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Erikka Yancy

Alternative Black History: Negroes With Guns

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Anyone who has ever seen a film or documentary depicting the violent atrocities that routinely occurred during the Civil Rights movement in America knows the scene well: a young black boy looks at a white woman in a way that makes her uncomfortable. A black woman walks home alone past a group of white boys. A civil rights leader angers the wrong group of businessmen in town, and violence erupts in the form of lynchings, rapes, burning crosses, murder …

Inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violence and passive resistance in India’s struggles, we know that Martin Luther King Jr. became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement by encouraging passive resistance. But these were violent times, the type of violence that is hard to imagine in 2014. Perhaps the closest we can come to understanding it is to imagine a different Oscar Grant being killed by police every night, or a new George Zimmerman being acquitted after murdering an innocent boy every week. People in the South, especially, were violence-weary, constantly on guard. Something had to be done.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama… I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times, because of the fact that, at any moment, we might expect to be attacked. The man who was, at that time, in complete control of the city government, his name was Bull Connor, would often get on the radio and make statements like, “niggers have moved into a white neighborhood. We better expect some bloodshed tonight.” And sure enough, there would be bloodshed… in my neighborhood, all the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night. – Angela Davis, Black Power Mixtape

Robert F. Williams was a civil rights leader and author of whom you have probably heard very little if anything. Before the days of “by any means necessary”, Williams taught black Americans self-defense and how to fight back against those that would attack them. He started as the President of a local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. Monroe was a hotbed of activity during the Civil Rights Movement because it was deeply segregated. Through Williams’ leadership, the local NAACP chapter managed to grow from six members to more than 200. Yet with a population of 12,000, Monroe, NC boasted at least 7,500 Ku Klux Klan supporters.

After their rallies they would drive through our community in motorcades and they would honk their horns and fire pistols from the car windows. On one occasion, they caught a colored woman on an isolated street corner and they made her dance at pistol point. – The Swimming Pool Showdown

The Monroe chapter had the reputation of being the most militant NAACP chapter, and for good reason. They started a campaign of self-defense when they began arming themselves to combat against the onslaught of violence. Williams wrote the National Rifle Association and asked for a charter, which he received. Within a year they had 60 members. Eventually the violence came to a head and a shoot out ensued. The Klan lost. Roberts’ self-defense campaign successfully pushed them out of the county. It was 1957. Williams was eventually suspended from his role in the NAACP for promoting violence, which was directly at odds with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. He also found himself at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. when King declined to join the Freedom Rides, an important campaign in the fight to desegregate the south.

No sincere leader asks his followers to make sacrifices that he himself will not endure. You are a phony.… If you lack the courage, remove yourself from the vanguard.… Now is the time for true leaders to take to the field of battle.  - Robert F. Williams via telegram to Martin Luther King Jr.

During the first Freedom Summer, as the violence from the Klan increased against the Freedom Riders, Williams and his wife came to the rescue of two of the activists. They were later framed for the kidnapping of the activists. As a result, he and his wife fled to Cuba where they remained for several years in exile.

From Cuba, Williams sent a weekly newspaper, The Crusader, back to the States. The Crusader denounced capitalism, imperialism, racism and eventually Vietnam. It was also during this time that Williams penned the book that would become an enormous influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party: Negroes With Guns. Negroes With Guns tells the story of Williams’ struggle in Monroe to his exile in Cuba. It teaches about fighting back against an oppressor and encourages Black Power.

There is a sad irony in what became of Williams legacy. He is either forgotten because we choose not to remember militancy — we are taught that turning the other cheek is the only way to change things — or his legacy has been twisted and bastardized to suit a different agenda. While researching for this piece, I saw gun enthusiasts quoting his book and spouting off about their 2nd amendment rights. I wondered if these are the same type of people that support ridiculous laws such as Florida, Texas and Indiana’s Stand Your Ground laws. The type of laws that allow you to shoot first if you feel threatened and ask questions later. I wonder if the same people that point to Williams and say, “See, here’s a black guy that said guns are ok!” are the same type of people that thought shooting Renisha McBride in the head was justified when she knocked on a door in a predominately white neighborhood to ask for help.

You may ask, isn’t violence violence? Whether in self-defense or not? My response?

When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible, because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country, since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa. – Angela Davis, Black Power Mixtape

You can buy a copy of Negroes With Guns at Amazon.com. You can buy the documentary about Robert F. Williams’ life at California Newsreel.  You can stream Black Power Mixtape at Netflix. Happy Black History Month!

Alternative Black History: Five Films

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This post originally appeared in Capital & Main:

Every year for Black History Month, the TV networks and premium movie channels roll out the same programming: Malcolm X, Mississippi Burning, The Color Purple…. It’s not that these films aren’t great; they are. It’s just that every year for as long as they have been around, they’re all that come on during February. I can quote The Color Purple line for line. The history of black folks is larger and more diverse than the Civil Rights Movement and slavery. Let’s give some other films a shot, shall we?

Let the Fire Burn
In the spring of 1985 a bomb was dropped on a row house in Philadelphia. A fire spread quickly and burned down 61 houses eventually killing 11 people, including five children and injuring numerous others. The fire and police departments stood by and did nothing to stop the blaze. They were operating under the direction of the Mayor of Philadelphia who gave the directive to let the fire burn.

Using archival footage and riveting testimony from surviving members of MOVE, Jason Osder retells the story of the MOVE organization from its idealistic beginnings to its revolutionary downfall. We talk about the violent past of Black history as if it happened in the 1960s and stopped once we all overcame. Let the Fire Burn is  a reminder that institutional racism is deep and we have much to overcome.

A Soldier’s Story
I weep for you if you haven’t seen A Soldier’s Story. It’s the only movie HBO ever played during February in the early 1990s. But there’s a reason for that: it’s a damn good film that features damn fine performances from Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Howard E. Rollins, Patti LaBelle and Robert Townsend.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Fuller, the film centers on a black Army regiment in the South at the end of World War II.  A black officer is sent to investigate the murder of a black sergeant and his findings are not what he first expected. The film explores the standard themes of racism, Jim Crow and segregation, but in a way that will rip at your heart as you recognize that this story is historical—but we have not moved very far forward.

Cooley High
Yes, you should watch Cooley High, if for no other reason than to find out where 65% of the slang you use today came from, and so you can hear what Cooley High Harmony really is. Aside from that, Cooley High is a glimpse into growing up black and male in 1960s America. (Spoiler alert: it’s not so different from growing up black and male in 2014.)

Based on a real high school in Chicago and written by one of the creators of Good Times (you know it’s going to be good now!), Cooley High has an epic soundtrack provided by Motown, 60s threads and some pretty fine lookin’ mamas and papas.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
I never imagined in 2013 people would be freaking out over an adorable little girl pouring Cheerios on her black father after asking her white mother about the veracity of the statement that Cheerios are good for your heart. But there you have it: people still freak out about interracial couples. How weird is that?! But when you think about it, it was only 50 years ago when it was still illegal for black people and white people to get married in lots of places. So, in celebration of a bi-racial President and a bi-racial Cheerios girl and bi-racial people everywhere, definitely check out Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Oh sure, sure you know what all about it. But chances are you’ve never actually seen the film, now have you?

Sidney Poitier plays the charming (what else?) doctor boyfriend of Hepburn and Tracy’s daughter. While they consider themselves to be progressive, they are taken aback by her choice of mate. Hilarity ensues.

Get on the Bus
In 1995, something just short of amazing happened. Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, along with leaders of civil rights groups and local chapters of the NAACP, organized the Million Man March. Created to combat negative stereotypes the media was creating of black men and serving to bring black men together in strength, the demonstration was a complicated success. The event is portrayed beautifully in Spike Lee’s film Get on the Bus.

Get on the Bus follows a group of men cross-country riding from L.A. to Washington DC for the march. It’s a mish mosh of various types of men from all different backgrounds with nothing in common except their gender and race, which might be the most important thing of all.

Bonus Film:

The Wiz

… I didn’t really think I’d have to justify this. It’s The Wiz

 

Attack of the Angry Black Woman

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In a recent interview with Roland Martin, Rachel Jeantel’s attorney Rod Vereen discloses a heartbreaking statement from Rachel about her friend, Trayvon Martin:

“…he was one of the few guys that never made fun of me, about the way I dressed, about the way I talked, about my hair, about my complexion, you know, about my weight.”

In a few months we will know if a jury believes that George Zimmeran was compelled to follow Trayvon Martin because of his race. We will find out if Trayvon paid the ultimate price for one of the most perpetuated and prevalent stereotypes in the media: the thuggish image of a young black man. One thing we know now, however, is that there is yet another victim of tired stereotypes and prejudices in this case, and that is Rachel Jeantel.

Within minutes after taking the stand, the Internet was abuzz with jokes and memes criticizing and disparaging this young woman who had the courage to be a witness in the trial of a murdered friend. Testifying is not an easy thing to do, not for a 49 year-old, a 29 year-old and certainly not for a 19 year-old, reliving what has to have been one of the most traumatic events of her life. Few of her critics know that English is Jeantel’s third language: she speaks Haitian Creole and Spanish as well. She is introverted and was clearly uncomfortable facing an aggressive attorney charged with defending a man who murdered her friend. So what made thousands of people think it was ok to beat up on a teenager taking the stand to bear witness in a trial? Why would any human being with an ounce of empathy think it was ok to tweet:

@Chrxstophvr: That fat black girl testifying in the Trayvon Martin case belongs on a plantation somewhere picking cotton.

@NeshobaCountyMS Rachel Jeantel hurt more black folks today than 1,000,000 Paula Deens singing 10 lil niggas.

Perhaps the most telling tweet came from Olympic athlete Lolo Jones.

@lolojones Rachel Jeantel looked so irritated during the cross-examination that I burned it on DVD and I’m going to sell it as Madea goes to court.

Television and film has desensitized us to women that look like Rachel Jeantel. After all, isn’t she just another Angry Black Woman?

In the same way the media has projected the image of the thuggish young black man, television shows and films LOVE their larger than life Angry Black Woman. You know who I mean, she’s in every blockbuster movie and on every primetime show. She’s usually dark complexioned but sometimes a lighter complexion and very rarely fair-skinned. She’s almost always overweight, but sometimes very thin. She’s loud, but often doesn’t need to utter a word; she just gives that look and rolls her eyes. She is usually over thirty, but sometimes in her twenties and often in her forties. She is a bus driver, a DMV clerk, the First Lady of the United States, a nurse, a sassy maid, an annoyed woman in line at the grocery store, the nanny or the secretary. Any time a television show or film needs to portray an unwelcome authority figure, or a pushy character with little patience and lots of attitude, but also provide comic relief, they send in Angry Black Woman.

Full disclosure: I often wear the unfortunate label of an Angry Black Woman. I’m sure some of you do, too. It is a funny idea because if you know me you know that I am a cheesy goofball who is obsessed with romantic comedies and listens to Howard Stern and alternative rock music from the 1990s. I am also very passionate about my work and have a strong sense of fairness, so when I think those things are being challenged, I am not afraid to fight for the integrity of a project or speak out against something I believe to be wrong. Bear in mind that in doing so, I behave no differently than my white female peers, but when the message is coming from the mouth of a woman who looks very similar to image of the Angry Black Woman the media keeps reinforcing in our minds, it’s perceived much differently. It makes life tricky and a bit frustrating. It also makes social life unintentionally hilarious when some idiot at a party rolls his neck and shakes his finger at me and then greets me with a “hey, girrrl!” and then goes on to tell me Shen-nay-nay was one of his favorite characters. I can never tell if that is a compliment or a horrible insult.

“These kinds of terms – combat, aggression, anger – stalk black women, especially black women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel, at every turn seeking to discredit the validity of our experiences and render invisible our traumas.” – Brittany Cooper, Salon Magazine 

The most surprising comments about Jeantel, I found, came from the black community. Shouldn’t we be lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down? But then I paused for a moment and realized that we are the biggest producers of films and TV shows portraying Angry Black Women. Some of the most egregious examples of the Angry Black Woman appear in films created by black filmmakers or for films targeted to black audiences. I was devastated to see that Oprah Winfrey’s first scripted shows for her network OWN would be created by Tyler Perry, guaranteeing the continuation of stereotypes that Oprah has herself faced. Mama Hattie, from Perry’s Love Thy Neighbor is the quintessential comedic angry black woman. Tyler Perry’s Madea, Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys – basically everything Tyler Perry makes features this type of woman as a cartoon character or a viper. Honestly, what is Tyler Perry’s problem with black women?

In her book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher talks about the stage in adolescence when girls learn to be nice rather than honest.

“Girls who speak frankly are labeled bitches. Girls who are not attractive are scorned. The rules are reinforced by visual images…”

To Pipher’s statement I would add that black girls who speak frankly are labeled as being angry and rarely taken seriously and if they have to testify at murder trials they may run the risk of public shaming and standing in the equivalent of modern day stocks, until we have more Olivia Popes and fewer Madeas. I think about Jeantel when I read that part of Pipher’s book. She learned a hard lesson during this trial. I hope she’ll continue to be honest and not worry too much about being nice.

 

Confessions of a Hair Weave Addict

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It was a long road to recognizing my racial identity crisis. I did not realize it in junior high when I basked in the glory of being told by my friends that they did not consider me black because I “wasn’t loud and didn’t talk like the other two or three black girls [in our grade.]” I did not catch a whiff of it in high school when I would spend hours of my freshman year with a test tube clamp on my nose, desperately trying to make it smaller and narrower.  It was years later, when I was in my thirties and I proudly proclaimed, “I am the least intimidating black woman I know!” The words had barely left my mouth before the shame and awkwardness of that statement hit me. My stylist and I were talking about my latest crush and the chance he may not like black women while I sat in her chair and she weaved fourteen beautiful inches of slick straight Indian Remi hair onto my head. The nausea came with the following thought, “Since when do I buy into that ‘intimidating’ stereotype?’ Do I really mean whitest black woman?  Am I still trying to be white?”

Before anyone gets upset I am not saying that women who get hair weaves have fantasies of being white. This is my story and my experience. If you see yourself in it or feel indicted after it, think about it – then forget it; or don’t, it’s up to you.

WATCH ERIKKA DISCUSS HER HAIR WEAVE ADDICTION ON HUFF POST LIVE!

I grew up going to predominately white schools and continued to do so throughout my entire educational career. From kindergarten through graduate school I was the one or one of the few black students. I am also very much a product of my family lineage; no matter how thin or heavy I am, I always have full hips and thighs – and they started to look that way when I was about thirteen. Just around the time when my white female classmates all looked like what Vogue idealizes as the perfect woman, super thin and lanky. My body image took a beating until I went to acting school (college for me) and my voice and speech teacher told me to get over myself; “some woman somewhere is spending tens of thousands of dollars to implant the lips and hips that you were born with.” I saw myself differently after that. But nothing could make me appreciate my hair.

I have always hated my hair. That is not true. I can remember a time, pre-kindergarten, when I wore afro-puffs and would go to my Aunt Georgia’s house and she would cornrow my hair for the summer. During that time I was indifferent about my hair because I was four.  I remember being little and running around with a half-slip on my head, pretending it was my long blonde (sometimes dark brown) super straight and shiny hair. I would fling it over my shoulder and whip it back and fourth, decades ahead of Willow Smith. In hindsight I’m pretty sure I imagined my eyes were blue which should have been a warning. But I was a little kid; I didn’t know to look out for these things.

My real hair did not blow in the wind or swing back and forth. It was not yellow and shiny like Karen’s, or brown and slick like Judith’s or even braid-able like the other black girl’s hair. It never got long; it was just frizzy and big. Kids would touch it and say “Eww greasy”. My mom would tell me to tell them not to touch it, which I’m sure you know was super effective in second grade. There was this one kid who loved to complain he couldn’t see over my Afro in class. Grade school seriously sucked.

When I got to high school I discovered relaxers but that was a nightmare. I had grown my hair out to my shoulders at the start of freshman year, but I damaged it so badly with curling irons and blow dryers and whipping it around, that by second semester I had to have it cut into a permanent Halle Berry hair cut until I graduated. But the year before my graduation, a film that would change everything had been released… Poetic Justice. If you haven’t seen Poetic Justice you’re crazy and there’s no hope for you and also you missed the dawn of the box braid. Janet Jackson and Regina King wore these beautiful long box braids in the film. Black women with long hair that they did not have to grow! WHAT?! I wanted them immediately.

My sister knew someone that knew someone who knew this woman that could give me the hook up. I finally convinced my mother that braids would be a good thing and she took me to this woman named Star’s house and left me there for nine hours. That’s right nine hours. That’s how long it takes to have long hair. Star braided my hair so tightly I couldn’t lay my head down to sleep. I took Advil for three days. She smoked a pack of cigarettes as she braided, cussed out her kids and a host of other things I wish I didn’t know. But when she was finished… I could put my hair in a pony tail, and wear it on top of my head.  I could whip it, and throw it over my shoulder. I was never going back to my hair again.

I left for college in Chicago two days later. While at school I tried all different types of extensions and braids. I explored the African hair braiders that were famous up and down Clark Street, I found students willing to do hair for pennies and I discovered weaves! I got so much attention for my hair. I changed it nearly every two months and everyone always thought it was really my hair, or at least I convinced myself they did. I prided myself on getting realistic styles. I didn’t even really know what my own hair looked like. I was cast in roles based on my hair – but which hair? Once I had to reshoot a scene for a movie and could not remember which hair I had for continuity. That was pretty funny.

But even with my weaves and extensions, I still felt like an outsider.  I felt like I was not black enough for one group or white enough for another. I felt like I confused people and that they did not know what to make of me, but in reality I didn’t know what to make of myself.   Trying to “fit in” had made me feel more misshapen and gray than ever. So one day I just decided, because I only operate from two points: inaction and impulse, I walked into the salon and had them remove my weave and cut all of my hair down to its natural state. I loved it. I felt free and centered and beautiful. Then I walked onto the street and immediately felt like everyone was looking at me differently and I did not like it. They did not smile at me the same way. Men didn’t look at me the same way.  Friends did not know what to make of it. “It makes you look more severe”, “You look more ‘ethnic’ ”, and “I liked it long” were the most common responses. Twice in the grocery store a clerk called me “sir”.

I bought a wig.

Over the next fifteen years I spent ninety percent of the time in some form of weave, wig, extension or braids and ten percent of the time impulsively cutting it all off and trying to wear my hair natural. Inevitably a day or two into being natural I would go running back to the beauty supply store to buy more hair of some type. I was so confused that once after watching Chris Rock’s Good Hair, I literally had emotional breakdown in my stylist’s chair. I have done the math and from the time I was eighteen until early 2013 I have spent $25,000 getting my hair weaved, braided or extended and just over one and a half years sitting in a chair having it done. When you want to fit in you’ll do just about anything. I am not saying that people that wear extensions want to be something they aren’t anymore than someone who drinks is automatically an alcoholic. But I was still a little girl with a slip on her head, flipping her blonde hair around, imagining herself with blue eyes. I just didn’t realize I was still doing it.

To start recover from alcoholism you have to come to believe that a power greater than yourself can restore your sanity; to beat an eating disorder you have to realize that controlling your food will never give you control over the things of which you have no control and in order to recover from an acute addiction to hair weaves, you must realize that no amount of Kanekalon, Yaki or Indian Remy is ever going to make you anyone else but some woman with a bunch of store bought hair on their head. The thing is, I kind of love my hair. It has giant curls in some spots tight coils in others and some parts are just tangles of zig-zags. It is a little bit crazy, strong but fragile, coarse but soft, and completely unpredictable. We have the same personality.

I have been natural now for longer than I have ever been, which is not long. I’m not going to lie, it has been a challenge. But the more time I spend being natural, the more I like my hair and the less gray and misshapen I feel.  Sure, in the beginning, I wanted to run and hide whenever I thought someone was looking at me funny or when a shampoo commercial came on, you know the ones with all of the straight hair flowing down the screen? But a friend reminded me recently that hair is not just hair; it is intrinsically wrapped up in who we are as individuals.  It is as much a form of expression as the clothes we put on everyday. If you don’t believe that, drastically change your hair and walk around in the world a bit.

What Do Civil Rights and Giant Sodas Have in Common?

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I’m addicted to Coke, a complete addict. I absolutely can’t kick it. If someone offered to install a Coca-Cola drip in my home whereby it’s sugary sweetness would be pumped into my mouth with just a flick of my wrist whenever I needed a fix, I have to be honest – I would be tempted to allow it. I also recognize it is like battery acid to the inside of my body and has caused two root canals and working on a third and if I stopped drinking it I’d probably lose ten pounds without even trying. So when I heard about Bloomberg’s ordinance about limiting restaurants to only serving 16oz of soda at a time, I was at first offended and a little scared this law would find it’s way to Los Angeles. But then, I thought, good for him! I don’t order supersized drinks anyway. I just refill my small sized drinks. But it is nice that someone is trying to look out for people. Also, being African American, I have to acknowledge that I am more prone to diabetes and high blood pressure and that my $20/week Coke habit is not helping the cause.

So it was with shock and awe that I saw that the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation were joining a lawsuit with American Beverage Association against the proposal to limit the size of sodas served in New York City. Why so shocked? The motive behind the lawsuit for ABA is clear: They like customers like me, the addicts that keep drinking their syrups of death and disease. But when people like Bloomberg start trying to limit people’s civil liberties, their civil right to soda and the pursuit of happiness, well that’s where they draw the line and get national civil rights organizations involved. We could argue all day that NAACP and the Hispanic Federation have become involved to fight for the civil rights of people everywhere to sell and enjoy a 32oz Root Beer, but a very simple follow-the-money Google search shows us that both companies receive funding from Coca-Cola.

Can we begrudge non-profit organizations doing good work in their communities for taking money from big corporations in order continue their services? Each organization also boasts several progressive funders as well. But when it comes to joining a lawsuit that actually harms the community for which they serve, I think it might be time to take a step back.

The Office of Minority Health reports that Hispanic Americans are 1.2 times as likely to be obese than Non-Hispanic Whites. Among Mexican American women, 78 percent are overweight or obese, as compared to only 60.3 percent of the non-Hispanic White women. In regard to African Americans, women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. In 2010, African American women were 70% more likely to be obese than Non-Hispanic White women. Now, it’s true there are other contributing factors to obesity – pizza is pretty good, so is cake and French fries…also exercising can be such a drag. We can’t just blame soda, right?

OK let’s look at diabetes. I’m not going to get into specifics of how type 2 diabetes happens (you’re born with type 1, you acquire type 2) but the amount of sugar you eat messes with how your insulin works and boom. there you are. There’s tons of sugar in soda; that’s what makes it so tasty.  African American Collaborative Obesity Network (AACORN) has a study showing that African Americans between the ages 31-50 on average consume  double the amount of sugar sweetened beverages than of white females in the same age range. African Americans are 2.2 times as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to die from diabetes and Hispanics are 1.5 times as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to die from diabetes. Sobering and kind of messed up that the NAACP and The Hispanic Federation are spending time fighting for McDonalds’ (also a funder) civil rights to continue to sell super sized Sprite.

It should be noted that Coca-Cola funding to NAACP was $100,000 for Project HELP — a program promoting healthy eating, physical activity and healthy lifestyles in African-American communities. It should also be laughed at hysterically.

It must be a challenge to be a non-profit in today’s economic climate. You want to continue to serve your community and as a result you need funding and at times that money comes from corporations and sometimes those big corporations want favors. But there has to be a time when you take a principled stance against money and against favors and say no, this is not right for us. I cannot help thinking that in a time when food deserts are rampant in under-served communities of color, immigration reform is still a thought and not a reality and we have laws that tell people they cannot marry those whom they love; these historic organizations that have fought for justice and equality could be focused on other “issues of fairness.”

Forget About Debt Limits and Social Security, We Need to Save Romantic Comedies

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Recently, Vulture writer Claude Brodesser-Akner wrote an article posing a terrifying question: “Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?” First, who knew the romantic comedy was in peril, and second, why does he spend fifty percent of his article questioning studio executives? In this day and age studio execs are mostly business school graduates, not Creatives who understand the subtle nuance of the Rom-Com Genre. He could have asked a bona fide Romantic Comedy Expert. What makes someone a Romantic Comedy Expert, as opposed to, say, a fan of romantic comedies? I will tell you. An expert never uses the term “chick flick,” as it disparages the genre and is derogatory. She has seen 27 Dresses no fewer than 27 times because it feels like her duty to watch it every time it comes on TBS (and because, James Marsden…duh).  An expert hates Hugh Grant and Gerard Butler but loves Colin Firth and believes Tom Hanks is some type of deity. She adores Sleepless in Seattle, tolerates Pretty Woman and knows Larry Crowne is indefensible.  So I offer you an expert response to how we as a country can come together and save romantic comedies.

R.I.P. Nora Ephron
Brodesser-Akner cites failing box office numbers and diminishing audiences for the reason why romantic comedies are in peril. The studio executives spend quite a bit of time blaming you, the audience, as well as unwilling actresses. But to get to the heart of what is really wrong with the modern day romantic comedy, we need to go to the late 1980s/early 1990s — The Golden Age of Rom-Com — and look at the Queen of the genre, the late Nora Ephron.

Nora Ephron is to the romantic comedy as John Hughes is to coming-of-age movies. Invariably, when you think of romantic comedies, you’re thinking of one of Ephron’s most famous films: Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail. Ephron had a knack for writing about the magic of falling in love, the fear that comes with being vulnerable and the clumsiness of the beginning of relationships. Instead of being slick and sexy, her characters often said the wrong things and tripped on their words: they were human. She captured all of the nuances that modern day rom-coms miss. Now characters meet and sleep with each other within twenty minutes of the opening credits and fall instantly in love. Before the first act has concluded they have all this investment, these impossibly high stakes. Then like clockwork, forty minutes before the film ends it all falls apart, but comes back around just in time for boy to chase girl through the streets of Big City A and fix everything. It rings false, yet studio execs keep shoving that same formula at us with different packaging. That is why Ephron’s films and one or two of Gary Marshall’s remain the most beloved of romantic comedies — and why there hasn’t been a truly great romantic comedy since 1998, the year You’ve Got Mail was released.

Indie Is Doing It Right
Though I remain the genre’s biggest fan, it’s a sad fact that the romantic comedy has lost imagination. Two people meeting several times in their lives before they realize they’re meant to be together — that’s creative. A recently widowed father set up by his son on a radio show to meet his soul mate in the style of An Affair to Remember — that’s genius! What isn’t genius is the plot device of two men fighting over the same woman. That same premise has been repackaged in many ways. We loved it most as Bridget Jones’ Diary but really have to draw the line at when it comes to spy vs. spy in This Means War. Studio romantic comedies have started playing to the lowest common denominator. They’ve shamefully bought into the premise that the genre is little more than a date movie and they do not need to try very hard to entertain. They could stand to take a cue from independent filmmakers who are making beautiful forays into the romantic comedy world. (In indie film, they’re called “relationship films.”) Indie filmmakers have the imagination to make a story about a divorce romantic, funny and heartbreaking (Celeste and Jesse Forever). They have the creativity to create a world where a novelist accidentally writes his dream girlfriend “to life” and then must deal with the consequences (Ruby Sparks). I don’t want to say that indie filmmakers are better than studio executives at making solid stories to which people can relate, but they are.

In Living Color
One thing can go the furthest to save The Romantic Comedy from a fate worse than The American Western: Studio executives, producers and casting directors must to begin to acknowledge that people of color have relationships and fall in love. I understand that this is a novel concept as Tyler Perry’s on-going string of misogynistic portrayals of African American women in films like Why Did I Get Married portrays them as nagging, cold, career focused bitches. And we’re hard pressed to find evidence in any film that Latinos or Asians ever fall in love except for maybe Jennifer Lopez, but she’s somehow always cast as an Italian woman. But consider this: The most successful romantic comedy last year was Think Like a Man, which brought in $33 million its first weekend. The film has a predominately African American cast but is technically multi-ethnic. An unnamed studio executive in Brodesser-Akner’s piece dismisses the numbers out of hand because it “never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience.” This is grossly inaccurate.  Think Like a Man only opened in 2000 theaters its opening weekend. The film brought in $91 million dollars at the box office domestically and the audience breakdown was 37% males and 63% females; 38% were under 30; and 62% were 30 and over, according to market research firm CinemaScore.  By these numbers, only black audiences saw Think in the same way that only black people voted for Obama.

Only in Hollywood is segregation still legal. Studio executives would be wise to start diversifying their casts when it comes to romantic comedies, and I don’t mean token characters. I mean real people with real roles. Look what it’s done for television. Bonus points if you have an interracial couple. Double bonus if you stop calling films with predominantly African American casts “urban.”

Save the romantic comedy by making smart films about real people in real relationships with a couple of laughs in between. Until you can figure it out, I’ll still be watching — but I’m probably the only one.

Bechdel Testing Les Miserables

Helena_LesMis1

The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule, is a simple test to determine if a movie is free from gender bias. It names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it,  (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. While not the first web zine to take on the meme, Dog Park is the first to have me as the guide!

It is almost unfair to Bechdel Test Les Miserables. The Bechdel test is about exposing the lack of strong women in cinema and calling filmmakers to the mat for not writing women as three dimensional characters, but as fluff or filler screeching across screen, stalking men, fighting for a man’s attention and not really having lives of their own. A great case in point is the 1939 film The Women, starring Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer and boasts an all female cast. The film spends nearly two hours talking about nothing but men. I’m not joking. If you think I’m lying, they astonishingly made a remake in 2008 with Eva Mendes and Meg Ryan that falls into the same horrible trap of being a movie starring women that is about men. So the Bechdel test is not without merit at working to keep Hollywood in check. But Les Miserables is the story of three incredible women and that Valjean guy, why run the Bechdel on it? Because it’s the most recent film I’ve seen, okay? Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine, just before her slut-shaming.

Les Mis, originally a novel by Victor Hugo, then a Broadway Musical composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg; and now an epic film directed by Tom Hooper, begins in France in 1815 and spans nearly 20 years. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. There are even Black extras, you guys! The plot is too long to go into here, so read the synopsis. There is amazing singing, brilliant performances by Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks who plays Éponine, comic relief provided by hyphenates with no hyphens — Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen — and unintentional laughter by the horrible singing of Russell Crowe. A story of “the people,” revolution, love (requited unrequited) and redemption, you would have to be some type of uber conservative Republican not to want to see this film. But this blog is not Gushing over Les Mis, it is Bechdel Testing Les Mis. So let’s do that.

Fantine, portrayed by Anne Hathaway, is the story’s badass. She is written as a strong woman working as hard as she can to provide for her daughter who is being cared for by two innkeepers in another town. She works in a factory owned by Jean Valjean (Jackman), but soon loses her job and is turned onto the street to make money in the oldest profession. The good women at Bitch Flicks raised a question that bothered me during this entire film. Though Anne was impressive as Fantine, I couldn’t figure out why this woman needed to be so waiflike. Hathaway dieted down to almost nothing to portray a woman who needed to maintain her strength to work in a factory to provide for her child. Her thinness made an ordinarily strong character seem fairly weak and victim-like, save the scene when she delivers the song that will win her an Academy Award. But it did make me wonder how a woman so frail got strength to kick the crap out of a man attempting to assault her on the street.

The scene in which Fantine is slut-shamed by her horrific co-workers is one of the scenes with the most women in the film. This is a powerful scene for every woman involved. Fantine is put into a difficult position, needing to fight for her right to work, just as the other women are fighting for their right to be horrible and selfish. As a chorus they move the story forward and give us much needed background information.

Eponine, singing about a man.

You will spend quite a bit of time rooting the lovelorn Éponine and she will break your heart. I want to call her a feminist, but I realize that 98% of her actions are motivated by her obsession with a man, which automatically tosses her out of the feminist category and almost derails Les Mis’ Bechdel standing. But let’s cut her some slack, even cool girls get the blues. She is brave, independent, courageous and smart. Because of her motivations, she never has a conversation with another woman. Her mother, Mme Thénardier, played by Helena Bonham Carter, talks at her, and she has several near misses with Cosette, her childhood friend and story counterpart.

A word about Cosette. Amanda Seyfried has a lovely voice and I’m sure that she is a nice enough person, but Cosette is everything that is wrong with the world. She is not to be trusted. We hate Cosette and she is not strong, she is weak and fluttery and makes us want to throw up. Cosette speaks to the Mme Thénardier character about fetching a pail of water.

Bechdel Test:

1.  It has to have at least two women in it: Les Miserables has four supporting women and features a bevy of women in featured choral roles.

2. Who talk to each other: These women talk to each other often. They sing and talk. It’s delightful.

3. About something besides a man: Only the lovelorn Éponine sings about a man, but to herself – so it’s ok.

Bechdel Approved!
Yancy Bonus:

Points for casting African American extras.

Sniffle score:  5 – Take Kleenex. If not for you for the person sobbing in the corner of the theater (it’s probably me).

Broadway Babies:
While not the best performance of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables I’ve ever heard, if you aren’t moved to tears by Eddie Redmayne’s performance, there may not be hope for you.

25 to See Before You Lose Your Liberal Sensibilities: Number 2

Better This World (2011)

Better This World (2011), Directed by: Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway

I’ve always been the type of person that was socially conscious. I got it from my father, who got it from his parents, who most likely got it from their parents. But they weren’t activists. I was always disappointed that neither of my parents marched on Washington or took on the man by sitting at lunch counters or being Freedom Riders. I remember hearing Tom Hayden say once that there was this national misconception that people who weren’t around in the ’60s seemed to think that those ten years were just about marching and fighting and protest, but there were regular people, folks who just wanted to live their lives, just as there are today. There were people who were just working to get by. For most of my life I was socially conscious, doing what I could for others, volunteering when I could, but mostly I just wanted to live my life. Everyone that becomes “engaged” in the world of activism has a moment that pushes them into action. For me it was the time period of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard and the 1999 shootings at Columbine.

I am extremely lucky that I came of age politically in the wake of those events because I had just moved from uber conservative Indiana to Chicago to attend college with many like-minded young adults. I was able to feed off of them and a few hippies-turned-professors, and they served as mentors guiding me on my journey to becoming an angry little activist, helping me channel energy into various forms of positive expression.

David McKay, Better This World

That solid mentor or support group is what two boyhood friends from Midland, Texas desperately needed as they found their footing before the 2008 Republican National Convention. The mentor they found ended up costing them more than they could have imagined. Better This World takes a look at the case of David McKay (22) and Bradley Crowder (23), who are accused of domestic terrorism thanks to FBI informant and former radical leader and activist Brandon Darby. The filmmakers originally set out to follow Darby as well as Crowder and McKay but upon learning that their side would also be told, Brandon Darby dropped out of the filming process, leaving the filmmakers scrambling to put their film together without his voice. By using interview footage, radio interviews and an actor for voiceover, what they were able to do to capture his story turns out to be creative and a refreshing take on documentary narrative.

Brandon Darby is integral to the story because he serves as David and Matt’s ever important guide on their way through activism. A long time radical activist, Darby mentors them and helps them plan for the events that unfold at the 2008 RNC. He encourages them to take the actions that eventually get them both charged as terrorists and lands McKay in federal prison for four years and Crowder for two. Darby gives the guys the idea to make Molotov cocktails and tries to get them to throw them at a nearby police station. The two young men flatly refuse several times out of fear of what the repercussions of their actions might be. But Darby continues to harass the young men well into the early morning hours, pushing them to use the explosives. Neither Crowder nor McKay ever used any of the Molotov cocktails that were made. No one was killed, injured or harmed in any way. In November of this year a drunk driver was also given four years in prison for killing a jogger. That’s justice.

Bradley Crowder works with his attorney.

Some call what the FBI orchestrated with the assistance of Brandon Darby “entrapment,” others say he exposed the willingness of two would-be terrorists, I think it’s absolutely terrifying. These were kids with something important to say, looking to a mentor to help them express themselves. If you have ever been inspired to act, if you have ever wanted to fight the establishment, if you have ever seen an injustice in the world and thought, “That’s complete bullshit — we have to change that!,” then you must see this film before you become the establishment and decide that these kids got what was coming to them. Because it’s only a miracle that what happened to these two young men hasn’t happened to you.

In case you’re interested, Brandon Darby is now a regular writer for Breitbart and does not like it when people on Twitter call him a douchebag or a coward. He is also quite proud of his work as an informant.

Holiday Lists for the Misanthrope: Part Three

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Do you have a radio station in your city that starts playing Christmas songs 24 hours a day for 30 days the day after Thanksgiving?

Los Angeles does. When I first moved here in 2000 it was charming, but now it is nauseating.  Imagine it’s 10am Wednesday and you’ve already listened to your podcasts of This American Life, Radiolab and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and for some reason The Moth hasn’t uploaded a new podcast in weeks. So you start flipping stations. You have the choice of Justin Beiber singing “Baby, Baby”, sports talk radio, or 103.5 The KOST playing The Backstreet Boys singing Little Drummer Boy followed by Johnny Mathis roasting chestnuts on an open fire.

For these thirty days filled with insufferable Holiday cheer, I always make sure to have my ears safely guarded by a mixed tape (1996-2000) or a playlist.  I will now share my 2012 playlist with you.

Holiday List for Misanthropes by yanseepants on Grooveshark

Week Three: Holiday Music

I’m Only Happy When It Rains
Garbage, Garbage (1995)
During the month of December you will find that people give you disingenuous wishes of a Happy Hanukah, Kwanza and New Year. But we both know what actually makes you happy, their silence, and rain.

Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis
Blue Valentine
, Tom Waits (1978)
It’s a misconception that I dislike Christmas music. This Tom Waits song is an old favorite of mine. It first made it’s way onto my playlist in college. I know it’s strange to say a Tom Waits song is beautiful, but this song is beautiful and messy and sad. Merry Christmas!

Sullen Girl
Tidal,
Fiona Apple (1996)
Have you ever been a 9-year-old girl with a birthday five days after Christmas so it is always impossible to have a cool birthday party because everyone is always out of town or at their grandparents or skiing or something lame like that? I don’t want to bum you out; but some 9 year olds never quite recover from it getting dozens of “RSVP- no” responses year after year.  Hypothetically speaking.

 Old Boyfriends
One From the Heart, Crystal Gayle (1982)
Let’s be honest, a reason lots of people don’t like The Holidays is because no one loves them. Ok, well someone that used to love them doesn’t love them anymore, or doesn’t love them enough. Basically they’re not in a relationship anymore – that’s the worst during the holidays. HBO is constantly showing Love, Actually, there’s mistletoe everywhere – it’s totally obnoxious. I get it you guys; I’m single this year too. However, music is balm for the soul – so here’s another Tom Waits song for you sung by Crystal Gayle. This one is particularly balmy.

Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)
Brain Drain,
The Ramones (1989)
A friend really felt this list needed some punk. I didn’t want to fight about it.

I Don’t Give a Fuck
2Pacalypse Now,
Tupac Shakur (1991)
I’m not going to lie to you, while this is one of my favorite workout songs, the beat and Tupac’s attitude may compel you to sincerely not give a fuck. Or punch someone in the face. You’ve been warned.

For Traditionalists
If you insist on having some Holiday cheer, I suppose you could enjoy the following, but it’s pretty close-minded of you.

Santa Baby
Eartha Kitt (1953)

All I Want For Christmas Is You
Merry Christmas, Mariah Carey
(I LOVE this song, but just singing and dancing around to it, not because it inspires Holiday cheer or whatever.)

Christmas in Hollis
Run DMC, (1987)

We Wish You A Merry Christmas
A Christmas Together,
John Denver and the Muppets (1973)
Yay, the Muppets and John Denver! Aww, John Denver…

Happy Holidays you scrooges!

Bechdel Testing The Five Year Engagement

Jason Segal and Emily Blunt in The Five-Year Engagement

The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule, is a simple test to determine if a movie is free from gender bias. It names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it,  (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. While not the first web zine to take on the meme, Dog Park is the first to have me as the guide!  So hold on ladies and gents, as we take our first film out for the Bechdel Test.

The Five Year Engagement is not a new film, but it is relatively new to DVD, which is how I viewed it several weeks ago. It stars a few people in Hollywood whom I happen to find very funny, among them Emily Blunt, Alison Brie, Jason Segel and Chris Pratt. Written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, this film suffered what I like to call “funny film studio marketing”: Because the cast is made up primarily of comedians, the studio wanted you to believe you would be bent over howling the entire time at the shenanigans of Segel and Pratt. “Five year engagement, eh? I bet that Pratt figures out all sorts of ways to keep Segel from getting married so they can stay bachelors and go out and get tail! And then just like a woman Emily Blunt listens to her nagging sister about how to drag him down the aisle, and finally five years later, she wears him out!” That’s at least what this 30 second TV spot would seem to suggest.

What that horrible spot fails to communicate, however, is that Blunt has applied to several post-doctoral psychology programs and that after being rejected by her first choice, a school in San Francisco where they live, she gets accepted to a school in Michigan. The couple decides they will postpone their wedding and make the move. It’s a pretty fantastic flip for a romantic comedy to look at a wedding and relationship through the eyes of a couple pursuing their careers, and to show the woman’s interest prevail. Their wedding continues to be postponed as Blunt’s character is offered a position at the school in Michigan and Segel must again delay his aspirations as a chef.  Their relationship deteriorates as Segel becomes increasingly unhappy as he has not only sacrificed his career, but is beginning to realize the sacrifices they’ve both made in terms of their relationship. We also see, maybe for the first time ever in a romantic comedy, a couple with real fear and insecurity surrounding commitment and marriage. Their relationship gets messy and falls apart. I like this Hollywood trend of reality in relationships. As long as the couple gets back together in the end; I’m looking at you, Celeste and Jesse.

(L to R) Sisters Suzie (ALISON BRIE) and Violet (EMILY BLUNT) probably talking about men, but that’s ok because there are plenty of other times when they don’t.

Bechdel Test:

1.  It has to have at least two women in it: The Five Year Engagement stars two women and co-stars at least four to five others who are complete characters.

2. Who talk to each other: There is no shortage of woman-to-woman conversation.

3. About something besides a man: As an academic Blunt has several conversations with her female classmate, played by Mindy Kaling, about psychological tests and exams. Also Brie and Blunt talk about motherhood.

Bechdel Approved!

Yancy Bonus:

Points for casting a brown lady in a non-stereotypical role. Mindy Kaling plays a post-doctoral psychology fellow.

Sniffle score: 1.5 – while not especially difficult to do, it made me cry – though I’m not entirely sure it is supposed to.

Got a movie you think we should put through the Bechdel Test? Let us know in the comments!