100 Years of Black Cinema

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.

As we all know, February marks Black History Month. But this year, February also marks something else: The 100th anniversary of the birth of black cinema. Black cinema was making black history before Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926. And this week, black cinema is making history once again with the nomination of Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire for Best Picture. It’s the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a film directed by a black director is nominated for the top award. Director Lee Daniels is following in the footsteps of those who came before him—namely, William D. Foster and Oscar Micheaux.

Oscar Micheaux is often lauded as the father of black filmmakers. But William D. Foster began producing films nearly a decade earlier than Micheaux’s first effort. In 1910, Foster, a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent African-American film company. (Foster wasn’t a complete stranger to show business; he had also worked as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.) In 1912, Foster, produced and directed The Railroad Porter. The film paid homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.

This was three years before D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a plantation fantasy credited with establishing negative stereotypes of blacks in film that still exists today. Consider the Reconstruction scene, where barefoot black legislators eat fried chicken, swill whiskey, lust after white women and pass a law that all legislators must wear shoes. Insert a cantankerous mammy, tragic mulatto, murderous buck, black rapists and a lynching, and you’ve got what is shamefully considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.

In response to The Birth of a Nation, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (a Universal Pictures contract actor), founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, producing middle-class melodramas like The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and the Trooper of Troop K (1917) and their most well-known film, The Birth of a Race (1918). The Johnson brothers’ movies featured black soldiers, black families and black heroes, concepts foreign to most mainstream films at that time. Click here to read more.

This article originally appeared in The Root (www.theroot.com).


Air Rage and Lame Leno

Air Rage
It has been announced that Delta and now Continental are increasing baggage fees. Perhaps they should focus more on helping to tighten up security at the airports and on the airlines and less on gouging customers. I guess it’s not enough that we have to suffer through long lines, constant delays, canceled flights and the imminent threat of terror each time we fly, but now we have to worry about increased baggage fees. I don’t know who runs airlines, but I would think that with all of the recent snafus, that the last thing they’d want to do is increase fees at this time. Yet another reason to drive if at possible.

Leno is Lame

Okay, why is NBC trying to find room for Jay Leno? He had a late night show for over 20 years and has made millions upon millions of dollars. He owns an airplane hanger full of classic cars. Poof, be gone man. Your time to shine is over and let someone else have a chance. Do we really need 3 late-night talk shows on one network? Are the NBC execs that afraid of Leno? His show fails, so now everyone else must suffer including Conan, Fallon and the viewers? What happened to riding off into the sunset? I’d like to see him host a show on classic cars for a different network. I would hope that his ego is not this out of control. I guess hope springs eternal.

Annie Leibovitz’s Tiger Plantation Fantasy

Mirror Images

Well it seems that Vanity Fair has decided to put embattled Tiger Woods on the cover, only with photos taken 4 years ago by Annie Leibovitz. Surprise, surprise — he looks like he’s on a prison yard, bare chested and all. Like me, he looks better with his clothes on. At any rate, Leibovitz has done what she always does — take the black man back to his most primitive and primal image. Yet another plantation fantasy reminiscent of O.J.’s Time Magazine cover where he was actually darkened. Tiger is looking more “bl” than “cau” and “asian” in this one. He definitely looks darker in complexion and posture. Perhaps Leibovitz should focus less on perpetuating stereotypical images of EVERYONE and more on managing her money.

Walter Cronkite Signs Off

Legendary journalist Walter Cronkite has died. “The most trusted man in America” passed away from a brain illness at 92 years of age. “Uncle Walter” sat at the helm of CBS News (1962-1981), creating a style of journalism and establishing a standard of excellence that has yet to be matched.

As a child, I remember watching Cronkite deliver the news. He was direct, gave you the facts and closed each show with “and that’s the way it is” — because that’s the way it truly was.

There was little to no editorializing — just the facts, plain and simple. Unlike today where news reporting and opinion live side by side, Cronkite made sure that the distinction was plain. There was no muddying of the two, which is why people tuned in to see him. His voice was a steady, throaty baritone, unmatched by anyone in news (with the possible exception of the late Charles Kuralt), and his calm delivery reassured America during trying times.

It was Cronkite who delivered the terrible news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Choking back tears, he confirmed the country’s greatest fear that indeed Kennedy was dead. The man, who insisted that news be delivered in a steady, non-partisan manner, visibly fought back tears, reflecting the pain that many Americans felt. Cronkite tapped into the hearts and minds of America, uniting with them in sorrow over the loss of a president.

When I say America, I mean all of America. He was beloved by many because of his ability to bring controversial and painful topics to the forefront. His coverage of Vietnam and the civil rights movement brought people together at a time when this country was tearing itself apart. He insisted on delivering the truth, no matter how painful it was.

After returning from Vietnam in 1968, Cronkite aired a news special, pronounced the war effort a “stalemate,” and suggested that a negotiated peace agreement needed to happen. After the special, President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

This is how trusted Walter Cronkite was; if he said it, people believed it. Many journalists agree that his coverage of the civil rights movement is considered to be the most fair and objective on the subject.

National Association of Black Journalists President Barbara Ciara, a television anchor in Norfolk, Va., said that Cronkite served as an inspiration to her growing up as he did to many black broadcast journalists. “Walter Cronkite set a standard for all of us to follow, which was the truth whether it was the struggle of the civil rights movement, the travails of the Vietnam War or questioning authority at its highest level,” said Ciara. “He was certainly a grandfather of journalism in its infancy and continued to make contributions throughout the rest of his life even into retirement.”

Walter Cronkite was admired by many not only because of his objectivity but also because of his love of news. He took his profession seriously and mastered the art of news gathering, delivery and interviewing.

One only had to witness the horror of watching the CBS Saturday morning anchors try to cover his death over the weekend. Thank God CBS had Katie Couric on the phone to help out the struggling morning show hosts who seemed distant, bored and lethargic when talking about this news icon.

Walter Cronkite is someone whom they should have known inside and out, and it was clear that they knew very little about him. He is the man who pioneered a medium that continues until this day. He is the first person to be called an “anchorman.” He covered all of the major news stories of his time, including the Apollo 11 moon landing, the 1968 Democratic National Convention ruckus, race riots and the Watergate trials of President Richard M. Nixon.

Who can forget when Cronkite was “speechless” upon the first moon landing? He was speechless and then giddy. Why? Because he loved the news.

Say what you will about Katie Couric, but she loves the news. Harry Smith, who thankfully joined the Saturday morning broadcast to help out the floundering morning show hosts, loves the news. Bob Schieffer loves the news. Morley Safer loves the news. Leslie Stahl loves the news. Dan Rather, former CBS news anchor who succeeded Cronkite, appeared on NBC to talk about Cronkite’s legacy. Like the others, Rather clearly loves the news. To love the news means that you love Walter Cronkite.

It is with this in mind that we say goodbye to a great journalist, who established a standard of excellence that has yet to be surpassed. He will forever be loved because “that’s the way it is.”

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing, where she serves as cultural critic. She is also managing editor for TheLoop21.com and Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College.

Examining the NFL’s so-called system of justice

I sure hope that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a saint — because his law-and-order approach to football is flawed at best and downright ridiculous at worst. The commissioner recently suspended NFL player Donté Stallworth indefinitely for his role in a DUI case that left a pedestrian dead.

Let me be clear, I am disgusted that Stallworth only got 30 days for taking a man’s life. Yes, he stayed with the victim at the scene of the crime, immediately admitted wrongdoing to the police officer and has shown nothing but remorse for hitting and killing a man while driving drunk. Stallworth reached a settlement with the victim’s family for an undisclosed amount of money, plead guilty to the crime, will be under house arrest for two years after serving his sentence, made a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and has lost his license for life. Yet and still, 30 days for taking someone’s life while driving drunk is too short.

Initial reports stated that the victim stepped in front of Stallworth’s vehicle, which was corroborated by witnesses; that may be why the judge was so lenient, coupled with the NFL player’s remorse, humility, willingness to cooperate with the justice system — and oh yeah, he’s a celebrity. In my mind, when you kill someone, even accidentally, while driving drunk, you should have to spend more than 30 days in jail. That’s just me. I’m not a lawyer or a judge, so I have to allow the justice system to do its thing, however flawed. I think that the justice system failed in this instance as it relates to Stallworth’s jail time, but it is what it is, whether he’s an average Joe or a celebrity.

Having said that, I do believe that the justice system exists for a reason and that the NFL should get out of the business of arbitrarily assigning further punishment to players. Commissioner Goodell spoke out against Stallworth suspending him from the league indefinitely. Even if the justice system goes soft on a criminal, it is not up to the NFL to go hard on him. I don’t think Stallworth should be suspended indefinitely, especially after he has paid his debt to society, which is what we ask of all Americans. I don’t think that professional athletes should be treated any differently.

I’m not saying that the NFL shouldn’t suspend Stallworth … but indefinitely? I feel the same way about Michael Vick. What he did was heinous, but he has paid his debt to society. He has been punished, so why must he continue to be punished by the NFL?

Just who is Roger Goodell? He must be perfect; and if he isn’t, he ought to be — based on how he wields his “gavel.” To show how imperfect the justice system is, Stallworth serves 30 days for killing a man, while Vick served two years for killing dogs. I am a dog owner and dog lover, but I would like for someone to spend more time in jail for killing me than for killing my dog. (And I love my pooty-wooty.)

I might agree with the commissioner’s punishment if he had consistency in how he dealt with players who commit crimes. I think it’s crazy that Michael Vick is suspended from the league indefinitely but Cornell Green of the Oakland Raiders is not, although he was arrested for slamming his girlfriend — the mother of his two children — into a wall and then beating her with an aluminum mop. Cedrick Wilson broke down a door and slapped his girlfriend in the face while arguing about whether to baptize their son. Falcons player Jonathan Babineaux was arrested and convicted for animal cruelty for bashing in the head of his girlfriend’s dog while they were arguing. Quinn Ojinnaka of the Falcons fought his wife after she confronted him about a woman on his Facebook page. For some reason, they are all still in the league.

Some of you are thinking that this is exactly why Commissioner Goodell needs to fine and suspend athletes. I’m thinking that this is exactly why he does not. It seems to me that his “moral barometer” is a little off and arbitrary. Why does he react so strongly to Vick and Stallworth, but remains silent in matters of domestic violence, which are far more prevalent in the NFL? I guess the justice system works all right when it comes to beating on wives and girlfriends, just not when it comes to beating on dogs.

Do you have to be charged with the crime or just accused of the behavior? When does one get suspended? Before or after being charged with a crime? If charges are dropped or the player is acquitted, should the NFL still punish the player? If so, how? What about the coaches? We won’t even mention the broadcasters.

My point is that the justice system is imperfect, and so is the NFL’s so-called system of justice. This is an organization that readily recruits thugs (some, not all) and criminals before they even set foot in the NFL. They know who many of them are before they get to the NFL, which is OK, as long as the NFL and owners can keep the money train rolling. If you don’t believe me, do a search of NFL players arrested and witness the ridiculous number of results.

Until Goodell and the NFL get some consistent guidelines for punishing crimes by players and coaches, and think about moral character when actually recruiting players, there will be no justice and no peace.

This post originally appeared in Creative Loafing where Nsenga serves as cultural critic.

Farewell Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is dead. My heart is heavy because he was the most iconic musical figure of my generation. I remember my first 45 was of “I’ll Be There.” My sister and I played it over and over arguing about which Jackson was the cutest. My sister’s first LP was Off the Wall and we played it over and over. I remember begging for my Michael Jackson leather jacket and smiling brightly when I finally got it. My mom commissioned two Michael Jackson paintings for my sister and me by a local artist, which we had for years. It is still our all time favorite gift.

Perhaps, my greatest memory of Michael Jackson is his performance on Motown 25. I will never forget the energy, precision, excitement and sheer perfection. He and his brothers shut it down. I remember standing in front of the television, mouth agape, in utter awe of this man’s performance.

Honestly, I had not thought about Michael Jackson much recently although I had planned a jaunt to Europe to catch one of his shows. It’s funny that his death is all that I can think about now.

In the words of Michael Jackson, all that I can say is goodbye.

Eminem on Jimmy Kimmel: Will the Real Slim-Shady Please Stand Up

Did anyone other than my sister and me watch Eminem’s performance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show a couple of weeks ago? Probably not because you have lives.  Em seemed like a shell of his former self, clearly returning from what must have been a hellish period in his life. He looked like he had been “shook” as we say in the community. Kimmel was actually quite cool and relaxed during this show — possibly because Mike Tyson was his other guest that night and both guests are known to “stand up for themselves” when wronged.

While Tyson seemed focused, confident and get this — sane, Em seemed distant, cold and extremely nervous. His precarious demeanor was capped off by a less than stellar performance of his single 3 a.m. He appeared to be lip-synching and clearly forgot the words on multiple occasions. There were so many long shots that if it were not for the soundtrack, then you would not have been able to tell that it was Slim Shady himself.

It’s a good thing that he’s not a pop star or sibling of a much more famous and talented sibling, because he might have been ridiculed in the press for a terrible performance. What’s worse than an average pop star lip-synching on Saturday Night Live and forgetting the words? A rapper lip-synching and forgetting the words. One of the core tenets of rap is delivery. Em better thank God that he’s not blond and a woman (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz or Britney Spears anyone), because he would have gotten reamed by the press.

At any rate, this new Eminem is definitely different from the past — that includes his face which looks remarkable different. He also looks as if he has gone under the knife. He must be using Lil’ Kim and Mickey Rourke’s plastic surgeon, because it is not a good job. His face looks plastic, just like his performance — a shell of his former self. I miss the frowns, the excitement and the passion of Eminem. His “former self” was a bit over-the-top, but he appeared to be authentic. Maybe this new guy is Marshall Mathers.  I just want the real Slim Shady to please stand up.

I’m not so sure about this new Eminem that seems to be paper and plastic, especially based on this lame album.  I know that it’s not cool to kick someone why he or she is down, so I’ll stop here. I want the old Eminem back — the prolific, energetic beast that was.

While I’m pining away for the past, I want to know why no one is holding his feet to the fire like female artists that give lousy performances?

What are your thoughts? Let me know.

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