By Chaya and Deni
SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) (Hulu)
During the summer of 1969 for 6 Sundays in a row, the Harlem Cultural Festival put on a show. It celebrated Black music, history and culture and promoted the ongoing politics of Black Pride and resistance. The US had recently experienced the assassinations of JFK (1963), Malcolm X (in Harlem, 1965), Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (1968) and Robert F Kennedy (1968), with massive civil upheaval nation-wide after Dr King’s assassination. As said in the film, “Black folks are used to not having their history told. This was nothing new.” The whole Festival was filmed but then spent the next 50 years in a basement until Questlove (who co-directed with Hal Tulchin) got the archival footage and added new interviews with audience members and some of the performers. They also added social commentary with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Jesse Jackson, Sheila E., Greg Tate and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Tony Lawrence (a NYC nightclub singer) was the creator, promoter and MC, and the hugely successful Festival drew an estimated 300,000 people. And what a show it was! The R&B, jazz, soul and gospel performances were fantastic. There were too many performers to mention them all, but they included a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, B. B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Fifth Dimension, Hugh Masekela, Herbie Hancock, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers, Abbey Lincoln and The Chambers Brothers. One of the highlights was when Mahalia Jackson asked Mavis Staples to sing Precious Lord with her. Other unforgettable moments were Nina Simone singing “Backlash Blues” and the performance by Sly and the Family Stone. The performances were electrifying and the memories of the original audience were very moving. See it if you can.
RESERVATION DOGS (FX on Hulu)
This innovative new comedy-drama series follows the lives of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma trying to get money so they can move to California. Elora, Bear, Willie Jack and Cheese– the 4 ‘Rez Dogs,’ hang out together and are always on the lookout for scams and schemes, which generally backfire or get them into trouble. They have a contentious relationship with an opposing group (the NDN mafia), and they interact with relatives and friends on the reservation and in the small town nearby. The series features all Indigenous writers and directors, and an almost entirely Indigenous North American production team and cast (including unknown actors from Indigenous communities), so the characters are not portrayed stereotypically. Imagine! The regular and guest cast play friends, relatives, other people who live in the area and a few spirit characters. A lot of the wry humor, pathos and poignancy comes from the commentary of various characters about things they or other people are doing, and from the interplay between traditional and modern ways. It’s low key and not like a Hollywood production. The series is executive produced, directed, and co-written by Sterlin Harjo with Taika Waititi co-writing and executive producing. Many of the storylines are inspired by events from Harjo’s childhood. Harjo and the other 5 members of 1491s, the Native American sketch comedy group, are all involved in the series (check them out on YouTube). It’s the first series to be filmed entirely in Oklahoma. The acting, writing, storylines and music are all great. It’s groundbreaking and compelling. See it if you can.
A great series is ending this year. Insecure, created by Larry Wilmore and the multi-talented social justice BLM activist and star Issa Rae, ends on December 21. In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and demonstrations, Rae shared the organizations she was donating to and said that her objective is “to ultimately Defund the Police via the People’s Budget, and to aid protestors in the immediate time by providing bail money.” I (Deni) have loved the show since it started in 2016: it’s a combination of humor, self-reflection, deep and complex friendships among women, portrayals of life in Black communities in South Los Angeles including relationships, jobs/careers/businesses, political observations, family, experiences of racism, fun and hard times. This is all accompanied by excellent acting and writing with an illuminating debriefing after each show. Particularly noteworthy was acting by Yvonne Orji as Issa’s best friend Molly, Natasha Rothwell as Kelli, and Amanda Seales as Tiffany (the group of four women friends) and Jay Ellis as on-again/off-again boyfriend Lawrence. I’m holding off on watching the last episodes because I don’t want it to end. Issa Rae continues with other great projects but I’m gonna miss her and the community of folks she created on Insecure.
CHEWING GUM (HBO Max)
Chewing Gum was an early series done by Michaela Coel, queer British actor, screenwriter, director, producer and singer who created and starred in the astonishing 2020 series I May Destroy You. Chewing Gum – hilarious, insightful and affecting – began as Coel’s senior university graduation project and became a tv sitcom series. Coel stars as Tracey Gordon, a 24 year old shop assistant, a religious virgin with a very religious anti-sex family, who wants to have sex and learn about the world. The excellent supporting cast includes her mother (Shola Adewusi) and sister (Susan Wokoma) and very religious up-tight long-time boyfriend Ronald (John MacMillan) who [spoiler alert!] turns out to be gay. Tracey’s sexual exploration and discoveries are graphic and frequently really funny.
In July, Coel was cast for a mystery role in the summer 2022 sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and in September, she published her highly praised book Misfits: a Personal Manifesto, which addresses her experiences with racism and misogyny.
COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE (Netflix)
This 6-episode Netflix docudrama centers on Colin Kaepernick’s childhood growing up biracial in the very white city of Turlock in California’s Central Valley (the 2000 census says Turlock had 1.4% Black people out of a population of 55,000). Created and executive produced by Ava DuVernay (director of Selma and When They See Us) and Colin Kaepernick, each episode has Kap talking to the audience about his experiences with racism growing up, and his broader understanding of racism as he got older. The scenes are well-played by Jaden Michael as Kap and Mary Louise Parker and Nick Offerman as his white adoptive parents. Kap, an A student, excels at baseball, football and basketball but struggles to find his own identity. One episode graphically draws a parallel between prospects at the NFL scouting combine and a slave auction. Kap had to fight hard to get a college football scholarship—the sport he wanted to pursue—but he prevailed. After graduation, in his 6th season in 2016 as quarterback with the SF 49ers, he started kneeling during the national anthem to peacefully protest racial injustice, police brutality and the systemic oppression of Black people in the US. He lost his football career, but gained a world-wide platform. The series ends with adult Colin giving an uplifting message to himself on his way to play football in college. It concludes with an inspiring message to Black youth: trust your power.
The 2021 documentary Attica by writer, director, producer Stanley Nelson and producer Traci A. Curry about the 1971 Attica prison uprising is an immensely powerful film, and devastating in its portrayal of prison conditions and racist inhumane treatment of prisoners from guards to governor to President Nixon. The rebellion in Attica NY began on September 9, 1971 when over half the 2,200 Attica prisoners (a majority of whom were Black) seized control of half the prison, holding about 40 hostages. Leading up to that event, in July 1971 a group of Attica prisoners gave Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller a list of 27 demands about improving prison conditions. The commissioner took no action on the list of demands, and the warden’s response was to add more restrictions to inmates’ reading materials and personal belongings. In August, George Jackson was killed attempting to escape San Quentin and over 700 Attica prisoners went on a hunger strike in solidarity. The film is told through the eyes and voices of a number of Attica ex-prisoners who were part of the Uprising, townspeople, family members of guards held hostage, members of the observer/mediator/legal team, and one member of the National Guard. The prisoners’ stories are insightful and horrifying. They also describe how it started out with no leaders but elections were held block by block for leadership, and of the importance of their Manifesto and Demands. The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto states that: “We, the imprisoned men of Attica Prison, seek an end to the injustice suffered by all prisoners, regardless of race, creed or color…the administration of the New York prison system have restructured the institutions which were designed to socially correct men into the fascist concentration camps of modern America…Because of our posture as prisoners and branded characters as alleged criminals, the administration and prison employees no longer consider or respect us as human beings…”
The Uprising presented 33 demands including better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, improved food quality, religious freedom, higher wages for inmate jobs, an end of physical abuse, for basic necessities like toothbrushes, showers and clean water every day, for professional training, and access to newspapers and books, and very importantly, amnesty for all Uprising participants. At one point in the negotiations with Commissioner Oswald, it looked like some demands might be met but then things took a turn for the worse – a hostage died and pleas to Rockefeller to just show up were ignored. The documentary makes clear Rockefeller was taking direction from Nixon to not negotiate. The racism exhibited in the tapes of their conversations was virulent, as were the guards’ shouts of “white power” outside the prison. After cutting off food and water, on Sept. 13, the 5th day of the Uprising, pepper gas was dropped into the yard and hundreds of NY State police, troopers, Bureau of Criminal Investigation personnel, sheriff’s deputies, park police, and “correctional officers” from Attica shot into the smoke. Twenty-nine prisoners and 9 hostages were killed by “law enforcement,” who also shot 128 other prisoners. Leaders of the Uprising were singled out and killed by troopers during and after the assault, including eloquent spokesperson “L.D.” Barkley. There was vast media coverage of the massacre and the film footage is horrifying. Throughout the film, the voices of the prisoners bring depth and poignancy with statements like: “It was ok to say no, to be rebellious, there may be consequences but it was ok.” And “Just because we were incarcerated didn’t mean we were less than human; somebody had to take a stand.”
BITS AND PIECES
GOOD NEWS FROM HONDURAS!
In Honduras, the leftist candidate Xiomara Castro won the presidency at the end of November. US historic connections to supporting right-wing authoritarianism in Honduras (Reagan used Honduras to supply and train the Contras in the 1980s) are well-documented and when a coup toppled the slightly leftist President Zelaya in 2009, Obama allowed enough time to elapse before protesting the coup for the coup to cement its power. US immigration policies have also destabilized Honduras since the 80s-90s by creating drug gang activity in Honduras. Honduran immigrants fled to the US to escape war and poverty. Some Honduran immigrant youth ended up in gangs in cities like LA and then wound up in prison. After completing their sentences they were deported and brought gang activity back to Honduras. In an effort to transfer Honduras with this new election, President Castro said, “We win! We win! Today the people have made justice. We have reversed authoritarianism.” Thousands of people packed the capital blowing car horns, set off fireworks and waved the Libre party’s red flags.
GOOD NEWS FOR PALESTINIAN FILMS!
In October, Netflix introduced a collection of 32 award-winning movies and documentaries made by Palestinian filmmakers. Some of the films have already been on Netflix but will now be grouped under the Palestinian Stories heading, making it easier to locate them. Most are films we haven’t seen, but Deni did see the 2013 film Omar in the theater (she fondly remembers doing that) and it was incredibly powerful. Buthaina Hamdan, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Ramallah, has said that international platforms don’t give Palestinian films enough screening space. She told Al-Monitor that “The screening of Palestinian films on international platforms … would shape global public opinion and create a just awareness of the Palestinian cause.” For those of us with access to Netflix, this is good news, and can educate a wider audience to support a Free Palestine!
GOOD NEWS FOR BDS!
Award-winning Irish author and screenwriter Sally Rooney (a self-described Marxist) said in October that she would not allow the Israeli publishing house that handled her earlier novels to publish her new book, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” because of her support for the Palestinian people and the BDS-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Go Sally! This is a highly acclaimed novel, support her by buying it if you can.
Very sadly, Greg Tate, author, reviewer, and cultural critic extraordinaire, died in early December in NYC. He was one of the commentators we mentioned in the Summer of Soul movie review above. From the NYT: “His first book, published in 1993, ‘Flyboy in the buttermilk: essays on contemporary america,’ catalyzed a generation of young writers of color with its vivid language, easy erudition and kaleidoscopic range.” A great loss.
MOCHA COLUMN QUIZ! BANNED WHERE?
Match the country to what’s banned or may be banned
A) Russia B) USA C) Saudi Arabia
1) West Side Story banned because of trans character portrayed by non-binary actor
2) Netflix may be banned for “gay propaganda” violating a national law
3) Communities force the banning of books in schools and public libraries, often for LGBTQ content
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