Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

Sometimes it’s hard to explain things, and sometimes we lack the words, perspective, or experience to explain something even though we understand it and empathize with it. On this month’s journey into the rabbit hole, I explore racial division through cinema and literature. And uncover some nuances that have helped further my understanding and improve my communication skills.

Film I’m Studying

I Am Not Your Negro fully realizes its director’s conviction. Raoul Peck set out to bring forward a voice from another era—a voice he felt we now lacked and desperately needed. After working with many writers, he feared the project wasn’t going anywhere. But then he was handed an unfinished manuscript by the James Baldwin Estate. It was the novel Baldwin was working on before dying of cancer in 1987. Its working title was Remember This House, and it contained 30 pages of recollections about his friends—civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Suddenly, Peck’s film was upon him.

Sometimes people say I am an activist, I say no, I am a citizen, I take seriously the rights that I have, I take seriously my responsibility. I would love to be able to make horror movies without having to think, like Scary Movie 1,2,3,4,5, or 6, or Toy Story. But I take responsibility. I know the price we pay. I know the price my ancestors paid. I know the price young men like Medgar Evers, young men like Martin Luther King Jr., young men like Malcolm X, the price they paid, the price their kids paid, their whole family paid. How can we just say… well… we can just be happy and profit from whatever is going on? It’s my responsibility. The right to vote—people died for that. I know the price of my ancestors. – Transcribed from a special features Interview of Raoul Peck

And thus, a symphony ensues. Baldwin with his voice and pen, And Peck orchestrating a tale of yesterday amongst a tale of today.

Archived media from the civil rights era—interviews, stills, tv shows, and movie clips—build up the lion’s share of the movie. But to connect the history with what is happening today, Peck included stills and footage from modern-day protests and tragedies and some reality tv show clips. But it was—in good taste—kept to a minimum, not to distract from the actual history. And in the end, there are some very captivating modern-day video portraits.

Additionally, there isn’t a single contemporary interview in the film—scarce these days when it comes to documentaries. But the film is not without its genre tropes. Sequences with atmospheric b-roll garnish the film—mostly scenery as seen out the windows of a driving car. The footage was edited with an astute poetic sensibility and Samuel L. Jackson’s soft voice narration to invoke a sense of—this is James Baldwin driving around pondering the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeated the souls of blacks and empathizers throughout the era.

What touches me the most is the film’s embodied awareness. An awareness I was first exposed to in my late teens, thanks to some socially responsible friends. But this awareness did not come along with a good set of communication skills. And it was only the beginning of an ongoing journey—digging myself out of a deep cavernous pit flooded with naiveté. As featured in this film as a 1968 excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show, here are some words from James Baldwin that have helped me tweak my communication skills and understanding in regards to race. 

I don’t know what white people in this country feel. I can only include what they feel by the state of their institution. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether Labor Unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know if the real-estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know about the textbooks I have to give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my assistant, my children on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. – James Baldwin

Downloadable Resources
Excerpts
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Raoul Peck
Produced by Rémi GrelletyHébert PeckRaoul Peck
Written by James Baldwin,  Raoul Peck
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember this house.
Starring Samuel L. JacksonJames BaldwinMartin Luther King Jr.
Music By Alexei Aigui
Cinematography by Henry AdebonojoBill Ross IVTurner Ross
Edited by Alexandra Strauss
Production Company: Velvet Film
Film Festival Release: October 2016
Running Time: 1hr 33min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Printed Film Format: Digital (Digital Cinema Package DCP)
Language: English
Reported Budget: 1m

Book I’m Reading

Go Tell It On The Mountain–published in 1953—is James Baldwin’s first novel. The Modern Library and Time Magazine both list the book amongst their top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The book is semi-autobiographical, leaning heavily on Baldwin’s experience with an abusive stepfather—a sensationalist preacher. And ending on a depiction of his own “awakening” at the age of 14 when he became a preacher.

Baldwin scholars suggest that he invented his own way of writing and speaking that stemmed from his years as a child preacher. “He remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow, and the rhetorical flourish.”

It was Raoul Peck who inspired me to get familiar with Baldwin’s work. In a behind the scenes interview from I Am Not Your Negro, he states:

When you are born a black man in this country, you need to read Baldwin. Without question, no if or [about it], you need to read [him]. Whatever you do with it later, that is another question. It’s like learning how to read. That’s how essential it is. For me, that is what he did. He taught me how to read. He taught me how to read my life. He taught me how to construct my life. He taught me how to make decisions about my life. So once you have that kind of powerful thinking, you need to put it in the hand of every single child in this country.

Obviously, I am not black. But, I thought reading Baldwin for myself would help me to garner understanding. And after having an undeniable emotional response to the poeticism in Baldwin’s words as featured in I Am Not Your Negro, I was eager to read them first hand in one of his books. So why not start with his first. Here is an excerpt:

She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, who they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.

Photographer that inspires me

James Karales observed his college roommate sweating over chemical trays in a darkroom and was inspired to change his major to photography. He graduated in 1955. And after spending two years under the tutelage of W. Eugene Smith at the Magnum Photo Agency, he set his sights on the working class in Rendville, Ohio, for his first photo essay. In its earlier years, Rendville was one of the few towns in the US to allow for workplace integration and was a stop on the underground railroad. His essay got noticed, and in 1960, Look Magazine hired him to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. His access to key movement figures like Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in an incredibly intimate body of work, charged—by his compositions and choice moments—with undeniable emotional clarity.

A collection of his work can be found in Controversy and Hopepublished in 2013. And James Karalespublished in 2014. 

Downloadable Resources
Select Karales photographs from the world wide web.

Article I am enjoying

Revisiting an anti-Latino past is an article written by Gustavo Arellano for the Los Angeles Times. It’s an honest reflection of the newspaper’s historical racism and how it has changed. What strikes me the most is how the newspaper is holding itself accountable with acute self-examination and commitment. Here is an excerpt:

The [Latin] elites were seen as cultured but good people whose best days were past. The rest were seen as halfbreeds and shiftless.” The dichotomy was there from the start. An 1883 story about northern Mexico’s “greasers” with the subhead “What They Are and How They Live” strove to distinguish for readers the difference between Mexicans with mixed heritage and those who were supposedly of pure Spanish blood. The latter were described as “bright, active and intelligent.” The Times cemented this myth in historical remembrances, serialized fiction, and news stories about society events where L.A.’s new white ruling class—including the Chandlers—dressed as the dons and señoritas of yore. Meanwhile, the city’s actual Mexican residents were written about largely in crime stories or what Gutierrez called “zoo pieces” — stories about Latinos not as individuals but as members of an ethnic group with little chance of being more than that.

Quote I am pondering

What I am trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible and so dead, no other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a white picket fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, then to marry and have the Plymouth and house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy that this is what we mean. – James Baldwin

 

Related
October Musings – Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more
A five course mind meal: a list of independent films and more
A photographic study of Latino culture

Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. Amongst a lot of catch up work—in life and business—I’ve been studying philosophy. In my latest research stream, I came across a book discussing the philosophies of Bruce Lee. It had been a while since I thought about Bruce Lee or seen any of his philosophical movies. But the book really spoke to me, so I decided to invest a little time in his life and work.

Book I’m Reading

The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee written by John Little, is a story about an artist who used philosophy to help guide him towards a balanced lifestyle of spiritual and commercial success—what most artists can only dream of.

As a child in Hong Kong, Lee was being bullied at school and sought martial arts training to protect himself. He learned the Wing Chun style of gung fu under the martial arts master Yip Man. And sums up his experience amongst his prolific writings:

Gung fu is a philosophy; it’s an integral part of the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, the ideals of giving with adversity, to bend slightly and then spring up stronger than before, to have patience in all things, to profit by one’s mistakes and lessons in life. These are the many-sided aspects of the art of gung fu; it teaches the way to live, as well as the way to protect oneself.

At 21 years old, Bruce majors in Philosophy at the University of Washington. He saturates himself in the writings of Lao-tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Descartes, and many others. And then self publishes his first book—Chinese Gung Fu, the Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.

The Warrior Within touches on philosophical concepts such as yin and yang, be like water, the need for honest self-expression, and the art of fighting without fighting. It then discusses how Lee expressed these in philosophical movies. One of his students, Daniel Inosanto, writes:

He felt very strongly that if he could get people to appreciate something in the Chinese culture, then they would appreciate something in other cultures as well. He felt that he was doing his small part in establishing something toward world peace.

Film I’m Studying

Enter The Dragon showcases the philosophy for the art of fighting without fighting and the need for honest self-expression.

Bruce Lee’s Chinese gung fu films stem from an explosion of swordplay films produced largely by the Shaw Brothers in post-WWII Hong Kong. They released up to fifty titles each year. One of their star directors Li Hanxiang started to combine Chinese opera styles and classical painting into his films, and the genre began to rise in artistic status. And with films like A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 1971), he began to infuse his films with philosophy—winning awards for technique at the Cannes Film Festival. And the Shaw Brothers swordplay epics started seeing widespread commercial success. At this time, Bruce Lee starred in his first leading role in The Big Boss, which launched him into stardom.

Three films later—in 1973—comes Enter the Dragon. And it’s the first Bruce Lee film to target an American audience. Much of the camera work followed the “zoom boom” trend of the ’70s. Innovations in zoom lens technology started to make them easier to use and more affordable. And as zoom shots started to replace dolly and crane shots—Cinematographers struggled with controversies over its artistic integrity. In Enter The Dragon—it helped Director Robert Clouse emphasize interpersonal moments in the middle of fight scenes without getting in the way of the action, using additional cameras, or taking the time to reshoot the scene on a tighter lens.

The film was shot in anamorphic on an Arriflex 35 IIC camera with Panavision C-series and Angenieux Lenses. And the film stock was Kodak 100T 5254. It takes a lot of light to expose such a film stock properly. And when shooting in Hong Kong with Chinese crew and equipment—Cinematographer Gil Hobbs didn’t have access to all the light control tools that were common in Hollywood. This might explain why the high key lighting approach feels more utilitarian than expressive.

What touches me the most in this film is Bruce Lee’s determination to express himself. In a new book written by Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee—Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee—she accounts for how Bruce campaigned to change the title and how he rewrote the script to include the philosophical scenes and tune up any cultural discrepancies. While his push for changing the title from ‘Blood and Steel’ to ‘Enter The Dragon’ succeeded—his rewrite of the script did not. As a result, he refused to show up on set until the producers agreed to his rewrites. The producers fed the press a cover story—that he was too nervous to start filming. Meanwhile—for two weeks—Bruce held his ground. And finally, the producers gave in and re-issued the locked script with his rewrites. However, the cover story has held on for decades.

The release of Shannon Lee’s book this month is a nice coincidence. An excerpt from the book about the making of Enter the Dragon is available here.

Downloadable Resources
Film Excerpts
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Robert Clouse
Produced by Raymond Chow, Paul M. Heller, Fred Weintraub
Written by Michael Allin
Starring Bruce LeeJohn SaxonJim Kelly
Music By Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography by Gil Hubbs
Edited by Kurt Hirschler, George Watters
Production Company: Warner Bros
Release Date: 1973
Running Time: 1hr 42min
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Camera: Arriflex 35 IIC, Panavision C-Series and Angenieux Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak 100T 5254
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: Hong Kong, USA
Language: English, Cantonese
Reported Budget: 850,000

Photographer that inspires me

Yu Yuntian. I met Yuntian when I was a teenager.  He had some film to process while traveling for an exhibit and came into the Wolf Camera and Video store where I was working. Somehow we got to talking—he told me about his next photo expedition to Tibet and invited me to come along. It caught me off guard, and I was certainly apprehensive. Still, I thought to myself—“wouldn’t it be nice to have such flexibility in my life, just to get up and go to Tibet…” I didn’t go on the trip, but he gave me a copy of his exhibition booklet and the photographs within have always been an inspiration for me.

Yuntian writes, “it is photography that has enabled me to find man’s value and his entire dignity throughout my endless journeys.” And like Bruce Lee and his philosophical movies, it was the spiritual nature of his own art that drove Yuntian the most:

I think that, in our attitude toward artistic pursuit, we should have a spirit of perceiving nature and observing life with a reverent mind, a religious sentiment that is strong and earnest. It is precisely here that ‘art is willing to walk hand in hand with religion’ (from Goethe). This is the revelation of religion.

Downloadable Resources
Select images from the exhibition booklet

Links
Gallery on the Global Photography website
Profile and Gallery on the China Photographers Association Website

Video I am enjoying

Bruce Lee “Lost” Interview from the Pierre Berton Show in 1971. In his films, his voice was always dubbed, and his lines were always scripted. This interview gives us the rare opportunity to hear him speak freely with his own voice in English. “Be water, my friend.”

A five course mind meal: a list of independent films and more

The Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbo in Querétaro, Mexico
I hope you are all enjoying 2020. I love this time of year and it’s proven to be a welcoming season of reflection and development so far. Therefore, I’ve been able to make a huge dent in my “films to watch” list. And subsequently I’ve included a list of independent films that have impacted me most. It’s always fun putting these together. I hope you get inspired. Enjoy!

Personal Project

More from Common Ground. The above image features The Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbo in Querétaro, Mexico. It opened as a convent in 1752. After the Liberal party won a civil war known as La Reforma in 1860 it was used as a hospital for 100 years. It is now under historical preservation while the convent portion is a college and the Temple holds regular mass.

Common Ground is a 20+ year photographic study of Latino culture. Check it out on Instagram!

Films I’m Studying

I’ve been catching up on my watch list over the last few months. And have been focusing on films that were made for under 3 million. As a result, my brain is churning up the many conversations I’ve had with friends and other filmmakers whom gripe about Hollywood and how they are only interested in putting out comic book movies and other big budget blockbusters. Well, here is a list of small independent films that in one way or another were made and/or released through Hollywood. But these are just the ones I’ve liked or re-watched. Additionally, they’ve all been released within the last six years, the genres and ratings are mixed and the links go to the films IMDB page.

Narrative

Bone Tomahawk 

Camp X-Ray

Columbus

Dear White People

Eighth Grade

Embrace of the Serpent

Flower

Hardcore Henry

Hearts Beat Loud

Hello, My Name is Doris

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I Origins

Ida

Irreplaceable

It Follows

Moonlight

Mustang

Obvious Child

Palo Alto

Swiss Army Man

The Blue Room

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Florida Project

The Lunchbox

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Skeleton Twins

Unsane

Upgrade

Documentaries

Antarctica: A year on Ice

Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary

Photographer That Inspires Me

Arnold Newman is another photographer who’s work was imprinted upon me when I started studying photography in the 90’s. His portraits are so content rich and intriguing, it makes me wonder why our culture today is so obsessed with the “Headshot.” I suppose they have there place in certain industries. But the environmental portrait, popularized by Newman, is a glorious authentic outlook on the human condition. And in comparison the “headshot” just seems like wasted opportunity.

On March 25th, 1996 I was lucky enough to attend a lecture of his sponsored by Canon. I saved the program and here it is.

Video I’m Enjoying

The Look of Parasite made by the Hurlbut Academy is an inspiring breakdown of the visual devices used to evoke specific emotional responses in the storytelling and how these visual ideas started early in the script writing process.

Written by Chris Haigh
Narrated by Ross Papitto
Edited by Dylan K Leong

Quote I’ve Lived By

A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart. – Arnold Newman

Poetry of a long tracking shot, surreal photography and more

The Common Ground Project - A black and white portrait of a Latino girl behind the barred gate of her families home and business in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

This month we look at the poetry of a long tracking shot, the surreal photography of Jerry Uelsmann and the meaning of art. It’s always fun putting these together and I hope you get inspired. Enjoy!

Personal Project

This featured image is from the Common Ground project: A twenty plus year study on Latino culture. More images are available to see on Instagram.

Film I’m Studying

Stalker: The camera starts very close on Stalkers wet leather jacket, it follows a path of jacket buttons until Stalkers dormant face fills the screen. We rest here for a moment as omniscient whispers tell a tale of Kings hiding from God on the day of his return to earth. The camera and the whispers continue, leaving stalkers face to closely examine the shallow depths of a long forgotten aqueduct where corroded remnants of a corrupted civilization rest amongst floating filth. We don’t stop moving until we see Stalkers hand, resting on the water like a disfigured pearl, a welcome reprieve from the filth. The camera slowly moves out and cuts, leaving us to ponder on the poetry of a long tracking shot.

Of any shot that I’ve seen in Cinema, this one reaches out to me the most. When I think of visual story telling, of visual poetry and of things I hadn’t seen before. this shot it always there. have a look.

I’ve been fascinated by Tarkovsky’s films since Janos Kovacsi showed us some clips from his first feature Ivan’s Childhood, in a class about working with actors at the North Carolina School of the Arts, School Of Filmmaking. He rolled in one of those old square tv’s on a metal framed cart with squeaky wheels and played us a clip. It was perfect, every element was in absolute harmony with the other.

Due to conflicts with Soviet authorities regarding his work, Stalker was Tarkovsky’s last Russian film. Therefore, his last two; Nostalghia and The Sacrifice were made in Italy and Sweden.

Here are some frame grabs from some of my favorite shots in the film.

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Produced by Aleksandra Demidova
Written by Arkady StrugatskyBoris Strugatsky
Based on Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Starring Alexander KaidanovskyAnatoly SolonitsynNikolai GrinkoAlisa Freindlich
Music by Eduard Artemyev
Cinematography Alexander Knyazhinsky
Edited by Lyudmila Feiginova
Production Company: Mosfilm
Release date: May 1979
Running time: 161 minutes
Country: Soviet Union
Language: Russian
Budget: 1,000,000 Rubles

Photographer that inspires me

Jerry Uelsmann: I was exposed to Uelsmann in the 90’s when first learning about photography and have been obsessed with his work ever since. But aside from his images, the one thing I remember the most about him is that he had a ritualistic way of working. Every Wednesday, no matter what, he would work in the darkroom.

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote about him in 2001 for a college assignment.

In search of a way to display his vision, Jerry Uelsmann studied and experimented with different photographic techniques in the early 1960’s. He found that photomontage was the best way for him to express himself and this started a storm of controversy. He was breaking the photographic  tradition in creating surrealistic images by using many different negatives to create one print. Purist photographers said that he was not a photographer.

The essay is titled It’s About The Vision and you can check out the full article along with my research and professors notes in this old PDF.

Article I am enjoying

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic: This was a quick read that inspired me to read more poetry.

Quote I am pondering

Art is by nature aristocratic, and naturally selective in its effect on the audience. For even in its ‘collective’ manifestations, like theatre or cinema, its effect is bound up with the intimate emotions of each person who comes into contact with the work. The more the individual is traumatised and gripped by those emotions, the more significant a place will the work have in his experience.- Andrei Tarkovsky