Cesar could be a brilliant strategist, a skill observable in agile, imaginative interaction with determined opponents, turning apparent weakness into sources of strength. But the film depicts him largely as a creature of impulse, committed to be sure, but not the brainy strategist who took special joy, as he put it, in “killing two birds with one stone…and keeping the stone.” He was a learner, a deeply curious autodidact who thrived on constantly probing diverse sources of information: books, people and experiences. When I met him in 1965, he was reading Churchill’s The Gathering Storm because, as a student of Gandhi, he wanted to learn how his opponent thought. The commitment to nonviolence was based both on his appreciation of Gandhi’s methods and the way in which the civil rights movement, and reaction to it, had been unfolding every day. But oddly, although a commitment to nonviolence was a condition for undertaking the strike in the first place, shaping the way it unfolded, the film portrays nonviolence as a reaction to events in the strike.
Events depicted as spontaneous in the film, such at the 1966 “perigrinación” from Delano to Sacramento, were, to the contrary, a result of sustained, careful planning. The “kick-off” was timed to take advantage of national media in town to cover Senator Robert Kennedy’s participation in hearings held in Delano, orchestrated by the labor movement. This “march” strategically linked efforts to promote the UFW’s first boycott, to deter farm workers from returning to Delano in the spring, to pressure then Governor “Pat” Brown to intervene on the UFW”s behalf and to rekindle the faith, hopes and solidarity of the 100 to 200 people at the core of the movement and their supporters. Cesar did not hear of RFK’s death while driving somewhere in his car—we had been in LA doing the “get out the vote” that won him the primary, and some of us were with him in the ballroom when he was shot, on his way to thank the farm workers for their help. Similarly, the “fast” was not a reaction to a few unruly farm workers, but a strategic tactic, backed with a team of organizers, of which I was one, undertaken at a key time in response to court actions alleging violent tactics, renewing commitment several years into the fight and drawing attention to the grape boycott in time for the new season. The creativity, organizational discipline and courage that produced the events depicted in the film is lost entirely in the incoherent jumble of what the film makers must have judged to be “dramatic moments,” which presented out of time, place or sequence are robbed of their real drama.
– From “Not the Cesar Chavez I Knew,” by Marshall Ganz
by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
This review was originally posted on January 12, 2009
If there’s a classic film on race that gives “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” a run for its money, it’s 1959’s “Imitation of Life.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film, which stars Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. There’s no denying that this film is chock full of stereotypes and relegates its black characters to the sidelines—even on the DVD cover. So, why today is this Douglas Sirk film still regarded as ab fab? A few reasons come to mind—both shallow and serious.
For starters, Lana Turner’s wardrobe is to die for. Mahalia Jackson sings her ass off, and the acting in this melodrama reaped Academy Award nominations. To boot, the movie’s emphasis on mother-daughter relationships gives it mass appeal. Mix in a couple of failed romances and an untimely death, and you have all the ingredients needed for a tearjerker.
“Imitation of Life” inspired a 2001 R.E.M. song of the same name and the 2002 film “Far from Heaven.” Also, in ’02, a scene from the film was featured in Eminem’s star-making vehicle, “8 Mile.” Its enduring popularity made it no surprise when the film debuted on DVD in 2003.
The Lana Turner version of “Imitation of Life” is a remake of the 1934 film of the same name starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, based on the book Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst. (Both films were released together in a DVD set in 2008.) In the first film, white actress Colbert and black actress Beavers hawk a pancake recipe together. In the 1959 version, the focus here, Lana Turner (Lora Meredith) runs into Juanita Moore (Annie Johnson) on Coney Island after their daughters become playmates.
At first, Lora has no idea that Annie is the mother of little Sarah Jane. “How long have you taken care of her?” she asks Annie. Annie is brown-skinned, and Sarah Jane is “light, bright, damn near white,” as the saying goes.
Lora looks like she’s going to crap her pants when she learns that Annie isn’t SJ’s mammy, prompting Annie to tell her that Sarah Jane’s dad is “practically white.” This explanation is good enough for Lora, who likely would’ve needed smelling salts had SJ’s dad been actually white instead of practically so. Still, there’s no way for us to know his race for sure because he took off before Sarah Jane was born, leaving Annie to fend for herself and young daughter alone.
Now Annie has fallen on hard times. She’s jobless and apparently homeless and begs Lora to take her and Sarah Jane in. Why she wants to move in with Lora doesn’t make much sense. Lora’s a widow who’s not only broke but behind on her bills. It takes a stretch of the imagination to believe that Annie would insist on moving in with her instead of a more prosperous white woman or that Lora would take Annie in. Still, the two women move in together. To Sarah Jane’s chagrin, Annie assumes the role of maid and mammy, her payment being room and board.
“I don’t want to live in the back. Why do we always have to live in the back?” Sarah Jane objects when they move in with Lora and her little daughter, Susie.
Sarah Jane is none too happy about her station in life, a station she blames on her mother’s dark skin. Accordingly, she wishes Lora were her mother. She takes Susie’s white doll away from her because she doesn’t want to play with a black doll. Later, she pricks Susie to find out if their blood is the same color because she’s heard that black blood is different from white blood. Sarah Jane also wants to know what color Jesus was. When no one answers, she fills the silence by declaring, “He was like me…white.”
The discord Sarah Jane brings to her new household follows her to school also. When Annie shows up during the middle of class one day, she finds out that Sarah Jane has been passing for white. (This is the scene featured in “8 Mile.”) Her cover blown, Sarah Jane has a temper tantrum, stomping defiantly in the snow with Annie chasing her.
A major stereotype in “Imitation of Life” is that of Negro as saint. Annie is ever patient with Sarah Jane. She never raises her voice or backhands her, as you can bet some parents would do if their daughter pulled the stunts that Sarah Jane does. Because Annie is so Christ-like in the face of SJ’s ingratitude, it’s difficult to sympathize with Sarah Jane, who comes across like an evil brat. Yet, this child has clearly been through a lot—a father who abandoned her, a mother society tells her is a mismatch and a Gypsy-like existence due to the limited resources her mother has to draw on to survive. As she matures, one would hope that Sarah Jane would develop a more three-dimensional perspective, transferring the anger she has with her mother to the racially stratified society they live in. This doesn’t happen, though.
Fast forward a decade, and Sarah Jane is still furious with her mother for being black. It doesn’t matter that Lora Meredith is now a movie star and that she, Sarah Jane, Susie and Annie live in a house that could be on MTV’s “Cribs.” Sarah Jane remains surly. She doesn’t want to date a colored boy, objects to helping Annie serve Lora’s guests and to enrolling in a colored teacher’s college.
On one count I agree with Sarah Jane and that’s to do with serving Lora’s guests. We find out that, while Lora has spent her money carelessly, Annie has saved every bit of hers, so why is Annie content to remain Lora’s maid? Rather than invest in creating a life of her own, Annie puts aside cash for Sarah Jane’s schooling and for the lavish funeral she’s probably planned for before her daughter was born. It’s as if the only thing this black woman has to look forward to is death, a misconception, I believe, even in 1959. Since Sarah Jane refuses to go to teaching school, Annie won’t need to drop any coin on her education, though. Instead, she spends her money tracking Sarah Jane down when she runs away.
Sarah Jane decides to bounce when her mother’s presence makes it impossible to pass for white. First, Sarah Jane’s white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) dumps her and beats her up after finding out who her mother is. Then, Annie shows up to the dive bar Sarah Jane has been performing at in secret and blows her cover there. This leads SJ to pack her bags and head to California.
Am I the only one who cringes at this plotline? It’s common knowledge that blacks pass for white to obtain the opportunities denied to them in a racist society. Sarah Jane herself says, “I want to have a chance in life. I don’t want to have to come through back doors or feel lower than other people.” Yet, she’s passing for white to work in clubs? She could have remained black and landed such a gig, which entailed not only dancing but also taking off with clients after performances. Rather than give Sarah Jane any worthy motive for passing, the filmmakers chose to exploit the stereotype of the mixed-race woman as whore. Perhaps as a white woman, SJ could be an Ashley Dupré level whore rather than a Divine Brown level whore, but a whore she’d remain. Adding to my concern is that the storyline emphasizes how Lora Meredith refused to lie on the casting couch to be a movie star. In short, the white woman has integrity. The tragic mulatto, not so much.
While SJ is “dancing,” Lora Meredith has some personal drama of her own. She’s recently reunited with her former flame Steve (John Gavin) after dropping him years ago to pursue her acting career. This time around, however, their relationship faces another challenge when Lora’s daughter convinces herself that she has fallen in love with Steve. What a silly plot twist. Susie knows that her mother and Steve were once more than friends, so it’s pretty absurd that she deludes herself into thinking that now Steve has the hots for her and not for her mother.
Susie (Sandra Dee) is the character who most makes me want to hit “fast-forward.” Equal parts bratty and giddy—when she’s not pouting, she’s squealing—Susie is completely self-centered. She shows limited empathy for Sarah Jane and Annie, which is saying a lot given that she’s grown up with them. Then again, one can’t blame Susie too much for being self-absorbed. The woman who gave birth to her is such a diva she makes Mariah Carey look humble.
Don’t get me wrong. Watching Lana Turner being fabulous is junk food for the eyes. After Lora makes it big, we see her in her dressing room wearing a curve-hugging metallic gown and a matching jacket trimmed with fur. The next scene finds Lora in her luxurious new digs wearing a sheer floral piece that ties at the waist over a rose bodysuit. Even at home, she’s fierce. Other ensembles include a flared shimmering tube dress with a luminous pink shawl and a bustier cut Grecian gown halved by a turquoise sash. Turner is knee deep in jewels throughout the film. Pink gems, turquoise gems, platinum.
Beyond the wardrobe, however, Lora can be hard to swallow sometimes. How full of herself she is comes to light when she tells Annie that she didn’t know that Annie had any friends. Annie’s response: “Miss Lora, you never asked.” And when Annie grieves because Sarah Jane has disowned her, Lora is beyond callous, arguing that Susie’s crush on Steve is the bigger issue at hand. “This is a very real problem,” Lora says of Susie’s feelings for Steve, which are about as deep as an episode of “The Hills.”
So, let’s get this straight. Annie’s 18-year-old daughter hates her, hates her black blood, is a chronic runaway and is exotic dancing to make ends meet, and Annie’s problems aren’t “very real.” Seriously?
Although I’ve told you what happens in the movie thus far, I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that, in the conclusion, we’re led to think that the characters have gotten the reality check they need to stop being hateful bitches. The ending features Mahalia Jackson singing with such emotion that you’ll get chills. If you’re the weepy sort, have a box of Kleenex on hand. Also, if there’s anyone you need to make peace with, prepare to make amends.
The 1959 version of “Imitation of Life” has been criticized for being an over-the-top departure from the novel. Moreover, the casting of Susan Kohner as the older Sarah Jane has been criticized because she’s not black, as was actress Fredi Washington, who played the role (but with a different name) in the 1934 version.
I thought that the Mexican-Jewish Kohner did a convincing job as Sarah Jane. Acting and looks wise, she’s believable as a light-skinned black, which wasn’t at all the case for Anthony Hopkins in 2003’s “The Human Stain.” Perhaps she drew upon her experiences with real-life mother (dancer Lupita Tovar) in playing Moore’s daughter in “Imitation of Life.” Whatever her method, the onscreen chemistry between the two earned both Kohner and Moore Oscar nods. Kohner won a Golden Globe as well. Compare this to Turner and Sandra Dee, who weren’t acknowledged for their acting in the film.
In addition to criticism about the casting, “Imitation of Life” has rightfully been targeted for fueling the stereotype of the tragic mulatto. The film makes it clear that Sarah Jane doesn’t have a chance because she’s racially mixed. “How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?” Annie asks Lora. However, what’s been overlooked at times is that Annie is a tragic character as well, and not just because her daughter rejects her. A strong black woman before the phrase was in vogue, Annie is everyone’s “Rock of Gibraltar,” as Steve describes her. Although she’s tired and weary, Annie takes time to give Lora a foot rub, a gesture Lora would never deign to make for her. In the beginning of the film, both Lora and Annie are broke, but Annie assumes the role of maid, doing Lora’s laundry because she likes “taking care of pretty things.”
Juanita Moore, interviewed by The Black World Today in October 2005, made it clear that saintly, self-sacrificing Annie in no way represented her. “Annie was nothing like me…,” Moore told the publication. “I have been in a lot of pictures. However, most of them consisted of my opening doors for white people.”
And such was the fate of a black actress in the 1950s.
If you’ve yet to see “Imitation of Life,” become initiated by catching airings of it in January and February on Turner Classic Movies.
There have been nearly 20,000 tweets with the #StandwithJamilah hashtag following the events of last week. I do not have words to express the gratitude I have for the individuals who have raised their voices publicly and privately to ‘stand’ with me after I was attacked, or in Internet parlance, trolled following my exchange with RNC Deputy Press Secretary Raffi Williams—an exchange that was largely reported with gross factual inaccuracies by news outlets both large and small. After thousands of negative Tweets, emails and phone calls to and about both my employer and I—in which I was repeatedly called names ranging from the strange (“socialist,” “Marxist,” “plantation mistress,”) to the downright sexist and racist (“c-nt,” “b-tch,” “n-gger”) and even calls for me to be raped, robbed and beaten—I am sustained by the kind, supportive words I have received from so many people, women and men of all races.
I want to affirm, for any who may doubt, that I have very strong feelings about how my words were twisted to fit the agenda of others. (This is not new territory—ask Shirley Sherrod, Melissa Harris Perry, Anthea Butler…I suppose I should take some pride in now being counted among this principled group.) But, right now, this isn’t about my feelings. Even though so much of this seems like it is about me, Jamilah Lemieux, it most certainly isn’t. This debacle is largely a commentary on the evolving concept of being an employed individual on social media—and the ever-shifting line between public and private. It highlights the importance of employees being mindful of such at all times, whether that feels “fair” or not. This is not about the First Amendment, this is about corporate ethics and the challenges that face those of us who represent major media brands.
In theory, I should be able to say whatever I want on my personal social media accounts and everyone should understand and respect that my words are not the words of Johnson Publishing Company, nor EBONY. That is not the world we live in. That is not reality. And while a quip about a TV show or anecdote about a date may go by without much controversy, “snarking” those who don’t share my political views left me open to attack. And in an era during which there are people who live for nothing more than the opportunity to tear down a brand or an individual who is, perhaps, more confident or more accomplished than themselves, we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves and our careers from a useless war.
- From “Jamilah Stands,” at Ebony.com
By Arturo R. García
One of the arguments surrounding the #CancelColbert campaign has been that it has effectively given some white people “passes,” among them the target of the Stephen Colbert “Foundation” bit that inspired the tag in the first place, NFL owner Dan Snyder.
And that’s a fair point. But it’s also inaccurate to suggest that the campaign did not deal with “real racism.” Because, as we’ve seen over the past few days, a quite verifiable strain of hatred — at times veering into racism and misogyny toward activist Suey Park, as well as others discussing the issue — on the part of people who claim they’re not just defending Colbert, but comedy itself.
(Note: This post is image-heavy, with coarse and NSFW language under the cut.)
By Guest Contributor Frank Ligtvoet
In my research for a piece in the Huffington Post on independent schools and the lack of diversity I came across Avenues. The World School in New York, a newly founded school in Chelsea. The school’s expression of diversity was so far away from my take on the subject, that I – after some hesitation to get so direct – couldn’t resist to write and make some serious fun about it. Avenues is in essence not very different from many other independent schools in the US, alas. But in comparison to the serious efforts made by some of their New York competitors like Calhoun, Brooklyn Friends and Dalton to break away from their ‘exclusive’ traditions, to become more inclusive and less upper class white, Avenue stands out. Being the new kid on the block it could have learned from its peers.
The Times devoted earlier this year an article on the new New York based, for-profit independent K-12 school with its somewhat bloated, urban-chic name Avenues. The World School. It has the title: ‘Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?’. For my black kids, Joshua and Rosa, the answer to that question is absolutely not. And it might not be for white kids either.
I invite you to have a look at the ‘Leadership: Our People’ page of Avenues’ official site. What you will see are 17 portraits of ‘Our People’ with above nice descriptions of who they are and what they have accomplished in their lives. Impressive men and women, yes, and all middle aged, and then – disturbing: all white. Very white. Almost the whiteness of the definition of white when Italians and Spaniards were still regarded non-white, an Anglo-Saxon and German kind of white, an old-fashioned kind of white. (See Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.)
Of course, it is fine to be white. I myself am white with a Germanic name. But it is not fine to be collectively white, not in a city that is as diverse as New York, not in a country that is less and less run or dominated by whiteness, not in a country that consciously makes efforts to be more inclusive, that strives to ‘a more perfect union’, and particularly not in a educational institution, in a school that is a world school in a non-white world. To be fair: the New York campus has three non-white leaders and one is the Director of Admissions, not an unimportant position.
Of course there is, like all other independent schools in the US, a whole section on Diversity on the website. You can read there that the Avenues’ budget allows 10% of the student body to be social-economically diverse. Hope for a higher percentage will be found in donations from parents and alumni, in – again – old-fashioned charity that is. There is no goal, the goal is for what the money eventually allows.
The real Avenues diversity is, however, projected in the future when according to the grandiose plans campuses elsewhere on the globe will be established: ‘The broader Avenues learning community, eventually comprising campuses in many of the world’s leading cultures, will be exceedingly rich in cultural diversity among both students and staff. The thousands of students and faculty from China, India, Europe, Africa, Latin America and North America who will be an integral part of the Avenues culture will represent unprecedented cultural diversity.’
Avenues’ diversity is not the diversity in the definition of most other (independent) schools: it is not about sharing the privileges that we white people amassed over the course of history, it is not striving for equity and equality, it is upper-class, multi-culturalism, powered by jets between the campuses, campuses which will be each max 10% diverse as well. (From a global diversity perspective is the expression ‘the world’s leading cultures’ also a bit awkward, to say the least.)
To go back to the whiteness of the Avenue’s leadership: what does all this whiteness say to my kids, who are adopted and happen to be black? There are no black people good enough to have those important jobs? There are not even people who are not black and not white, like Asian or Latino or Arab people who are good enough to fill those positions? How can the leadership create diversity if they are not even able to diversify their own administrative body? The world of the New York world school is white. We, 7 year old Rosa and 9 year old Joshua, and their brothers and sisters of color, don’t count in that world, our heritage doesn’t count, the ‘unpaid work’ of our forefathers and –mothers doesn’t count. We can attend – of course – if we have the money, but what we are and who we are and where we are from doesn’t count in the Avenues world. And imagine the unthinkable: if my kids would attend and finish that school, what would be their idea about themselves? That they had to submit to almost complete whiteness to become the people they are?
I am sure that as an ethical service to the people who will send their kids to Avenues, the curriculum will be very, very worldly and very, very diverse, but it is not the flexible ideology that counts in the real world, it is the real and hard facts that surround us, the faces we see and the social hierarchy they represent.
The loss will not only be for the kids of color, but also for the white kids: they will experience that whiteness not rules the world any more once they leave the white, multi cultural bubble at graduation. And one can wonder if an education at Avenues under the ‘Our-white-people-leadership’ will be so effective after all, in a steadily more and more diverse world.
Frank Ligtvoet is the Founder of Adoptive Families with Children of African Heritage and their Friends, NY and published about adoption and diversity in a.o. Adoption Today, the Huffington Post and the New York Times. He tweets as @frank_ligtvoet.
By Kendra James
Every so often it pays to check in on the current “Black Film” rubric– ie, What makes a Black Film a Black Film? It’s a question I found myself struggling with as I wrote about Dear White People last week and realised that I couldn’t bring myself (and director Justin Simien didn’t want his audience) to stick it in the same category of Madea’s kooky and poorly directed adventures. But why is that?
Like a lot of popular movies that fall into the Black Film category Dear White People has a majority black cast, a black director, and deals with subject matter meant to resonate with a Black audience. Yet even beyond being an Indie, it’s clearly a different beast than 2014′s well performing Ride Along which seems to more easily fall into the traditional Black Film category. Making comparison and thinking about other movies that also seem to fall without question into that category -let’s consider movies like The Best Man series, the Barbershop series, and romcoms in the vein of Think Like a Man or Why Did I Get Married- I started to wonder if maybe it becomes a question of quality.
To include quality on the rubric is clearly problematic, leaning towards the implication that to be placed in the Black Film means to be a bad film. But do we place 12 Years A Slave in that same Black Film category? What about The Butler? They fall under the drama genre, but so do movies like Stomp The Yard, ATL, Coach Carter, or The Inkwell; a group of enjoyable, if otherwise unnotable films, with black directors and casts found under the “Urban Drama” category on Amazon . (Urban Drama being another way of saying “a drama with Black people in it.”)
Does it really come down to a question of quality with, perhaps, a side of pedigree- films nominated for multiple awards in various categories? It’s a tricky qualifier. Stomp The Yard with white protagonists is called Bring It On and it’s a comedy or a teen movie, not a “white film”. Coach Carter is called Hoosiers or Miracle and again it’s not a white film, it’s a sports drama. The Inkwell becomes a drama/romantic comedy directed by Nancy Meyers, starring Meryl Streep, and… well, you can see the trend. There’s no real need to recategorise any of these films as “Black” or “Urban”, but for some reason we do.
But what if beyond the merits of the cast, director, subject matter, and relative quality, it’s a simple matter of character relateability? White viewers are conditioned with the societal requirement that it’s necessary to at least pretend to empathise with the Solomon Northups of the world. The Kenya McQueens? Not so much. With that we’re left with a qualifier almost more insulting than the question of quality. While Black audiences are expected to relate and empathize with white characters in films regularly, the moment we ask them to do the same for us suddenly it’s a Black Film. In that case, the categorization is almost left up to the white viewer alone.
So is it cast/director, subject matter, quality, or a question of white audiences being unable to empathise with characters who look nothing like them? What actually makes a Black Film? Thoughts?
By Kendra James (subbing in this week for Arturo Garcia)
Content Warning: Mentions of sexual assault.
Why is the volume on this show constantly turned up to 11? Use of dramatic tension becomes less effective if its the only thing used to advance the story along. Unless it’s desired outcome was thoroughly succeeding in turning Scandal into a show that I have less emotional attachment to than the adolescent canines over on MTV. In that, it’s succeeded.
This week we were introduced to the older Grant children who’ve been away at boarding school for three seasons of television (we’ll ignore the fact that the calibre of boarding school those kids would likely be at are in session for far less time and have far more and longer vacations than their absence would indicate), as Scandal attempted to refocus some of the parent/child drama way from Olivia and Eli over to the Grants and their brood.
That was all less exciting than the D&G maternity cloak Lynn Paolo had Kerry Washington swishing around the White House in, but here are a few stray observations:
By Guest Contributor refresh_daemon, cross-posted from Init_
While writing my piece on the damaging effect of the #CancelColbert campaign, I have to admit that, like hashtag originator Suey Park, Jenn at Reappropriate andAngryAsianMan, I too felt that something was wrong with the actual satire made by The Colbert Report in the segment, especially when you consider, like Jenn and AngryAsianMan noted, that the Stephen Colbert persona has a history of going to anti-Asian racist satire. Then I realized that while the structure of the satire is mechanically correct, the satire from The Colbert Report in the piece doesn’t work because it doesn’t realize that the audience won’t find it wrong or offensive. (Trigger warning: Ethnic slurs quoted or used demonstratively below)