VSB Goes To The Movies: ’12 Years A Slave’

12-years-a-slave-poster-405x600One of the perks of this here “for the people” writing gig thing is that once you create a name for yourself, people come to you to help spread the word about any number of things. We get LOTS of pitches for stuff, good and bad. Well, for myself, the numerous movie screening invites and Q&A’s that go with them is gangbusters. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve gone to see in this fashion. Truly I don’t even view them as “screenings” at this point, it’s just going to the movies because it seems like everybody and their grandmother is at these things.

Such brings me to this past evening when I had the…pleasure isn’t the right word…but the fortune to attend the movie screening for 12 Years A Slave, the movie based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man who found himself enslaved during a visit out of his home state of New York. You can imagine what the movie is about, so there’s very little need to discuss the plot. I mean…after Snakes On A Plane, 12 Years A Slave has to be one of the most appropos and telling movie titles ever. It is also the title of the book written by Solomon Northrup upon which the movie is based.

So let’s talk about feelings instead.

Quality art elicits some sort of feeling, good or bad. When you are provided with art that makes you feel no type of way, well that is a waste. Think, hotel art. 12 Years A Slave will elicit feelings. And a lot of them. Where Django Unchained looked at slavery but provided enough humor, both intentional unintentional, to not make you overly uncomfortable, 12 Years goes straight for the jugular. If you don’t leave the movie feeling something…well you are a robot.

Here’s the interesting part though…it ain’t no Rosewood. My first ever viewing of Rosewood happened when I was in high school and I can still remember how I felt watching that movie. The visceral disdain I had for white America at that moment was so real I had to move myself to the back of the house I was in for at least half an hour just to calm down.

Mind you, I was at the home of my caucasian mother and step-father at the time. Perhaps because I’ve seen so many movies about slavery at this point, and each one attempts to go where the previous one didn’t go visually, I’ve become somewhat desensitized to what I know is going to be seen on screen. It’s a movie about slavery…and this one specifically goes the hardship route. I mean this man was free and became a slave, erroneously…that’s just wrong, kicko. So the laughs are few and far between on purpose. But even being desensitized, it was still hard to watch a lot of the scenes just because…whips and chains, homey.

Going into it, I was expecting Rosewood in terms of my emotions, and I just didn’t get that. But I did have the same stress level watching it because of just how ridiculous the idea was to begin with. It was a stark reminder that as a Black person, your life was only as valuable as the decisions of the white people within reach – a lesson we’re still dealing with to this day. Rep. John Lewis is often quoted as saying that anybody who says that we haven’t seen progress need only walk in his shoes. And he’s right, we have come a long, long way. But its the basic principles that have remained the same. The methods are different, but many outcomes are the same.

Chiwetel Ejiofor did a great job as Solomon and he’s one of really only three individuals with any sort of real character development in the entire movie. There are some scenes and some quotes that will absolutely hurt to see and hear, and to some degree, I almost think that was the point.

Did you see The Passion Of The Christ? I have seen it once. Never had a desire to see it again. I feel similarly about 12 Years. And similar to The Passion, I’m not sure its a good movie. It almost wasn’t intended to be. Django was a love story. Rosewood was a story about survival. Roots was a docu-drama where the words, “The African” got thrown around more than a Saturday on Canal Street in NYC. 12 Years was a story about loneliness and perseverance, though not in the way you would expect. While I’m sure the movie intends to give you a glimpse at the human spirit in the face of adversity, let’s be real, this man’s story is as unique as they come, and even in the movie, you basically saw him get broken to the point of nearly giving up, but a little bit of luck changed his circumstance. But the portrayal of it in the movie almost seemed a bit forced. That doesn’t change the fact that the story of Solomon Northrup did end positively. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s like the ONLY cat to have that story end that way after being wrongfully “returned” to slavery.

Funny enough, while I definitely got pissed all over again at slavery and the institution whiteness of America that perpetuated I wasn’t nearly as pissed as I was at Rosewood. It’s still maintained its gold standard. And do you know how I know I wasn’t as pissed? The movie theater where I saw 12 Years is adjacent to the Verizon Center in downtown DC. Tonight was a Washington Capitals hockey game. I walked out of the theater and right into a street full of hockey fans. And I just moseyed on to my car with nary a death glare or stern facial expression towards anybody.

Should you go see it? Yes. You should. It will be one of those movies that moves you in some direction which again, is the mark of good art. It will make you feel something even if its just stress or exhaustion because there are a few scenes that will emotionally do that to you. Shouts to Patsy.

12 Years A Slave is in theaters tomorrow.

-VSB P aka THE ARSONIST aka MR. I COULDN’T DO NO 12 YEARS OR 12 MINUTES aka GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRL HE A 3

On Work Environments And Well-Intentioned B*llshit

black-business-people1

It’s been roughly a week since the Adria Richards story first went viral. (For those hearing about this for the first time today, read the first 200 or so words of this article, and make sure you have food and fresh coconut water in that cave you’ve obviously been hiding in.) Predictably, this story has created multiple sub-stories about the tech industry, sexism, racism, trolling, concern-trolling, sensitivity, victim-blaming, sexual harassment, patriarchy, and a dozen more of our trendiest blog buzz terms.

***My take? I think degrees of wrong matter. And, saying that Richards—who has been the subject of multiple death threats and was let go by her company—”got what she deserved” for tweeting that picture is akin to saying that if a person steps on your shoe at a club, you have the right to kill them. I think a minor wrong—the guys making the joke¹—led to another minor wrong—Richards taking and tweeting the pic (Yes, I think she was wrong for that). These minor wrongs are the social more equivalent of cutting someone off in traffic. Understandable, unnecessary, and ultimately forgettable. But, they led to a greater wrong—one of the jokesters getting fired—and this led to a chorus of increasingly greater wrongs—Richards receiving death threats and also getting fired. Basically, the equivalent of getting cut off in traffic. But, instead of it stopping there, you find the person who cut you off, follow him home, burn down his house, and sell his pet pit bull to a dog-fighting ring. This was an orgy of increasingly wrong wrongness.*** 

I’m not very interested in those aspects of the story, though. Well, lemme rephrase that. They’re interesting to me, but not as interesting as some of the questions about gendered behavior it brings up.

Before I continue, I need to point out the fact that there are people who believe that gender roles and/or behavior are unnatural and solely a product of socialization. Basically, while it’s true that (generally speaking) men tend to act/think a certain way and women tend to act/think a certain way, these differences only exist because they’ve been taught to us. If free of societal and cultural influence, the only real differences between men and women would be anatomical.

I do not agree with this. While I do agree that certain gender-based expectations are definitely the result of socialization—and can result in (at best) unreasonable expectations and (at worst) using gender-based biases to discriminate and hate—I believe that men and women have some fundamental differences that go past anatomy. These differences don’t make either gender inferior—but they do make us different. Obviously, neither men nor women are monolithic. There are inter-gender exceptions and variances found among all of us. But, saying “men tend to act/think a certain way and women tend to act/think a certain way,” while general, somewhat limiting, and kinda stereotypical, isn’t untrue.

Anyway, whether it’s a locker room, barbershop, ball court, or place of business, if you put a group of men together—and have no women within ear or eyeshot—men are probably going to act a certain way. The tongues might be a little freer, the jokes might be a little dirtier, the air might be a little mustier, and the social dynamics—and the various roles (leader, organizer, alpha, contrarian, etc) we find ourselves in—might be a little more clearly defined.  (I’m sure these types of changes also occur in environments solely populated by women. I imagine the air being a little sweeter, though. Kinda like mango salsa.) 

When you introduce women to these environments, though, behavior tends to change. Sure, you may have a few men threatened by the change who refuse to adjust, but most will eventually self-police because, well, there are woman in the room now. And men who’ve been raised right know that you should adjust your behavior accordingly when women are in the room.

And, this is where it starts to get interesting.

Men—professional men, college-aged men, men in schools, seminars, classes, and conferences—are (rightly) taught that women are just as capable, smart, resourceful, determined, and tough as men are. In a business/professional sense, you’re also taught to treat women the same way you’d treat other men. If you’re not able to do this, you face possible reprimand, you might be fired, and both you and your workplace could be sued.

But, men cannot treat women the exact same way men typically treat other men because, well, (generally speaking) if left to our own devices, we (men) are dicks to each other. So, you’re left with a dynamic where men are taught to “treat women the same way you’d treat men” but also taught to “make the environment more woman-friendly.” Basically, “gender-based differences don’t exist…but please make sure to remember that you can’t act the way you’d normally would with each other.”

There’s a scene in Django Unchained of all places that provides an example of how confusing this type of ambiguity with expected behavior can be. “Django” (Jamie Foxx) and “Schultz” (Christoph Waltz) are visiting “Big Daddy’s” (Don Johnson) plantation. When Schulz and Big Daddy plan to ahead into the house to discuss business, Big Daddy (I hate typing this so many times) instructs one of the slaves (“Betina”, played by Miriam Glover) to give Django a tour.

(Slightly paraphrasing)

Big Daddy: Django isn’t a slave. Django is a free man. You can’t treat him like you would a slave, because he’s a free man. He’s not like that. Do you understand?

Betina: So I should treat him like a White man?

Big Daddy: Heavens no. That’s not what I said.

Betina: Well, I don’t know what you want.

Big Daddy: Yea, I can see how that would be confusing.

Interestingly enough, while the concept of treating women the same as you treat men is considered progressive, if taken literally, it provides some men a justification for misogyny and even violence.

“I mean, if a man who was smaller and weaker than me insulted me like that, I’d punch him in the face. So, since women aren’t any different than men, why can’t I punch her?”

Obviously, this is a dangerous form of semantics-based cherry-picking—basically using a loophole to act out some sort of fantasy—but taking things to its most literal meaning does have a way of exposing a few cracks in a premise’s foundation.

Fortunately, most reasonable men and women seem to have figured out how to deal with these seemingly contradictory gender-based rules. Perhaps it’s because these reasonable people possess a nuanced and multi-faceted understanding of this dynamic, and this understanding allows us to treat each other with fairness. This is also known as being a f*cking professional.

Still, teaching people that we should completely overlook and ignore gender-based differences seems intentionally dishonest, and, if “being a f*cking professional” means that you need to consider “think of and treat her the exact same way you’d think of and treat a man” to be bullshit, then so be it.

¹I can’t neglect to mention that a conversation I had last week with a friend forced me to consider the wrongness of the initial joke in a different way. I thought taking offense to that “harmless” joke was just an example of someone being uber-sensitive. My friend disagreed:

“Of course you’d feel that way, because you’re a man. But…I don’t know, what if you were in her shoes—at a conference surrounded by Whites—and the men behind you were making stupid racial jokes instead of sexual jokes? Would you shrug it off as easily as you said she should have?”

Hmm. 

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

10 Things I Think I Think About Django Unchained, Slavery, Nigger/Nigga, Race, And The Reaction To Django Unchained

***Although the following post is about Django Unchained, I made sure to make it as spoiler-free as I could. If you do choose to leave comments that could be interpreted as spoilers, please leave spoiler tags before you do so***

1. “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

This take on the popular “war is hell” cliche is from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a semi-autobiographical and metafictional account of the Vietnam War, and one of my three or four favorite books. Basically, something as random, arbitrary, and complicated as being in the middle of a war is too, well, complicated to be reduced down to one adjective.

After reading dozens of historical texts and memoirs, sifting through several documentaries, and watching movies such as Roots and Django Unchanined and Amistad, I think the same type of quote could be made about slavery in the United States. Perhaps different adjectives would be used, but it’s not possible to distill a description of that time down to a single word.

I mean, anyone with a brain and/or a Black grandparent should know that Django is not an exact representation of the antebellum period. But, one historically accurate thing it does show is that the relationships between slaves and slaveowners were complicated as well.

For instance, there’s a 20 minute stretch in the movie where you witness each of the following:

A slave who, with the way she was dressed and with the way she was treated, was clearly (slaveowner) Calvin Candie’s girlfriend.

A slave who, because he attempted to escape, is sentenced to a very brutal death.

A house slave who is clearly the second most powerful person on the entire plantation.

While each were slaves, each character had a completely different relationship with their owner, and each probably had a different personal relationship with the concept of slavery. Shit was just…complicated. While the “girlfriend” and the house slave both had vastly more freedoms than the average slave, neither was actually free. (The situation with the girlfriend was especially bizarre. I mean, yea, she’s his girlfriend—and, from the looks of things, he treated her like a, well, girlfriend—but could she actually say “no?” Isn’t this—sex without consent—rape?)

With that being said, it’s irresponsible to neglect to mention that while certain movies and texts may show that certain slaves may have had a more, for lack of a better term, “benevolent” relationship with their masters, the majority of slaves were not treated with any sort of human kindness or compassion. Maybe it wasn’t “hell,” but for many, it was even worse.

2. I think Django Unchained is quintessential Tarantino. His movies are frequently homages—to spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation flicks, etc,—and mishmashes of different genres, but Django is almost an homage to himself.

Basically, if you like Tarantino movies, you will probably like Django. If you don’t, you probably won’t.

3. I think Django is my fourth-favorite Tarantino movie. (Kill Bill 1 and 2, and Inglorious Basterds would be the others) I didn’t love it—I thought it was a bit too long—but I did like it very much.

4. I think one of the many possible reasons why people who aren’t Tarantino fans aren’t Tarantino fans has to do with the fact that typical Tarantino movies frequently shift tonally in a way that can seem a bit too inappropriate. For instance, if you’re going to see, I don’t know, Precious or something, you go into the movie knowing how to expect to feel. You may laugh at the absurdity of a certain situation, but a scene designed to make you guffaw in a movie like that would just seem out of place.

Tarantino movies don’t follow that same script. And, despite the fact that I am a huge fan of his work, I can see how someone would be put off by a movie that depicts the brutality of slavery in one scene and has a slapstick scene involving the Ku Klux Klan (more on this in a sec) in the same 15 minute span.

5. I didn’t think the Klan scene was that funny. I think you can make a good joke about anything, so me not thinking it was funny had nothing to do with the attempt. It made me chuckle a little, but, I don’t know, it was more The Hangover funny—humor where you’re supposed to laugh at something because it’s supposed to be funny, not because it actually is—than actually funny.

6. I think many (if not most) of the people upset by the ubiquity of nigga and nigger in Django are upset because they feel like they’re supposed to be upset by it, not because the word actually offended them. It reminds me of the conversation surrounding Gywneth Paltrow’s “niggas in Paris” tweet last year. Despite the thousands of articles, blogs, tweets, and status message threads about it—and yes, I was guilty of making a contribution as well—I doubt many of us were actually that mad about it.

It’s almost as if we’re playing “pretend” mad so White people won’t get too comfortable. It’s kind of like how a dad gets pretend mad at a child for peeing in the front yard. He doesn’t want the kid to do again, so he’s appropriately upset and makes sure the kid sees that he is. But, he’s not losing any sleep over it, and probably thinks it’s more funny than anything else.

7. I think I’ve reached a point where hearing “n-word” bothers me more than “nigger” does. (I think Sam Jackson agrees with me)

8. I think one of the most jarring things about Django was seeing slavery in “color.” As I mentioned earlier, whether through Roots or some other movies and/documentaries, most of us have seen that time period on screen in some fashion. But, while Roots (and Amistad) definitely was graphic, there’s a difference between the relatively grainy film used in something made in the 70s (and the documentary-esque feel of Amistad) and the type of picture you get with the high definition cameras used today. Django is, in many ways, the most colorful depiction of slavery any of us have ever seen.

9. I think the movie was a bit tamer than I expected it to be. Rapes and castrations are implied instead of shown, and for all I heard and read about the violence and the brutality, the violence actually seen on screen was so over the top that it bordered on camp.

Now, I’m sure some of those who have seen the movie may disagree about the campyness of the violence, specifically in regards to a scene involving dogs and another scene involving two Mandingos fighting to the death. But, both of those scenes were edited in a way that even though you definitely knew what was happening, you couldn’t really see it. (I wonder if Tarantino intended to do that or if he was instructed to by Miramax.)

Still, there were a few scenes that were particularly hard to watch, and each involved Kerry Washington’s character. Without giving away too much, she’s put through a gauntlet of dignity-erasing horrors that make you want to cringe, cry, and, well, kill.

10. I think a conversation I had a couple weeks ago shows why, despite its flaws and despite the fact that it’s not a completely accurate account of the antebellum period, a movie like Django is necessary. (Well, at least more necessary than unnecessary)

Once a week for the past four or five years, I play basketball at a local high school. It’s a regular group of 20 to 30 guys who vary in age and skill level, and many weeks I’m the only Black guy.

This particular pick up game has been going on for decades, and one of the traditions is that the guys who come gather in the coaches’ office afterwards to kick back and drink beers. (The person who’s supposed to buy the beers revolves every week. And, if you’ve gone too long without bringing a case, you will get clowned and eventually uninvited)

Anyway, Django happened to be one of the topics of conversation during one of these kick back sessions. It stayed superficial for a couple minutes—most of the discussion was just about who had seen the movie and whether they liked it—before seguing into a conversation about Tarantino movies in general.

Admittedly, I was happy that we’d left that subject. As much as I enjoy talking about the type of topics a Django conversation might touch on, I don’t want to have those conversations everywhere and with everyone. And, honestly, part of the reason why I wasn’t looking forward to a deeper Django discussion is that I generally like and enjoy being around those guys, and I didn’t want someone to express an opinion or viewpoint that would make me start to think differently about them. Perhaps that’s “wrong” in some way, but I just didn’t and still don’t see the need in introducing that dynamic there. When it comes to reliably fun pick-up basketball, ignorance is bliss.

A few minutes later, though, Django was brought up again. A guy sitting right next to me on the couch had a few questions about the movie—things he wasn’t particularly sure about—and, well, when else are you going to have the opportunity to ask a very smart Black guy about some of these things?

Now, for a moment I considered doing the “I can’t answer for all Black people” thing with perhaps a little “I’m offended that you’d even ask me that” mixed in. But, his questions (more on that in a sec) let me know he was both genuinely curious and genuinely ignorant, and with that realization came another one:

There are people—millions of people (millions of Americans!)—who literally know nothing about slavery other than it was kind of bad and it ended some time ago. And, while Django isn’t Roots, a movie created by a person as culturally relevant as Tarantino will at least spark conversations that some people would have never had.

One of the questions had to do with Sam Jackson’s character. Basically, he assumed that Jackson’s character wasn’t a slave. I corrected him. And, since he had no concept of the difference between house slaves and field slaves, I gave him a quick explanation.

Now, is it every Black person’s duty to go around educating White people about slavery and race? No. I have many hats but “African-American History Tour Guide” isn’t one of them. At the same time, as frustrating as it is that an educated man would know so little about American history that he’d even conjure that question, asking the question is better than the subject never even crossing his mind.

And, you can never go wrong when educating and/or reminding people that while some of the shit in Django didn’t happen, some—the hot boxes, the branding, the whippings, the rapes, the murders, the sell and purchase of humans, the intentional splittings of families, etc—did.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

About That Guy At The Theater Who Left His Girlfriend And Infant To Die

With the exception of both “Kill Bill’s,” “The Dark Knight,” and that time my parents rented “Ghostbusters” and I got so excited that I broke out in hives (Apparently, randomly strange six year olds do turn out to be randomly strange adults), I can’t think of another movie I’ve anticipated more than Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Django Unchained.”

I mentioned this fact to a friend (“John”) a week or so ago, and after a passive-aggressively condescending debate about whether Tarantino is overrated, the subject shifted to slavery.

Man, I would have escaped, or they would have had to kill me,” he stated. “I barely tolerate taking orders from the executive VP at work. What I look like being another man’s slave?”

“You just bought a juicer,” I jokingly reminded him. “No way your post-racial ass would have navigated the Underground Railroad.”

The conversation shifted again soon after that, but the quickness and sheer certainty of John’s reply when stating that he’d never allow anyone to enslave him stayed with me. It reminded me of the time I used Maus in an 12th grade English class I taught, and how many of the students remarked that they either would have escaped the concentration camps or died trying. It also harkened back to the time shortly after 9/11 when people started to question how planes full of dozens of people allowed a couple guys with beards and box cutters to hijack, kidnap, and eventually murder everyone on board.

And, whenever I hear people making those types of statements, the same thought goes through my head:

“You have no f*cking idea what you would have done”

Not wanting to start an argument about something that can never actually be proven, I usually keep that thought to myself. But, the fact remains that unless you’ve actually been in a life or death situation before, you really have no idea how you’d react. You think you know and you want to believe your fight instinct would override your flight, but unless they’ve felt actual pressure, none of us know exactly how strong our pipes actually are.

So, while the rest of the country has gone in on Jamie Rohrs, the guy who left his girlfriend, her four year old daughter, and their infant son behind while he escaped the shooting at the “Dark Night Rises” premiere in Aurora, Colorado, I’m (somewhat) sympathetic towards him.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that he deserves every bit of criticism coming his way — and I also believe his fiancee must have drank a potent glass of “Shit, this guy is the best I can do” juice in order to accept his marriage proposal. Leaving your girl, your girl’s kid, and your own freakin infant to somehow protect themselves from a crazed gunman is about as bitch-ass as a person can get.

(Seriously, can you imagine how bad their sex is going to be from now on? I can totally see him saying something like “Whose p*ssy is this?” and her responding “Go hide in a closet you scary motherf*cker”)

But, I wonder how many of us would have responded in the same way, and my sympathy comes from the fact that he has to live the rest of his life knowing that when life gave him a lemon, he truly did say F*ck the lemons” and bailed.

Obviously — as the men who died in that theater while shielding loved ones proves — there are many of us who’d do the noble thing, the heroic thing if placed in that situation. I believe that I would have too. I believe that I’d sacrifice my own life to save a loved one. I believe that I would have attempted to stop the 9/11 hijackers, that I wouldn’t have allowed the Germans to take my family to Auschwitz, and that if I were in Joe Paterno’s shoes in 1998, I wouldn’t have hesitated in alerting the police to my pedophile colleague and close friend.

But, do I know, with 100% certainty, how I would have reacted if placed in any of those situations? No, and I hope to never find out.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

***If you’re in the DC area this Thursday, make sure to come out to “Myth or Maybe” — a relationship-related discussion hosted by Panama and the homie Rahiel from Urban Cusp***