We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’ φ Rollingstone Magazine

We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’

The groundbreaking director talks about downplaying LBJ, honoring MLK’s legacy and why you should always have Oprah on your film sets

Ava DuVernay
Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount
Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma.’

BY | January 5, 2015

As a filmmaker, you put the film out there, and you just want it to be okay,” says director Ava DuVernay. “You don’t want to let people down; you don’t want to embarrass yourself.” She’s done much better than that with Selma, a dramatization of the 1965 protests in Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; the movie, considered to be a leading Oscar contender, has already received four Golden Globe nominations. Peter Travers said in his rave review in Rolling Stone that DuVernay “blows the dust off history to find its beating heart.”

DuVernay, 42 years old, grew up in Compton, but spent summers in Alabama. A film publicist before she shifted careers to directing, she had actually signed up to do publicity for an earlier version of Selma. The screenplay had bounced around for over five years, attached to directors such as Lee Daniels. “It was looked at as an unmakeable movie,” says executive producer Paul Garnes. But British actor David Oyelowo — who had appeared in DuVernay’s Sundance award-winner Middle of Nowhere — very much wanted to play King, and unbeknownst to DuVernay, was lobbying for her with an international team of producers. Despite a resumé that was limited to two microbudget features, a half-dozen documentaries, and an episode of Scandal, she got the job, and a $20 million budget.

Ava

Ava on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount)

Our conversation with DuVernay in a vegan Mexican restaurant in Hollywood happened three days before Joseph A. Califano, Jr., a former Lyndon B. Johnson aide, wrote a Washington Post op-ed complaining not only that Selma gave Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) short shrift, but that the president had come up with the idea for the protests himself. As it happens, earlier versions of the script focused on the relationship between King and the commander-in-chief, and how their joint efforts led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She discussed why she had chosen to place less emphasis on Johnson, her casting philosophy and why it helps to have Oprah on your film set.

Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.

This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.

Many presidents couldn’t have done it.
Absolutely. Or wouldn’t have even if they could.

I thought Tim Roth’s performance as George Wallace was very nuanced, when it would have been easy to play him as Snidely Whiplash.
I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical…I didn’t want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim has talked about every actor has to love the character that they’re playing in some way, and in the time that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot to love in Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.

I WASN’T INTERESTED IN MAKING A WHITE-SAVIOR MOVIE; I WAS INTERESTED IN MAKING A MOVIE CENTERED ON THE PEOPLE OF SELMA.

Whether it was Roth or Tom Wilkinson — or Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Root and Alessandro Nivola — all these characters represented a real diversity of thought about this issue from the white perspective, from the dominant culture. I wanted to create an array of folks who all thought about it in a different way because white thought wasn’t a monolith at that time, just as black thought wasn’t a monolith.

What was your philosophy when you were casting?
To work with people who fascinate me. Oprah being in the cast allowed me to have flexibility because she is such a big name. Her fame and her power created space for me to be able to hire Stephan James, a 19-year-old from Canada, for John Lewis instead of the hot young guy who was just in The Fast and the Furious,or whatever. I was able to pick and choose cool people.

What was it like having Oprah on the set?
Her first day of shooting was the day that Maya Angelou died. I had just driven up to the set in Marietta when I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Young, the real Andrew Young: “Sister Maya has passed on.” And all I could think of was Oprah was on her way to the set. I immediately called her and said don’t come, we’ll do it another day. Tight schedule, a 32-day shoot, not a lot of room to move things around — but we’ll figure it out. She said, “No, I can do this, it’s okay.” She had the same trailer as everyone else. I spoke with her briefly, and I should’ve stayed, but I had to go out back to the set: I had 200 extras out there. So I called Tyler Perry, he sneaked onto the set, they had their moment, and she came out ready to go. I’m grateful to him; most people see us as very different filmmakers, but in that moment we were united around Oprah.

Ava DuVernay

Ava and Oprah on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount)

How did your old job as a publicist prepare you to do this?
To make a film?

As opposed to eating guacamole, yes.
[Laughs] Just being able to talk to people. I used to coordinate and develop and execute really big campaigns for studios with a lot of moving parts. But the main thing is just articulating what’s in your head, which we overestimate that people can do — how do you get that out in a way that’s clear and un-muddled with the intention of producing a result?

What was the hardest scene to shoot, emotionally?
When Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered in the cafe. At that time there was no Mike Brown murder, there was no Eric Garner murder — but there were so many others that are just ambient. It’s part of the atmosphere as a black person growing up in this country: You know that’s it’s happening somewhere on that very day. And a month later Mike Brown was killed. [Cinematographer] Bradford Young, [editor] Spencer Averick, and I, we designed that scene in a really specific way. It was really important that we have all that stuff worked out in advance because I knew it was going to be a rough, emotional day. This wasn’t a day for improvisation.

King’s tactics imply that his supporters are going to have to get hurt: Nonviolence doesn’t work unless the other side overreacts.
Being passive doesn’t mean sitting there and getting hit for the sake of getting hit. And it wasn’t all faith-based, either. There were some very practical reasons why it was used. You talk to most people about King now and they only know “I Have a Dream,” and that he believed in peace and then he died. Really? That’swhat he’s been reduced to? And we’ve allowed it to happen. And if there is anything that Selma does, it reinvigorates the narrative around him to be more full-bodied and more truthful about what his tactics were.

Are you religious yourself?
No, not religious. But I love God.

Can you talk about the aesthetics of violence of Selma? When the church blows up and kills those four little girls, it’s harrowing, but it’s also filmed in a beautiful way. How do those two things work together?
I don’t know if my intention was to make it beautiful. How do you film four little girls being blown apart? There’s a way to do it with a certain reverence and respect for who they were. That’s why it was important for me that you hear their voices before it happens.

There’s a sinking feeling in that scene — I counted five little girls, so I was hoping maybe it wasn’t going to happen.
There were five girls and one lived. And I put in a boy, to misdirect you on purpose. The violence throughout the film follows the same pattern. I resisted the idea of just it being a physical blow. That spectacle has been done: All we do in this industry is blow people up. But how does the hit feel and what does the face do after? What happens to that broken body and what happens to the people that have to tend to that broken body? It’s important to have the morgue scene after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, to show the mother and slow down on her face, to slow down the girls, to slow down Annie Lee Cooper when the men put their hands on her and take her down. It was about having a reverence for that was the idea behind it instead of, say, making it beautiful. You’re saying: This is worth taking a closer look at. Everybody stop and pay your respects to this.

Can you pinpoint a moment of joy that happened while you were making this movie?
So many things come to mind, but there was a day that we were filming in Richie Jean Jackson’s house, doing that scene when they all walk into the kitchen. We’re at this house in Atlanta, we had shut down the street. That was the day that Tim Roth and Giovanni Ribisi were coming for their hair and makeup tests. They have to come to see me, ’cause I can’t get away. So they come to the set, and I thought, “Look at all my guys, they’re all together — the White House guys, Wallace, the black guys.” Those characters never cross, right? The chance to see them all together was so fun. Then a black SUV starts coming up the street, going around cones. Our assistant directors and our production assistants are running down, saying, don’t go, they’re shooting. The door opens and out comes Oprah. She’s not supposed to be there; we thought she wasn’t even in the state that day! She starts walking towards me and I just run up to her and give her a big old hug. It was like a house party in the street.

Ava

A surprise visit from Oprah on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Instagram/@directher)

How was it having people like the actual Andrew Young on the set?
So cool. And it easily could not have been if they were grouchy curmudgeons. But there’s still a spark about them. These are our greatest minds, our greatest radicals. Time has not done them in. If you look John Lewis in the eye and he’s talkin’ to you about something, you’re like “Uh huh, let’s go do it!” When I sat down with them, I was really clear that we weren’t asking for anybody’s permission.

RELATEDScarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman

Best Overlooked Performances of 2014

But this [film] is not called “King”; this is Selma. This was as much the story about the band of brothers and sisters that were around him as it was King’s story. There haven’t been great pains taken to show that he was a leader among leaders — all of them could’ve probably done it. Why him? He could talk the best. He was an orator who was able to synthesize all these ideas in a way that spoke to the masses and also that spoke to people in power. But they were there and they were the masterminds behind it. I tried to show the strategy, the tactics, the arguments. That’s how history is made, not by consensus, but by people freakin’ battling it out, right? That’s how change happens.


Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/ava-duvernay-on-making-selma-20150105#ixzz3OLB5tbyP
Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook

Lupita Nyong’o >>Essence Magazine Black Women In Hollywood Breakthrough Performance Award Acceptance Speech

Lupita Nyong’o >>Essence Magazine Black Women In Hollywood Breakthrough Performance Award

Lupita Nyong’o won the Essence Magazine Black Women In Hollywood Breakthrough Performance Award. In a beautiful speech at the ceremony, she said: “What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul…” At 30 years old, Nyong’o credits other #Black / #African women, including her mother and Oprah Winfrey , for inspiring her to believe that anything is possible., and thanks them for breaking barriers in their lives and empowering the next generation to do the same.

Read the Essence Magazine Articlehttp://www.essence.com/2014/02/27/lup…

The good white folks of the Academy

OPINION

The good white folks of the Academy

by Willie Osterweil @ajam January 15, 2014
How Oscar-nominated films misrepresent African-American history

slave racist african american 12 years a slave mcqueen

A scene from “12 Years a Slave.” From left: Lupita Nyongo, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

The Academy Awards have made progress in terms of racial representation. This year a film about slavery is the clear front-runner in many of the major categories, and if “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” wins best picture, it would be the first time a movie by a nonwhite director takes the prize. It’s also possible that Lee Daniels (“The Butler”) could join Steve McQueen (“12 Years”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) to make best director a majority-minority category for the first time ever.

It’s certainly a relief to see Oscar-nominated films about black experience actually written and directed by black people (unlike, for example, recent Oscar darlings “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side”). But it’s the movie’s producers — who have more power over a film’s content than most recognize — who will actually walk up to accept the best picture statuette. Unsurprisingly, most of them are still white.

That might be one reason why the representations of black experience that the Academy deems best-picture-worthy remain fundamentally unchallenged. Out of the 120 films that received a best picture nomination in the last 20 years, only 17 featured nonwhite protagonists or major characters. In all but four of those films these characters were either extremely poor or criminals. Out of the four remaining, one featured a slave (“Django,” 2012), another an entertainer (“Ray,” 2004), another an athlete (“Jerry Maguire,” 1996). Needless to say, the white characters in these and the other 103 films nominated for best picture held a much wider variety of occupational and socioeconomic positions.

When “The Butler” is nominated this year — as it will surely be when nominations are announced on Thursday — it will buck this trend by featuring a black domestic servant who happens to be middle class [editor’s note: the film was not nominated for best picture]. The biopic traces the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of the White House’s black butlers. In its version of 20th-century black struggle, the civil rights bill came about because the movement appealed to the goodness of JFK’s heart (rather than forcing his hand with its power), the Black Panthers were overaggressive youth who got what they deserved, and Obama’s election is the apotheosis of everything the movement was fighting for. “The Butler” won’t win, but it would have had a much better chance last year, when historical-revisionist ideology celebrating the executive branch (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln”) was all the rage.

Based on a true story

A much better film, “12 Years a Slave” focuses on the visceral horrors of American slavery. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and John Ridley, among others, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold in the decades before the Civil War. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same title, it’s a well-crafted and emotionally powerful film, and for many has provided a devastating condemnation of slavery.

And yet it has major shortcomings. The film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony. White characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones: We learn more about the life story of Armsby, a white laborer who appears for two scenes, than we ever do about Patsey, one of the film’s slave protagonists. The slaves are often singing but rarely speak to one another: They remain mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery. Though there is a plethora of white stars, the three famous black actors outside of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character get token roles, appearing only once or twice. What happens when we recognize the white characters and actors, while the black people remain largely anonymous? Who does this suggest the film is for?

In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.

Executive producer and screenwriter Ridley’s 2006 article “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” in which he glorifies Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Ayn Rand and calls on wealthy black people to separate themselves from “niggers” — i.e., poor black folks who victimize themselves — exemplifies this position on race and storytelling. Ridley writes, “If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism, why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?” Of course, the idea that institutionalized racism disappeared with Jim Crow is absurd. But Ridley’s answers to this loaded question imply that now that racism is over, then black folks have no one to blame but themselves and should drop their anger and just forgive white people, for their own good.

A historical aberration

Modern filmmakers who want to accurately convey the evils of slavery could do so through the stories of Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass — or any of the other thousands of slaves who didn’t look to white saviors to escape their bondage. But you’d never know from watching Hollywood movies that a single slave ever freed herself. “Django Unchained, “Glory,” “Lincoln” — these films all feature the benevolent intervention of white protagonists. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” about a slave uprising, is as much about the white lawyers arguing the slaves’ case.

A particular narrative about slavery is told over and over: The institution was a historical aberration perpetrated by evil white people, but luckily there were good white people who listened to the black people, and they helped free the slaves, and now it’s all over. A similarly simplistic narrative emerges out of Hollywood’s revision of the civil rights movement: In “The Butler,” the cause was noble, but some black people took it too far and it was ultimately victorious because white presidents listened to the brave moderate blacks and beat the evil white racists. Now racism is over, because, you know, Obama.

Thanks to the Oscars, hundreds of thousands more will see the versions of black history told by “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”: A best picture nomination is a huge boon for ticket sales, adding millions to a film’s box office, rental take, and audience. The Academy that chooses who gets that cash is 77 percent male, 94 percent white and 86 percent over the age of 50. As such, if a movie wants that precious Oscar bump, it would do well to reproduce the worldview of the rich old white men who run the industry. And that’s precisely why “Fruitvale Station, the movie about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a young black man whose murder by police in Oakland sparked riots, is unlikely to receive a nomination.

The real problem for ‘Fruitvale Station’ is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending

“Fruitvale Station” won the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury award, the same award that “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another film about black experience in America, won in 2012. Notorious Oscar campaigner the Weinstein Co. distributed “Fruitvale Station,” and it opened in more than 1,000 theaters. It was met with universal critical acclaim and made $16 million at the box office, more than presumptive nominees “Nebraska” or “August: Osage County.” The point being, this is no tiny indie or critical cause celebre: “Fruitvale Station” has a solid resume for a best picture nominee. It’s even based on a true story! Commentators have claimed it’s not “stylistically innovative” enough, but it’s stylistically consistent with the washed-out steadycam of guaranteed nominee “Captain Phillips,” and a markedly better movie to boot. “Fruitvale Station” develops real emotional stakes (unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street”), refuses to stereotype its black characters (unlike “The Butler”) and doesn’t rely on precious twee misogyny to make you care about its protagonist (unlike “Her”).

But the Oscars have never been about celebrating the year’s best movie (“Crash, anyone?). The real problem for “Fruitvale Station” is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as “12 Years a Slave” does, and can’t give the contradictions of history a tidy conclusion, as “The Butler” does with Obama’s election. Instead, it connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.

The point is not to berate the Oscars for not nominating “Fruitvale Station,” but rather to see how the Oscars, and the film-critical apparatus surrounding them, dictate what constitutes a “serious” depiction of race. No one really believes the Oscars are a meritocracy, but the awards still end up giving certain movies massive new audiences, deciding which films critics will write about and people will talk about.

If, come March 2, when the envelopes are opened, “12 Years a Slave” gets snubbed — beaten by, say, “American Hustle” — expect a lot of people to start talking about the racism of the Oscars. They’ll be right to. But if “12 Years a Slave” wins, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating the Academy’s rich white men for an anti-racist victory.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.

Source:  http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/1/the-good-white-folksoftheacademy.html

 

When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds

Sister of the Yam

POLITICS. HIP HOP. AND THE OCCASIONAL LOVE POEM.

When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds

 kanye-west-808s-heartbreak-kaws-1[1]

For lack of a better reference, the moment felt like Lauryn Hill circa 2000: Kanye West spitting his characteristically impulsive but nod-worthy truths–my favorite that night was his deft critique of “rap beef” –riddled by the painfully familiar feeling that what we were also witnessing was a beautiful mind unraveling.

Some who watched the Kanye West-Jimmy Kimmel interview this past Thursday, who had been keeping close watch of the many other interviewstweetspaparazzi attacks, and fashion statements that brought Kanye to Kimmel’s desk that night, and who were perhaps also nostalgic for the pre-kilt, pre-Kim, College Dropout Kanye that used to croon about family dinners and the graveshift of dead-end jobs, observed in Kanye a dangerously heightened mix of mania and megalomania; heard a wired, rambling incoherence; and chronicled those twenty plus minutes as exhibit Z that Kanye West is indeed battling some sort of mental health crises.

Others picked up on a mouth racing to keep up with a mind in constant overdrive; they tuned into Kanye’s fearless, biting critique; and cheered along the self-proclaimed Genius-Underdog sparring with the lovable Everyman type that always seems to win these kinds of debates.

Both interpretations of that night–that Kanye was emitting his last fumes before meltdown or that he is deep beyond reproach–are freighted with their own particular dangers. On one hand, we risk participating in a rich tradition of silencing and managing rightfully angry people of color who dare to speak up by calling them crazy. On the other hand, fawning hero-worship can doom us to pulling up a chair and whipping out the popcorn to shit shows that could very well be prevented; Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston hang heavy in my mind as the parables for how fatal that kind of spectatorship can truly be.

Positioning oneself in the gray is often indicia of cowardice, but here I am in this whack limboland of hedge and no answers: neither hypotheses fully work for me.

 

That night I saw a man who was wounded. Who never expected his naked struggle for legitimacy would become fodder for late-night mockery or that it would hurt that much–that he, as an adult man with serious indictments against an industry that made and now mangles him, would be infantalized into a whiny, ranting child. I saw a man deeply frustrated by an industry that has smugly siloed bright black and brown men into the white noise of hip-hop so that it can exoticize, imitate, appropriate, and snub them safely from afar. I saw a man who was lonely and misunderstood, who had had been stripped of his support system and now floats about unmoored. I saw a man who thought his creativity and hard word would somehow immunize him from the garden variety isms that topple heroes and unmentionables alike. I saw a man who, like many talented men of color, whether they hide out in Ivy League institutions or behind mics, has never been held accountable for the gaps in his logic and the tangles in his heart strings–for the materialism, misogyny and violence that hobbles his otherwise brave and sophisticated wisdom about race and class in this country. (But that goes for Common, Nas, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar too). I saw a man who wears his vanity like a XXL T-shirt as armor for the much smaller, more vulnerable man underneath. I saw a man who is so transfixed by needing affirmation from White America, so obsessed with his worthiness and seriousness as an artist, an intellectual and a man that he can’t quite calibrate, stake out terms for himself, laugh at the jokes that will surely come, or brave the insults that will never end. And I saw a man who can’t help but still be, many albums and awards later, the creative boy in the back of classrooms, saving up for Gucci loafers, standing up against gangster bullies and inventing those self-survival myths and mechanisms that get you out but never quite set you free.

 

Black America is mad at Kanye because he didn’t properly learn the lesson that every person of color must learn to remain sane in an insanely racist world–how not to offer your neck to the guillotine. Quite frankly, we’re confused: did Kanye think his art, his name, his stuff, his women-as-props would exempt him from blackness? Did he think his laying out of dreams, the unbridled honesty and that faux Little Engine That Could confidence could be the brave preemptive moves that would keep him safe? Further, we’re exhausted by his lack of groundedness . Kanye cannot seem to locate himself in a long history of great people doing great things while hearing as many–if not more and more serious–no’s than he. Lack of perspective is a male privilege and also the white privilege Kanye will never have and should never fight for.

Terrifyingly, Kanye’s sins for White America are much simpler: he dared to call himself great without their permission. For that, he is an asshole.  For that, he is dangerous. For that, he is crazy.

ink-blot-colored-small[1]

Deciding what Kanye is–”crazy”, genius, or troubled–is important because this is, of course, much bigger than Kanye. He stands next to Lauryn Hill, Dave Chapelle, and others with beautiful minds and broken spirits. I do not think it is coincidence that all three–Kanye, Lauryn, Dave and we can even throw Michael Jackson in–have been accused of “craziness” at the height of critiquing the ugliness and the isms of the industries and audiences that have propelled them to fame. I think we should understand that “crazy” is the Atomic Bomb of the English language, that it’s a no-return obliteration of personhood and credibility. And we should also remember that ”crazy” has been a way of managing female sexual desirequeer eroticism and political ideology; yesterday’s history is today’s wet paint. As Dave once said, “the worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.”

I believe in considering Dave’s follow up to that thought: “These people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.”drwdx-pw5_ru-deyv-shapell-aktery-dave-chappelle[1]

And that–the sick environment–is the one thing that never, ever gets enough play: if, as we speculate, all these beautiful, beautiful minds are breaking, undoing themselves, unfurling like tightly wound string, we owe it to ourselves to at least ask if something drives them to it. Certainly, mental illness is complex and at times turns on with no external switch, but we have testimony from artists we respect and admire, that something is rotten in Hollywood.

As Lauryn said after her hiatus from music, “When artists experience danger and crises…everyone easily accepts that there was something either dysfunctional or defective with the artist, rather than look at, and fully examine, the system and its means and its policies of exploiting/’doing business’.”

Over the course of a short decade, so many celebrities have fallen apart before my eyes: shaving their heads, ripping apart cameras, tearing off clothes, eating themselves into bloated existence or not eating themselves into invisible non-existence, drinking and drugging fast lives and slow deaths, basically begging us to listen in the most literal, primal languages possible, and we still keep diagnosing symptoms instead of curing the disease and the whole thing seems wild to me.

If mental illness is a dialectic between the person and the space,  then its source is not wholly the artist nor Hollywood, but I know that what Kanye and so many others deserve is the clean slate and the fighting chance Kanye kept quoting Richard Pryor to talk about.

LaurynHill[1]

If this past Thursday was only an open-aired breakdown of mental health, then we need better language. Because though we complain mental health in this country and for black folks in particular isn’t talked about, that’s not entirely true: we talk about it all the time; we just talk about it poorly. If finding oneself on the edge deserves a life-sentence of being called “crazy,” of being dismissed, written off, and laughed at, of not being heard, then no wonder the shame and the silence. Particularly for artists, whose whole careers and identities are based on being experienced, interpreted, listened to and gazed upon: mattering.  Truth is, there are those who are dying from, but more curiously living with, mental illness in our midst; they are flying our planes, shaking our hands, watching our kids, loving us, and staring back at us from mirrors. And some of the great mindswe most admire produced art, theories, and inventions despite and because of battles with mental illness. Furthermore, achieving mental health is often a lifetime of strenuously and intentionally maintaining the balance; there is not one discrete day you are sick and one discrete day you are well. Given the enormity, pervasiveness, and constantly looming threat of mental illness, we have to figure out a way for people to matter even if they have not sought or successfully phased out of treatment. We can’t just keep calling people “crazy” as the lever we pull to extradite them into irrelevance. The balance is hard but important: how to hear folks when they need help, how to hear folks even if they need help, how to empower them to seek help, how to be the help they seek, and how to know when we can’t be.

If this Thursday was also about something bad happening to a beautiful mind and that something bad is, as Lauryn puts it, “a machine that overlook[s] the need to to take care of the people who produce the sounds that have a lot to do with the health and well-being of society,” then we still need transformation.  We not only need to imagine and create a celebrity culture that does not drive the talented, the strong, and the brave into hiding but we also need to collectively figure out how to survive that heartless, breathless machine in the meantime. For Kanye, the machine is the fashion and the music industries, but for any one of us, it could be the university or the office or the political regime. If we become as angry as we deserve to be, then the isms we fight will rob us of our life joy. We have to somehow figure out how to resist and dissent without allowing that enterprise to swallow us whole and turn us stale and I have faith we can win this war without quotable tweets or serving as the one-person congregation of the Church of our own self-proclaimed Godliness. Kanye once said that he, like Dave Chapelle, has to laugh to keep from crying and I suggest that he works harder on that laugh–not for the Kimmels but for Kanye.

Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person

Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person

“I did not want to have to entertain any of the likely responses from someone who could not see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen.”
NOV 27 2013

Fox Searchlight

I’m not a racist. But I do have a race problem. I finally owned up to it as I was anticipating seeing 12 Years a Slave. In the weeks leading up to its opening in my state of North Carolina, I tried to think of whom among my friends I could see this film with. I have a number of racially and ethnically diverse friends and acquaintances who would love to see it, and yet, I knew I could only see this movie alone or with another dark-skinned person.

Though I was born in North America, I was raised in four other countries on three different continents. I speak English and French. I understand my Nigerian Igbo language. My family has married across ethnicities and cultures—I have in-laws of Arabic, Italian, and Indian descent. I always knew I was Nigerian-American, living between cultures and nuanced identities. But I never knew I was just black until I started spending my adult years living in America. Believe me, now I know.

Related Story

This is hard to admit. I will hurt the feelings of people I love. But isn’t confession the first step to being reconciled? I have good, healthy friendships with a range of people, but I could not think of one white person where I live with whom I would feel emotionally safe enough to see this particular movie about slavery. I did not want to have to entertain any of the likely responses from anyone who could not see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen. I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people.

I did not want the burden of the social translations that black people so often have to do automatically on so many internal levels while engaging in discourse with whites in this country. There are things we learn to do almost subconsciously in order to keep some whites comfortable enough around our blackness. Things like gauging their actual level of interest or understanding of black culture in order to know how far to take a particular conversation before things get awkward. Things like letting them know you hear them trying to say they do in fact see black people. Things like anticipating their questions and responses when they see you with a new hairstyle or come across some element of black culture in your life. Things like using your voice intonation, your word usage, and your bodily gestures to signify that you can hang with them without it being “obvious” that you are a black person in their white world.

Very often, black people work to make white people at ease by layering away any unease we ourselves may feel. It is hard work to translate yourself daily to someone else who most likely lives life without ever being fully aware of how their very existence has been the basis for determining what is “normal” in America and much of the world. And yet this painful and ongoing work of translation is second nature to those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the white experience is assumed to be the default.

I wanted to sit in the pain and horror and soul-breaking sadness of a movie like 12 Years A Slave with another person like me—someone who is reminded every single day that we are black in America. It doesn’t matter our descent—first-generation Nigerian-American like me, or someone with family here since the Atlantic trade. Our personal narratives do not matter when we walk into stores that cater to consumers of high socioeconomic status (Barney’s). Our accomplishments do not matter when we’re randomly accosted by police (Henry Louis Gates). Our leadership (Obama), our strengths, our beauty, our innocence (Trayvon), our fears, our needs (Renisha McBride), our humanity all take second seat to our skin, skin that in all its beautiful, nuanced shades is simply seen as “black.”

I did go see 12 Years a Slave, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, alone. I sat in the sparsely occupied theater with seven other people: four white men, two white women, and one black man. And for the duration of the ads and the movie previews I tried to brace myself for the experience. I kept whispering to myself, “It’s a movie. It doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a movie. It doesn’t happen anymore.” I could not remember the last time I felt so physically tense and uncomfortable at the beginning of a film. Scene after scene, my body did not relax once. And when it was over, I was so grateful I had come on my own. Not because of any increased animosity toward white people, or any steaming anger toward a system of injustice; mainly because in the moments after the film I simply could not speak. I needed space to process the images I had seen, the dark silences I had heard, and the slow leaking of my own raw emotion I did not even know I had been holding on to for the previous two and a half hours. I have always been awed by how humans can experience both a deep numbness and extreme pain at the same time.

Seeing the movie was hard. But the truth is I had developed my own race problem before the film was even released. And when I look back I see that it has largely come from the slow and painfully growing suspicion that I’m primarily a check-mark in the lives of so many well-meaning, educated white people. Black educated friend: check. African conversation partner: check. Black woman of safe but uncommitted romantic exploration: check. Black articulate friend I can introduce to my family: check. Black internationally reared cultural elite I can relate to without leaving my comfort zone: check. Black emotionally safe friend with whom I can make “black jokes” in the name of familiarity: check. The list could go on.

I am saddened at the undeniable reality of my problem. I mourn my seeming inability to fully trust those pink-skinned children of God.

The most unsettling thing about my race problem is that I’m not sorry for it, though. Confession may be the first step, but I have failed to reach the second one: repentance. I know I cannot stay in this place of distrust, of increasing disdain and anger. But I am not ready to dismiss these feelings, either. I am not ready to work toward the unity I believe we are all called to move toward. Because these feelings, difficult and tragic as they are, seem to be teaching me some valuable lessons.

Now more than ever I will engage in cross-racial relationships with an unapologetic and hopefully compassionate commitment to calling out the ways that people fail to see the complexity and reality of being black in America.

Now more than ever I will write and speak in ways that seek to reclaim what is “normal” from whiteness.

Now more than ever, I will struggle in public dialogue with the ongoing repercussions of being a Christian living in a country that since its beginning has woven together religion and race to sanctify human bondage and to help maintain injustice.

Now more than ever I will pour my creative energy into supporting and building safe spaces in which all shades of brown and mahogany boys and girls can live the fullness of life as boys and girls created in the image of God.

I have given myself permission to dwell in this malaise. I do trust that eventually it will be redeemed. I hope my white friends can bear with me however long it takes. Even if it’s something as crazy as a dozen years.

Michael K. Williams ‘Goes Down the Rabbit Hole’ on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Michael K. Williams ‘Goes Down the Rabbit Hole’ on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

‘Wire’ actor also starring in ’12 Years a Slave,’ MGMT video

 
 
 
 
Michael K. Williams as Chalky White on ‘Boardwalk Empire’
 
Macall B. Polay/HBO
September 27, 2013 2:40 PM ET

Michael K. Williams won us over with The Wire, playing the indefatigable stick-em-up-boy Omar, the Robin Hood of the streets. On Boardwalk Empirenow in its fourth season, he’s Chalky White, the voice and bootlegger of the black community in the Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) Atlantic City. Rolling Stone spoke with Williams about going down the rabbit hole with Chalky this season, appearing in MGMT’s latest video for “Cool Song No. 2” as a witch doctor with a sweet ride and stalking Steve McQueen in New Orleans to get a part in 12 Years a Slave. 

This feels like a big season for Chalky White on Boardwalk. It sort of feels like a big season for African-Americans in general on the show.

It’s definitely a huge season for Chalky White. It’s a huge season for me personally. I’ve never been this involved in a big storyline in anything that I’ve done. 

You say you’re more involved with the season. How so?
There are things that were promised to Chalky from Nucky Thompson that came through. Nucky told him that he would grant him his wish and give him his club on the boardwalk, so that happened. So you have a black man in 1924 with a major club on the boardwalk of Atlantic City – that’s huge. And most of the storyline this year takes place from that club. All of the problems that occur happen from that club opening up and how Chalky deals with it. He makes a lot of bad choices, primarily over a woman. And we just pretty much watch him go down the rabbit hole. 

How do you understand the struggle between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse? 
The relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky is a very intense, very real relationship in the black community. You have the educated, fair-skinned Negro, you know, going up against the dark-skinned, un-academically educated Negro, and the friction of the light skin and dark skin, educated versus the non-educated. There’s a friction there, you know, on many different levels. The house Negro versus the field Negro.

What was really important to you in creating this character? 
The main thing I wanted to do was I wanted him not to feel like Omar. That was number one. The second thing I wanted to do was to not make him appear as just an angry black man. There are things that Chalky experienced that I have no understanding of. I don’t know what it’s like to see my father hang from a tree, or to be illiterate in America. I don’t know what that feels like. So I wanted to bring dignity to him, in spite of all his flaws, and I wanted people to understand why he does the things that he does. And last but not least, I wanted to pay homage to my ancestors, to anybody who’s alive today, any black men that are alive today.

I was just watching your MGMT video, “Cool Song No. 2.” What sort of direction did you get for that? 
The character I play, his best friend, is dying from the very thing that he sells. So it’s a take on addiction. What they used was this plant, and apparently there’s somewhere – I believe in the Philippines – where people get this rare disorder where their skin turns into tree bark and ultimately takes over their body. The character I play in this video was the cultivator of a particular tree that was killing one of his best friends. When he realized there was nothing else to do, he figured that he would let his friend die with dignity, and he took him to that house where they manufactured the stuff and just let him live out the rest of his days in happiness and bliss. And in doing so, he contracted the disease also. So it’s like a take on addiction and things of that nature.

Did you know the band’s music going into it?

I’m a huge fan of MGMT, and I love this director, Isaiah Seret. I’d never met him before, but I love the work he did on a Raphael Saadiq video called “Good Man,” which starred Chad Coleman, who is one of my Wire brothers. 

You hang out with your other Wire brothers? 
Absolutely. We’re very close. I consider us a family. Everybody from Sonja Sohn to Felicia Pearson to Jamie Hector to Andre Royo . . . Wendell Pierce, Domenick Lombardozzi, you know, we’re a very close-knit family.

You’re also in 12 Years a Slave. What was that set like? 
That was another huge experience for me. Something along the lines of what it felt like for Boardwalk. That’s another period piece dealing with my ancestral energy, once again, during the time when I have no idea what it must’ve been like to live in America, to be alive in that time. So it was a huge time-travel, and I got to really get a glimpse of what my ancestors would’ve gone through so that I could be here today. It was very humbling.

Did you know Steve McQueen before you made the film?
I knew of him. I was a huge fan of his work from Hunger and Shame, but I had never met prior to this film.

Did you audition for it in the traditional way?
It wasn’t quite the traditional path. I guess you could say I stalked him a bit? I waited outside of his casting office in New Orleans in the pouring rain for, like, an hour, because I heard he was in town, and I ran up on him, kind of Omar style, and I think he was a little taken aback. I was afraid I’d actually screwed up my chance of being in the project with that stuff that I pulled. But then about 45 minutes or so later, his assistant gave me a call and said “Steve McQueen wants to take you to dinner,” and I sat down with him and Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. We sat all down and had dinner, and he pretty much made me the offer right there at the dinner table. 

What made you really want the part?
Any opportunity to tell a story like that – any opportunity to tell African-American history, something of that nature, of that caliber, I will jump through leaps and bounds to get. Because it’s based on a true story, it’s American history, it’s about my culture and my ancestors, and it’s not just a typical film. It’s a story that I can get in my heart as something to take seriously. I think 12 Years a Slave is that caliber. Any actor would’ve been proud to be in Schindler’s List, and I feel the same way about our film. This actually happened, and it’s going to teach people how far we’ve come as a nation. 

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/michael-k-williams-goes-down-the-rabbit-hole-on-boardwalk-empire-20130927#ixzz2gOsdiWYt 
Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook

Oprah Winfrey’s Butlers – Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry

Oprah Winfrey’s Butlers – Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry


BY TANYA STEELE

AUGUST 21, 2013

I have a knot in my heart. It was in my throat, it moved along. Eventually, I am sure it will suffocate me if I don’t get this out. Black women, listen, we’ve got to stand up. We need to be mad as hell and not take it anymore.

Please indulge me because I am, admittedly, angry. And, before anyone starts rolling their eyes, I am not an angry black woman (whatever the fuck that is). I put compassion and understanding at the center of all things. Having survived sexual abuse as a child. And, rape as an adult, I have a right to be angry. But, no, I have decided that compassion is essential if I am to walk amongst humans. Because human beings do some foul shit.

The first person I encountered outside of the theater, as I went in to see ‘The Butler’, was a young black woman with a dishrag in her hand. She waited, patiently, for the men to exit the toilets so she could clean the bathroom. People like this woman and the butler have not been on black folk’s agenda for decades. So, why now? Is it simply a good story, provides a good arc and has potential for an Oscar run?

I watched Oprah’s talk show, continuously, for many years. Struggling after film school, I watched one of her home makeover shows. On the show, a lamp was apart of the makeover. She said something along the lines of “If you can’t afford this lamp, you are not doing something right.” The lamp was $20. I couldn’t afford it. And, I was one of those black people who had done everything right. I also thought about my family, in rural North Carolina, that lived in a trailer. At 23, I went to find my father’s family. They knew nothing about me (this is a story for another day). Anyway, fearless, I wanted to know this side of my family.

One cousin lived in a trailer. Children were everywhere. I mean, everywhere. And, the women were, what is considered, dark, overweight and opinionated.  At 4pm, all of the women and children gathered around the television. I wondered what was going on. I asked what was coming on. “Oprah”, my cousin said. She then gave me a side eye and asked, “You got any children?” I knew a ‘no’ was going to bring harsh judgment. But, I gripped the couch and, barely, uttered the word, “No.” Oprah’s show began, thank goodness. No one in that room, in full support of and offering unconditional love to Oprah, could afford that lamp.

We cannot underestimate her influence on American culture. We cannot yet determine how her presence has impacted the landscape. Unlike my mother’s generation, I grew up hearing conversations about child molestation, abuse against women, all of the things that remained in the shadows for centuries. Oprah brought all of that to the center of the conversation. She made it visible. In this regard, she is a heroine of the highest order. To speak, in spite of the shame that sexual violation rains upon you, is serious. And, she did it before the world. And, she did it in triumph.

I watched Oprah’s performance in ‘The Butler’ and I thought about her ‘lamp’ statement. I wondered if the character she portrayed could have afforded that lamp. Would that lamp have been a priority for her character? And, yes, probably. The film is an homage to the middle class. It honors hard work, discipline, loyalty to family, black men who put family before “running the streets”. Unfortunately, we are never inside of the Butler’s head. We don’t experience what he thinks or feels about the unique situation he is in. This is a script issue. The writer didn’t see the world through his eyes.

I am not anti-‘The Butler’. I do not feel that ‘The Butler’ is the male version of the ‘The Help’. I do think Lee Daniels is thoughtful about his work. I do think he has an agenda. What that is, I don’t know. I think the Butler’s story is a moving one. Do I think Lee pulled it off in this film, no. I think it is Lee’s best film to date. So far, he has directed ‘Precious’ and ‘Shadow Boxer’. You can determine if this being his “best film” is significant in light of his track record.

I am, however, anti-Precious. The film was exaggerated horror and poverty pornography. Like Sapphire, I knew the population that she worked with. I, too, worked with girls in group homes. Girls that have survived unthinkable horrors. And, let me tell you, like Oprah, they are some of the most creative, complex and extraordinary girls on the planet. I have known girls that got their heads bashed into the sidewalk by their mother and could dress up in a fierceness that would shame a Parisian runway. Trauma does not equal despair, fatigue or isolation. Depression is not the only result.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was in consideration to write the screenplay for ‘Push’. Ultimately, Lee made his choice. And, it would have been a much different movie had I penned it. But, I went to see it with an open mind and heart, hoping the best for Lee Daniels. Because, in my eyes, black representation trumps all. It is not about me, it is about the images that, ultimately, wind up on the screen. And, to me, Precious was beyond disappointing. But, you see, it received “the stamp” from Sundance, etc. A stamp that was misplaced because white liberals wouldn’t know an “authentic” black narrative if it hit them in the face. It is easier to accept the idea that black people are depraved, grotesque and horrifying than to understand our nuance. But, Lee Daniels got what he wanted- a platform for his demons.

Where am I going with this? Here. And, perhaps you can help me. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ms. Winfrey supports black filmmakers whose work denigrates black women. Yes, I am referring to Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels. Help me to understand this. Madea?! Madea. Really?!

Now, mind you, I have had to make sense of Madea for myself. Clearly, black people are underrepresented in cinema. Elderly black women, especially. Church going women as well. I get it. There is an emotional connection to the “idea” of Madea that black people may be responding to. Unfortunately, it is hyperbolic and exaggerated. Kind of like Precious, but, the opposite. I’ve watched Tyler Perry’s stage shows on youtube. Only because I needed to understand what people were watching. Okay, I get it. Where in American culture, are you going to hear someone crooning Vandross or Phil Perry? There is an emotional connection, a validation of experience in Tyler Perry’s work that folks can’t get elsewhere.

And, I believe in freedom of expression. So, here’s mine. We have to expect better. We have to do better. We have to stop making a joke out of black women. We have to stop looking at black women as the shrew. Which is what Oprah was in the butler. Oprah was in a Tennessee Williams play while everyone else was in the movie ‘The Butler’. Oprah appears to be angling so hard for an Oscar that she cut off from the rest of the cast and did her own thing. The moments where she showed serious chops were when she was in step with the cast.

Oprah was in a film where the two lead black women were foul (although Yaya DaCosta was a beautiful representation of a black woman from that period). Lee, ultimately, maligned Yaya’s character. He built up this amazing black woman only to undercut all that he had done in one, ridiculous, moment. The two women then go on to detest one another. The black men in the film, however, take care of each other.

Honestly, the best thing about ‘The Butler’, well, other than Forest Whitaker’s sublime performance, was the camaraderie of the black men. That was a thing of beauty. And, it was good to see a relationship between a black man and a black woman that unfolded over time. But, honestly, for most of the film, I wondered why the butler was with such a, glaringly, haunted woman. It made no sense. Oprah’s character could have been sister to the mother in Precious. Did Oprah and Mo’nique share the same acting coach? Oprah has gifts that are unique to her that were not called upon. Oprah’s charm, wit and intellect are her light. Blinded by trinkets like ‘The Oscar’, we got regurgitated Mo’nique.

Why is Oprah supporting these “filmmakers” who have shown very little respect for black women? Is the dream of ‘the Oscar’ and the cash flow all that important? Perhaps it is. As Oprah stated, she still has dreams. One of them, it seems, is to get an Oscar. And, let me tell you, these black folks are going to get that Oscar if it kills them. Even if they have to pay for it. That’s cool, that’s the marketplace. But, in the midst of the journey, can we show some love to black women? Oprah knows our story. Oprah is aware of the particular pains that black women experience. Is it fair to burden her with “proper representation”? No, I am not asking for that. I love drama. I love haunted characters. I believe in exalted drama. It is possible to work with people who write the hell out of the black experience with sensitivity and depth. Find them! Ms. Winfrey, have a black woman write the Henrietta Lacks story because NO ONE, NO ONE, will write her life like a black woman writer. A black woman who understands what it is to be violated in the most intimate regions of our being.

Recently, a friend sent a video interview to me. In the interview, Oprah asks Tyler Perry (of all people), “Why is it, that you think, Hollywood doesn’t see a consistent space for roles for black women?”  The real question is, why don’t you two see a consistent space for talented black women writers and filmmakers? That’s the question. Why aren’t you all employing and lifting us up?! Black women will flock to the theaters if Oprah began to create portraits of black women that sing us true. The way to make this happen is to hire black women to tell our fucking stories. And, if you don’t know where to find us ask Lee Daniels, he knows.

As we prepare for the 50th anniversary of the ‘March on Washington’ let us all remember, ain’t nobody cared about the butler or the woman cleaning the toilets -for generations. The Black 1% has to learn to lift up all black folks -not just the ones whose stories have the potential to garner an Oscar or a bright new shiny lamp.

 

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.

Article Appears in Shadow and Act