The birth of the minstrel show of the early 19th century was an effective means for white men to control the narrative concerning the Black experience in America. Racist, blackface caricatures of burnt cork flesh and exaggerated African features helped to create the deceptive myth of the lazy, happy-go-lucky plantation slave. But more than that, minstrels were popular, exploitative and profitable appealing even to African Americans thirsting for any sort of representation. They were also a subtle and indirect critique of white supremacy as an extremely dull, unremarkable, dominant culture characterized by its single note, anti-Black oppressive violence.
And I’m not suggesting that Sam Levinson–the writer/director of Malcolm & Marie (2021)–is guilty of outright minstrelsy. I’d describe it more as blackface by proxy or low-key Black cosplay. Because, as many reviewers have already pointed out, the premise of the movie strongly resembles Levinson’s own experiences as a filmmaker which I don’t have a problem with. My beef is with his reckless use of Black actors to dress up his bland experiences by normalizing a toxic relationship, endorsing rampant misogynoir, and passing it all off as some form of Black romantic love.
So what is Malcolm & Marie about? Short answer: Marie (Zendaya) feels underappreciated by Malcolm (John David Washington). And maybe my take is a little reductive but therein lies the whole entire conflict for the nearly two hour run time of the movie. The two leads verbally brawl like heavyweight contenders slugging it out in a posh ranch-style getaway. But it is Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm–an egomaniacal Black filmmaker flying high off the critically acclaimed success of his movie premier–who fights dirty. A role that Washington overly commits to, offering no justification for the needless cruelty of his character.
But Marie withstands his verbal abuse and responds not in kind but with the truth. In fact, I was rather annoyed with Marie because I don’t know too many Black women who would’ve put up with Malcolm’sfoolishness for that long. It is more likely that their argument would’ve began inside the car during the ride back from the movie premier and ended with Marie telling Malcolm, “Nigga, you ain’t shit!,” as she drives off leaving him standing on the side of the dirt road confused.
The. End. Roll credits. Twenty minutes tops.
Reportedly, Netflix paid $30 million for Malcolm & Marie with Zendaya and Washington sharing executive producer credits with Levinson. So it’s not surprising the trio has defended the film from criticisms concerning the noticeable age gap between Zendaya and Washington, Levinson criticizing critics via Malcolm’s nonsensical rant, and his questionable choice to make the movie about a Black couple. But in recent interviews, Levinson assures us that he had the approval of the two leads. That it was a collaborative effort which still does not make them all equal partners because, unfortunately, Malcolm & Marie remains trapped under the white male gaze.
In the hands of director Lee Daniels (Precious (2009), The Butler (2013)), the life of legendary Jazz singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) becomes a messy patchwork of fact and fiction. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) is based on the book Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari but, apparently, Daniels doesn’t seem to place much confidence in the source material by inventing characters and exploring the possibility of a romantic relationship between Lady Day (Day) and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes)–a Black federal agent who betrayed her.
I could not help but be thoroughly impressed with Andra Day channeling the unique vocal stylings of one of the greatest Jazz singers of all time. She was more than deserving of the Best Actress Golden Globe for single handedly keeping the movie from flatlining for most of its 2 hour and 10 minute run time.
But what we do know for sure is that Billie Holiday (Day) stayed on the feds radar in a bad way throughout her career. Particularly, that of the racist commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) for her refusal to stop singing her signature anti-lynching protest song Strange Fruit.
Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) ultimately exploits Holiday’s drug addiction as well as her addiction to often violent and untrustworthy men to silence her. But Anslinger is not satisfied with just imprisoning her for a year in a woman’s reformatory. He goes all out to destroy Lady Day and even arrests her as she lay dying, handcuffing her to a hospital bed where she eventually succumbs to years of drug abuse, chain smoking, and alcoholism at the early age of 44.
But this movie is hardly a cautionary tale about the evils of heroine addiction. It’s about ten year old Eleanora Fagan being raped, working in a brothel with her mother at the age of 14, being pimped by her husband while trying to survive America’s endless addiction to racism and continued hatred of the Black woman only to be destroyed by the white supremacist’s powers that be.
Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for Strange Fruit which was also named Time Magazine’s song of the century. And we are informed right before the ending credits that, as of last year, the Senate has yet to pass the Emmitt Till Anti-Lynching Act.
The Undoing (2020), the HBO original mini-series, wants to be taken seriously as a thriller/murder mystery but comes across as more of an under achieving slacker whodunit made for the likes of “meddling kids” who travel around hob-knobbing with celebrities in a van called a Mystery Machine with a barely coherent talking dog. This drama offers plenty of predictable red herrings but raises even more red flags concerning the questionable bedside manner of Dr. Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant). Grant stars as an unfaithful husband and a deceptively charming pediatric oncologist accused of brutally murdering his lustful mistress, Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). But much of the drama it seems is focused on convincing Jonathan’s clinical therapist wife, Dr.Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) of his obvious guilt. It took nearly all six episodes for Grace to be fully convinced (despite overwhelmingly damning evidence) that her husband was capable of bludgeoning (beyond recognition) his lover–a married mother of two and artist–to death with her own sculpting hammer. In a sudden turn of events, Grace insists on taking the stand in the guise of defending Jonathan’s character but, instead, ends up assisting the prosecution in convicting him during cross examination. A plot twist that both surprises and shocks, said no one paying even the slightest attention when the title of the novel, You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz that the series is based on is listed in the opening credits acting as a subtle spoiler for each episode.
Nicole Kidman unquestionably possesses a wide emotional range evident in a more popular David E Kelley HBO drama, Big Little Lies, but very little of it was on display in The Undoing. I was more distracted by the scene stealing Botox causing unnatural bulges in places on Kidman’s face during close-ups that looked more like an apparent food allergy, unable to escape the harsh resolution capabilities of high-def television.
And unfortunately for Matilda De Angelis, her role as Elena Alves–the younger, hotter other woman–is a well worn trope foreshadowing her expendability as the cliché fleshpot. Besides showing that she was not shy about breastfeeding in the company of other women during a committee meeting, or exposing herself (unwaxed genitalia and all) while casually conversing with a visibly uncomfortable Grace (Kidman) inside a gym locker room, we are given very little information about Elena (De Angelis). Other scenes include Elena and Jonathan (Grant) in the throes of passion (read: yuck) in a series of cringe flashbacks which make up the bulk of her onscreen presence but doesn’t give us any insight into what kind of wife, mother, or artist she may have been. De Angelis’ character was never fully fleshed out though her flesh was peddled for no other reason it seems than to provide ammunition to assassinate her character later on during the trial.
In a highly improbable and surreal scene, Jonathan (Grant) visits Elena’s husband, Fernando Alves (Ismael Cruz Córdova) in a bizarre moment of what can loosely be described as “bonding” where Fernando confesses that he is understandably having trouble loving the child that Jonathan has fathered with his wife, Elena (De Angelis), whom Jonathan is also accused of murdering. And I don’t know of any likely scenario or alternate universe where this scene would have even the slightest possibility of taking place without Jonathan ending up being carried out on a stretcher with various life threatening injuries.
Keeping It Real
I think The Undoing is nothing more than peak whiteness. It’s not necessarily concerned with the guilt or innocence of Dr. Jonathan Fraser (Grant) as it is in demonstrating how easily disposable the life of a woman of color is. Elena (De Angelis) paid the ultimate price for not staying in her place of lower class insignificance with her family in Spanish Harlem. Because it is only when Elena demands to be treated as an equal with Grace (Kidman) that Jonathan’s murderous rage is triggered. Of course, he had every expectation of getting away with it being white, male, privileged, and having access to wealth. And the absurd, extremely unsatisfying ending gave me no assurance that Elena would actually receive justice which is a reality that us non-white Americans continue to live with.
I’m not convinced that Wonder Woman 1984 was not just another DC Extended Universe, big budget, franchise money grab which happened to exceed low box office expectations…after being released on Christmas day…during a pandemic. Nor am I totally convinced that this much anticipated sequel was not, in fact, some badly written piece of fan fic by some fandom rando consuming copious amounts of alcohol, illegal drugs, and possessing a weird obsession for 80’s nostalgia–fanny packs, breakdancing, and leg warmers.
So go ahead and fight me! Please, prove me wrong! And don’t just tell me that Wonder Woman 1984 is so awesome because Gal Gadot is hot! I don’t want your frat bro takes. I want receipts. Tell me the significance of the movie being set in the year 1984 and don’t try to lecture me about how it profoundly speaks to a decade of excess and greed relevant to the present time and I’m just being salty because the movie was directed by a woman.
Or tell me why was it so necessary for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to return as the love interest of Diana Prince. But to be fair, I never liked the choice of Diana Prince and Steve Trevor hooking up in the original. It was too predictable in a romcom kind of way and felt like lazy writing to score some needless fan service points, a hedging of bets. Besides, there is a reason why the Amazons live on Themyscira off the grid from the rest of the world. Men suck. One white man in particular who inadvertently causes the death of a beloved legendary Amazon general and sister to the queen, Antiope. (But I won’t mention Steve Trevor‘s name.) And the likelihood that Steve Trevor, a white man, an American spy is not misogynistic, sexist, and/or racist on any level is even far less believable than him existing in 1914 where these social injustices were prevalent. Call me petty. But I digress.
(*side note* In historian Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, an avowed feminist and Wonder Woman’s creator, was often at odds with editors who would have preferred the Amazon warrior play a more subordinate role as a secretary or possibly a wife to Steve Trevor or Superman. But Marston initially created Wonder Woman as Superman’s equal and not as a subservient addition to DC’s superhero sausage party. Just sayin’.)
Wonder Woman is comic book royalty, a DC legend, a Justice League OG, and she deserved better treatment than a somewhat convoluted, lackluster plot about a Reagan-era, infomercial grifter, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who nearly destroys the world with nuclear warfare by acquiring the power to grant wishes from an ancient artifact. A ridiculous looking gemstone recovered from a jewelry store in a Washington D.C. mall which we learn is actually a front for a black market operation for stolen merchandise. And we know this because, of course, there was an attempted heist which is thwarted by our favorite wedge heeled Amazon fashion plate, her glowing lasso of truth in tow as she swings here and there ultimately foiling the would be robbers and conjuring images of a certain webslinger. And, yes, it is as anti-climactic and cringe as it sounds.
Anyway, the movie segues into the pitiful origin story of DC supervillain, Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), a socially dysfunctional colleague and fangirl of Diana Prince at the Smithsonian who goes by the name of Dr. Barbara Minerva. And, no, the movie does not improve one iota as we learn that Dr. Minerva’s greatest motivation for eventually joining team Lord is because she wants to be like her newfound bestie, Diana, who is one of the cool kids. Oh, and Diana rescues Barbara from a drunken business man who attempts to sexually assault her but it’s not clear how much of that factors into Barbara’s ultimate wish to become an “apex predator”. Her words. Not mine.
Wonder Woman 1984 became that much more of a struggle for me to power through once Steve Trevor reappears in the body of another man, reuniting with Diana. Diana and Steve briefly reminisce, go back to Steve‘s apartment, have sex and later on Diana suddenly remembers as they are flying in a stolen jet that she is able to turn objects invisible and because radar technology exists in 1984 they need to fly undetected to Cairo which makes perfect sense when you think about it because Steve is a pilot from 1914, duh! Try to keep up.
Did I forget to mention that Wonder Woman can also fly and latch onto lightning bolts with her magic lasso? And I had to ask myself, have these abilities always been a thing with Wonder Woman in the DCEU or am I just late to the party? I’m still not sure how the whole secret identity works either. Are people just not willing to say anything? Plausible deniability can only go so far and then the anti-aging cream excuse becomes suspect.
And can we talk about the janky, Walmart brand, Great Value, golden body armor (some really shiny armor with protective wings that was first worn by the legendary Amazon warrior, Asteria) that Cheetah totally made light work of with a few quick slashes of her claws in the final battle scene. A fight scene that pretty much summed up the entire movie–a lot of green screen and flashy CGI but ultimately falls apart upon closer scrutiny. And it would seem that Maxwell Lord nor Dr. Minerva had to face any consequences for their actions, followed by the ending credits, a cameo by the 70’s television icon Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, as a third installment of the Amazon warrior immediately gets greenlit.
Clearly, Gal Gadot has an all consuming on screen presence as a leggy, slightly knock kneed, super heroine with an accent and a seductive Hollywood beauty aesthetic, which is all part of her charm as Wonder Woman. And I also believe the bulk of Gadot’s box office appeal is largely due to her being a woman of color. Unfortunately, she is mismanaged in Wonder Woman 1984 and is unable to escape the limitations of the white male gaze even with Patty Jenkins in the director’s chair because Wonder Woman still functions as an exotic fantasy of white men’s heteronormative desires.
Look, I’m not sure what Patty Jenkins, Warner Bothers, and DC had in mind with this latest offering other than to not to be like Marvel. It would seem that Jenkins and company are more than satisfied to check some representation and empowerment boxes for young girls while continuing the DCEU‘s record for making mildly entertaining superhero films. But Wonder Woman 1984 in a way feels shamelessly exploitative of the current moment filled with a mounting Covid body count, political instability, racial tension, and economic uncertainty. A reality that many of us are desperate to escape from to the point that some of us will go so far as to declare on Twitter that Wonder Woman 1984 was “the movie we never knew we needed in 2020” but that is the one wish that, unfortunately, this movie fails to grant.
“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being.”
James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time)
How We Got Here So, how did we get here? Short answer: White supremacy. The insurrection, the attempted coup by a terrorist mob of white Trump supporters on the Capitol in Washington on January 6 of this year only serves to punctuate a history of unchecked white supremacy in this country. The ease with which they gained access, believing that their cause is just, and the feeling of righteous indignation, entitlement, and impunity for their actions is on brand for a race of people whom history has inadvertently conditioned to believe that they are America’s perpetual ruling class. A false notion largely unchallenged for centuries.
This Is Not Who America Is This is exactly who America damn well is. America’s very own history indicts this country on a daily basis for its growing list of atrocities carried out against its non-white citizens. But this is America’s current dilemma–squandering valuable opportunities to reckon with and failing to atone for its historical legacy of racism, inequality, and injustice. And after the white insurrectionist’s coup attempt, there are some who foolishly claim that this is not what America stands for. That this is not the America that they know and that America is somehow better than this when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
America Is A Failed State America originated as a failed state founded upon the violence and bloodshed of its hypocritical, genocidal, land-grabbing, white supremacist, racist enslavers. America’s sordid history of forced bondage, oppression, and toxic white nationalism is very much alive in the faces printed on our currency, in the holidays that we celebrate, in centuries old monuments, in the namesakes on our various institutions across the US, the flags that we pledge our allegiance to, and even in our nation’s anthem. They are constant reminders of not only this country’s many transgressions but of its continued refusal to take responsibility for them.
America Must Unite? Calling for unity and healing in this moment without first punishing those accountable for trying to violently overturn the results of a presidential election is disingenuous and unrealistic. Historically, America has given little indication that it is actively seeking to purge white supremacy from the soul of this nation. And threatening to impeach and remove Trump from office does nothing to ensure that these types of incidents will never happen again. I believe the insurrection on the Capitol was just the opening act of 2021 setting a frightening precedent.
The Message Is Clear African Americans have long since lost the luxury of being shocked much less surprised by white violence in this country. But we remain outraged with our humanity yet to be recovered because we know that last week’s carnage in Washington will not result in any significant changes in policing or severe punishment for those involved, especially when we see Kyle Rittenhouse out on bail after killing two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year. And after Jacob Blake learned that no charges would be brought against a white police officer, Rusten Sheskey, for shooting him in the back multiple times which initially led to the unrest in Kenosha where Rittenhouse was able to act out his white power, vigilante fantasy.
My Prognosis For America Make no mistake, it is not because white supremacists felt necessarily threatened by a Joe Biden presidency that spurred the deadly events at the Capitol. Or that they even felt the election was actually stolen. It is because white supremacists were utterly humiliated on a global stage by a majority of Black, Brown, and Indigenous masses–Americans they do not consider to be deserving of equal rights as citizens–who mobilized, organized, to overcome blatant voter suppression tactics to deliver a historical ass-whoopin’ to Trump at the ballot box. And what many consider to be the chef’s kiss by electing Kamala Harris–the first woman and woman of color–to be this country’s vice president. Signaling a power shift that the white racist patriarchy and their supporters feel they must destroy by any means necessary including violence in order to preserve white supremacy at all cost. Which is why the story of America cannot end well.
I cast my ballot on the very first day of early voting in Texas as the line of masked up voters socially distancing themselves snaked outside into the parking lot of Sunland Park Mall in El Paso. A little before nine in the morning my three sisters and I stood for nearly an hour to make our voices heard. But all the while I thought to myself that America does not deserve the Black vote because this country has done very little to earn it. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe America deserves our allegiance, our love of country, our military service, our labor, etc… But most of all, America does not deserve our patience.
I am extremely unhappy with Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. That out of such a diverse field of presidential candidates (some of whom I felt were more qualified) African Americans are, once again, left with the option of voting for two white men. It is an all too familiar and tiresome predicament which does not speak well of a country that allegedly seeks to heal its racial divide. A country that has managed to produce a single African American POTUS after centuries of existence only to then elect a man who gives a voice to white extremists and legitimizes white nationalism is not progress. It is failure on so many levels.
So, why did I vote?
I voted because by not voting in the previous presidential election I felt that I had actually helped to elect the man currently occupying the Oval Office who admitted to down playing a virus he knew to be potentially fatal causing a massive loss of American lives. I voted because there are many Americans who after knowing this still support this same man. I voted because there are Americans who are willing to take his word over medical experts and put the lives of their fellow Americans at risk. I voted because I am tired of the rage tweeting, the racist dog whistles, the disinformation by him and his administration. But, more importantly, I voted because I could not live with myself knowing that after all the ballots are counted and no matter the outcome that I did nothing.
I believe to be a good writer requires one to possess a reasonable amount of insanity. But to be a great writer one has to truly be committed. And if there is one thing I’ve learned during this pandemic and racial upheaval is that I really should be committed. I’m not the same man I was before america finally decided that Black lives will never matter. That this country will never see us as human beings is a painful reality to live with. White folks will never know what that feels like. So, excuse me when I don’t crave the normalcy that others seem so desperate to return to.
At times, I feel like a tightly clenched fist, tense with rage, ready to punch my way through the rest of my life. Instead, I decided to end El Paso POV after blogging for nearly five years on WordPress. I needed a change of space in order to flex more of my story telling skills hence the name Ben Writes Whatever. Because I plan to write…well…whatever. I’m a writer and I’ve never fully owned that part of myself. I’ve never taken that part of myself seriously.
Today, (in fact, just a little while ago) I learned that a former LMPD officer has been indicted by a grand jury on three counts of “wanton endangerment” in the murder of Breonna Taylor. Not good enough…nowhere near good enough. Breonna was a daughter, sister, girlfriend, and above all else a human being. What the indictment actually says is that according to Kentucky law Breonna’s life was not as valuable as the property that was damaged by the reckless actions of Brett Hankison. To even charge Hankison reinforces that fact and for the Kentucky AG, Daniel Cameron (the first Black independently elected Kentucky AG) to urge calm is a slap in the face. This country has squandered every opportunity to show that Black lives matter. And, yet again, racists win.