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Blerd Watch: ‘Passing’

Ruth Negga as Clare Bellew in Passing (2021) Image courtesy of Netflix

Remember when Taylor Swift basically took the music world by storm with her amazing banjo-picking rendition of Earth Wind and Fire’s R&B classic September a little over three years ago, prompting many in the Black community to praise her as a musical genius, dubbing her an honorary queen of soul, and even extending to her a lifetime invitation to the “cookout”?

Well, neither do I.

But I do remember that it didn’t take long for Black Twitter to unleash the draggin’ once the cringeworthy track was released.

And I also remember thinking to myself that, of course, Taylor Swift being a multi-talented, award-winning musical artist probably felt she was qualified or simply entitled by virtue of her whiteness to cover any song of her choosing which seems very much on-brand in an industry with a long history of cultural appropriation.

It would seem that certain people have learned nothing from Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park (1993) that just because they can do something doesn’t always mean they SHOULD, especially when it comes to white women who believe that Black people should somehow be honored by their often whimsical, joyless, unseasoned, and baffling interpretations of our art and culture.

Because we’re not talking about a one-hit-wonder by a group of unknowns whose short-lived celebrity is eclipsed by the popularity of their once upon a time chart-topper. We’re talking about Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame legends whose songs are still considered bangers even in a more tech-savvy era of social media, viral videos, and the ominous specter of cancel culture.

So what does any of this have to do with the movie Passing (2021)?

Rebecca Hall is an English actress turned director who made her directorial debut earlier this year, adapting the 1929 Nella Larsen novella Passing to the big screen. Hall claimed she felt connected to the book’s precarious subject matter of Black women being able to pass as white in late 1920s New York.

It turns out that Hall’s grandfather who apparently was light-skinned enough to pass as white (I assume somewhere between El DeBarge and retired baseball great Sammy Sosa) probably came to her in a “vision” -a lot like the same entitlement vision had by Swift–to make this film. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I will admit that Passing is aesthetically pleasing to look at with its lush monochromatic hues producing a sort of grim gray effect that nicely punctuates the theme of racial ambiguity evident throughout the film. And, although, Tessa Thompson (Irene Redfield) and Ruth Negga (Clare Bellew) turn in superb performances their characters largely felt incomplete.

Passing the novella is the early seminal work that exemplifies the intersectionality of Black women before the term was even coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. But in the hands of Rebecca Hall, Passing becomes a generic, unimaginative, cautionary tale in cautious storytelling. In other words, there’s more telling than showing which is indicative of an inexperienced first-time director unwilling or not skilled enough to take risks with the source material.

Still, the overwhelming majority of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie positive reviews. But, then again, they’re probably mostly white people who think Taylor Swift’s Milk of Magnesia version of September was a vast improvement on the original.

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My Reaction to the Rittenhouse Verdict

Umm…let’s see…a white man is acquitted of shooting three other white men–killing two and injuring the third with an assault rifle that a white judge says that the white man was allowed to carry (according to the white judge’s biased interpretation of the law) to a Black Lives Matter protest of the shooting of a Black man by a white cop (a white cop, by the way, who was never charged with any wrongdoing after shooting the Black man several times in the BACK) in August of last year.

Yep, sounds about white.

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Blerd Watch: The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall (2021) a Netflix Original

I do have some problems with Jeymes Samuel’s Netflix Original The Harder They Fall (2021) but Regina King as Treacherous Trudy Smith is definitely not one of them. Her onscreen presence commands much of the viewer’s attention no matter what scene she’s in and she melts me every time with her sinister I-wish-a-nigga-would glare.

Regina King as Treacherous Trudy Smith in The Harder They Fall image courtesy of Netflix.

But it would be easy to praise THTF for its representation of Black legends of the Wild West, its stylishness, and trying to make the overabundance of clichés and tropes that routinely accompanies the Western genre more appealing, fresh, and cool to next-gen moviegoers.

Because African Americans still thirst for representation on the big screen, especially in a genre where white men like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (along with racial stereotypes and historical inaccuracies) have dominated for decades in Hollywood.

But if you’re going to make a Black Western with a run time of well over two hours then representation alone is not enough. There has to be a compelling story. And, unfortunately, Samuel opted to tell a fictional (yet familiar) tale of revenge by employing actual historical Black figures of the Wild West while borrowing previous oater templates of gratuitous violence and bloodshed that make THTF less of a love letter/ homage to classic Western films and more of a middling, unsatisfying imitation with an all-Black cast, some eyebrow-raising accents, but with a great soundtrack.

However, The Harder They Fall is Jeymes Samuel’s feature-length debut and I do believe a legitimate effort was made to breathe new life into a genre of filmmaking that remains very much white-centered and in dire need of a make-over.

This brings me to the questionable casting choice of Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary. The real-life Stagecoach Mary Fields (aka Black Mary) was a product of slavery and I can’t help but feel that being plus-sized with a dark complexion would factor more into her experiences of living as a Black woman in the toxic whiteness of the Wild West. Her prominently hard features lend credibility to her well-earned reputation as a short-tempered, heavy drinker with a penchant for wearing men’s clothes, unlike the bright-skinned, the slightly more lady-like male fantasy that Beetz provides in the movie.

Image of the real Stagecoach Mary Fields (L) and Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary in The Harder They Fall (R) David Lee/Netflix/Public Domain.

And Beetz may have talked tough in THTF but at no time did I see her as anything other than a romantic interest for Jonathan Major’s Nat Love (with chemistry, by the way, that ranged from zero to nada). Beetz casting is nearly a complete erasure of who Stagecoach Mary Fields was. As if Fields’ physical attributes were not part of her legend.

Colorism is as old as it is prevalent in Hollywood and should not be dismissed as some petty grievance among Black people trying to decide who’s Black enough. And to claim that his film is not a “biopic” as Samuel does during an Insider interview is disingenuous and doesn’t excuse him of being guilty of colorism. But it does expose his lack of creativity which is why The Harder They Fall falls short of contributing anything significant or groundbreaking to Black Western cinema.

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Blerd Watch: Dune Part 1

image by CHIA BELLA JAMESWARNER BROS.

I’m very much a newb, a neophyte when it comes to Dune ( Warner Bros, 2021). Meaning, I have not watched any previous onscreen adaptations nor have I read the 1965 Frank Herbert novel they were based on. And you may say that I’ve neglected my Blerd duties which is not true. It’s just that Dune has never been on my radar in a big way and, amazingly enough, nobody cares.

But I am an avid fan of science fiction movies. There’s nothing like an entertaining epic sci-fi saga of good versus evil teeming with thrill seeking action and adventure and lightsabers with dope sound effects and likable, humble characters answering a higher call and a motley of creatures from distant planets all uniting for a common cause against a villain voiced by the great James Earl Jones.

George Lucas’ first Star Wars trilogy (20th Century Fox, 1977-83) remains the gold standard for epic sci-fi storytelling in my humble opinion. And is there any weapon in the entire sci-fi cinematic universe more bad ass than a lightsaber? I. Think. Not. (An argument can be made for blasters or phasers but who are we kidding? They’re basically point and shoot and require a lot less skill to operate. Plus, lightsabers are a welcome addition to any cinematic universe and greatly increases one’s chances of defeating any number of foes. But I digress.)

In other words, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is not Star Wars. Nor does it have to be but it should have at least checked off more of the boxes that makes a sci-fi saga an entertaining epic (especially with a $168 million price tag).

Aside from the all too familiar overarching theme of white patriarchal saviorism or what I like to refer to as nauseating, Dune part 1 felt like a dull, uneventful promo trailer for the inevitable sequel, lasting a little over two and a half hours, resulting in something that I refuse to call a cliffhanger. Which is a shame because the world-building is superb, as is the cinematography accompanied by a stirring musical score from Academy award winning composer Hans Zimmer. There’s even a really cool looking CGI sandworm that doesn’t get nearly enough screen time (if you ask me).

Part of the problem with Dune is that Villeneuve’s version doesn’t allow viewers to fully invest in the lives of the film’s characters. And they don’t have lightsabers. But Dune does have the equivalent of a Jedi mind trick technique which is some type of weird flex move called the Voice except it’s a lot less Yoda and a lot more loud, angry, and violent, y’know, like white parents performing their outrage at public schoolboard meetings. They also have a Crysknife (still not a lightsaber) made from the tooth of a dead sandworm which is still not enough to save this movie from the tepid doldrums of mediocrity. #teamsandworm

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In Search of Humanity

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority image courtesy of Slate and William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

At a time when much of the pandemic has unfortunately been politicized, empathy for our fellow human beings is in short supply. Some Americans have been violently attacked and even killed trying to enforce mask rules, while anti-vaxxers refuse to believe that Covid19 is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, going so far as to quit their jobs instead of getting the jab. And those of us who have lost family and friends (otherwise healthy individuals) to the coronavirus have listened to nonexperts boldly try to school scientists, questioning their expertise on pandemic diseases.

We’ve also seen irate parents demand that Critical Race Theory not be taught in public schools (even though it’s not) and that certain books be removed from the curriculum because they would make white children feel uncomfortable. Yet, an online petition to bring back slavery was circulated by students at a Kansas City high school. And white high schoolers waved a Confederate flag as they spewed racial slurs prompting Black students to plan a protest in Rome, Georgia. Needless to say, the Black students were subsequently suspended for doing so.

So I wondered what kind of people were riding on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Market–Frankford (SEPTA) line on October 13–a Wednesday night–as they witnessed a woman being raped, sexually assaulted on the train for roughly eight minutes. None made any attempt to intervene. No one even bothered to call 911. I mean, are they the type of people to enforce rules or demand their right not to obey them? Would they remove a passenger for not masking up or threaten school board members to stop their children from being taught CRT in the classroom? In other words, what is it exactly that needed to happen to compel these passengers to act?

Because I need to make sense of all of this. I am desperately clinging to whatever sanity I may have left after 2020 and the events of January 6. I want to believe that the passengers on that train are a fringe group and that the vast majority of Americans would have stepped in, putting our differences aside. But any evidence of that actually happening is severely lacking.

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Dave Chappelle’s ‘The Closer’

Daphne Dorman (left) and Dave Chappelle (right) Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Netflix/Instagram

It would be extremely easy for me to write a hit piece dismissing Dave Chappelle’s latest and final Netflix special The Closer as unforgivably transphobic. That surely a veteran comic like Chappelle could have chosen other equally marginalized groups to offend such as Blacks beating up Asians, or “Space Jews”, or angry, violent lesbians, or feminists, or TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), and tiki torch whites. And I could simply write that Chappelle has finally aged out of stand-up after securing his multimillion dollar Netflix bag and, therefore, he’s too rich to care about who he offends.

But, if I were to do so–if I were to join Dave Chappelle’s many Twitter anti-fans, critics, and LGBTQ representative organizations in demanding that Netflix remove The Closer from the streaming giant’s platform I would have to honestly believe that Dave Chappelle is an unapologetic transphobe, a TERF who truly hates trans people. I would have to believe that Dave Chappelle simply crafted his jokes for The Closer with the malicious intent of causing more hurt and violence to the trans community. Violence that is mostly inflicted upon Black trans women. That joking about trans women in any way, shape, or form dehumanizes them and places their lives in great danger. Because a joke about trans women’s genitalia TASTING differently is not only unfunny but a matter of life and death.

I would have to disregard any nuance Dave Chappelle’s jokes may have had along with any larger points he was trying to make during his set. I would have to ignore the fact that Chappelle’s gratuitous use of the n-word continues to get a lot of laughs. That it’s not possible for comedy in the hands of a Black man to be multi-layered and thought provoking. Nor is Chappelle capable of using comedy to ask very uncomfortable questions concerning hot button issues. That Dave Chappelle was not actually making fun of transphobes, and TERFs by posing as one because his fans are probably low IQ degenerates who will laugh at anything. And anybody who laughs at Chappelle’s jokes must be transphobic too.

But, most of all, I would also have to believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that Dave Chappelle absolutely hates Daphne Dorman–an ardent fan, a white trans woman whom he befriended and chose to dedicate the last ten minutes of his special to. And even though I was moved and somewhat teary-eyed I must believe that deep down Chappelle really doesn’t care that Dorman killed herself. Besides, it would make more sense that he simply saw an opportunity to shamelessly use her suicide to defend himself against critics who have called him on his transphobia. Which is why I’m not going to write another hit-piece about Dave Chappelle’s The Closer because that would be too easy to do.

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Blerd Vision

C. Thomas Howell in his tour-de-force performance as Mark Watson in Soul Man (1986) and yes I’m being sarcastic. Image courtesy of The Telegraph

Imagine a Harriet Tubman biopic starring Julia Roberts (Yes, that Julia Roberts) in the lead role. Her hair corn-rowed or in Bantu knots and her complexion a tanning bed brown as she leads “her people” on a perilous journey through the Underground Railroad to instant scripted freedom.

Sounds impossible, right?

But while you shake your head in disbelief, once upon a time in Hollywood, it was actually a suggestion made by a studio exec who reasoned that because Harriet Tubman is a historical figure from a long ago, bygone era that audiences wouldn’t know the difference between an iconic Black woman and Roberts. Which is very much on-brand for an industry that greenlit a stereotypically racist movie like…well…Soul Man (1986) where anti-Black racism is not to be taken seriously but comes off as an offensively unfunny punchline in an unnecessary romcom no one asked for.

And despite Soul Man co-star Rae Dawn Chong’s best efforts in defending the film, I don’t think it has aged well. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the movie made “white people look stupid” as Chong claimed. Instead, Blackness gets reduced to C. Thomas Howell’s character, Mark Watson–a Harvard Law School hopeful–ingesting some tanning pills and sporting an obviously fake afro wig as he moved about onscreen, his overt whiteness undetected even by the seemingly intelligent Black characters he frequently interacted with.

Incredibly enough, Chong, Howell and other notable cast members were able to walk away from this train wreck of a movie, careers unscathed. Soul Man was even considered somewhat of a box office success amid lukewarm reviews, harsh criticism by a then up-and-coming film maker Spike Lee, and even though a chapter of the NAACP protested the film at the time of its release.

So why am I bringing up an extremely cringeworthy movie that’s over three decades old and will hopefully never be remade or, God forbid, spawn a sequel or become a streaming television series? Because I’m a Blerd–a Black nerd–which is the kind of thing Blerds do. And in case you haven’t noticed, I proudly wear my Blerd hat whenever I post reviews and I’m often petty and resentful with my analysis because Black people experience movies and television differently.

African Americans understand that historically Hollywood has always been and continues to be a white supremacist’s propaganda machine (*see D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) or you can just watch the Hallmark Channel). Which makes it more difficult for us to emotionally invest in characters and stories that do not share our lived experience of anti-Black racism in this country. And any current attempt at inclusiveness or diversity in Tinseltown, though necessary, often feels more like cultural appropriation, exploitation, and seems mostly profit driven.

It’s also cheaper, costing basically nada to create intersectional narratives about marginalized groups based on race, sex, gender preference, religion, etc…providing the illusion of progress instead of using a very powerful and lucrative platform to produce works that actually confront white supremacy and all of its phobias and -isms head-on. It reminds me of politicians kneeling while wearing Kente cloth or nationalizing Juneteenth without passing any meaningful legislation in genuine support of racial equity.

But let’s face it, Hollywood is not well. Hollywood is not okay. Hollywood, like America, is not ready to be honest about its addiction to whiteness. My guess is that Hollywood is not necessarily addicted to whiteness itself but to the power and privilege that comes with being white in America. And until we can see this addiction for what it really is, a pathological disease, I’ll be waiting for the late comedian Paul Mooney’s film The Last Nigga On Earth starring Tom Hanks to be posthumously released. A movie that will most likely have been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

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In Defense of Ma’Khia Bryant

Image courtesy of USA Today

It’s not fair that Ma’Khia Bryant’s final tragic moments of life on this earth were captured on police body cam. The dramatic footage deceptively casting her in a stereotypical role of a violent teenage Black girl, a criminal threat in urgent need of elimination. Or in the dangerously callous words of GOP racist shill, Black conservative grifter, and clout chasing celebrity troll, Candace Owens, who smeared Bryant as a “knife wielding maniac“, a dehumanizing label for an adolescent, would-be cosmetologist who posted Tik Tok hair tutorials.

But it’s not enough to try and boil down Ma’Khia Bryant’s 16 years of existence to a split second decision in a thinly veiled attempt to justify her state sanctioned murder. Her executioner, Nicholas Reardon, has been praised as a “hero” for purportedly saving a Black life, which is not even remotely true. And to be brutally honest, the only reason Nicholas Reardon’s actions have been hailed as heroic is not because he somehow managed to spare a Black life but because he took one. Which does not require heroic traits like bravery or courage. Just a badge and a gun.

Because, like his blue lives matter colleagues nationwide, Nicholas Reardon is a hired gun, a state agent who made a value judgment knowing that he had the full support of a legal system that disproportionately favors law enforcement. And, in doing so, normalizes the disproportionate slayings of African Americans who are more likely to be the victims of extrajudicial killings by police. In fact, Reardon’s initial inaction from the time he arrived on scene and exited the vehicle suggests the possibility of other nonlethal options, a missed opportunity. That Reardon’s only contact with Bryant was through his use of lethal force is very telling.

POP! POP! POP! POP!

And for those of us who have seen police employ nonlethal means to subdue armed suspects (mostly white) in the midst of attacking law enforcement are being told to just accept that Nicholas Reardon had no other choice. That we should only listen to Black people like Don Lemon and Val Demings, both having defended the actions of Reardon. That we shouldn’t listen to Black celebrity athletes like LeBron James for tweeting his outrage at the murder of yet another African American by police on the very day of the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict. Essentially, snatching defeat from the jaws of a short-lived, hard earned victory of sorts.

But the greater tragedy in all of this is that I’m not the first person to write in defense of Ma’Khia Bryant’s humanity. And I know my words don’t have the power to convince the she-got-what-she-deserved crowd that a teenage Black girl in a moment of crisis is still worthy of protection, love, and understanding.

So then the real question becomes why would anybody need convincing?

Blerd Watch: ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’

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Image courtesy of WarnerMedia Pressroom

In his scathing rebuke of the widely accepted mythos that is the history of western civilization, Raoul Peck, director of the Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) employs various visual weaponry to deconstruct and challenge the false narratives originating from toxic Eurocentrism and white supremacist ideology in his four part docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes (2021).

Peck collaborates with his close friend Sven Lindqvist–the late Swedish author of Exterminate All the Brutes (1996)–the book on which the docuseries is based. He also enlist works by the late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot author of Silencing The Past (1995), and American historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) in delivering his well documented historical coup d’é·tat.

I’ve binged the series in its entirety not once, not twice, but thrice since its release on HBO Max, giving my full attention to Peck’s grim but gritty voice-over narration as he analyzed and scrutinized with razor-like precision bogus long held beliefs that have infested historical text, religion, science, and popular culture, which has led to the worst global atrocities known to humankind. Atrocities that are still ongoing.

Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way after being subjected to the highly sanitized filter of America’s public schools that I could not trust this country to tell the truth about it’s own sordid history. An early indoctrination into all things white blinded me to the gaping holes, the gaslighting, the blatant dishonesty, the unapologetic hypocrisy rampant in America’s origin story. It wasn’t until I started to attend college that I began to investigate my suspicions about the founding of this nation.

What Raoul Peck has done with Exterminate All the Brutes is nothing short of a call to arms. We must arm ourselves with facts and truth no matter how ugly they are or how uncomfortable they make us. We can no longer afford to leave history in the hands of those who are willing to celebrate genocidal maniacs, mass murderers, racist enslavers, violent white supremacist, and brutal colonizers recorded as though they are great men without a continuing legacy of death and destruction. Because, as Peck demonstrates, it is not possible to study the long, bloody history of western civilization and come to the conclusion that it is actually civilized.

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Just 90 Seconds

DC carjacking victim Mohammad Anwar image courtesy of localdvm.com

Just 90 seconds.

All it took was 90 seconds for viral footage of the two teenage Black girls who in the course of carjacking a 66 year-old Uber Eats driver, Mohammad Anwar, resulting in his tragic death, for many on social media to express their outrage and call for the harshest punishments possible (even the death penalty) for the two underage perpetrators.

But to be honest, a lot of the outrage was performative with some not even knowing the victim’s name. Others shamelessly used his unfortunate death as an excuse to unleash their partisan venom or spew their racist takes.

I, too, was outraged after watching the horror unfold for 90 seconds. And then for it to be punctuated by one of the girls who had the audacity to ask about her cell phone that was still inside the overturned Honda, while Mr. Anwar lay just feet away, motionless in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk. I wanted to shout at them, “What the hell is wrong with you?!” and “Have y’all lost your damn minds?!”

But I had to examine my own outrage to understand that I was mostly angry at the fact that these were teenage Black girls who had behaved in such a despicable way prompting the American Pakistani Public Affairs Committee to ask that Mohammad Anwar’s death be investigated as a hate crime. And who could blame them given the explicitness of the footage?

Even so, I could not let my outrage blind me to the fact these are still two teenage Black girls.

It was later reported that a plea deal was being offered to the two minors which many wrongfully interpreted as the girls would go unpunished. That it was a show of leniency because the defendants are Black. Again, wrong. The 13 year old by law cannot be tried as an adult. So in order for the prosecution to hold both girls accountable for the death of Mohammad Anwar a plea agreement was made.

And then I jumped on a Twitter thread and scrolled down to a tweet thinking that maybe I was being overly critical of my fellow Americans:

So I liked the tweet and then replied:

And this is what happened:

Others called the girls monsters, cold blooded killers, and sociopaths. And keeping their ages (ages 15 and 13) in mind, many felt they were beyond rehabilitation. That the only way for the grieving family of Mohammad Anwar to receive justice is for these girls to be locked away for the rest of their lives or “put down” as one disgruntled Twitter user tweeted.

And all it took was 90 seconds for their young lives to become forfeit. But their deplorable actions are not the actions of hardened career criminals. At best, they are careless and reckless acts indicative of adolescent minds that are often prone to making poor life choices without proper guidance.

And it’s no secret why so many feel they are able to determine that these girls possessed no redeeming qualities without knowing anything more about them other than the 90 seconds of recorded footage. It’s a painful truth that we as African Americans have always known.

If it only takes a minute and a half to convince people that the lives of two teenage Black girls have absolutely no value at all then they were never convinced that their lives had any value to begin with.