Whoopi and the Limits of Friendship

EXCERPT

Whoopi Goldberg has been engaged in a public battle with fans, bloggers and pundits over her comments about Mel Gibson’s rant heard ’round the world. Tapes of Gibson’s tirades against his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva keep leaking like the BP oil spill and show no signs of stopping. Gibson made a number of abusive and misogynistic comments, one of which involved the way Grigorieva dressed. Funny how many have glossed over his obvious hatred toward this woman and headed straight to his racist comments. You know the comment — the one that follows the misogynistic ranting and includes the verbiage ”raped by a pack of n******.” People went off, calling Gibson everything but a child of God. I thought it was interesting that some felt free to use venomous language when talking about him, while condemning Gibson for using venomous language simultaneously.

Despite the hypocrisy, I understood where his critics were coming from; Gibson is a man who had come under fire for an anti-Semitic rant in 2006 against a police officer who was arresting him for driving under the influence. Once is a mistake, but twice? Houston, we have a problem.

Gibson’s latest tirade — which was abusive, sexist, misogynistic and racist — made headlines and was the talk of the media. I watched the morning shows and actually found the time to catch The View, a show I must admit that I rarely watch, on the day the story leaked. Whoopi Goldberg said a lot of things about Mel Gibson, but a lot of people latched on to her comment that she didn’t think he was racist. Still, she did call him out for his bad behavior. And she talked about alcoholics, whom she referred to as ”drunks” and how, when under the influence, they will say anything. (After his 2006 DUI arrest, Gibson checked into a rehab facility.) Then she muttered something that sounded like ”ass****s” and made her now-famous declaration that he is not a racist. Read more at TheRoot.com.

This article originally appeared on TheRoot.com where Nsenga serves as editor-at-large. She writes the Buzz section and is a regular contributor to the publication.

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Film Champion Dennis Darrell Leaves Behind Rich Legacy

Last week, I and many other Charlotteans were shocked to learn of the passing of Dennis Darrell. Dennis was a tireless advocate of independent film, especially black film, here in Charlotte. If you read this column regularly, you may remember a recent piece titled, “Where is Charlotte’s Independent Film Community?” I had the opportunity to interview Dennis for the piece and, as always, he had the most positive outlook on the subject.

He stated: “A community as I see it — as an active network that comes together to view and make independent films — we have that. To demonstrate how much the community is changing, we now have [a number of] groups screening films as opposed to one or two, which is good. The more people, the better.”

While I was pontificating whether we even had an independent film community in Charlotte, Dennis was clear that there was one, albeit small. The fact that it was small and fractured didn’t take away from the existence of an independent film community; rather, it just gave us an opportunity to work harder to close those gaps and work more closely together.

I remember thinking to myself that Dennis has been programming film for a long time (more than 10 years), and he still sees it as a beginning. This was a man comfortable with the fact that change is a process. He was able to see the good in a situation where others, like myself, argued that the local film scene was broken.

Out of the people I interviewed for the piece, he was my last subject. I remember thinking that such optimism is rare and perhaps I should think differently about how “community” is defined. Dennis reminded me in that interview that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We must understand that the film community in Charlotte is a work in progress and do what we can to become a part of the process that will inevitably create the desired reality.

It is this optimism that I remember most about Dennis, who welcomed me to the Charlotte film scene with open arms in 2001 when I first moved here from Los Angeles. Many know me as a writer, but few know me as a filmmaker, which is my first love. I met Dennis at a screening that he held at the Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture). We chatted, and like many other filmmakers new to the area, he took me under his wing, introducing me to other filmmakers and programmers. It was Dennis who connected me with the folks at The Light Factory, with whom I developed a great relationship.

It was Dennis who insisted that I screen my short film Wooden Nickels. I didn’t want to show it, because I thought it was too old, having made it in 2000. It was Dennis who told me that it was an important film and needed to be seen, so it was screened. As I was moving closer to academia and writing, and moving further away from film, it was Dennis who asked me to host his annual film festival and field questions from the audience, which reminded passion for film. It was Dennis who said, “You’ve got to get back to filmmaking.”

It was Dennis who organized a dinner to introduce me to other filmmakers like Steve Rutherford and Tre McGriff. It was Dennis who connected me with Beth Petty at the Charlotte Film Office and Robert Crumbine of Charlotte Center City Partners. It was Dennis who let me know that my old friends Christine and Michael Swanson were moving to Charlotte, and of course, we reconnected. Dennis was the king of connecting people. He made so many introductions and wanted nothing in return. That was just the type of person that he was — doing what he could to move film forward in Charlotte. Dennis did this for many filmmakers who moved to the Queen City.

Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail on Monday, May 17, from Tre McGriff and the Swansons that Dennis had passed away. I was stunned and saddened that I would not be able to be there for his homegoing, since I was in South Africa. I knew that he suffered a stroke in the past, but I thought he rebounded. I saw him during CIAA, and during our last e-mail exchange, which was two weeks ago, we discussed screening my documentary on the public servants strike in South Africa this fall in Charlotte. As always he was optimistic that we would get a great venue, have a good turnout and add value to the city.

Dennis was loved and respected in the community at large and, I would argue, the glue of the local independent film community. He will be greatly missed here on earth, but he is in a far better place.

Nsenga serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz section and feature stories.

Where is Charlotte’s Independent Film Community?

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Don’t Blame the Lettuce, an independent film written, produced and directed by David Jones. Jones is a South Carolina native who honed his skills at the University of South Carolina before moving to Charlotte to pursue his dream of filmmaking. When choosing Charlotte, Jones believed that moving to an emerging metropolis like ours would allow him to get what he needed — such as equipment and a talented cast and crew. Well, he was able to get all of those things, but the process, he said, was like pulling teeth.

Jones stated: “It’s very difficult to get people in Charlotte to work on films. They don’t have the commitment like you find in other cities. Many people seem to be all about the money, and not about filmmaking as a craft.”

Jones’ statement made me think about when I first moved to Charlotte to teach production at Johnson C. Smith University, which at the time had the only comprehensive production program that included radio, television and digital video production. JCSU had the foundation for a great program and eventually we developed a state-of-the-art facility for students. There were definitely students who were willing and able, but they also complained of the lack of opportunities outside of the university — which is why many bolted for other cities after graduation.

I feel what Jones is saying; I’d worked in film my entire adult life in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles … but came to a screeching halt here in Charlotte. I met lots of people who talked about making films, but very few who were actually doing it. Initially, I thought it was just in the African-American community, but upon branching out, I learned that there were a lot of pretenders in general in Charlotte. I found that many folks didn’t have knowledge of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking (white balancing for instance) and really weren’t that interested in the actual production process. In other cities, and not just traditional film cities, that wasn’t the case.

Think of the work coming out of locales like Austin, Texas, Philadelphia, Boston and Savannah — one has to wonder why Charlotte’s film community isn’t thriving in the same way. We’ve got a great cost-of-living, nice weather (which is perfect for outside shooting) and I, would argue, some talented people here. Why is there no real community?

Now, let me clarify before you start writing letters: Watching independent films is one thing, but making them is another. Groups like The Charlotte Film Society and Reel Soul Cinema (among others) do an excellent job of screening independent films and making people aware of what’s out there. Dennis Darrell, CEO of Reel Soul Cinema, sees the filmmaking community as something real and concrete.

“A community as I see it — as an active network that comes together to view and make independent films — we have that,” said Darrell. “To demonstrate how much the community is changing, we now have [a number of] groups screening films as opposed to one or two, which is good. The more people, the better.”

The Queen City is home to the Charlotte Film Festival, Charlotte Film Society, the Charlotte African-American Film Festival, The Light Factory, and many other celluloid-centric organizations. Read more.

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

One to Watch: Don’t Blame it on the Lettuce Brings Back Storytelling

Every once in a while, you see a film that really has something to say. A film that doesn’t tie up all of the loose ends so that we can feel better after watching it. A film that displays the real challenges of life, marriage and relationships. A film by a first-time feature director that makes you think, “this cat has what it takes.” I felt that feeling when watching Don’t Blame the Lettuce, an indie film directed by David Jones. It is a film about the ups and downs of relationships, how these relationships are interconnected to other aspects of our lives and the impossibility of a perfect love even when things look perfect from the outside. Jones takes us into a real-world scenario with which many can identify. He does this effortlessly because of his keen ability to tell stories. What is sad but very true is the fact that the art of storytelling in film is all but gone. With the exception of a few indie and art house pictures each year, the vast majority of films produced fail at telling a decent story. A good story with solid performances by Rod Smart, Ayana Vines and Kendrick Cross, pull the viewer into the narrative. It’s amazing what happens when you know the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, which Jones clearly does. This is a solid effort that leaves me wanting to see more from this director.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. writes Tune N. She also serves as  cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is a regular contributor to theRoot.com.

Dennis Hopper: A True Film Icon

Dennis Hopper is one of the great ones. He’s an incredible actor, writer, director and producer. Hopper is iconic in a way that today’s stars could never be. He mastered television and film, refusing to privilege one over the other.

Dennis Hopper gives 100% of himself to every role in every medium. He is as compelling as a goon in Rebel Without a Cause as he is as an outcast in his groundbreaking film Easy Rider. Viewers are able to connect with Hopper because he pours every ounce of himself into his television and film roles. It doesn’t matter if he’s in a guest slot on Gunsmoke, starring in Paris Trout, part of an ensemble cast like Apocalypse Now, directing a genre-defining film like Colors or helping a hit film like Crash, become a hit television series, he gives viewers the best that he’s got.

The same man that takes incredible risks in his personal life, takes the same type of risks with his career, opening doors that would have previously been shut. He could have easily capitalized on the cult success of Easy Rider, but chose to pursue, smaller more artistic endeavors overseas. The same way that he pursued causes with conviction and laser focus, is the same approach that he took to filmmaking.

His body of work is central to the Golden Age of independent cinema, ushering in an era of film that questioned the status quo, pushed boundaries and in my mind, moved the film industry forward. Hopper’s personal and professional choices were not always popular, which is probably why he is just getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That and the fact that he’s terminally ill. Although doctors advised that he was too sick to attend his Walk of Fame ceremony, Hopper was there, a shell of his former physical self, still giving us the best that he’s got.

In honor of this great filmmaker and actor, I say turn away from the gossip and turn towards his tremendous body of work. This weekend, next weekend or sometime in the near future, revisit the work of Dennis Hopper so that when the “journalists” attempt to reduce his legacy to a drug-addicted wild man who divorced his wife on his death bed, you’ll know some of his truth. What is that truth?  Dennis Hopper is one of the greatest of all time.

Nsenga K. Burton serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is a regular contributor to TheRoot.com. She writes the blog Tune N, which examines pop culture through a critical lens.

The Invention of Lying is A Great Film, No Lie

Nsenga K. Burton

Can you imagine a world where people tell the truth, all of the time. No matter what the situation or scenario, the people with whom you interact are going to be brutally honest. They are honest about everything — looks, intelligence, flatulence — you name it and they will tell it.

Ricky Gervais brilliantly plays the role of Mark Bellison, an average looking, down-on-his luck writer, in love with Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), an upwardly mobile, beauty with a discerning eye for what she wants in a mate. You can imagine how this budding relationship unfolds in a world with no lies. One day, Gervais discovers how to lie and uses it to his advantage, which of course ultimately leads him back to the truth. The dialogue is witty, engaging and provocative.

Although the film is a riot, there are some dark moments, like when Bellison’s neighbor talks nonchalantly about killing himself each morning in the elevator. Who is that neighbor? Jonah Hill of Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame and many more stars to boot.  The Invention of Lying reinvents the comedy genre by making you laugh, think and feel all at once — and that’s no lie.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.  is a media scholar and cultural critic for Creative Loafing.

Show black women some respect, please

This past week was a rough one for black women in the news. While I am used to black women being judged quite harshly in society, I am sometimes shocked at the amount of venom that is spewed at my sisters, especially during Women’s History Month.

Now, Women’s History Month is important for all women because at one point women resided on the margins of society, lacking fundamental protections and rights that were granted to men. Many of our stories and accomplishments were overshadowed or excluded because women were considered second-class citizens. Like other disenfranchised groups, women worked and fought hard to gain civil rights. Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month was created to celebrate and commemorate the contributions that women have made to society in order to benefit all of society, including men. Celebrate is the key word here. I find it interesting that most of the headlines about black women were extremely negative last week. Let me share a few with you:

• “New Study Finds Median Wealth for Single Black Women is $5” (Daily KOS)

• “Nearly Half of Black Women Have Herpes” (The Root)

• “Juanita Goggins Dead: Once-Revered South Carolina Lawmaker Freezes to Death Alone” (Huffington Post)

• “Monica Conyers Gets 37-Month Term for Bribery” (BlackAmericaWeb.com)

Even with an Academy Award win for comedian-turned-actress Mo’Nique’s powerhouse performance in the controversial film Precious, most of the pre- and post-award coverage focused on her “open marriage,” and refusal to shave her hairy legs in spite of dominant beauty standards. Mo’Nique’s creepy obsession with her husband, notwithstanding, I did not see other actresses covered in the same way.

In fact, Howard Stern came under fire for saying that Gabourey Sidibe would never make another film in Hollywood because she is too fat and black. In defense of Stern and his “Girl Friday” Robin Quivers, they happened to say what everyone in the Hollywood film industry was thinking, but would not dare say publicly. If you know anything about casting and Hollywood, then you know that Sidibe is working against all odds. The point is, even though this young woman gave an incredible performance in this film and was cast despite all of the factors against her, the media still chose to focus on the negative instead of the positive — the fact that she gave an incredible performance and just might inspire Hollywood to weigh substance over size, pun intended.

It wasn’t just that story — there were so many more. In fact, I posted so many negative headlines about black women that some of my friends boycotted my Facebook page. They turned away from it because there was too much negative information on it about black women in the media. Some of the words that they used included hurtful, mean-spirited, demeaning, harmful and sad. My goal was not to ruin my friends’ week — it was to expose just how negatively black women are talked about in the press, how common it is and the real-world consequences. I didn’t have to go digging; these were major headlines.

In 2008, I wrote a column titled, “Leave us alone: Black women are much more than negative media portrayals,” in which I raged about the venom with which people talk about black women in the media and how freely they do it. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: Black women are tired of being beat up on. Perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to the positive stories that involve African-American women; maybe they aren’t promoted as heavily as the negative stories.

The fact is that black women are constant targets. If you take your cultural cues from the media about black women, then we are too fat, unattractive, unhealthy, bearers of every friggin’ disease in the known world, lazy, too smart, not smart enough, argumentative and combative. Even when we do wonderful things like educate ourselves, gain financial independence, head businesses and organizations and serve the community, it is tied to something negative. For example, single, black, college-educated women in their 30s will never marry because of all of those same factors. It feels like we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

We are sensitive and, like everyone else, black women have feelings, too.  I understand that some stories are written to create awareness, but they rarely address the causal factors that create these conditions.

Celebration is something that is missing from Women’s History Month as it relates to black women.

Maybe it’s because people think of us as “black” first and “women” second. Maybe it’s because the media knows that these headlines sell papers or get clicks. Maybe it’s because we don’t matter as a group unless it is that familiar space as a whipping post, pun intended.

I’m here to say that we do matter, and we need to be uplifted and upheld in the ways that other groups are. We are thinking, feeling people who deserve the same level of deference and consideration afforded to others. Let’s make history and show black women some respect in the media, at least during the month of March.

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