Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

Good Hair (2009)

“Weave sex is a little awkward,” an actress named Nia Long says. “Keep your hands on the titties,” is the advice given by the barbershop men.

If I were a sociology teacher I’d show this movie in my class and we would have plenty enough to talk about for a whole semester. Definitely more to it than meets the eye.

Chris Rock has delightful spontaneous wit.
Al Sharpton is cool.
Ice-T is cool.
Maya Angelou is cool.

The dancers and models we see here are of course in excellent shape, but the ordinary citizens, the folks interviewed by in barbershops and beauty parlors, are so overweight. I’ve been studying up on obesity in America, and it really does seem like we’re being secretly poisoned by something inescapable.

It’s wrong to be judgmental or discriminatory against anybody because of their size, but I’m pretty sure that people who are 100 pounds overweight, don’t want to be, any more than I want to be however many pounds overweight I am. And medical care for the various conditions that occur alongside obesity, well, who can afford any kind of medical care any more? And how beautiful can a person feel, even with a $3,500 hair weave, when carrying around an extra 100 pounds?

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The Business of Fancydancing

You want to know what chanting and ceremony are all about? Here it is. Plenty of fusion-style music too. The sound track is great. The screenplay is by poet Sherman Alexie, whose fictional stand-in is a gay Indian poet called Seymour Polatkin. The film opens with the poet reading from his work to, apparently, no audience. He’s behind a store window, so there is a glass wall between him and the people, who blithely walk by. Which is how any artist feels, at least part of the time. We see some of the reviews he has received, e.g. “Seymour Polatkin is full of shit.”

An eternal problem for the screenwriter is how to cram in all that exposition, the necessary minimum of information the viewer of this fiction really needs to know about the characters and how they got there, and where they are, and what year it is, and so on. I like how the back-story is presented here. The poet is looking at himself in a mirror, dressing for an event. Another man is in the room, standing behind Polatkin, and what he says reveals part of the back-story.

His name is Steven, and his life has been deeply affected by the poet’s work. “You wrote the poems that keep me awake,” he says. Steven recites one of the poems. What a nice, personal, loving tribute for a friend to offer. This is a father poem, and Steven confesses that he had not talked to his father for many years. “When I read your poem I picked up the phone and I called him.”

We can tell these two guys are friends, and before long it’s evident they are lovers and partners. We also learn more about the poet and his past through his public appearances. He tells a bookstore audience how he emerged from the closet and told his grandmother he was a two-spirited gay man.

Polatkin also frequents another venue, a disco where the dancers are all different kinds of people who probably wouldn’t be found together. I’m reading this as Seymour Polatkin’s subconscious, inhabited by all the people he knows from his different worlds.

That is the essence of the poet’s problem. He belongs to many cultures, and some people tell him that is the equivalent of belonging to no culture. But Polatkin isn’t buying it. Which is what makes him a poet. He talks it all out with a TV journalist, on an eerily empty stage where the two of them regard each other intensely and engage in verbal fencing matches. The Interviewer is his anima, his conscience, his guardian angel who practices tough love, an alternate personality, or some amalgam of those entities and more. It’s a very effective cinematic device to handle introspection.

On the rez, a man called Mouse has committed suicide. He was a genius violinist and a general hell-raiser. In a flashback, Mouse bitches about how Seymour Polatkin stole pieces of his life and used them in poems as if they were his own. Even though Mouse is a gifted musician, he doesn’t understand how art functions, probably not even his own. The person Mouse complains to is Aristotle. They all grew up together, and were partners in petty crime, and so on. Another flashback shows their degenerate drug habits. These rez kids huff gasoline and gases from spray cans. This film is just wonderful for finding ways to visually and aurally express thoughts and emotions. For instance, we know that Mouse understood Aristotle, whose spirit inspired some of his finest music. We aren’t told this, we see and hear it.

At a poetry reading, Seymour reads a piece about selling his blood for money to travel to Mouse’s memorial. He sees the apparition of Mouse sitting in the audience, looking real as anybody, judging the poem.

Seymour Polatkin makes it to the memorial. The 13th Step is the rez community center, its interior walls painted in vibrant colors, not bland Caucasian eggshell. Agnes is there. She’s half Jewish and half Indian. They met in college and had an affair, then Seymour told her he was gay, and switched over to men. He didn’t plan to ever go back to the reservation, but Agnes decided to move there, and teach music. She more or less accuses him of being a race traitor, but their relationship still appears to be about 90% good. They love each other in a highly individual way, and she always stoutly defends him to the others who say he’s sold out, etc.

Seymour and Aristotle started college at the same time, but Aristotle just couldn’t take it. There is a very affectionate scene between the two of them, which may be a fantasy. If nothing like this ever happened, the poet certainly wanted it to happen. Anyway, for Aristotle, the price to live in the white man’s world was just too high, and he dropped out. Even though he was, as a school official condescendingly said, “one of the bright ones.”

And Seymour, despite being both Indian and gay, preferred to take his chances in the larger world. He never did understand Aristotle going back to the stifling prison of the rez. The Interviewer also asks Aristotle many questions – which I read as Seymour’s efforts to understand his friend – but Aristotle stoically refuses to say a word. He just sits there, and finally gives a warrior yell.

At the memorial, Seymour stands up in front of the people as if to say something. He stoically remains silent, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer. But inside he’s screaming, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer and the bureaucrat. He walks out of the communal hall and leaves the reservation.

In the last song, the music teacher expresses her sadness for the sadness of the poet.

Extra bonus: Two “Northern Exposure” actors are in The Business of Fancydancing.

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It doesn’t really have an ending. And it confounds all expectations. I think the black kid is going to die. I figure, that’s what the scene with him and white girl in the restaurant is all about. To show that he can be mellow, non-confrontational, sweet, etc. – so that when he is killed, we will care.

Then, the horrible prolonged scene on the subway where the Arab insults and eventually spits on Anne. I figure, she will react to that hysterically, causing her boyfriend to kill the next dark-skinned person he sees – who will just happen to be that guy we have learned to like. But that isn’t what happens. Nothing happens. As we go along, I make up several different endings, none of which is the one provided by the movie.

The other remarkable thing is, it shows the ordinary routine of being smuggled into France and then deported, an everyday occurrence for the Romanians.

Juliette Binoche can look so plain, and also so luminously beautiful. She’s an unparalleled physical actor. The body as instrument, to the nth degree. All the set pieces show her off.  Movies often have those, as actor bait. Write something a real actor would love to sink teeth into, and a real actor with a name will do it for union scale. It happens. It happens the other way, too. The clever producer or director or writer gets with a huge name actor and says, “What do you want to do on the big screen? Sing, tap dance, drown, masturbate? You name it, and we’ll write it into the script.”

For a film, that can be a disaster. But not here. However they came about, these amazing scenes show off so well the genius of Juliette Binoche. The one where she’s listening to a kid being abused in the building. And at her acting job, the locked-in-a-room-by-a-twisto scene. And that off-the-scale scene, more literally a tour de force than many others given the label, where alone on the stage she stomps around being a total uninhibited madwoman, with large awkward movements like Mountain Girl in Intolerance. The viewer is far, far back in the theater. What the hell is that? Is it from an actual play that already existed, or was it created for the purpose of this film?

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My top ten reasons why Boxcar Bertha immediately was a favorite the minute it came out, and stayed in the “I Heart This” category:

  • Memorable love scene
  • Horrible death scene
  • Released in what was for me the thick of the “Sixties”
  • Symbolizes the “Sixties” very adequately
  • Grandpa was a union organizer
  • Great-grandpa was an abolitionist
  • I love David Carradine because of “Kung-fu” on TV
  • In this role, Barbara Hershey reminds me of a girl I knew in Venice, CA
  • I adore Barbara Hershey
  • “Life made her an outcast. Love made her an outlaw.”

Bertha Thompson’s daddy is a crop duster, and a rich guy makes him fly even though the plane is in bad repair. Now she’s a homeless orphan, a real survivor with both guts and luck, caught in the Great Depression. She keeps running into union organizer Bill Shelly, who is characterized as a “nigger lover,” among other things. Bill is always getting the shit beat out of him by people who disagree with his politics.

They both ride the rails. Using her feminine wiles, she helps Bill and his friends escape from a chain gang. The set a car on fire on the railroad tracks so the train has to stop. They take all the money and steal the train. There are plenty of fights, car chases, crashes, fires, robberies. A newspaper story about their criminality offends Bill. To show that he’s a revolutionary, not a common crook, he decides to take his share of the loot to the union hall. Bertha amuses herself by holding two well-dressed men at gunpoint, ordering them to stand up, sit down, etc. This may have been Hershey’s finest cinematic moment, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Hershey and Carradine have both said that the sex was unsimulated, as in, they were really doing it. The movie was made at the peak of their real-life love affair, and it shows.

Bill’s sore spot is poked when people keep reminding him he’s no longer a union man, but now a common criminal. They get caught trying to kidnap a raiload tycoon. Bertha escapes, Bill is sentenced. He’s back on a chain gang again, still getting shit beat out of him.

Bertha is picked up by a woman who turns out to be a madam. An anthropologist rents her time and asks a bunch of questions. She’s reunited with Bill. They kiss, the G-men break in and capture him and nail him to side of boxcar. They put writing over his head, obvious Christ symbolism, you know, like the scroll at the top of some crucifixes. A black guy surprises them and shoots all of Bill’s enemies. The train starts to move, and he’s still nailed to the boxcar. Bertha runs alongside, “Don’t take him, don’t take him.” It’s an unforgettable image, like in Rabbit Proof Fence where the mothers run after the government goons who take their kids away.

Given the Jesus analogy, it’s kind of weird that Barbara Hershey later portrayed Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, which, come to think of it, was also directed by Martin Scorsese. Boxcar Bertha has been called “Scorsese’s exploitation flick” and he played a small part it in, as a john in a brothel. It was produced by Roger Corman, who taught Scorsese what a $600,000 budget can do. The script was loosely based on a book, Sister of the Road, which was loosely based on the life of a real person, but apparently didn’t have much in common with her at all.

Related: Celebrities I Have Known

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Things We Lost in the Fire is rated R “for drug content and language,” but it starts out with such saccharine goo, I’m about to puke. I spent a couple of months looking forward to getting the DVD through inter-library loan – and now, these cornball scenes. Fortunately, it gets better.

Audrey (Halle Berry) and Brian (David Duchovny) are a happily married interracial couple. Also happily, race has absolutely zero relation to any of the issues in this film, and is not even referred to. But Brian is always running off to spend time with heroin addict Jerry (Benecio Del Toro), his oldest friend, when he could be making love to Audrey or hanging out with their kids. Brian is the only person who’s never given up on Jerry, but the price of being his support system is a certain amount of stress on the marriage. However, there are lovely non-corny episodes that show a deep understanding of the ways in which two people accommodate each other to keep their thing going on.

Then Brian intervenes in a domestic dispute between strangers, and gets killed. Audrey sends her brother Neal to tell Jerry about it, and bring him to the gathering of mourners. Audrey tells Jerry how she’s hated him for years, but there is no real good explanation for why she suddenly quits hating him. He gives up his apartment and moves into a methadone clinic where he works as a handyman. Grieving and at a loose end, Audrey seeks him out

After a fire, the Burkes’ garage had been partly remodeled into a living space, so Audrey invites Jerry to move in. She alternates between needing his presence for comfort, and lashing out at him for not being Brian. It especially upsets her that Jerry gets along great with the kids, which is a particularly true-to-life detail. It’s amazing how people can loathe you for relating well to their loved ones. Then Audrey recruits Jerry to be her teddy bear, cuddling her at bedtime. Though she has no interest in having sex with him, she wants him to do what Brian used to do, to soothe her to sleep, namely, pull on her earlobe. She says, “Faster, harder,” an unnecessarily pointed reminder that they’re having some weird kind of surrogate non-sex. This was, in my opinion, way over the top.

Jerry used to be a lawyer, and family friend Howard encourages him to take the mortgage broker test and accept a job in his company. Jerry’s going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and making a nice return to straight life, when Audrey gets a wild hair and asks him what heroin is like. Says she wants to know how it feels to escape. She seems to be working up to asking him to score for her. Luring a junkie back to junk is truly evil, and it’s a measure of how totally fucked up and conflicted this widow is.

Royally pissed off because Jerry knew where to find her daughter Harper, who was playing hooky from school, Audrey tells him to pack up and leave. He heads straight for the bottom, skid-row junkie style. Then Audrey decides to rescue him, takes him back to the converted garage adjoining her house, and assigns brother Neal to be his minder, while he goes through a hellacious withdrawal. (How did he manage to get so heavily re-addicted, so quickly?) Then she demands that he sign into a rehab clinic, which is pretty damn arrogant, when you consider that she removed him from a rehab setting in the first place, then tried to tempt him back into a habit, then threw him out when he was had succeeded in cleaning up with the help of Narcotics Anonymous. She’s really been jerking this poor guy around, and one can only hope that, once rehabbed, he steers clear of her.

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The Tiger's Coat

The Tiger's Coat

There are two reasons to notice The Tiger’s Coat. First, it seems to be the only surviving film that Tina Modotti appeared in. There are IMDB entries for Riding with Death (1921) and I Can Explain (1922), but they don’t seem to be available. Apparently she also acted in other silent dramas which are even more obscure. Pino Cacucci says “In 1920 she made several films; in one of them she appeared nude, wrapped in a lace veil that left one breast exposed”. In October 1920, a film magazine described her as a standard femme fatale of the era, “dangerous as the tiger whose tints and tones were in her eyes, her skin, her hair.”

Tina Modotti was, of course so much more than a celluloid vamp: revolutionary photographer, muse to several of the era’s most world-shaping men, and dedicated political operative. There are several parallels between the life of Tina Modotti and the life of the character she plays in The Tiger’s Coat.

Marie/Jean was, in her earlier life, the servant of an Anglo woman. The rural Italian Modotti family lived in miserable conditions (think Angela’s Ashes) and spent some time as migrant workers in another European country. It was all grinding poverty and no child labor laws. Tina went to work as a factory hand at age 12. One of her siblings told a biographer that Tina’s usual expression in those days was one of sad resignation, and she was the only one who didn’t complain about the cold and hunger. (That’s kind of counter-intuitive. Considering that Modotti grew up to be a committed Communist, struggling for the workers, doesn’t it seem that, as a child, she would have been the exact opposite, like complaining and rebellious?

Eventually the family moved to America, settling in San Francisco. It was the precisely right place for someone of Modotti’s talents and charisma. What turns would her life had taken if immigration had been instead to New York or Chicago? Or, Goddess forbid, Detroit?

Modotti worked in a factory, and independently as a seamstress. Still shy and gloomy, she became a different person onstage in theatrical performances. She “married” Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey and became immersed an American version of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of creative geniuses where every inherited value was called into question. Unlike millions of other new arrivals in America, Tina Modotti escaped the realm of dull, mindless drudgery. (And then later, flung herself back into it for ideological reasons.)

So, both Tina Modotti and Marie/Jean came from destitute peasant backgrounds and, arriving in the New World, pursued artistic careers and married well-to-do men. Living with Richey and out from under the usual economic pressure, she became more of a clothing artist. In one of the biographies, there’s a photo of her wearing a gown she made with batiked fabric of her own design. I would have bought one. Her talent for inventing and making clothes turned out to be a real asset to her acting career, because in those days, players supplied their own wardrobes. She made, among other things, the plaid outfit seen in The Tiger’s Coat and, for this or other movies, made harem pants, a tie-dyed shawl, a satin cloak, jeweled bra, and feathered beret.


The Tiger’s Coat is based on the novel of the same name, written by Elizabeth Dejeans and published in 1917, after first being serialized in a magazine. Directed by Roy Clements, the screenplay was written by Jack Cunningham. It takes place in a prosperous Southern California town where the wealthy Alexander MacAllister makes an enemy of another tycoon, department store owner Andrew Hyde, by threatening to expose his dirty business practices.

First announced as “The Mysterious Visitor” a haggard and tattered woman turns up at MacAllister’s door with a letter. There’s a misunderstanding about who she is, and whom the concerns. He believes she is Jean Ogilvie, daughter of an old friend, and he’s being asked to assume guardianship of her. MacAllister reflects to himself, “She’s got the darkest skin I ever saw on a Scotch girl. Too much of that Mexican climate.”

A good night’s sleep transforms her into a sultry temptress in slinky Isadora Duncan -like drapery, which this movie would have us believe is a Mexican outfit. “You may excite the gossips of the neighborhood,” MacAllister says. Her reply is, ” What difference does it make if you like it?”

Recognizing the impropriety of keeping this young lady, who is now his ward, in the house, he arranges for her to live more respectably with an artist and his wife. Carl the artist is a Chaplinesque figure, but on meeting his new houseguest, he gets real serious and scrutinizes her closely. “You look like a native girl I painted once in Tehuana Mexico,” he says.

There’s a scene in Hyde’s fancy store, where he and his son and some other people meet Jean, who comes in properly chaperoned by the artist’s wife. Old Hyde is suspicious and makes inquiries, and when he learns that Jean came from Mexico, he sets out to fully investigate her past.

Carl the artist paints Jean’s portrait in the supposedly Mexican peasant outfit. Here’s another parallel between actor and character. In real life, Tina Modotti posed for Edward Weston and, of course, for several motion picture cameras. At a later stage, she modeled for Diego Rivera, who included her in five of his Chapingo murals.

Study for "Germination"

Study for "Germination" by Diego Rivera

A sketch for “Germination” is shown, and a study for “The Flowering” is at Sotheby’s. A view of “Creation” is found also online. In a mural called “En el Arsenal,” Rivera painted her handing out ammunition to revolutionaries, accompanied by two of her lovers, Julio Antonio Mella and Vittorio Vidale.

En al arsenal by Diego Rivera

En al arsenal by Diego Rivera

Meanwhile, MacAllister has proposed to Jean and there’s a big engagement party, where the surprise entertainment is the Mexican dance, performed by Jean and a male partner. The number has kind of a novelty ending – the male dancer pretends to die, and then gets up and runs off. Old Hyde confronts her with his knowledge of the truth found out by his spy.

“On the eve of his marriage MacAllister’s dream of happiness is rudely shattered,” as the title card informs us, when Hyde confronts him with proof that Jean Ogilvie died and the woman he plans to marry is an imposter, Jean’s former servant. “A low-born greaser peon girl has duped you,” he flings at MacAllister. “You’ve been tricked by an adventuress.” (That was old-school for ho.) MacAllister knocks Hyde down

Back at the artist’s home, Jean says of her portrait, “There’s something weird about that picture. Why do you paint me so? Am I like that?” She slashes it to ribbons. (Too bad – that prop painting would have been a great acquisition for a collector.) The parallels again: some interpret this destruction as portending Tina’s abandonment of art, further on up the road, but that may be stretching a point. Anyway, Carl freaks out because it was the best work he’d ever done.

So then, the terrible scene between MacAllister and his now-no-longer fiancee. “I thought I had given my love to one with blood as pure as my own,” he says. “Instead of that I find myself yoked to a low-born peon, one of a race loathed and despised.” Strong words. Jean (whose real name, we now learn, is Marie) tells her story. Born in a village, both parents dead of yellow fever, she became Jean Ogilvie’s servant. Jean died, and the whole thing with the letter was a misunderstanding. She’d meant to tell MacAllister the truth, but then he treated her like an honored guest of equal rank. “You wouldn’t let me explain that first evening,” she pleads, but to no avail. “My love’s just dead,” MacAllister grimly insists. Maria packs up and leaves.

Pretty soon MacAllister changes his mind, but she’s gone. Then he gets a tip to look at the opera house, where she’s on stage performing an expressive dance. (I can’t help wondering if the dancer in this film is actually Tina Modotti or someone else. In those days, they didn’t used to credit body doubles or stunt people.) MacAllister’s card is brought to the star backstage, but Maria refuses to see him. Later on, she turns up at his mansion. Coming in from the pouring rain, she kneels before him and begs forgiveness, which of course is granted. Happy ending for all.


So now the second reason for noticing The Tiger’s Coat is clear: it’s a sterling example of racist attitudes in early 20th Century America. It’s one of a very small genre of films about people of color “passing for white.” (I never understood how Mexicans got to be colored in the first place. When I grew up there were three races: causasian, negroid, oriental. Mexicans aren’t black or yellow, so they must be white. I don’t get it.) Anyway, this is where the film’s title comes from: the artist’s remark that Jean/Marie has the tawny skin of a tiger.

I can see some well-intentioned hysteric wanting to ban this as a racist film. Is it? Yes, if you mean by racist that it says some vile things, and assumes that the culture and society of the time are in agreement. No, because love overcomes racial bias and conquers all (as long as the person of the “wrong” race assumes a kneeling posture and apologizes for existing….)

Anyway, it’s just one more parallel. Coming from another land, looking like a furriner, Jean/Marie had a difficult time, but found her niche on stage, where her exotic appearance and ways were appreciated, rather than scorned. This is exactly what Tina Modotti did. In the Bohemian world she hooked up with in the States, her alien-ness was not a liability but an asset.

In Riding with Death too, Modotti played a Mexican. In I Can Explain, she again portrayed – you guessed it – a Mexican. Weston saw one of the movies she was in and said, “The brains and imaginations of our movie directors cannot picture an Italian girl except with a knife in her teeth and blood in her eye.” But Modotti didn’t take it too seriously. Later, says Pino Cacucci, “…the rare times she did watch one of her films, it was to laugh about it with her friends.”

Letizia Argenteri says the moral lesson of The Tiger’s Coat is, “Lying is bad and only gets you into trouble, and one should not try to be what one is not.” It might also be the stupidity of racism. The real moral is, when re-releasing a silent film, get some extra financing to clean it up. This movie is truly irksome to watch, with a terrible flicker and all kind of other visually annoying flaws. What a shame that it was not restored. It does offer either English or German subtitles, and piano music.

Everyone knows how closely Tina Modotti’s art and life were associated with Mexico, but it was Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey who turned her on to that country when he described some of the sights he found there, stating that they held more poetry “than could be found in Los Angeles in the next ten years…” So, although she had played a Mexican many times in the movies, she didn’t actually cross the border until 1922, arriving in Mexico City to find that Richey had died two days before.

Tribute to Women Artists, by Mary Nash 2001

Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists, by Mary Nash 2001 - with Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Elizabeth Katlett

Las Milagrosas photo by franco folini, courtesy of this Creative Commons license

RELATED: How to Be a Legend: Tina Modotti

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