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Two things have compelled me to write today. One of them is this:

Image

That’s Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the upcoming film Nina, directed by Cynthia Mort.

The other one is the news that Spike Lee has been fired from directing the anticipated James Brown biopic produced by Brian Grazer. He’s been reportedly replaced by The Help director, Tate Taylor. Not much news about Lee’s dismissal has surfaced, but what I did come across got me thinking about the mishandling of black stories in cinema.

A lot of mishandling has been going on lately. The image above of Zoe Saldana in an attempt at skin darkening (to mirror Nina Simone), is one example.

I write and speak often about my experience seeing Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater when I was eight (see youtube clip below). It was an experience that helped solidify the power of cinema for me. It was a film that brought my childhood fascination and passion for black history into a dramatic, visual realm. It was a film experience that marked my hopes and expectations for the kind of dialogue cinema could have with an audience. Historical inaccuracies aside, it was (and is) what a biopic should be. It was a biopic about a powerful black man, directed by a black man. I think this matters.

I think it matters that the “story” of Nina Simone is being reduced to a fictitious affair she had with a gay man. I think it matters that Nina Simone was a beautiful, dark-skinned black woman and there are several beautiful, dark-skinned actresses who could’ve played this role. I think it matters that the director of this film ignored attempts from Nina Simone’s daughter to help elevate this narrative with some type of credibility. I think this is what happens when black stories are mishandled.

Now, when I read that Tate Taylor will direct a biopic about James Brown, I think more about this mishandling. It’s not a matter of one’s race making them ill-equipped to direct a certain film. It’s a matter of respect and experience and how that experience will translate to a story about a man who helped revolutionize music in America. A man who created an anthem that filled black folks across the world with a sense of pride and self-worth that was decades in the making.

Many people loved The Help, though I can’t be counted as one of them. Many more people loved Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn. Many more people recall the impact that these films had on them. Film theorists and critics write about these films, and about Lee. Sure, he’s had his share of box office flops but that cannot take away from the amount of experience, respect, and passion that he could bring to a biopic about James Brown. I don’t doubt that. I also don’t doubt that this decision might be the latest installment in attempting to sanitize black stories by making them more palatable to mainstream audiences (i.e. Tate Taylor and Saldana as Simone). Whatever the reasoning, it just doesn’t sit well with me. The news headline sounds like a bad joke, only it’s not. These are our stories, and they deserve more.

 (at 2:41 I talk about the impact that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X had on me as a child)

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Wow. I haven’t written on here in so long. Been so wrapped up in pre-pro on Deluge that I forgot blogging even existed. But alas, I had to step out today to go to Kinko’s. Ah, Kinko’s.

handle with care

I met a guy there once before. He’s an assistant manager and has a nice hair cut. The last time I came, we stood in awkward silence for five minutes when my receipt jammed in the printer and he struggled to rescue it. A receipt for a purchase of paper is not extremely essential to my budget but I decided to stand there and see if he’d ever fix the paper jam. It was fun to watch his hands and eyes move in frenzied coordination trying to figure it out. He had nice hands with a few gashes and marks on them.

Finally, he went to the back, leaving me for five more minutes with no receipt. I waited, and when he came back, he handed over a 3-page printout of the small paper transaction. He smiled at me. Then it was over. I liked his persistence.

Today, I walked in and there he was delegating tasks to fellow employees. I told him I needed my paper cut. He said it would cost me, but “I don’t mind taking your money,” he said. He smiled at me and I smiled back. Probably the biggest smile I’d had in a week. Sad, I know, but pre-production is hard sometimes.

I took my paper out and told him I just needed “a little off the top.” Gave him an exact measurement. He looked at me, grabbed the stack of paper, and took it to the back. He cut my paper. For free. I think he wanted to say more but more words didn’t come. I touched my newly cut paper and pushed it into my used brown Kinko’s bag. I started to take out my phone like I really had something to do on it. I didn’t. He started toward the back where I imagined he presided over a mound of paper shipments that gave him tiny cuts on his fingers.

I gave my paper a final once over and walked toward the exit. He was standing on the other side of the counter smiling at me. “Have a good day!,” he yelled out. I smiled back, and waved. I walked out to my car and looked back like maybe he might follow me with advice on paper-cutting, but he didn’t. I got in the car. I drove away.

I run into these kinds of situations and am not quite sure of how to go about them. I think someone is cute. They may think I am cute too, but who has the words for that when they are trying to fix a receipt jammed in a printer or cut the top of paper? What is the proper protocol when you have a crush on a sandwich-maker at Whole Foods but there are 9 disgruntled customers in line after you who could care less? Sure, you can ask them what sandwich they like best, or in the case of Kinko’s, inquire about how they got started in the paper business, but is that really sincere when all you really want to know is if they are interested in you too?

Well, you have to start somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is inquiries about different grades of paper, from linen to card stock, which segue into questions about good movies they’ve seen and if they like sweet potatoes as much as you do. Wait, is that too much? And, if the sandwich is good at Whole Foods, maybe I should let the guy know what a great job he did the next time I’m in there. Or maybe it’s bringing more paper back to Kinko’s and asking him if he wants to cut… Who knows. I like to think fate is the best option in all cases. Maybe, in some strange way, we will meet again, the paper man and I.

But, for now I have to finish this movie.

Peace.

promo image for "Dark Girls"

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the release of the documentary preview, “Dark Girls,” directed by Bill Duke and Channsin Berry (which you can view below). Whether people are enraged or awakened by the material, it’s sparked a definite chord in folks across the country. I was even moved to write a poem partly inspired by some of its themes, specifically around Eurocentric beauty standards (see previous post). The preview definitely stirred my emotions and resonated with me as a black woman who has experienced, learned, and/or witnessed this type of self-hatred in my life and community. However, after an earlier phone call with my older sister, where she posed some alternative ways to frame the discussion, I’m reconsidering my initial reactions to the directors’ focus and choice of content.

Put simply, what about the “dark girls” who were raised to love their brown skin, who were confident, and never viewed their skin color as a mistake? What about the “dark girls” raised in households where their parents/ family members praised their intelligence and beauty?  What about the darker-skinned women who were ridiculed but say that it didn’t affect their total self-conception? I know some of them. They do exist, and they seem to be all but erased from this documentary preview. This lack of inclusion caused to me wonder about the concerns of documentary filmmaking- the intentional and not-so intentional slant that directors have when conceiving of ideas that they deem compelling or powerful. What would happen if alternative perspectives were included in this preview? How would that complicate this very complex narrative on skin color? How does having two black men direct a documentary about black women’s skin color affect the narrative, if it does at all? These are questions I consider regularly as  narrative and documentary filmmaker. When I think of privileging a certain perspective over another, I must consider what that will do to the story I’m trying to tell and how audiences will react to that decision.

I’m in no way lessening the gravity of this skin-color caste system within the black community, and globally. Through out my life, I’ve seen the debilitating ramifications of its existence, and I’ve always been a proponent for trying to break it down and analyze its function as a force of division, pseudo-importance, and over-enforced Eurocentricity. I cannot say that I’ve experienced what the women in this preview have, but I’ve felt the sting in my chest when my friends and family members have. I’ve experienced the incessant pressure from media, classmates, and teen crushes to have long hair, to claim that I was “half Indian,” to embrace “light skin” as if it were some kind of exalted honor.  So my intent here is never to devalue the impact of these ingrained ideologies that affect black and brown people across the world, but to question how this preview would function if the total complexity of this issue was explored.

There is a part in the documentary where interviewees talk about black men not seeking out long-term relationships with them because they’re darker skinned. In my experience, I’ve seen some black men seek out women with this as one of the main reasons they’re attracted to the woman; because she has dark skin. Both motivations can be problematic and should be examined, but this is just an alternative consideration. There’s also no discussion of how other elements of self-esteem and socialization affect the way young girls react to these beliefs. My older sister mentioned her friend, who despite having the treasured long hair and light skin, was extremely insecure and unhappy with herself. Her thoughts had less to do with her skin color and more to do with her family influence and emotional health, which can also be applied to dark skinned girls brought up in supportive, loving homes who feel good about themselves.

By leaving out the varied voices of dark-skinned women and black community members, we’re not able to feel any other way but mad, angry, enraged, saddened, and hopefully ready to change this discourse. But there are parts of this narrative that can ignite hope, relief, and maybe even some humor.  Again, it all goes back to the directors’ intentions and their “slant,” which is something I’m so fascinated with as a filmmaker. I once took a documentary filmmaking class at Howard University where we discussed the choices made by filmmakers, which renders how their act of “documenting” is interpreted. If the director’s intention was to move people to the point of dialogue and change, hopefully the piece works in that direction, but how would presenting a multifaceted perspective help to enliven, evoke or distill that dialogue?

I return to this clip for performance-based inspiration. Whether you’re a singer, dancer, poet, or filmmaker, there are cues to follow and respect.

  • Log off facebook and twitter
  • Sign out of gmail
  • write in a journal instead of straight into Microsoft Word

These are methods I execute when trying to write poems, screenplays, or initiate any type of artistic pursuit. Recently I’ve begun to take an increased interest in the impact of online domains on people’s creative processes, particularly my own.   When I log on to facebook, I am instantly made aware of someone’s third book release, another person’s acceptance into a literary journal, acceptance into a school, their new boyfriend, etc. The same can be said for twitter and gchat to some extent. I’m inspired by this news, for it points to the successes of artists and people in their lives. However, it also furthers the feeling that everything is happening “right now!,” that good things are constantly happening for everyone and if they’re not happening for me, something’s wrong. The fact is, when you’re an emerging artist trying to accomplish difficult feats, things rarely happen “right now” for you. You have to wait. At times for long periods. So just because our technology has sped up immensely, the process of life, of creating and becoming, has stayed the same.  How does that impact people living in this age? Put simply, (and citing my own experience), I am making progress and accomplishing alot, but not at live-tweet speed.

Ten years ago, I would not be writing this. I would be mailing in writing submissions to journals, not emailing them. I would await a letter in the mail, notifying me of my acceptance or rejection from the journal, rather than receive an email on gmail, which while personal, seems all the more public when I peer at my 25 gchat friends’s status’ on the side of my inbox. I would have nothing to log-on to that would distract me from writing my first draft poem or screenplay. This is not merely a nod to past as much as it is a way to consider the differences in people’s patience levels and their abilities to sustain themselves for large amounts of time without receiving any good news; to create without added online distractions.

When I’m on social networking sites, I notice there’s always an increased need to “share” and update. As an emerging artist, I don’t always have something to share. I’m figuring out life, waiting to hear back from folks about film ideas, budgets, screenplays, writing journals, and checking my email only to see no one sent me anything or returned the emails I sent one month ago. I log on to facebook and am pulled into a world of good news in which I want to share something inherently “good” or funny regarding my life and/or achievements.

I may be the only person who experiences this, but since I strive to remain honest in all of my writing, I wanted to share my thoughts. Or perhaps I can blame my interest in this on my theoretical degree in mass communications. Who knows. But while online forums have made many things convenient and easy, they also contribute to alot of mental clutter. When I sit down to write or think, this clutter doesn’t serve me well. I recently read a NY Times article that cited a study of people’s increased reliance on constant, rapid spurts of information via twitter, facebook, and email. Not a good look… I’m attempting to find a balance. Until then, I’m signing off.

I would love to read your thoughts on this post. Please chime in!

Maia Campbell (middle) on the set of "In the House"

Hey folks. I have alot on my mind as I initiate yet another cross- country move tomorrow. This time, I’ll be heading to LA (with a pit-stop in NC) for graduate school in the fall. Aside from that, my mind is in a bit of a clutter after seeing two equally disturbing videos of young black women who are daughters of well known figures. Maia Campbell, daughter of noted author Bebe Moore Campbell (RIP), and Montana Fishburne, daughter of noted actor Laurence Fishburne. Both have been catapulted into the blogosphere spotlight for “funny,” “crackhead” behavior that seems to reflect deeper issues.

Maia Campbell, who you may remember as Tiffany on the UPN TV show “In the House,” caused controversy when she was videotaped in a man’s car rambling, ranting, appearing incoherent, messy, and seemingly intoxicated and/or drug-induced. Montana Fishburne has recently launched a porn career in order to make her way in the entertainment business, follow in the footsteps of Kim Kardashian, and become a “well-respected” actress. I’m not here to merely recycle myths and rumors about these woman, which is what many blogs and sites have been doing, and what I take serious issue with. Instead, I think the public reaction to these women and their conditions and behaviors reflect alot about the state of our society and culture at the present moment.

These days, everything seems to become a youtube, bossip, or huffington post video. People have seemingly traded in common sense, a need to intervene (in cases of extreme violence and abuse), or the act of caring about the well-being of another, in order to record what otherwise wouldn’t be. In many cases, these “guerilla” videos serve as proper checks and balances in society, especially in the case of law enforcement injustice (i.e. Oscar Grant) and other societal abuses. However, many times they are not intended to reveal or bring attention to something that needs to be stopped. In the case of the aforementioned women, they only help to instigate, inflame, and increase the volatility of such situations.

I read numerous blogs, websites, and “news” headlines likening Maia Campbell to a crackhead, a prostitute, and a junky. These “stories” all come complete with videos of her engaging in what clearly are manic episodes, indicative of someone suffering from a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. The people recording these videos of her can be heard laughing and having a grand time showcasing her mania. The latest video is particularly disturbing. In the case of Montana, we hear a male jovially ask her banal questions regarding her budding porn career.

I’m not going to do that here. On this blog, there will be no links to videos of these women for the sole reason to further humiliate them and turn their situations into comedy. There is nothing funny about capturing videos of bipolar young women who self-medicate with drugs, or young women who view their body as the sole way they can carve out an acting career. So instead of laughing and pushing “record” on a video camera, we should maybe try caring. Not just about these two women, though their stories warrant concern. It’s about understanding the deeper issues that Maia and Montana’s “videos” highlight in the black community, and in other communities as well. Many black people suffer from mental illnesses; conditions that go undiagnosed due to communal stigmas attached to treatment options, amidst a myriad of other factors. Maia Campbell is just one representative of the mental health crisis in this community. Many times these people are labeled as crackheads or crazy, when there are deep psychological scars stemming from genetics, economics, racism, and other personal factors. As in Maia’s case, drugs become the obvious choice of medication.

In the case of Montana Fishburne, many folks seem to be more invested in wondering where Laurence Fishburne went “wrong” as a father or if she “measures” up physically with Kim Kardashian, whom she wishes to emulate. But those concerns seem to ignore the crux of why her pursuing a porn career is a bit disturbing in the first place. After all, if she wanted to get into Hollywood that bad, she could probably call her father and arrange something. The bigger issue lies within more and more young women (not just Montana) viewing their bodies as their sole contributions to their careers as entertainers. All this is perpetuated and spurred on by an increasing age of sex-tape turned “stars,” tv housewives, jersey shore/ Real World sex shows, youtube video frenzy, and a bevy of other instant-gratification media outlets.

So my aim here is not to admonish people and their use of current technology, but to question how that technology and media is being used. Simply recording problematic and troubling content just for the sake of perpetuating ignorance and comedy, is not okay.  My mother recently emailed me a link to a video showing a pregnant black woman fighting four people in a Burger King parking lot in Oakland. I refused to watch due to the proliferation of videos like this. Instead of recording this, why not attempt to stop the fight where an innocent fetus could be harmed? Why not engage in a dialogue about how cameras can be used to uplift and not dehumanize. Why not start a dialogue about mental health, rather than laugh at someone who clearly needs help?  Why not care?

Peace.

Cesar Chavez-Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with school textbooks. Their “facts” sometimes seemed slanted, or peppered with bias. In high school they got a little better, but I was still appalled to witness the importance of the Underground Railroad reduced to four sentences about a “network of slaves” in a section that was supposed to detail Antebellum America and the instances of resistance within it. From elementary through high school, I wrestled with their take on history and politics, and drew from outside reading, family, and life experiences, to refute what I knew was sometimes erroneous and manufactured.

That said, the news that Texas’ conservatism (courtesy of the Texas State Board of Education) could greatly influence the content of public school textbooks, was of much interest and dismay to me. Texas operates one of the biggest markets for school textbooks. They facilitate a major, comprehensive print run that then determines the same course materials for other states. With textbook manufacturers largely catering to Texas’ requests, many other states, from Oregon to Massachusetts, could be following suit as well.

So what will these imposed changes mean? Put simply, they’d lessen the importance and scope of Latino history and culture (in schools and classes with significant Latino populations), they’d institute a greater emphasis on the “conservative resurgences of the 1980s and 1990s,” (a resurgence that increased the international drug trade/cartel, and also perpetuated the stereotype of the black “welfare mother”), they’d evoke a more positive portrayal of Cold War Anticommunism (a movement that held many freedom fighters such as Paul Robeson in exile and contempt), and finally- include country and western music as one of the country’s most “important” social movements, while hip hop is dropped entirely from that same list. The latter addition is both amusing and alarming considering the impact and importance of hip hop culture in the lives of many students in these schools, and the lack of importance of country and western music in most urban areas of the country. If instituted, these changes would unjustly impose Texas’ backward relationship with culture/diversity, immigration, and freedom of speech, on students and educators across the country, who are unfamiliar with this particular brand of conservatism.

Though the Texas State Board of Education has not yet ratified these changes and additions (the vote takes place in May), they are already celebrating an early victory due to the finalization of their initial textbook draft. The potential changes are cause for alarm and concern, especially in underfunded schools where a variety of reading materials are sometimes scarce, and teachers depend more and more on the content and direction of their textbooks to supplement classroom curriculum. It is also a cause for protest when one considers the importance of textbooks in social studies/ history classrooms, and their role in shaping the perception of what’s important and credible in history. Without the support and inclusion of outside reading materials, community, and family encouragement, some students are being dealt an incredibly unfair blow.

Shani Davis

Lately, my mind has been all over the place. I don’t feel like writing a single post, so here’s a few juicy things and people that have caught my attention recently:

1. Shani Davis (speed skater)

I’m not even going to front. I’ve never been a big fan of the winter olympics (track and field is where its at!) until this guy came along. Watching him speed past his opponent tonight and win gold, really gave me some genuine happiness. He’s cute, FAST, the first black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual Winter Games sport (in 2006), and appears to be humble. Go Shani!

2. The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can’t Find Good Black Men by Jimi Izrael

Some books just shouldn’t be written. This is one of them. The “single, lonely black woman” phenomenon has taken the world by storm and this is its latest manifestation; a man writes a book instructing black women how to find their own “Denzels.” Wow. According to the book, “…what does your very own Denzel look like?  Well, he’s rich but earthy, handsome but not pretty, doting but not docile, tough but vulnerable, political but not radical, passionate but not hysterical, ambitious but not overbearing, well-read but not nerdy, manly but not macho, gentle but not feminine, Black but not militant, sexy but not solicitous, flirtatious but particular…and all that on cue and in proper measure.” Well, thank you for Jimi for providing an exact definition of every “good” black man in the world. Good luck to those who don’t fit into that rigid definition. You might as well be called the “Morgan Freeman.” Just kidding.

3. Haiti post- Earthquake News Coverage

Where did it go? Hmmmm.

4. Corinne Bailey Rae “The Sea” and Sade “Soldier of Love”

If you’re in search of music that takes you on a journey, listen to these albums. I can’t explain the feeling I get when I listen to Corinne Bailey Rae’s song “Are You Here” -it’s an odd mixture of emotion, like I want to cry, dance, and sing at the same time. I also like that her lyrics are in some ways like poetry. Sade’s newest offering also evokes emotion in me. My favorite tracks are “Morning Bird” and “In Another Time.” Sade is so timeless.

5. Mary J. Blige as Nina Simone in a bio-pic film

There is talk that this film is in the works. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. I’ve been a fan of Mary since What’s the 411, but I’m just not sure that passionate singing always transfers to good acting. I’m also not convinced that she can pull off portraying the High Priestess of Soul- a woman who could go from extreme joy to deep sadness within the course of one song. There are plenty of passionate actresses who could nail this role, some established, some emerging. Why not give them a chance before turning an amazing life story and potential film, into something less. Hmmmm……

Thanks for reading!

Nina Simone

A woman celebrates her Haitian homeland at the 2009 Inauguration. -© Nijla M.

——————————————————————————-

THE WORST EARTHQUAKE TO HIT HAITI IN 200 YEARS

THE POOREST COUNTRY IN THIS HEMISPHERE!!!

EVEN IF THIS EARTHQUAKE DID NOT HAPPEN HAITI NEEDS HELP!!!

———————————————————————————

The above text comes from a facebook event posting for a Haitian Earthquake Benefit. Though well-intentioned, it comes in a long line of similar sentiments that paint Haiti in a desperate, debilitated light. While accurate, such sentiments and beliefs don’t take into consideration the rich, complex history of Haiti, and the context of its present societal condition/s.

Haiti was the the first post-colonial Black, independent nation in the world. Enslaved Haitians fought for their freedom, against the French, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave. From the beginning, their status as an independent black nation put them at odds with the United States, which was still heavily embroiled in the buying and selling of black human beings, and considered Haiti a threat. After Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804, the U.S. and much of the international community boycotted the nation. It seems that this very history has informed the lop-sided relationship between the US and Haiti, wherein the US has imposed strict trade embargoes and deportation policies on and against Haiti. A US-sanctioned occupation of Haiti, lasting from 1915-1934, also drastically impacted the country’s economy and citizens’ ability to maintain self-sufficiency, by forbidding them to own land.

Thus, when we talk about Haiti and it’s people, it is important to consider the way that history makes may for the present. This is a country of extreme importance to the spirit of resistance, to international independence and leadership. I remember reading about Toussaint L’Ouverture when I was a child, and being in awe of him and the slave rebellions and uprisings that freed a country. I remain in awe of the tremendous contributions to art and performance that this country has shared with the world, in the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the foundations of Katherine Dunham’s dance legacy. And I won’t sit by while news stations reduce starving, black human beings to “violent looters.” I won’t sit by while others speak of present-day Haiti and it’s poverty in some isolated vacuum, without taking the time to understand the role of the United States (and the wider international community) in its contemporary condition.

Long live Ayiti!

To make donations to Haiti Earthquake relief, please see the links to organizations below:

Yele Haiti-Wyclef Jean’s organization. Text 501501 to donate $5. The money will be added to your next phone bill. http://www.yele.org/

Haitian Women for Haitian refugees & MUDHA – movement of Dominican Haitian Women. These groups are organizing an immediate delivery of first aid.  Send checks to: “IFCO/Haiti Relief” 418 West 145th Street, New York NY 10031

Haiti Soleil Berkeley group working to empower Haiti’s youth. http://www.haitisoleil.org/

the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (H.E.R.F.) has given concrete aid to Haiti’s grassroots democratic movement as they attempted to survive the brutal coup and to rebuild shattered development projects. We urge you to contribute generously, not only for this immediate crisis, but in order to support the long-run development of human rights, sustainable agriculture and economic justice in Haiti. ALL MONEY GOES DIRECTLY TO GRASS ROOTS ORGANIZATIONS.

There are two ways to donate:

By Pay Pal at: <http://www.haitiaction.net/ About/HERF/1_12_10.html>

or Mail check made out to:
“Haiti Emergency Relief Fund/EBSC”
donations tax deductible
send mail to:
East Bay Sanctuary Covenant
2362 Bancroft Way
Berkeley, CA 94704
EBSC is a non-profit 502(c)(3) organization tax ID#94-3249753
We will acknowledge all donations

Hey folks!

Check out this feature on me and my poetry at OaklandLocal.com:

http://oaklandlocal.com/article/oakland-poet-nijla-mumin

Come back for updates regarding the release of my chapbook!

peace,

Nijla