Thursday, February 26, 2015

Band Review: TAKNbySTORM

TAKNbySTORM reminds me of All-4-One. Some songs are slightly less mellow, but it is still in that vein.

The artist brings his personal faith and feelings into the songs, which is good, but at the same time it just doesn't seem to go deep enough. A song about starving children should stir deep emotion, but feels amateurish.

This seems to be more of a product of the lyrics than the music, with simplistic rhymes and phrasing. I believe is something that can be improved. It should be improved for the music to stand out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Selma - Lessons For Now

I don't know where I saw it, but I remember reading that the original script for Selma was much more focused on King. Part of DuVernay's contribution was broadening the focus.

It is important to do that. Martin Luther King Jr was gifted in oratory and inspiration, and more charismatic than most people, but he could not have done it alone. That is not taking anything away from King, just as the movie does not take anything away from President Johnson.

This is a story of many people. So you see Diane Nash. You may not realize how instrumental she was in the organization for the Selma Voting Rights Movement or know her history with the Freedom Rides, but at least you see her there.

Bayard Rustin is not the best known name from that time period; he was homosexual and that was at times considered to be a detrimental. The movie still shows that he was the one who had the connection to Harry Belafonte, and that is how you got a chartered plane full of celebrities to the final march.

There were many marchers, and many of them participated in organizing. Seeing Amelia Boynton beaten unconscious may lead you to her writing. Seeing Annie Lee Cooper (who had been a registered voter in Pennsylvania) be denied registration in Alabama may make the conflict more personal (and more satisfying when you see her punch the sheriff).

It is vital to see that there were people contributing of all races, genders, ages, and sexualities. It would be unfair to them, and poor gratitude, to diminish their achievements, but it is also important to remember that everyone has the ability to contribute now. That is an important lesson, but there are other lessons for those contributing now, or wishing to do so.

Activism is hard. It takes a toll. Sometimes it is a physical toll, involving tear gas and clubs and hopefully only bean bag bullets. It could just be aching feet. There is an emotional toll of abuse and exhaustion and being discouraged when nothing seems to change. Also, the emotional toll can take a physical toll.

You can take some tactical lessons from the movie. This is again where I will recommend Abernathy's And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, valuable not just for the warmth of his voice but for being written twenty years later and having the advantage of hindsight.

What I carried away was more the importance of interpersonal support. In one scene, King calls up Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night because he needs to hear the voice of the Lord, and she sings for him.

What I saw in the movie is them needing each other. They feed each other and care for each other's children. They go on drives together to sort out their thoughts. They joke, and it may be gallows humor, but that can help too. And when there are fractures in their relationships, they need to address them.

"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."  -- Audre Lorde

It is true. Eat, drink, and rest. That will still not be enough.

Do you have friends that you can call in the middle of the night? Find some. Find someone who will sing to you, or hug you, or tease you if that is the thing that you need, and do it back for them. The relationships will help you survive, and remember what you are fighting for.

It is all about people in the end.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Selma - Not Even Past

In the Oscar post I mentioned the excellence of the costume design. One aspect that I found interesting was the wardrobe worn by Common's character, James Bevel. He wore overalls, a denim jacket, and a skull cap while the other SCLC members were generally wearing suits. I eventually found this article by Tanisha C. Ford:

One thing it points out is that normally the clothing of the SNCC members would be more similar to Bevel's. The movie did not show that to keep individuals more clearly identifiable, but it is worth noting that Bevel's activism got started with SNCC.

Before I found that article, I had gone to the messages boards for the movie at, because I thought other people might be discussing it. Someone may have posted about it, but it was pretty hard to find in all the racism.

I was not really surprised that trolls were tearing down the movie; that the majority of them posted multiple times, repetitively, to drown out productive discussion; or that the complaints about the movie started before the movie was released. Being a glutton for punishment, I still read some.

One of the recurring themes by one of the frequent posters was that it was just stirring up trouble now. These things are past and talking about them stirs up bad feelings. I wish it were past.

Thursday will be the 50th anniversary of Jimmie Lee Jackson's desk. (He was beaten and shot on February 18th but lingered in the hospital for several days.) The Voting Rights Act itself was signed on August 6th, 1965. It is not even at the 50 year mark and it is already being dismantled:

That's just one article. It's probably not alarming enough. Read more by Ari Berman. There is reason to be alarmed.

Police brutality is still a problem. I know, I keep quoting this from Spies of Mississippi:

"The Jackson Police Department operates with the best demonstration deterrent of any city in the country. In addition to Thompson's Tank, armor-plated and equipped with nine machine gun positions, the arsenal includes cage trucks for transporting masses of arrested violators, searchlight trucks, each of which can light three city blocks in case of night riots, police dog teams, trained to trail, search a building, or disperse a mob or crowd, mounted police for controlling parades or pedestrian traffic, and compounds and detention facilities to hold and house 10000 prisoners.

Along with these ironclad police facilities are new ironclad state laws, outlawing picketing, economic boycotting and demonstrating. Other laws to control the printing and distribution of certain types of information, and laws to dampen complaints to federal authorities."

Now, let's look at this article from less than a month ago:

Commissioner Bratton announced that the extra heavy protective gear, the long rifles, and the machine guns are "designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris."

Bratton later walked back that protests against police brutality should be handled the same way as terrorist incidents, but his other quotes and track record make the original quote seem more reflective of his actual beliefs.

There may be less vigilante lynchings now, but there are more executions by cop:

And the anonymous academy voter was offended by "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts, and school counselors and police sergeants have said they will run over protesters, plus one protester was hit by a car and the driver was not cited.

No, this isn't old news. Talking about it may stir up bad feelings for some, but there are bad acts already happening. Dealing with that is necessary, and I believe the movie helps.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Faulkner was from the South too.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Selma and LBJ

One of the saddest parts of the backlash to Selma was the number of articles that focused on defending President Lyndon B Johnson, as if he needed defending.

I am mainly thinking of Joseph A. Califano Jr. and Maureen Dowd in this, but I think there were a few others. It's nonsense.

The movie shows Johnson hesitating to push through legislation on voting rights because they had just gotten segregation and he wanted to work on poverty; he didn't think he could get voting rights through. Once the climate had changed with the television coverage of Bloody Sunday, and some of the other news that was coming through, Johnson moved forward and it passed.

The movie never indicates that Johnson was against voting rights - it's pretty clear that he wants it passed - but he is being a politician. That was Johnson's thing. Do you know what the third book in Robert A Caro's series on Johnson is called? Master Of The Senate. It's not sarcastic. The combination of Johnson's political savvy and skill and his commitment to progressive causes was really important. I remember a history teacher talking about Johnson waving Kennedy's bones at Congress, exploiting the circumstances of Kennedy's death, but he used it to accomplish good things. He was also willing to alienate the South, which was a big deal.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was not against fighting poverty. King was turning his attention to that before his death, and in spite of his death the Poor People's Campaign still happened. It is largely regarded as unsuccessful, but a lot of the goals were accomplished. Johnson prioritizing poverty does not make him a villain.

Director Ava DuVernay, in commenting on it, said she considered Johnson to be a hero. Now, he is a hero who thinks about maintaining order at the same time that he thinks about justice, but that has been true of every president and remains true today. That is one very valid reason why some people that we can imagine making excellent presidents might legitimately prefer to not be president.

He is also a president that kept J. Edgar Hoover employed. I had never thought about that before, but it occurred to me watching the movie that Hoover would have been very hard to remove. Luckily, we had a good friend over for dinner last night, and we were talking about this. She had a quote for me on that"

"It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in."

Point taken. Johnson didn't fire Hoover, but no one else did. He needed to die to get out of office, and that was serving under six presidents.

The other thing we talked about was Johnson's ambition. I tended to think of him as not ambitious enough, because if he had just been all out idealistic, we are going to go for what's right even if we fail, that could have meant not just pushing through more legislation without waiting for politically opportune moments, but also could have meant getting out of Vietnam instead of not wanting to be the first president to lose a war.

Cathy looked at it differently. His ambition was to have a strong legacy. (She got that from Doris Kearns Goodwin.) If you want to be remembered as a winner, then maybe you don't want to push legislation that is destined to fail, or withdraw troops.

The movie gives a hint of that when Johnson is meeting with George Wallace. Johnson is not only thinking about how he will be remembered (which Wallace does not care about), but Johnson is determined not to be lumped in with Wallace.

Selma has some unflattering portraits in there. In addition to Wallace and Hoover, there are Sheriff Jim Clark and Colonel Al Lingo. That covers some great performances in there from some actors I really like, but you do not come away liking these historical figures. That's not what is happening with Johnson. He is shown as flawed, but so is King.

I think part of the problem may be miscasting. Tom Wilkinson is a good actor, and he does okay, but his craggy face doesn't look very much like Johnson. If he had some of that Southern good ole' boy charm it probably wouldn't matter, but having neither the look nor the charm is a drawback. It's not a bad performance, but casting an Englishman is not always the right way to go.

I think the bigger problem, though, is a resistance to letting people of color be the heroes of their own movements. Some of it may be an adherence to the Great Man Theory, which I think is bunk anyway, and which Selma counters. There are many organizers shown, and many people who had been working with voter registration and education. To try and cast the march as Johnson's idea is an insult to them, and Johnson does not need it. The people who have a problem with that need to de-center.

We have seen many movies about Civil Rights, and Native Americans, and other cultures where somehow the protagonist has to be a white person. Mississippi Burning, Dances With Wolves, even Avatar going off-world has to fall into that trap. If you aren't comfortable watching people of other genders and races take center stage that is all the more reason you need to watch that type of content.

That breaks into a discussion for another day though. The message of today is that I am really fond of LBJ, and the movie Selma is not a problem for that.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Band Review: Ledisi

I have really enjoyed listening to Ledisi this week. She has a beautiful voice, but even more than that the delivery of the music is confident and joyful. That makes listening to her energizing.

I preferred The Truth (2014) and Pieces Of Me (2011) to her 2009 album, Turn Me Loose. I thought there might be some maturation going on and that I was responding to that. However, in 2008 she released It's Christmas, which is really fresh and well-done. It feels original, which often cannot be said about Christmas albums. So, I don't think any phase in her career can be discounted.

Special favorites of the tracks include "Pieces of Me", "I Blame You", and "Bravo".

Very much worth checking out.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Band Review: Common

Writing about Selma this week, it felt very important to have the music reviews connect with that as well. That was possible because there were two musicians featured in the movie, Common and Ledisi.

After having praised "Glory" highly yesterday, and seeing a kind of nasty criticism of it today, that feels even more important. That makes it frustrating that I didn't like Common more.

My opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. Hip hop is not my favorite area and I am not as well-versed in it. In addition, Common has such a long catalog that while I have been able to listen to all 10 of his albums this week, I have only been able to listen to each one once.

My feeling from that listening is that he is not a great rapper. There is a somewhat elementary feel to his rhyming and delivery, where it is not very complex. Also, I thought I had read somewhere that he eschewed profanity or the N-word or something, and while there is not that hateful feeling to the language that I often find, the language is still largely traditional.

Based solely on his rapping, I would say he is serviceable but not compelling. That does not give the complete picture.

First of all, he does have one song that I love. It is a collaboration, but he does a lot of collaborations and he finds some pretty good artists to work with, who do choose to work with him. Often the songs are really more R&B than rap, with strong instrumental accompaniment.

Also, one of the tracks that touched me most was "Pop's Rap Part 2/Fatherhood" where his father, Lonnie Lynn, does essentially spoken word. There is musical accompaniment, but the important thing is the sentiment, and it comes through.

One perspective could be that maybe Common is better at acting and music and poetry than rapping itself. There is nothing wrong with that. It's good that he can do multiple things.

At the same time, I can't discount that he does fit in with the larger movement. I was listening in reverse order, and when I got to his 1992 debut, Can I Borrow A Dollar, okay, that sounds like 1992. Also, that so many people are willing to collaborate with him may indicate a regard for him that is shared by fans of the genre.

I probably won't be seeking out more of his music, but for fans of hip hop it probably makes sense to check him out.

And of course, everyone should listen to "Glory".

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Selma - The Academy Fails

It wasn't a total failure. The nomination for Best Picture is reasonable, and for Best Original Song.

"Glory" is a good song in its own right, but the way it blends elements of spirituals and hip hop together - which have been about comfort and self-expression but have also been an important part of resistance - is a most appropriate representation of this movie that is both historic and timely. It deserves praise and it deserves the nomination.

That being said, there are three glaring omissions.

Costume Design - Ruth E. Carter

The wardrobe represented the era well and looked fabulous. I know Selma wasn't the only period piece. I understand the nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mr. Turner, and for Anna B. Sheppard to make the title character's horns work in Maleficent gets her in there fairly. Inherent Vice doesn't have bad costumes, but I think Selma has better, and honestly the costumes for Into the Woods were not that special. There was nothing wrong with them, but Selma did better.

Best Actor - David Oyelowo

This is sort of a tricky one. The academy tends to recognize portrayals of real people, and four of the five nominees are for that - everyone but Michael Keaton in Birdman. All are apparently good performances. People who know say that Turing was not at all the way Cumberbatch portrayed him, but then if that was the script he was given and he did a good job with it, it's more like a regular fiction performance, I guess.

Regardless, Oyelowo did an amazing job with King. There wasn't really a physical resemblance between them, but the voice and mannerisms and the feeling was there, and that is not an easy role to pull off. Maybe it was close, and he nearly made it in, and with the competition it's not as glaring as the omission for Costume Design, but still, he should have been in there.

Best Director - Ava DuVernay

You knew this was coming.

Linklater and Iñárritu were going to be in there no matter what, I get that, but there was plenty of room for DuVernay in there, and she should have been in there.

I'm going to give my reasons for this, and some of these may be reasonably attributable to Paul Webb's screenplay, but my understanding is that the screenplay started in a very different form, and she spearheaded those changes, so I feel comfortable including them here.

One reason is the handling of the church bombing. It is a hard thing to see. It should be felt, but it is important to not be so overwhelming that the viewer can't get back into the film. I wrote Monday about how the scene fits into the scenes before, and that it is structured correctly; that could easily be Webb. In terms of deciding how to show it, that there will be the blast from the side, and that it is almost abstract, and then you are looking at the wreckage, and you see the dresses but not body parts, and it kind of looks like an oil painting. It is horrible but it is bearable, and that is exactly what it needs to be.

Another important scene is an informal meeting where the organizers are discussing the obstacles to voting, and it takes the form of a brainstorming session for what needs to be included in the Voting Rights Act. We have seen some of the obstacles in place when Oprah Winfrey's character, Annie Lee Cooper, tries to vote, but this scene needs to not only reinforce it, but fill in the blanks. That could easily be boring, but the way it is done makes sense, it gives you an idea of how to attack a problem, and there is a liveliness to it that comes from smart, determined people who like each other, but are passionate and can disagree, discussing it. Again, that could be at least partly Webb in terms of the writing, but for capturing the energy the actors and directors get at least some of the credit.

This leads to another point, in that DuVernay got some really good performances out of the actors. There were a lot of good performances, but I was especially impressed by Giovanni Ribisi and Cuba Gooding Jr, who often play more comic roles. DuVernay let them be human and dignified, and they could do it, but she let them. I respect that.

That is also giving credit to Aisha Coley's casting, and I will give credit to Bradford Young's cinematography too. The film looked great. Colors and lighting presented the images powerfully, the way they deserved. Film is all about the collaboration. Putting all of that together, the guiding hand over it all is Ava DuVernay, and for the movie to succeed on so many levels in so many ways is a huge achievement.

I have seen controversies over Best Picture nods not coming with Best Director nods more than once, and it isn't something I worry about a lot, but this one does seem glaring. I've seen the "brutally honest" anonymous explanation, but she also said there was no art (which was blatantly false) and criticized the politics while putting aside the politics of American Sniper in the same breath.

That source also had a strange fixation with Patricia Arquette's aging. Mainly that reminds me that you need to be honest with yourself before you can be honest with anyone else.

For me, the movie had a lot of images of old white men that were dinosaurs, and would have looked a lot like the people who make Best Director nominations. Maybe they didn't like that portrayal, but that's a lot of what makes them dinosaurs. The sooner their perceived relevance decreases to match their actual usefulness, the better.