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.

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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.

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