erik lundegaard

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Sunday February 07, 2010

Writin' is Whitenin': Ishmael Reed's Racial Assumptions about "Precious"

Apparently media outlets are still giving Ishmael Reed, racial curmudgeon, a forum. Last Friday it was The New York Times.

Reed's op-ed is about the film "Precious," and, big surprise, he's not a fan. Neither was I but the two of us are not-fans for different reasons. Actually we may be not-fans for the same reasons but it's hard to tell from Reed's writing. As I mentioned in The Seattle Times in 2003 when I reviewed Reed's book, "Another Day at the Front," if writin' is fightin' (the title of another Reed book) then Reed is one of our great literary flailers. He comes at everyone without landing a solid punch.

He begins with this premise about "Precious": white people love it, black people hate it. Maybe, but his evidence is anecdotal. He also misinterprets the film's director, Lee Daniels, post-Oscar nomination. On Feb. 2, the Times, reported:

Speaking by telephone, Mr. Daniels said he hoped the nomination would bring more viewers to a movie — about the abuse and triumph of an overweight ghetto girl — that has been only a modest draw at the box office. “That’s what these awards do,” he said. “A lot of middle-class white Americans haven’t seen the film yet.”

Reed's take?

In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more 'middle-class white Americans' to his film."

Reed's biggest problem, as ever, is one of racial assumption. He quotes Barbara Bush: "There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets." He quotes Oprah Winfrey: "None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible." Then Reed asks this question: "Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families?"

Jesus, I get tired of this. Look, I'm hardly color-blind, but it's seems the group Precious represents for both Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey is: "victims of physical and sexual abuse." To Mr. Reed, it's: "black girls." Who can't see past race here?

Reed adds that shame doesn't fall upon the white community for such films as "Requiem for a Dream," yet "Precious," he writes, casts "collective shame upon an entire community." But that's only true if we see the characters as representatives of the black community. Do we? Does he? Either he can't see past black and assumes no one else can, or he assumes the white community can't see past black so he can't, either.

How unclearly does he see race? He writes:

Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help.

There's a general truth to this but not as applied to "Precious." After all, what do the white people in the film, as mild as they are, do? They pass the buck. And that's all they do. It's black people—albiet light-skinned black people—who save Precious.

Reed saves his worst comment for the end:

It’s no surprise either that white critics — eight out of the nine comments used on the publicity Web site for “Precious” were from white men and women — maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.

Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme.

Once upon a time Ishmael Reed said that writin' is fightin'." Now he says it's whitenin'. I can't imagine a more harmful lesson.

Next time the Times op-ed has extra space they should give a forum to Jill Nelson. She didn't like the movie, either, but at least she was smart about it.

Posted at 09:28 AM on Feb 07, 2010 in category Culture
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Friday December 04, 2009

Respect My Authoritai!

Still thinking on Clay Shirky's piece on algorithmic authority. I know I'm in a fading demographic, for whom the Internet arrived, it wasn't just here, but in my own serious work—that is, my day job—I still lean on the traditional forms of authority for back-up or confirmation. Sure, for a particular spelling of a word, occasionally I go quick-and-dirty with Google: 12 million hits this way, 7,000 hits that way, guess I'll go this way. But if I need solid information on a subject I lean on The New York Times not Wikipedia. The latter isn't the disaster I thought it'd be but it's hardly foolproof. Neither is the Times, i know, but on the Times site you wouldn't come across what I came across on Wikipedia on Tuesday:

Harriet Ellan Miers (born August 10, 1945) is an Astronaut and former White House Counsel. In 2005, she was nominated by President George W. Bush to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but opposition from both sides of the political spectrum led President Bush to withdraw the nomination at Miers' request.

An astronaut? I wasn't sure if it had to do with this comment or not, which Miers made in 1996 about then-Governor Bush:

In a note to him a few days later, Miers described a little girl at the event who got his autograph. Miers wrote, "I truly believe, if the Governor told her she should be an Astronaut, she would do her best to become one. I was struck by the tremendous impact you have on the children whose lives you touch."

On the plus side, without any prompting from me, it took Wikipedia less than 24 hours to change "Astronaut" back to "American lawyer." Even so.

Posted at 08:28 AM on Dec 04, 2009 in category Culture
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Friday July 24, 2009

The Moon Landing from Africa, and Other Stories (Translated from the French)

Earlier this week, Le Monde ran a series of snippets from readers on where they were and what they were doing 40 years ago when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. With the help of my French teacher, Nathalie, I've translated some of these. Most were more interesting than the reports I saw in the U.S. this week. This was a global event. How did other people around the world see it? I know how we did but how did they?

First the French, then the translation. All errors, as the big boys say, are mine:

La Lune et le croissant, par Smail Houri
A l'époque, la télévision n'existait pas encore à El-Oued, une oasis du sud algérien, mais les gens qui voyageaient et avaient pu voir les images dans les grandes villes comme Alger, ont raconté l'événement dans tous ses détails. Répandue comme une traînée de poudre, la nouvelle a fait réagir les plus profanes. Les gens ne discutaient que de cela et les commentaires allaient bon train. Même les religieux, d'habitude réservés sur de tels sujets, se sont mis à discuter longuement de l'exploit accompli. La question qui revenait sur toutes les bouches était : "Comment est-ce possible que l'homme ait pu percer le ciel pour atteindre le croissant ?"

The Moon and the crescent, by Smail Houri
At the time, television did not exist in El-Oued, an oasis in southern Algeria, but people who traveled and had been able to see the images in big cities like Alger, recounted the event in all its details. Spreading like wildfire, the news made even non-believers react. People talked only about the moon-landing, and commentaries gathered steam. Even religious people, who are usually reserved on such subjects, started to discuss it at length. The question that kept returning was: “How is it possible that man was able to pierce the sky to get to the moon?”

***

Hypnose, par Eric Lefèvre
J'avais 14 ans. Je me trouvais ce soir-là sur le toit d'une vieille maison près d'Evry. Le ciel était clair et la Lune brillait. Mes yeux étaient hypnotisés par la mer grise de la Tranquillité à des centaines de milliers de kilomètres de là. Subitement, j'eus l'impression de voir des formes s'y déplacer. J'oubliais alors la radio. Cette vision suffisait à me faire comprendre le moment extraordinaire que j'étais en train de vivre.

Hypnosis, by Eric Lefevre
I was 14 years old. That night I found myself on the roof of an old house near Evry. The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. My eyes were hypnotized by the gray Sea of Tranquility hundreds of millions of kilometers away. Suddenly I had the impression of seeing the forms shift. I forgot about the radio. This vision was sufficient to make me understand the extraordinary moment I was living in.

***

Un chat sur la Lune, par Moussa Touré
Lorsque le premier homme a marché sur la Lune, j'avais 6 ans. Je me souviens que tout le monde en parlait. Pour moi, c'était possible. Chez nous au Mali, on expliquait à chaque éclipse qu'un chat avait grimpé sur la Lune. En tout cas, c'était une légende. Moi je m'étais dit que si un chat pouvait monter sur la Lune, pourquoi un homme ne le pourrait-il pas ? Après ce succès, je me rappelle encore que de nombreux orchestestres de musique Mandingue ont été baptisés "Apollo".

A cat on the moon, by Moussa Toure
When the first man walked on the moon, I was six years old. I remember all the world was talking [but], for me, it seemed very possible. In our house on Mali, we would explain every eclipse [by saying] that a cat had climbed on the moon. In any case, it was our legend, so I said that if a cat could go up to the moon why couldn’t a man? After this success, I also remember a number of Mandingan orchestras were christened “Apollo.”

***

Les Américains ont aluni sur Boufarik ! par Bouzgaou Abdelhamid
J'avais 16 ans, et j'ai vécu cette fabuleuse épopée en direct sur notre chaîne de télé algérienne. J'en garde un souvenir impérissable. Et pour cause. Je crois que mon papa a été le premier a en douter, en m'affirmant qu'il s'agissait d'un montage des Américains. Il était 3 h 30 ou 4 heures du matin quand il m'a trouvé scotché à la télé. Surpris, il me demanda ce qui m'a retenu si tard. Je lui ai répondu, tout heureux et émerveillé : "Papa, les Américains sont sur la Lune. Il pouffa, et il me dit : Pauvre incrédule, tu aurais dû dormir d'un bon sommeil. Ils ont aluni, mais sur Boufarik (ville à 30 km d'Alger) !"

The American moon-landed on Boufarik! by Bouzgaou Abdelhamid
I was 16 years old and watched this fabulous epic live on our Algerian television channel. I keep an undying memory from that time. With reason. I think that my father was the first to doubt the moon landing, to assert that it was a matter of cinematic editing by the Americans. It was 3:30 or 4 in the morning when he found me glued to the television. Surprised, he demanded that I refrain from staying up so late. I responded, all happy and filled with wonder, “Papa, the Americans are on the moon!” He sniggered and told me, “Poor unbeliever, you must have had a good sleep. They have moon-landed...but on Boufarik!” (A city 30 km from Alger.)

Posted at 08:14 AM on Jul 24, 2009 in category Culture
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Sunday July 19, 2009

50 Million Necrophiliacs Can't Be Wrong

Patrick Goldstein over at The Big Picture takes Vanity Fair to task for their Heath Ledger cover story (which I haven't read and don't care to read):

As anyone close to Michael Jackson can attest, with Larry King having done something like 23 consecutive shows about the dead pop star, each one more tawdry than the last, apparently even death can't stop the endless parade of morbid media snoops from carving their initials in every available celebrity grave.

I agree but "even death" is missing the point. Death is the point, particularly young death, death before its time, death in which youth is preseved: Valentino, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley (OK, more-or-less preserved), Princess Di, now Heath and Michael and Farrah. We're a necrophiliac nation. We're at heart immature. We want what isn't here. We appreciate what's gone or yet-to-be. We brush those things with nostalgia or hope. Because what's here and now is just so damned confusing. What's here and now takes work.

Posted at 03:25 PM on Jul 19, 2009 in category Culture
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Friday July 17, 2009

“The Unseen”

Wherever you are, if you have the chance to see a play by Craig Wright, you should go. If you have the chance to see an episode of television written by Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Dirty Sexy Money”), you should see it. If you’re lucky enough to get DVD commentary from Craig Wright you should listen to it. It’s always worthwhile.

I am hugely biased in this matter since Craig is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other, off and on, since 1987, and, back then, despite my easily bruised, young writer’s ego, I quickly realized he was in another league. He still is. I love, for example, his comments about “Waiting for Godot” here:

I’m reminded of Rilke and his advice to a young poet: Learn to love the questions themselves. For many, including myself, including probably Beckett, Godot was The Answer, and that’s why he never showed up. For Craig, Godot is in the questions, and the questions are always there, and in innumerable form. His discussion here also reminds me of his song, “Heaven,” which he wrote with Peter Lawton:

All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all

Life is a mystery
It’s mystery enough without waiting
For someone who
Knew he would never be coming at all

We want to be open
We want to be open
But you don’t give a single sign
You’re coming to call

That’s Beckett. And, yes, Craig. But the song ends with a notion that’s purely Craig:

Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
Heaven?

He does this alley-oop all the time, as I’ve written, and every time it’s surprising and beautiful.

Posted at 09:40 AM on Jul 17, 2009 in category Culture
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