to sustain life, despite the sterility of her water deprived compound. Requesting an exit visa to pursue life outside, Asha is denied and takes matters into her own hands. Pumzi's cinematography, costuming and set are rich in design and depth. A definite must see for science fiction buffs.

Welcome To The Terrordome, features behind the scenes footage of Public Enemy and includes interviews with fellow musicians Talib Kweli, Henry Rollins, Tom Morello and the Beastie Boys. Directed by Robert Patton-Spruill, Terrordome explores rap music prior to its current obsession with fame, notoriety and shiny objects. Interspersed with concert footage and discussions about the distinct personalities of Chuck D, Flava Flav and Professor Griff, and an honest discussion about the role of the S1W's collaborate to share a face beyond the music's message.

Black August, directed by dream hampton explores the relationship between hip hop, culture and revolution in the form of the non-profit organization Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Highlights include interviews with Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Common and spreads awareness and support for political prisoners in the US with performances in New York, Cuba, and South Africa. Rare interview footage of exiled activist Assata Shakur, former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, political prisoner Mutulu Shakur, and others provides a backdrop of purpose behind the performance.

Black August Hip-Hop Project Trailer from dream hampton on Vimeo.

More than a spectator event, Q&A's and panel discussions followed, focused Using entertainment and media for activism, social change and progression. Panelists included "conscious" hip hop musician Talib Kweli, Los Angeles based film director Christopher Erskin, noted novelist Mat Johnson, MC/DJ and host of SOS Radio MC Zin, journalist professor and new media producer of KTSU radio Serbino Sandifer Walker.

Be on the lookout for more events by Our Image as they are sure to lift and enlighten!
(Many thanks to Moni Henderson and Marc Furi for a fantastic event!)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Madea, Leave Us Alone!

I’d be lying if I said I was walking into this darkened theater unbiased. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t already have a definitive predilection towards Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide, When The Rainbow Is Enuf. I’d be lying if I said I was a die hard Tyler Perry fan. And lastly, I’d be lying if I told you I had high hopes for this film and it’s Oscar worthiness. Since I’m not a liar, allow me to tell you the absolute truth from the outset. I read Ms. Shange’s tome in grade school and every year for the past two decades since. I remember being riveted to the American Playhouse TV movie in 1982, featuring Shange with a cast that included Alfre Woodard, Tony Award winner Trazana Beverley, former principal dancer of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Sarita Allen, and an early performance by Lynn Whitfield. And finally, there is at least one female director on my wish list to bring this play to life: Kasi Lemmons (director of Eve’s Bayou).
 Preconceived ideals are my strong suit.

Things rarely work out according to plan, I worked hard to avoid reviews offered by critics who attended various early screenings nationwide. None of the above silenced the uneasy sensation dancing at the back of my mind at the idea that Tyler Perry, (he of the “gospel stage play”, cross dressing, wise cracking matriarch) would present a great work to the big screen. I cringed to think he would be shaping one of my favorite poems for a generation of young women who may (or may not) read the initial adaptation. I was concerned. I feared vignettes featuring heavily made up, yet tragically downtrodden colored girls. I feared melodramatic, heavy handed treatment of sensitive topics such as rape, abortion and domestic violence. I feared the voice of Madea smothering the words of the Ladies in Yellow, Red, Blue and trampling nuance by combining it with talk show psycho babble and reality show caricatures. I feared a dirge instead of a celebration amongst Women overcomers.

Again, in the interest of honesty and disclosure, there were stand out Oscar worthy performances. Anika Noni Rose, a cameo by Macy Gray, Loretta Devine and Phylicia Rashad breathe deeply into the lines Shange penned in the mid 70’s and give them weight, validity and life. Loretta Devine’s initial performance at the door of sometime lover “Frank” was delivered in a breathy nervous monologue meant to convey bravado filled courage, but came off as rushed. As the film progressed Devine’s pacing and intonation found perfection as she exclaims, “somebody almost walked off with alla my stuff!”. She recaptures her “stuff” as she transcends a desperate need for a barely there love, and we celebrate with her.

Without any assistance or guidance from you,
I have loved you assiduously for 8 months, 2 weeks, and a day. I been stood up 4 times, left 7 packages on your doorstep, 40 poems, 2 plants, 3 handmade notecards,
and I had to leave town to send them.
You call at 3 am in the morning on weekdays... charming, charming!
But you have been of NO assistance! I want you to know what this has been an experiment...
to see how selfish I could be.
To see if I could really carry on to snare a possible lover.
To see if I was capable of debasing myself for the love of another.
To see if I could stand not being wanted when I want to be wanted and I can not,
so without any further guidance or assistance from you,
I am ending this affair!

Anika Noni Rose’s ability to roll a multicultural dancer’s diaspora of joy at the fluid movements of her body bespeaks the definition of “owning” one’s self despite a wooden performance by Khalil Kain. As one of the few times when a smile is displayed in openness and hope, Rose allowed Shange’s dialect heavy poetry to become her own language. Gladly when she rolled the “R’s” strolling along Harlem streets, there was no affectation. We saw and joined her love of her own movement. The Lady In Yellow celebrates the roll of her hips, through merengue, salsa, stretching her own body to stand at full height she celebrates self (despite the end results) and we celebrate with her.

& poem is my thank-you for music
&i love you more than poem
more than aureliano buendia loved macondo
more than hector lavoe loved himself
more than the lady loved gardenias
more than celia loves cuba or graciela loves el son
more than the flamingoes shoo-do-n-doo-wah love bein pretty
oyeè neégro

te amo mas que te amo mas que
when you play
yr flute

Macy Gray’s role as backroom abortion “doctor” was absolutely chilling as it utilized her already raspy voice and notoriously lazy, world-weary drawl. An adjunct character, Gray appeared to consider and pour her whole self into each line before allowing it to escape her lips. And once released, her lines were inspected again, with her customary cock of the head and affirming chuckle. In a movie filled with gut wrenching scenes and tears, Gray’s quiet, almost introspective delivery, made me think she was talking to herself. She didn’t speak “at” me as the piece bespoke a woman alone, reminiscing on a more innocent time…and how that purity became jaded by day to day living. Haunting is not too strong a word.

Tessa Thompson also deserves an honorable mention in the opening sequence recounting the blush of virginity turned womanhood as she recounts “becoming woman” and this (amongst other areas) is where problems with Perry’s “adaptation” bleeds through. The women in Per’s world are punished for being women. His decision to splice and interplay monologues according to whim and “message” present a drastically altered view of what each poem can (and does) convey. Consider this: Thompson’s character travels from the blush of a mutual, enjoyable (if youthfully ignorant) sexual experience to pregnancy and abortion in short order and across the “rainbow” lines attributed to the initial poem. Rose’s dancer and her guarded glimmer of hope at new romance are diminished following an animalistic rape scene. Kimberly Elise and Phylicia Rashad pull double duty as nurturers, only to be rewarded by female dog epitaphs, beatings and infanticide.

My harshest criticism for this piece of work is for Whoopi Goldberg’s portrayal. An added character, Madea presents herself, sans wig and prosthetic breasts as a “cult” member replete with judgement steeped in sexual abuse pathos and moralizing. From the birth of her acting career, I’ve been a Goldberg fan. Her comedies, her ability to deliver (in obscurity such as The Telephone) endears me to her abilities as an actress, however, providing the fire and brimstone voice for Perry does her a distinct disservice. To be clear, Whoopi’s performance was equally stellar, but wholly unnecessary in this tome which appears intent on punishing Women for their audacity. What is the audacity in question? Being Woman, Black and celebrating it. Thandie Newton as the sometime indiscriminate, but “socially responsible”(she espouses condoms despite sleeping with married men) sex-a-holic doesn’t bear dissection except to say this. A woman will never be seen as a healthy sexual being without a tinge of judgement in Perry’s world. His decision to celebrate feminine sexuality through the pathos of a damaged woman speaks volumes about a patriarchal society designed to celebrate male conquest and female docility.

And as for the men in this “adaptation”…
There is no polite way to say this. Tyler Perry hates Black Men. It’s a common theme and quite Jim Crow of him, but it’s truly tiresome. The diminutive Hill Harper exists as the sole voice of a reasonable, hardworking, understanding Black Man, which is unreasonable to the point of ridiculousness. Omari Hardwick (the down low “brotha”), Khalil Kain (the rapist “brotha”), and Michael Ealy (the assaulting/murderous “brotha”) all serve as a catalyst for punishment and I have a problem with this portrayal. Ealy, beyond the other actors mentioned presents a complexity that allows me to appreciate the in actor, but leaves me cringing at the stereotype. He’s falls along the lines of Danny Glover as a “sympathetic Mr.” from The Color Purple until his climactic child-dangling scene.

My last bone of contention with Perry’s adaptation lies in his willingness to borrow themes from Gloria Naylor’s The Women Of Brewster Place. For the uninitiated, those who don’t remember and those who haven’t read Ms. Naylor’s work an entire scene was lifted and placed firmly in the scene featuring Rashad and Neal. Am I suggesting that a Matriarchal healing can only take place in new and interesting ways? No. But to lift an entire theme of ownership, redemption and Sister~love…I’m sorry Mr. Perry, you’ve failed me.

But, you haven’t failed your fans or the public in general. I realize and value your growth in this area, Tyler Perry. You know EXACTLY which heartstrings to pull, twinge, pluck and strum for dramatic effect. You realize on some level that someone needs to speak to the hurt of African American Women and apparently, you want them to speak loudly and in broad strokes. You desire their speech in fashion, artful make up, teary scenes, lines and shouts of indignation and I understand that. There is capital to be made from suffering. Suffering without resolve, a wound reopened, dissected and unclosed is a well spring. A caricature heaped with eloquence is often confused as art. A departure from your own overt voice is admirable…but sir, this was not your film. My heart aches for the celebration and I’m concerned that your work, will banish Elder Shange’s work to soap oprah  opera~esqe levels that fail to do it justice.
As if it were unclear, I’ll re-state my point. Tyler Perry doesn’t speak for my family or me. For the record “Madea”, my Grandmother prefers the title Granny and she’s not some mash up of Lawanda Page’s “Aunt Esther” character dipped in Gospel overtones. She’s a colored girl.
Like me.
And we’ve both had enough!