Friday, February 29, 2008


When I was 6 years old we used to get a Catholic publication for children called TREASURE CHEST. It was a comic book and contained stories with moral teachings worked in with history and general informaton, not necessarily religious doctrine. In January of 1964 they began a six-month series on the presidential electoral process. Titled Pettigrew for President, the story is so forgotten that I only got 87 Google hits on it, although I have a feeling that might change soon. The hook was to follow the candidacy of one man in his quest for the presidency in the near-future (although far away to a kid) year of 1976. They never mention the political party. We learned about the primary system, raising money for the campaign, and traveling around the country looking for support. There are even dirty tricks from his opponents trying to tarnish his military record.

Somewhere in the series we realized something was up. They never showed the candidate's face and we only saw him in long shots. Word balloons would cover his face when we got close. At first we thought they didn’t want to confuse us with any similarity to an image of a real person, but eventually we began to speculate. Here’s where my memory gets hazy but I think there were hints from some characters that they didn’t like him for personal reasons. Eventually, in the very last pages of the series we see Governor Pettigrew, war hero and family man, get the nomination of his party. The big reveal? He’s African-American, or as they put it in the story in 1964, Negro.

We came to admire this man and even root for him. Any racial prejudice we might have had was given a hard knock, and it encouraged a young mind to think about people based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. This is the kind of practical morality that was associated with the Catholic Church in 1964.

And now Obama, the real-life Tim Pettigrew. The pundits are shocked how well he’s doing with white men. H-m-m. These pundits go to the same schools and are hired by the fathers and mothers of friends who also went to those same schools. They don’t ride the subway or go to public school meetings for their kids. They live in lily-white suburbs and when they say Hi every day to their doorman, they make believe that it shows how open their hearts are. They pretend to know what I think by assuming I’m too racist to even consider voting for an African-American. I wonder if the fault is not in me or the stars but in themselves.

We’ve tried the stupidest kid in the class, now let’s try the smartest. I know Carter was smart, but the president can’t be talking about malaises and driving the market in the toilet. Give this guy a shot.

Personal note: my two sons are now registered for the draft and I don’t want any part of a 100 years war with Big John.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Black History Month: HOTEL RWANDA

So far during our Black History Month celebration we've looked at the 1940s and '50s and the career of baseball's Larry Doby, the '60s and '70s with deejay and community leader Petey Greene. Today we jump to 1994 and pay tribute to Paul Rusesabagina. He was the subject of the movie HOTEL RWANDA (2004) and portrayed by Don Cheadle (Cheadle and Rusesabagina are pictured). Rusesabagina, using the resources of the hotel that he managed, saved over 1200 Tutsi refugees from the machete-wielding Hutu rebels, proving that one man can make a difference.

Historical background vs. the movie: the claim is made in HOTEL RWANDA that the Belgians (former colonial rulers) set the Hutu against the Tutsi by favoring the lighter-skinned Tutsi with jobs and educational advantages. The Hutu (of whom the non-political Rusesabagina was a member) exacted a terrible revenge in the form of ethnic cleansing or as it should be called, mass murder. 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days.

Research reveals that the two ethnic groups were rivals before the Belgians arrived in 1916, but the Belgians made things worse by their policy of favoring the Tutsi. When they left in 1962, the Hutu majority took over the government and scapegoated the Tutsi for most problems of the country. The movie especially emphasizes the hatred of the Tutsi for collaborating with the colonizers. The assassination of the president, a Hutu, sparked the Hutu rebellion.

In HOTEL RWANDA, Paul Rusesabagina has the savoir faire and survival instincts of Rick from CASABLANCA. Paul is used to doing favors for the powerful and seemed to be an unlikely savior. Early on in the movie he and his family peer through their front gate and see a Tutsi neighbor beaten and taken away. He tells his wife there’s nothing anyone can do. At great risk to his life he makes a decision (at his wife’s urging) not to turn refugees away from his hotel, first under the tenuous protection of the blue helmeted U.N troops and then the ominous oversight of the General Bizimungu. He concocts a fable for his “protector,” General Bizimungu, to be mindful of the Americans and their spy satellites; they will be used to show evidence against him in war crime trials. It’s the one bit of comic relief in the movie. Amazingly, General Bizimungu, indicted in 2002, is still on trial which began in September 2005. The charges are genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

There’s a point where refugees are being allowed to leave and Paul and his family (his wife is Tutsi) are getting ready to get on a transport under U.N. protection to leave the country. As the truck is getting ready to leave, he tells his wife that he can’t go with them, that he can’t leave the rest of the people behind in the hotel. The transport is driven back by rebels due to a tip from a hotel worker, and the family is reunited. Eventually, international pressure and the return of control by the military over the machetes leads to a lessening of violence and the family does make it to a refugee camp to leave the country. Paul Rusesabagina received the thanks of many people at the camp in 1994 and when the movie came out in 2004, the thanks of the world.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


This informational Budd Greenspan 2007 documentary should be on the C-B-S network, not just the Y-E-S cable channel under the “Yogi and a Movie” banner. The story of the second black player (and first in the American League) in the modern era of major league baseball, Larry Doby is not a household name, but then again in Internet time kids today think LeBron invented the dunk. Twinned in history, Doby is inevitably compared to outspoken Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers and comes up very well.

Interviews with former teammates such as Al Rosen and Bob Feller are mixed with comments by contemporaries Ralph Kiner, Don Newcombe, and friends and family of this quiet Cleveland Indian who made the move from the Negro Leagues to the American League and became an All-Star Hall of Famer. Doby himself appears in a few segments.

The humiliation of not being able to get a cab and having to walk in uniform to the whites only clubhouse in segregated Washington, DC is just one of the many injustices that you can’t be reminded of enough times. It reminded me of my father’s story of riding the bus in DC in the ’50s and laughing that all the white folk stood in the front while there were plenty of empty seats in the back. Local black families took in the ballplayers who were not allowed to stay in the hotel with the rest of the team.

A great moment in the film is when the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Braves to take a 3-1 lead in the 1948 World Series. Steve Gromek pitched and got the win backed by a Larry Doby home run. The picture of a black man and a white man (see top of post) hugging was revolutionary in 1948 and Gromek took heat from it from his friends. Gromek's voice is heard commenting that it was nothing, just something that teammates do when they win.

One flaw in this film is showing that Doby retires in 1959 but then skips 10 years to Bowie Kuhn as the commissioner of baseball looking to advance blacks to the commisssioner’s office and to team management. What did Doby do from 1959-69? The “Yogi and a Movie” bumpers had additional info about Doby, such as Doby playing in Japan in the early '60s after his MLB days, and I would have liked to heard more about this episode in Doby’s life.

The first half of the movie is a social history of the era hanging its hat on Doby as one of many brave men who fought for the U.S in WW II but were denied basic rights after the war. There’s a great poster showing a man in military uniform in position to go into battle juxtaposed with the same man in the same position in a baseball uniform.

One fact I learned or forgot that I knew is why the Dixiecrats and Strom Thurmond left the Democratic party in '48. I only recalled that they did it, not precisely why they did it. Truman and the party had an extensive plank on civil rights presented at the '48 convention. For some reason, all I could recall was that the Dixiecrats hated Truman for one reason or another. There's a good audio of a speech by Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis at the convention.

Ira Berkow’s NY Times 1997 column on Doby was key to getting people to remember Doby and why he should be in the Hall of Fame, not only for his skills but for what he had to overcome. When he was elected in 1998 it was long overdue, like civil rights itself.

The number of African-Americans in baseball has declined dramatically for many reasons. Baseball has suffered from foreign players taking American jobs but no one likes to talk about it. Hard for a kid to want to emulate someone who doesn't live here or speak the language. I guess it's like comic books; the world of sports isn't for kids any more. I’m old enough to have seen the first blacks who played for teams (Elston Howard--Yanks, Pumpsie Green--Red Sox, Ernie Banks--Cubs) in the later part of their careers and the way it's going, 2008's class could be the last. We could use a couple dozen Jackie Robinsons and Larry Dobys to take away the odor of the steroid cheaters, but heroes like this only come along once in a generation, if at all.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Black History Month: TALK TO ME on DVD

I was first was impressed by Don Cheadle playing a lawyer on the CBS-TV drama PICKET FENCES. He was featured in BOOGIE NIGHTS and his career got another big boost playing Sammy Davis, Jr. in THE RAT PACK cable movie. Artistic triumph came in HOTEL RWANDA and he hit multiplex mega-consciousness in the OCEAN’S 11 series.

Personal recollections of other great Cheadle moments include two television appearances: a very funny MADtv sketch where he plays a couples therapist and a crazy duet with Adam Sandler when Sandler guest hosted for an ailing David Letterman.

One Cheadle performance that deserved to be seen by a wider audience in 2007 (now out on DVD) is TALK TO ME, a biopic about Petey Greene, an AM-radio star in Washington, D.C. who for a moment in history transcended show business and calmed a racially explosive capital.

Petey Greene is an ex-con who got his start on a microphone spinning his grandmother’s 45s over the prison P.A. He talks his way into a deejay job at a failing AM station in the early ‘60s. The program director, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is the brother of one of his fellow convicts. They first meet in prison and Dewey says look me up when you get out, which no one thinks will be soon. Greene gets out unexpectedly early and shows up looking for a job.

Chiwetel Ejiofor steals this movie deftly playing the unexpected twists that his character takes. Dewey starts out as his boss and becomes mentor, friend, and agent. This is as much the Dewey Hughes story as it is Petey Greene’s. For a film with an African-American theme you’ll be surprised to find that an underlying theme is the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as we see Dewey watching Johnny. Carson is his idol, not only professionally but personally.

The central event of the movie is the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dewey’s presence on the air that night and a free public concert the next day by James Brown, with Dewey as emcee, is credited with helping to bring order to the besieged city.

Martin Sheen, as the station owner, has a great scene after Dewey’s radio show ends that you’ll have to see on the DVD extras. He’s interpreting the horrible events at the end of that long day and for some reason we only see the beginning and end of a moving monologue about meeting MLK back in the day. Perhaps the director felt it took away from the impact of the Dewey’s scene.

Cheadle plays Petey as a human being with flaws and there’s no attempt to excuse his drinking, infidelity, or letting people down. There’s no Rocky-type ending as his career peaks on television in Washington. He doesn’t want what his agent wants: national fame. He speaks the truth about corrupt politicians, sexual mores, and the bad things that people in his own community did, except that this was the first time anyone ever heard it on the radio. In one of the DVD extras, a reflective Cedric the Entertainer (deejay “Nighthawk” Bob Terry) ruminates on the state of expression today and notes that people were more free to speak back in the 1970s. Sad but true and maybe TALK TO ME will remind people of their freedom to speak and act.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

90s Flashback: The Dana Carvey Show (1996)

The word “outrageous” is overused but The Dana Carvey Show (1996) truly was just that. Carvey’s sketch ensemble was tasteless and funny and even today seems too edgy for broadcast. You catch episodes 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 on a new website called

Carvey does many of his old familiar characters such as Ross Perot, Paul McCartney, and Regis Philbin. He keeps it up to the minute by playing the Unabomber on an MTV dance show (the unknown Selma Blair can be spotted as an MTV hottie) and Kato Kaelin in an OJ Simpson sketch. Simpson is selling a video tape telling us how he committed the murder of his wife, exactly like the book he was hawking in 2007. Series regular Stephen Colbert does a spot-on Geraldo Rivera grilling Kaelin and Simpson.

Colbert is the breakout performer in this series and the following year he joined THE DAILY SHOW with another Carvey cast member, Steve Carell. Colbert has been in character so long on Comedy Central that after seeing Carvey’s show, it’s clear his talents as a mimic at that time were very sharp and now regrettably unused, unless you count playing “Stephen Colbert” as Bill O’Reilly. One episode of Carvey has him doing a very accurate Gregory Peck at the Academy Awards and another an eerie Oliver Stone.

I’ve watched four of the episodes and have not yet seen the infamous WIZARD OF OZ parody, featuring a song called, “If I Only Had an A%%.” This was still 1996 and the level of tastlessness on TV hadn’t reached where we are today, but it was building. If Carvey did a show like this today, it might have a shot as the threshold for bad taste is much higher, although half-hour sketch comedy shows rarely succeed (HALF THE GEORGE KIRBY COMEDY HOUR, PAT PAULSEN’S HALF A COMEDY HOUR).

Other stuff on I watched the first TODAY show from 1952 on and found it fascinating. Host Dave Garroway leads us through the wonders of live video remotes (which they explained are just like the audio remotes we were used to on the radio) and a wall that featured the major newspapers of the country flown in just for the show! I was surprised to see a news crawl at the bottom of the screen, thinking that was a more modern innovation. Great stuff.

I find good for shows that I forget or can’t watch, for instance 30 ROCK, CONAN, and THE SIMPSONS.

There are several old/new pairings on, such the two BATTLESTARs, the two KOJAKs, and the two WHAT’S HAPPENINGs.

They have MCHALE’S NAVY, of which I’m not a big fan, and I may write to to see if they can get F TROOP, of which I am a big fan. Many of the shows hulu runs are not complete seasons, which I think may be designed to protect DVD sales. There are commercial breaks of no longer than 30 seconds duration and they are unobtrusive compared to the 4-5 minute breaks on broadcast TV. Enjoy!