It’s Lupita’s World (Now Can She Make It In It?)

Lupita Nyong’o has a little naked gold man to carry around after winning Best Supporting Actress for her amazing performance as the long-suffering Patsey in 12 Years A Slave.  The reason I ended my decade-long moratorium of watching The Academy Awards was my rooting interest in 12 Years and my hope Lupita would walk away with yet another acting award.

The same weekend of the Oscars, Nyong’o show up in the week’s Number One movie, Non-Stop, the new Liam Neeson film, a role that requires no heavy lifting and only a few lines as Nyong’o plays a stewardess in a generic nothing part.

ABC News dubbed the Mexican-born Kenyan “Hollywood’s New ‘IT’ Girl” comparing her favorably to Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock, Hillary Swank and Julia Roberts.   That’s heavy company for Nyong’o to run with after just two films.

The expectation would be after racking up a series of accolades and awards, Nyong’o would have her pick of future films roles, yet she has no upcoming projects on her IMDB page.  Maybe she is taking her time before choosing what she does next.  The fear is she’s the latest Black actress to win Best Supporting Actress only to find Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with them as Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer and Mo’nique have previously learned.

Nyong’o has the looks and the talent to have a long and successful career, but will she be given roles that offer her opportunities to build on 12 Years A Slave or will she end up in Zoe Saldana territory as the Black girlfriend of the starring White actor?  Ending up as ethnic eye-candy would be a terrible waste of Nyong’o’s potential.

While Nyong’o’s career in front of the camera remains a work-in-progress, she has quickly become a much-admired role model for overcoming her own doubts and embracing her beauty as a dark-skinned African woman.  At the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, Nyong’o spoke from the heart.

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Lupita Nyong’o (Photo credit: gdcgraphics)

I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty. Black beauty. Dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”

My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.

I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.

And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty.

Nyongo's Facebook page featured this pic the morning after the Oscars.

Nyongo’s Facebook page featured this pic the morning after the Oscars.

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Blacked Out in White Hollywood

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There can only be one Black movie at a time and its not your time.

2013 was trumpeted as “the year of the Black film” but nobody told the Academy Awards that.  12 Years A Slave received nine nominations including Best Picture, Director and Actor, but The Butler, Mandela, 42 and most glaringly, Fruitvale Station, were overlooked.   This is not a surprise, but it is a disgrace.

In horror flicks, it is an accepted cliche where if there’s two Black characters one of them is guaranteed to bite it before the end. This apparently holds true for Academy Awards  and explains the snub of Fruitvale Station. Just how many Black movies do you expect these good little liberals are supposed to honor anyway?  You got your one in 12 Years so shut up and be happy.

I don’t really sweat the Academy Awards.  When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won in 2001 that was the last time I watched more than a minute of  this three-hour self-congratulatory circle jerk.   Let’s be blunt:  The Academy Awards are a reflection of they White men who make up the majority of members and they can and will choose whomever they like.   They play by their own rules for their own game.

It is a given Frutivale Station deserves to be considered for Best Picture of the Year. Why not? There were nine films nominated this year and in the past there have been as many as ten.  But if they didn’t want to add one, I’d drop the crusty old folks flicks  Philomena or Nebraska.  No, I didn’t see them but then most audiences didn’t see Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave, so we’re even.   I absolutely would have given Michael B. Jordan a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of Oscar Grant and the last night of his life.

I try not to let the Academy Awards get in my head. I already know Frutivale Station is one of the best movies of the year and Michael B. Jordan gave a sterling performance. I don’t need the imprimatur of the overwhelming old, White and affluent Academy voters to confirm for me what I already know.  The omission of the 2013 best picture winner of the Sundance Film Festival merely confirms my belief that hoping the Oscars will validate your own good taste is a pointless waste of time.

There is a straight line that can be drawn from Solomon Northrup to Oscar Grant. Both were Black men doomed to cruel fates for no crime other than the color of their skin. But I’m not surprised the Academy can only focus on one and not the other. According to a Los Angeles Times story, the profile of the average Academy voter is White, male and over 62 years old.

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The cast and director of Fruitvale Station won’t have to walk the red carpet on Oscar night.

This is not the target demographic for a Fruitvale Station, but it provides a clue as to why Jonah Hill and Bad Grandpa are Oscar nominees and a film about a young Black man shot in the back by a White transit cop isn’t even a blip on their radar.

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Frank Pierson, a former academy president still  on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

Pierson’s blase “let them watch The People Choice Awards” attitude is countered by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington radical suggestion to open up the academy to people of color in representative numbers.  “If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black,” Washington said. “If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?”

The stories behind Fruitvale and 12 Years are human stories of people suffering horrible acts of racism and injustice.   That is a stinging reminder that as much progress that has been made since the lynchings, whippings, and tortures endured by millions of Black men, women and children just like Solomon Northrup we haven’t progressed enough that a Black man minding his own business can’t find his world turned upside down on the whim of an overseer or an officer.   None of this bodes well for 12 Years winning Best Picture over Gravity or American Hustle.

There’s a place for serious movies that prompt serious thinking.   But don’t go looking for it this year on Oscar night.  I don’t think you’ll find it there.

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Ugly Realities vs. Ridiculous Fantasies

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An ugly reality will lose out…

Not that it matters, but 12 Years A Slave was awarded Best Movie of the Year at Sunday’s Golden Globes awards.   That’s nice if  you care about that sort of thing.   It was even nicer Armond White didn’t show up to drop any F-bombs and pull off his pee-pee and take a whiz in public.   Probably too busy licking his wounds over being expelled from the NY Film Critics Circle and that matters even less.

In the 18th century, William Wilberforce said of slavery, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

In 19 words Wilberforce hits on what makes 12 Years A Slave must viewing for any conscious human being who wants a realistic, unflinchingly honest and terrifying brutal two-hour trip through the American Holocaust.    You may have to watch it peeking through the fingers of your hand in front of you face, but you can never say again that you did not know.

The story of Solomon Northrup is based on fact. Django is nothing more than an Italian spaghetti western relocated to America so Quentin Tarantino can film his fetishes and fantasies about slave-fights, Black bounty hunters roaming the South killing Whites with impunity and his desire to say “nigger” as many times as he damn well pleases.

12 Years A Slave is a movie. Django Unchained is a cartoon.

...vs fantasy.

…to a ridiculous fantasy.

12 Years A Slave was the best movie of 2013. Period. End of sentence. I do not need the official stamp of awards and I don’t need the consensus of the crowd who line up like lemmings for a Tarantino masturbatory fantasy but go mental when a Black director and a Black screenwriter tell the true story of a Black man taken and held against his will by a vicious slave owner.

If others prefer cartoons like Django Unchained, fine. I ain’t mad atcha and where you spend your movie-going money doesn’t phase me in the slightest.  It’s fine by me if anyone really believes a Black bounty-hunter could wander around the antebellum South shooting and killing as many White men he wants with impunity and without punishment.   It didn’t happen and it’s a joke, but Tarantino is quite the joker.   He made his best film with Pulp Fiction  20 years ago and has floundered since trying to follow-up with a second act he doesn’t seem to have.   Say what you will about Jackie Brown, Kill Bill 1 and 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained (we’ll forget Death Proof because even Q.T. wants to), but you can’t say Tarantino is challenging himself as a filmmaker or the public as an audience anymore.

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Steve McQueen, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor may have Oscar gold in their future.

But don’t get all up in my grill telling me I don’t know my history and that I’ve been brainwashed by Whites and I’m some sort of self-hating dupe because I prefer movies that challenge me and force me to think and not simply sit there like a spastic drooling in my popcorn at the stylized and vulgar bullshit of a race pimp like Tarantino. Comparing Django to 12 Years is like comparing a Bugs Bunny cartoon to The Godfather.  It’s not a serious comparison and we can’t’ have a serious conversation about it.   Seriously.

Given a choice between a harsh reality and an amusing fantasy on slavery, I’m not at all surprised most opt for the fantasy. Just a bit disgusted.  There may be an intelligent, reasonable and rational argument to be made that Django Unchained is a superior and more honest depiction of slavery than 12 Years A Slave.   I just haven’t found an intelligent, reasonable and rational person make it yet.

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Throw Off the Chains and Shake Off the Haters.

“12 Years” director Steve McQueen is congratulated by actor and activist Harry Belafonte (photo credit: Star Pix)

Personal matters have prevented me from updating the blog as frequently as I would like.  Hey, that’s the the way of the world, y’know?

In 2013 there may be better movies than 12 Years A Slave. There are certainly far more “entertaining” movies than 12 Years A Slave.

With few exceptions such as Fruitvale Station, there are no movies in 2013 that mean something more than 12 Years A Slave.

Django Unchained is entertainment. 12 Years A Slave is edutainmentHarry Belafonte noted the historical significance of the film in his address to the New York Film Critics Circle Awards honoring director Steve McQueen’s monumental cinematic accomplishment.  Unfortunately, the news that came out of the awards was the asshole actions of Armond White, the barely professional curmudgeon, contrarian, and crank who passes himself off as a film critic.   White proved his trolling tendencies by going all the way off as soon as Belafonte finished speaking as Variety reported.

Armond White, film critic

“I am not a contrarian; everyone else is a conformist.”

As soon as McQueen took the stage, White started shouting from his table at the back of the room. “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man,” White boomed. “Fuck you. Kiss my ass.”

White hated 12 Years A Slave as he hates any movie widely acclaimed by other critics.   But disagreeing is never enough for White.  He also has to prove his taste is vastly superior to yours.   This sort of bad behavior is nothing new for White who goes out of his way to be a dick.  If we all acted like Armond White we should commit mass suicide for being such raging douchebags.   There’s nothing to admire about a hack and troll who screams abuse and drops F-bombs on better men than himself. I think for myself, I decide for myself and I don’t need a damn fool like White to do either for me.

White has denied he screamed the insults, but it fits his pattern of crude behavior.    If he ever directed a movie it would be called 50 Years An Asshole. 

I’m bored talking about a troll and a hack like White. Lost in his b.s. is what Harry Belafonte, someone who has done more for Black culture by accident than White has done on purpose, said about 12 Years A Slave and Steve McQueen. The squeaky wheel shouldn’t always get the grease nor snatch all the headlines.

Belafonte said in part:

A lot’s gone on with Hollywood. A lot could be said about it. But at this moment, I think what is redeeming, what is transformative, is the fact that a genius, an artist, is of African descent, although he’s not from America, he is of America, and he is of that America which is part of his own heritage; [he] made a film called 12 Years a Slave, which is stunning in the most emperial way. So it’s a stage that enters a charge made by The Birth of a Nation, that we were not a people, we were evil, rapists, abusers, absent of intelligence, absent of soul, heart, inside. In this film, 12 Years a Slave, Steve steps in and shows us, in an overt way, that the depth and power of cinema is there for now the world to see us in another way. I was five when I saw Tarzan of the Apes, and the one thing I never wanted to be, after seeing that film, was an African. I didn’t want to be associated with anybody that could have been depicted as so useless and meaningless. And yet, life in New York led me to other horizons, other experiences. And now I can say, in my 87th year of life, that I am joyed, I am overjoyed, that I should have lived long enough to see Steve McQueen step into this space and for the first time in the history of cinema, give us a work, a film, that touches the depths of who we are as a people, touches the depths of what America is as a country, and gives us a sense of understanding more deeply what our past has been, how glorious our future will be, and could be.

I think that the Circle Award made a wise decision picking you as the director of the year. I think we look forward in anticipation to what you do in the future. But even if you never do anything else, many in your tribe, many in the world, are deeply grateful of the time and genius it took to show us a way that it should be. Forever and eternally grateful to say that we are of African descent. Thank you.

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“12 Years A Slave” and “Fruitvale Station:” Unforgivable Blackness, Unbearable Bleakness.

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Fassbender, Nyong’o, Ejiofor. Practice saying the names now. You might be hearing them Oscar night.

As a freelancer, I used to review movies for a newspaper and I belonged to a local film critics group.  Every year we would make our list of the best movies and argue among ourselves whose list was the most and least credible and I admit that sometimes I may have been influenced by the will of the majority.  After all, I didn’t want to be the one who looked like I didn’t know what was going on.

I’m not part of any critic groups anymore and I only have to see the films that interest me so while I may have missed out by not seeing Blue Is the Warmest Color, Her, Nebraska, Frozen, or whatever bit of Oscar bait Meryl Streep is in this year, I’m okay with it.

The Best Movie of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave.  But so is Fruitvale Station.  Who says there can only be one?

Fruitvale Station holds a staggering 94 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but 12 Years bests it with a 96 percent positive reviews.    They’re both great films, they both are indelibly sketched in my mind in a way most movies this years aren’t.  I slammed plenty of popcorn over Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Enter Darkness, Man of Steel and The Wolverine.  I enjoyed most of them.  I recall none of them.

12 Years is not only unforgettable, it was unspeakable.  That’s an experience I’ve never had in the dark before.

I saw the movie in November, but I didn’t write it up.  Normally I write a blog post a day or so afterward.   Not this time.  Not for this movie.   Fruitvale Station troubled me immensely and brought me to tears but I didn’t squirt a drop to 12 Years A Slave.   All I felt was a dazed numbness that was replaced by cold blooded anger.   As the credits rolled I sprang from my seat leaving my wife and son behind and strode briskly and purposefully to the lobby.  I had to get out.  I needed air and about a minute all my own to collect my troubled thoughts.

Everyone figured we had seen the evils of slavery.  We got to a point where we could snicker at the funny side of slavery via Django Unchained.    Nobody was ready for what director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley had in store with 12 Years A Slave.  It is the anti  Django Unchained.

With a gross of less than $40 million, 12 Years A Slave hasn’t dominated at the box office the way Quentin Tarantino’s cartoon did, but it has cleaned up with critics winning 75 percent of the Best Picture awards handed out by various groups including the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

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In a less crowded year Michael B. Jordan’s performance would be a lock for Best Actor nominations.

This should bode well for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and director Steve McQueen’s likelihood of receiving well-deserved Oscar nominations.   Why Michael Fassbender is being overlooked for his unnerving performance as Edwin Epps,  the sadistic “nigger-breaker” who rapes, beats, tortures and humiliates his slaves to satisfy his depraved soul is a small mystery, but I can speculate as to the reasons why.   Fassbender doesn’t just project evil and malevolence; he inhabits it.   There’s a lot of Black folks that would love to punch out Fassbender for being so convincing.

Fruitvale Station has been lost by the acclaim showered upon 12 Years.   It’s as if only one Black-themed film can be great in year.  Two or more throws off the curve.   McQueen has created an epic compressing 12 years into two hours (with Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup looking fairly unscathed outwardly by his harrowing experience) while Fruitvale Station takes the last day of Oscar Grant’s life and attempts to fill in the blanks of who he was before he ended up handcuffed, face-down on a subway platform and dying in a pool of his own blood on New Year’s Eve.

Northrup’s story depicts the darkest part of American history: human beings bought and sold like chattel and treated no more humanely than cattle or swine.   Grant’s story has no grand scale, no larger implications than yet another urban youth left dead after a fatal encounter with law enforcement.   Perhaps the reason Fruitvale Station is being overlooked during awards season is critics gravitate to the unusual and the unique and Grant as portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, who is also being shut out for Best Actor considerations,  is depressingly familiar to anyone who follows the news.

Both movies will be released on home video next month which is where most audiences will gain an appreciation of how great they are.   However,  my wife has already said she has no wish to ever watch 12 Years A Slave or Fruitvale Station again.  There is a list of films that are simultaneously as great as they are unwatchable and both go into the collection along with  City of God, Requiem For A Dream, United 93, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.     These are the movies I have to be in the mood to watch again and I’m rarely in the mood.

12 Years and Fruitvale are  as dazzling as they are depressing and I’m glad I saw them, but if I don’t see them again for a year or so, I’m cool with that.

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Django isn’t coming to set them free. Neither is Abe Lincoln.