Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song Too Hot for the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I had been joking that I was going to see a blaxploitation film with a bunch of white people under the guise of watching for "educational purposes". In at least one way I was incorrect: Sweetback is not a "blaxploitation film" unto itself. It's more of a pressure release on a tense period of strong, established racism on all levels: individual, institutional, and systemic. It follows a black male prostitute running from a racist police force out to get him.

The film has its own cinematic style that draws from counterculture examples of the late 1960's and early 1970's. Vanishing Point, released the same year, comes immediately to mind as well as Zabriskie Point, released the year prior. Sweetback isn't just some simple story to write off, but a pointed [despite lacking "point" in its name] and poignant condemnation of the flagrant racial stereotyping permeating the entirety of commercial cinema. It transcends its story and calls attention to the power that mass media holds, and how that power — when exploited in response to fear (e.g. fear of a powerful black man) — can fuel hatred and abuse.

But the amusing anecdote in the whole thing was, just as Sweetback himself was becoming a man, the fire alarm sounded in the theater and we had to be evacuated.

firetrucks visit the Eastman House

Too hot for the Dryden

Even 40 years later, the system still fears a black man.

Discussing Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia

For the past three weeks or so, people have been meeting at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) to discuss anarchism. Having not attended the earlier meetings, I can't really tell what constitutes anarchism (e.g. self-rule? using the self-organizing facet of humanity? not having a government?) but I couldn't help but attend the seemingly unusual topic of "Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia".

I'd say there were about 15 people there, and most of them had attended the other meetings and read the associated articles — it's something of a free-school model. I think everyone expected a more lively discussion because the topics were so emotionally-charged, but the ground we covered between was fruitful and interesting.

In short, Capitalism depends on exploiting value to gain more than is spent. Through that, it seems to demand an underclass: a group of people who are considered lesser and therefore are free to be exploited. (In fact, the only way great wealth and power is achieved is by exploiting others.) And the way to identify the underclass is to tie the "underclass-ness" to a defining characteristic: woman, gay, black, Irish.

Anarchism, by eliminating the presumption of authority, denies the creation of an underclass. In other words, anarchism (when considered "self-defined rule") does not permit the creation of people having authority: it is up to each individual to grant that authority. So there is no way for an authority to declare that you are X and therefore shall be exploited; rather, you as an individual would have to grant an authority that power, and permit yourself to be exploited. Presumably you would never volunteer for that.

The trouble is that the system I live with (that is, in America) will always find a new underclass to exploit. Lately it seems Hispanic people and followers of Islam are the newest targets (not that they were ever considered equals). Although we have also exploited the Chinese in their own land to that end, and I suspect the next source of cheap labor will be on the African continent. I find it a distasteful cycle that I'd like to see end sooner than later.

Seeing Dutchman at the Flying Squirrel

I was intrigued that the performances of the racially-charged play Dutchman at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) would be followed by a moderated discussion on racism so I headed over.The play  was written by Amiri Baraka and first performed in 1964; it was later made into the film Dutchman. Although the dialog and situations were a little dated, the core story of a black man seduced-then-ridiculed by a white woman is still haunting and strong.

Rakiyah Tapp acted as facilitator for the discussion and did an excellent job keeping people communicating. She noted that there are three kinds of racism that tend to stratify into levels: [if I remember correctly] individual, institutional, and systemic. Systemic racism provides the discriminatory rationalizations for institutional racism (at the organization-level) and individual racism (one-on-one between people).

I started out by saying that I felt that "racism is taking culture too far". (Of course, I always seem to start with something that makes no sense and ends up alienating everyone, some of them for the entire night.) My point was that we're all biased by our stereotypes based on our first impression of someone, but racism is when those stereotypes obliterate the individual before us. I suggested that we should train ourselves to treat every new person as an individual and ignore cultural cues — at least at the outset.

In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that white-on-black racism is unique among the ways individuals discriminate against one another because the systemic component is so deeply ingrained. (In fact, the play's climax brings this idea to the forefront.) As such, no suitably complex analogy is available for whites. For women, gender bias is deeply ingrained, but it is not nearly as tenaciously sinister as racism, and for white men, there is no systemic discrimination of any appreciable magnitude. So the mechanisms I used to bond with another person — commiseration and analogous stories — not only fail, but backfire tremendously as I'm reinforcing my own lack of understanding.

So I step back from my original argument and simply say that what I do (declare all cultural and ancestral markers irrelevant when I meet a new person) is an attempt to break the back of systemic racism. Like any "good progressive" I discourage racial stereotypes and other divisiveness. But I'm also aware of how I appear to other people — particularly children. I was raised in a country where systemic racism has continued to thrive, but I choose to buck that and adapt my behavior to treat people as equally as I can. As time goes by, it becomes more and more natural to do although I can still hear the echoes of prejudice quite well.

The Quandary of Doing What's Right

So recently I was involved in a discussion that didn't turn out to everyone's satisfaction. The scenario is this:

I was at a social engagement where everyone knew one another fairly well; in a small-group discussion when one of the participants — let's say Jack — started describing a bigoted encounter he had with someone he associated with as part of his job. Just as he was about to quote the third-party, someone walked into earshot — let's say Jill — who's a member of the group who was targeted (and also the only person around who's a member of that particular group). So Jack stopped and said, "I'll tell you in a minute," and everyone got quiet. I insisted that he continue and invited Jill to the conversation to hear — after all, this is a quote of an encounter, and not representative of his personal belief.

So we all talked for a few minutes. Naturally Jill was shocked but apparently not upset at what Jack had to say. Things went okay and the topic changed and the group broke up a bit. Jack asked that I never put him in that situation again. I apologize but add that he shouldn't bring up such things in my presence because I would probably react the same way.

The universal response has been that I was wrong. I should have let sleeping dogs lie, let the conversation go fallow because Jill probably didn't notice, and everyone would have been much more comfortable.

Now I don't think my solution was ideal, but I think it was better than nothing. First of all, the argument that Jill didn't hear anything is specious — for if it was indeed true, then Jack should have continued without pause, and clearly even Jack felt that Jill could hear him. Second, I don't believe discomfort is as bad as it's cracked up to be — for is it better to maintain comfort or point out something unethical? "Well," you argue, "Jack wasn't really being unethical, right?" At that moment, probably not, but I think that overall his behavior wasn't purely right. Here's what I think the chronology was in this case:

  1. He had an associate who surprised him by saying something bigoted.
  2. He disagreed with the sentiment but probably said nothing of it to avoid a conflict at the time.
  3. I assume his association with this other person changed — perhaps he never needed to deal with them again, and perhaps he just avoids associating with them. But what he didn't do was to directly address the issue — for instance to say that he was disappointed that such ignorance persists in this day and age.
  4. When relaying the story, he was not proud of his actions — and he did not want to reveal that he didn't defend the group to which Jill is associated.

Let me put it another way, this time with a hypothetical encounter. Two guys are talking. One is Jewish and the other is not. The one who's not reveals that he works with a guy who's anti-Semitic.

DAVE: "Don told me this off-color joke about Jews at work today." (unspoken: "it's okay to say this because it wasn't me".)
JOE: "So what did you do?" (unspoken: "such jokes reinforce that being Jewish is inferior in arbitrary ways and I think you agree that this is not true".)
DAVE: "Well he's my boss so I couldn't do anything." (unspoken: "I didn't want to make him angry because I might lose my job — or worse. You know how those people are".)
JOE: "What a prick." (unspoken: "I would have hoped that you are a good enough friend to help me even if doing so is not to your immediate advantage. I feel disappointment because I now respect you less than I assumed I could".)

On the surface, Dave and Joe seem more comfortable than if they dug deeper — for there is tremendous discomfort that runs very deep. But is that really healthy? Doesn't it serve to reinforce bigotry? If Joe confronted Dave, I think Dave would react defensively — that he would be more upset about being called out for his lack-of-action than with the original situation.

So then you ask, "what am I supposed to do about them? I'm not a bigot and I don't support them. Isn't that enough?" Let me just put it this way: are you confident and proud of your actions? And I don't mean as a form of denial: can you really defend your beliefs, thoughts, and actions in a rational and sound way?

The reason why I live by this code is that it helps me get to sleep at night. For as much distress I cause in people, I need to come to the conclusion that I did the most right thing I could at the time — to be confident and proud of my actions.

I'm not thrilled about making Jack uncomfortable. I don't know if it changed anything for the better, if it made Jill upset, or if it disrupted Jack and Jill's relationship. But I think that what I did do was force Jack to reconcile his actions — for if he was proud and confident of his behavior, he'd have no problem facing Jill. (So I guess I have an ulterior goal to coerce other people to be the best they can be.)

The catch is that I don't know if I read the situation correctly. If, in fact, things happened like I thought they did, then I'm proud and confident of my reaction. When I look at my own life experience and situations in the past like these, I think my assessment was correct, though.

Now if only I could forgive myself for things I couldn't have known …

Do the Right Thing at the Dryden

I just barely made it to the screening of Do the Right Thing at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) I think I'm beginning to understand what's meant by a Spike Lee "Joint" as compared to a "movie": in a movie, it's like a moving representation of reality, but in a "joint", it's like a view of reality as viewed through a filter or machine. Kind of like the difference between a photograph and an X-ray, or better, the difference between a fire and a box of matches.

I left and went to Solera Wine BarMySpace link (647 South Ave.) for a bit to think about it. I really couldn't come up with anything but that match-fire metaphor. I did know it was different from a "movie" because "did you like it?" is not really a valid question to ask afterward.

See, it's like an extract of life. You take all the stuff that makes people behave a certain way and you strip away all the parts that aren't important and you're left with this residue that's the essence of it all. Spike Lee then takes that and shapes it back into a reality with characters and a story. But it's not reality. The pizza shop isn't a pizza shop, it's the non-black outsiders in a black neighborhood who everybody obviously knows aren't black, but who get blown up when they try and express/impose their culture/beliefs/biases. Mookie isn't a black man who works at said pizza place, he is the silent majority who try to make ends meet but slowly boil inside as they try to find the point of the pointless.

So it really doesn't even make sense to talk about it like a movie. It's … umm … you know, a Spike Lee Joint.

The films of Len Lye at the Dryden

Ali and I headed to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) but we arrived early, and we got to join the tail-end of Jim Healy's coffee chat in the cafe. I'd like to have attended, as I only got to really listen in on other people's comments.  I'm still stuck on trying to think of a romantic comedy in the past 10 years or so that Jim would like, as he was at a loss to think of one off hand.

Anyway, the films that night were those of Len Lye, an experimental filmmaker in the 1930's through 1960's. His technique was to "compose motion" by drawing directly onto film stock. A Colour Box was one of his earliest and I immediately recognized the tiny nuances of hand-painted and stamped images magnified hundreds of times. He also incorporated innovative music — typically Cuban music in his early films and jazz in his later ones.

It was amusing that some films were created as advertisements — such as The Birth of the Robot and Colour Flight, but they were so abstract that it was difficult to tell what the point was. Well, The Birth of the Robot was rather direct. In it, a guy dies in the desert and is resurrected by Shell oil into a robot that operates the mechanisms of the cosmos. Rhythm had interesting story: it was a commercial for Chrysler that got rejected by the company because it used African drumming and included a "knowing wink" from a black worker (although IMDb's trivia says it was because the film was "too abstract" rather than that Chrysler opposed racial equality in 1957). This also meant that an advertising reward for it was revoked because it was never actually shown.

Two of his last films: Free Radicals and Particles in Space were both excellent. Completely abstract in their artistry — and created from scratching white lines in black film — they conveyed the magic of motion and dimensions. I thought the hand-scratched titling that was animated to move in some warped spacial way was really innovative. The films also incorporated that technique, as if it were the film of objects dancing in a way unnatural to our orthogonal 3-D world.