Saturday, February 28, 2009


Do you miss watching Keith every night on MSNBC? Need a political fix? Here's a great movie for you political junkies who can't get their jolt from debates over the TARP program.

Sharpe James was mayor of Newark, NJ for 20 years. His iron grip on power was challenged by Councilman Cory Booker in 2002. STREET FIGHT (2005) directed by Marshall Curry, documents the struggle to dislodge a long-time and popular incumbent who had all the heavy hitters come in to campaign for him, including the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

The first hour is an admiring, almost idolatrous, study of Cory Booker's life and career. The last 30 minutes is a tense study of the weeks before the election. Threats and intimidation are the stock in trade of Mayor James. His style is "give a little, take a little, take a little bit more," if I can quote Jackie Gleason. James's workers and police force painted over Booker signs or ripped them down.

As Election Day loomed, voter machine fraud was in the air and the U.S. Attorney came in to monitor the election, just like a third world nation. Booker's team prepares for the debate and tells him good points don't matter but clever sound bites do. Booker is prepared by them to do what it takes to win, but will he get in the mud? He shows the tenacity of a former college football star but he's playing against an NFL-calibre politico.

The doc filmer not being allowed to film James at rallies makes for great footage. Ugly threats from James's people are scary and sometimes we just hear secret audio with transcription. On audio we hear James accuse a man in the crowd of being a terrorist; turns out he's just a local guy: "I was just sitting there." But when James saw the Booker hat on his head he sent the cops after him. Two reporters take the filmer aside and tell him to be careful, his life could be in danger.

Great images: Booker in the gym, letting off steam: this guy is tough, hitting the weights and the heavy bag. Al Sharpton is on stage endorsing Sharpe James. Former President Clinton doesn't take sides but James runs a picture of himself and Clinton in his ads to give a false impression. Jesse Jackson endorses James. Dr. Cornell West endorses Booker. Sound trucks claiming that Booker's "not black" and "You suspect boy." Sounds funny to say but it turns into a racist campaign, the way Muhammad Ali baited Joe Frazier over authenticity.

A cute child shakes Booker's hand. She says "smell my hand" and interviewer says "What do you mean?" "Cory Booker smells like the future," she says.

Constant lies by James, even on Election Day, calling his workers "volunteers" and Booker's people paid workers; yet James's vols ID them themselves to the interviewer as paid workers from Philly who barely know who Sharpe James is.

Election Day poll problems of power outages, intimidation of Booker supporters, levers broken, not enough Booker poll workers; cop taking down Booker signs, more nasty sound trucks: "It's not how bright you are--it's how white you are!" Al Sharpton again, proudly marching down the street with his good friend James.

The polls close. James does great in the predominantly black districts.

Spoiler alert: results below:

James 28300
Booker 24800

The film ends with the note that Booker will try again in 2006.

Postscript: James chose not to run in 2006. Booker did and he won with 70 percent of the vote over a candidate associated with James. James had some trouble with the law in 2008 and you're welcome to Google him and find our what he's doing today. The wonder of it all is how he managed to fool so many for so long.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Amos 'n Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy

After midnight tonight you can hear a radio episode of Amos & Andy called "Ruby's Diamond" on CHML-AM 900 from Hamilton, Ontario. But if any station in the U.S. broadcast this show, the outcry against it would be overwhelming. Why is Amos 'n Andy unofficially banned in the U.S.? is running a TV documentary from 1983 called Amos 'n' Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy. Hosted by the late funnyman George Kirby, this program takes a look at and even runs a lengthy clip from the TV show.

The NAACP successfully pressured CBS in 1953 to cancel the popular program after two years and finally to remove the popular program from syndicated repeats in the mid-1960s. After seeing this documentary, hearing the original actors talk about their roles, and doing some research (including watching episodes on youtube), I concluded that the time has come to let this show come home. From what I saw, many of the images were very positive showing African Americans as hard working professionals with good family values. The negative images or articulation were no more demeaning than Jimmy Walker in GOOD TIMES or many hip-hop videos. The artistry of these fine actors deserves to be seen.

Trivia: the theme from the show came from BIRTH OF A NATION.

Note: if this show comes back to TV, people who have "borrowed" from it are going to be embarrassed. For example, there's a scene in MULTIPLICITY where Eugene Levy surfaces a driveway and Michael Keaton says you did a good job but you got the address wrong by two--you were supposed to do the house next door! How did I make this connection? Don Imus used to run a bumper of the ANDY radio clip that inspired this scene.

I'm going to turn this part of the post to hulu poster pembroke1952
Pioneers? Absolutely. I am African American and grew up watching the Amos n' Andy show in the late 1950's. I'm 57 years old and I think they were funny then and I think they're funny now. The Godsen and Corell black-face routine I didn't care for, but the actual African American cast playing the roles of Kingfish, Amos, Andy, Sapphire, her 'Momma', Lightnin' & Algonquin Calhoun (the attorney) should be ranked among the most talented great comediens of all time. Imagine breaking into the television medium at that time, especially being the first all Black cast television show in the 50's. As for their acting, they should be seen for just that - their ACTING. See it for what it is - pure raw talent. I see no difference in their comedic genius than the Wayans Show, the Three Stooges, Sanford & Son, or Good Times - silly, goofy, funny and sometimes dramatic. It's unfortunate it was during a time when racial tension was high but we should see these guys for what they were, talented comediens. I was fortunate to buy a DVD collection of the tv series on-line and have all 86 tv shows on DVD - and I have a good laugh everytime I watch them! I'm not ashamed - I VERY proud of them!
In conclusion, judge for yourself. Here is the pilot episode of the show, courtesy of youtube. You can also rent the DVDs from Netflix.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

SLOW FADE TO BLACK by Thomas Cripps

Several years ago (25?) I was watching Channel 9 in New York. A newsbreak with reporter Denise Richardson came on during an evening movie. I can't remember the movie, but just before the break there was a scene with Stepin Fetchit doing his shuffling and stuttering act. As they cut to the break, Ms. Richardson, who thought her mike was off said, "I can't believe they're still doing this to our people," then went into the update. This caused a local brouhaha and I think may have hurt her career. I couldn't find this incident on Google, which surprised me, but I recall it clearly. I'm not sure where she works now but I've seen her in recent years on the local cut-in to the Jerry Lewis telethon.


SLOW FADE TO BLACK: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, by Thomas Cripps, covers the long, slow climb from the first silent movies to the 1940s, when the old stereotypes started to fade during World War II. Chapter 1 reminds us that film began in the 1890s. Notwithstanding Thomas Edison's Kinetoscopes showing black troops "marching down a gangplank on their way to Cuba," in Colored Troops Disembarking, for the most part demeaning scenarios were the norm. Typical Edison titles: Prize Fight in Coon Town, Interrupted Crap Game, The Gator and the Pickaninny, get the idea.

Chapter 2 covers Birth of a Nation (1915), which is revisited throughout the book as the archetypal racist movie. Today it's in the public domain and you can see it on YouTube, but even in 2009 it would evoke outrage if shown in a commercial venue or outside the classroom.

Blacks channeled their frustrations with negative portrayals into producing their own films, the most famous director being Oscar Micheaux. As overt racism was replaced by casual racism (portrayals of criminality replaced by shuffling butlers and maids) in mainstream movies, black-produced movies suffered from lack of capital and distribution.

Some blacks turned to European cinema in the 1930s where there was less racism; two artists who crossed the ocean were Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. However, Baker's "exotic primitives" were seen as stereotypical and "drew small audiences." Robeson was more successful in American and European films. He was in a most difficult position, held to the highest standard by his own people. Old Bones of the River (1939) was appeared to be a dignified British shoot but the final cut caused outrage in the African American press.

Cripps thesis is a slow but steady climb to the years of World War II. Blacks fighting for their country added to the pressure on Hollywood for fairness. Caught in the middle were brilliant performers such as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Criticized by some for the way he played Jack Benny's butler on the radio, I see Anderson as clearly Benny's equal or better in the mold of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves.

My biggest quibble in the whole book with author Cripps is his comment that Anderson saved the Benny show. I believe this to be false. Anderson made a popular show greater. I saw no need to demean Benny and can find no evidence that his show was in any trouble before Anderson joined the cast.


You can still see racially insensitive portrayals on Turner Classic Movies. Some people want them banned. Tough question. Should Irishmen call for banning any use of the phrase "paddy wagon"? No. Should Stepin Fetchit be banned? I don't think so either, but I wouldn't object to a note that you sometimes see at the beginning of the broadcast, that some portrayals are of their time and may offend modern sensibilities.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Last year the editor of 1 On the Town decided to honor Black History Month and it was such a hit we'll look take a brief look back at what we covered.
Pettigrew: As unlikely as it seemed, this prescient comic book from the '60 forecast the election of the first African-American POTUS. Just as unlikely one year ago was the candidacy of Barack Obama.

Don Cheadle in HOTEL RWANDA and TALK TO ME: Cheadle is taking over the Terrence Howard part in IRON MAN 2. Lots of buzz over what happened and there's no conclusive evidence yet in this you-can't-fire-me-I-quit controversy.

PRIDE AGAINST PREJUDICE: THE LARRY DOBY STORY: There's a young guy running Newark, Corey Booker, who could be the Larry Doby of presidential politics in 2 years. Like my governor David Patterson said at the Gridiron Dinner regarding his own future in national politics, once you go black, you never go back.

On to 2009: we'll be looking at:
  • SLOW FADE TO BLACK: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. This is a scholarly tome by Thomas Cripps from 1977 and reissued in 1991 by Oxford University Press. One of the bonuses of joining the Press last June is that I picked this up at an in house used book sale for 50 cents.
  • AMOS 'N ANDY: Anatomy-of-a Controversy: I can tune in CHML-AM 900 in 2009 and listen to Amos 'n Andy but in the U.S. they are banned forever. This doc from 1983, narrated by the late great George Kirby, explains why.
  • Reflections on Chappelle and Pryor: The enduring appeal of CHAPPELE'S SHOW--one of my teenagers got into this show early, then a while later I did and told my friend. "Who? Dave Atell?" one of them said. Later he actually thanked me for telling him about the show, busted a gut enjoying "The World Series of Dice." Richard Pryor's LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP: there was a week in my life in the early '80s where, like Spencer Tracy in the last scene of MAD MAD WORLD, I thought I'd never laugh again. Richard got my funny bone back and I've been forever grateful.
  • STREET FIGHT (2005): the no-holds barred fight for the soul of Newark, NY--Booker vs. James, winner take all.
Hang on, it all starts next week here at Black History Month 2.