Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

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Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

Powerful Thoughts From Dr. King

Today we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  We remember him because he was a warrior for justice, equality, and peace, because he was an inspiration for millions, because he was a great thinker and stirring speaker, and because he stood up for his beliefs and was not afraid to buck the oppressors in power in order to achieve what he knew was right.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.If you are interested in getting a sense of the man, read the entirety of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written to fellow clergymen in April, 1963 in response to their statements that his actions were “unwise and untimely.”  More than 50 years later, it still resonates with immense power.  Here are a few points he made:

“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.”

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

“I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

These all remain thoughts worth pondering today, more than 50 years later, as we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Confronting History, Warts And All

At the University of Virginia, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson lurks just about everywhere you look.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, really — Jefferson was the founder of U. Va., and designed some of the buildings.  And, in the course of the university’s history, his words have been quoted to students over and over again.

So when the current president of the University of Virginia wrote to students and the school community after the results of the 2016 presidential election, it was not a surprise that a Jefferson quote found its way into the missive.

But some professors at U. Va. had had enough.  They wrote a letter to the school’s president asking that she stop using Jefferson as a “moral compass.”  In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President, Jefferson was a slaveholder who propounded views of racial inferiority.  The letter states that “[t]hough we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we hope to bring to light that many of us are deeply offended by attempts of the administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”  It adds: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it.  For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Although some people might consider the complaining professors to be ingrates — after all, the school that employs them wouldn’t exist but for Jefferson — I think they raise a valid point.  For too long, we’ve airbrushed the “Founding Fathers” and other American historical figures.  We quote their lofty, elevated statements but ignore the baser elements of their stories.  As a result, they become more like marble statues and less like the real people they actually were.

You’re never going to take Jefferson out of the University of Virginia — he was so proud of his role in its founding that he instructed it should be one of three accomplishments noted on his tombstone — but you can recognize that, for all of his brilliance, he was a deeply flawed person who held human beings as slaves.  Grappling with his contradictions and understanding his obvious personal limitations seems like a worthwhile academic endeavor.

And it might be good for the school, too, if administrators resisted the temptation to trot out Jefferson quotes at every opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with an occasional backward glance, but colleges and universities should focus on looking forward.

Standing For The Anthem

In our sports-obsessed culture, when a professional athlete declines to stand for the National Anthem and says it is because he is protesting race relations and police brutality, it’s news.  In this instance, Colin Kaepernick’s actions have provoked some fans to burn his San Francisco 49ers jersey and generated reactions from all points on the political spectrum.

tsjcI don’t get the jersey-burning.  Of course, under the First Amendment, Kaepernick has a right to protest and advocate for his position on important issues of the day, period.  We all do.  Although some people increasingly seem hell-bent on punishing and eventually criminalizing free speech, through speech codes and “safe zones” and other contrivances designed to protect our delicate sensibilities from unpopular views — and, of course, quash the expression of those views in the first place — every American still has a right to peacefully express their views on topics like racism.  Kaepernick’s actions aren’t unAmerican; they’re quintessentially American.

And anybody who thinks sports figures should just take their big salaries and keep their mouths shut is kidding himself, too.  Sports have been politicized for as long as I can remember, since at least the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the National Anthem.  And the NFL itself has become increasingly involved in public issues, with events like breast cancer awareness weeks where the players wear garish pink towels and socks.  Breast cancer is a pretty safe public issue, but it’s a public issue nevertheless.  To the extent there ever was a line between sports and the real world, that line has long since been erased and crossed.

Kaepernick’s gesture shows the power of free speech — which is why the founding fathers were so interested in protecting it.  One player sits during the National Anthem, and it provokes a firestorm. Kaepernick obviously picked the National Anthem because he knows that every sports event starts with its playing and that it is a source of pride to Americans.  Showing disrespect for the Anthem is an effective way of drawing attention to your cause, just like burning a flag was during the campus protests in the 1960s.

Of course, we can wonder whether Kaepernick will just sit during the Anthem, or will go beyond exercising his free speech rights to actually do something to promote better race relations or address police actions.  The San Francisco police have invited him to come to the police academy to open lines of communication and learn about the challenges facing the thin blue line.  I hope he accepts that invitation, and uses the interest his one-man protest has generated to increase understanding and help improve things.  Sitting is one thing, taking meaningful action is quite another.

Blazing Saddles In A PC America

Tonight the CAPA summer movie series screens the Mel Brooks epic Blazing Saddles.  I’ll be joining a group of guys from the firm who will be going to watch the film that features the greatest fart scene in the history of American cinema.

blazesaddle129It’s pretty amazing that CAPA is showing the movie in this day and age, because Blazing Saddles has to be one of the most politically incorrect films ever made.  Released in 1974, and written by Brooks and Richard Pryor, among others, it tells the tale of an ex-slave in the post-Civil War American West who is appointed sheriff and, with his drunken gunslinger sidekick the Waco Kid, works to save the aghast and unappreciative townsfolk of Rock Ridge from the depredations of a carefully recruited gang of thugs — all as part of a deep scheme to drive the people out of town and allow a corrupt politician to cheaply buy land needed for a railroad.  Along the way, Blazing Saddles manages to skewer every racial and sexual stereotype, insult just about every ethnic group and sexual orientation imaginable, and hilariously spoof all of the hackneyed elements of the western movie genre.

I think Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever — which undoubtedly says something about my sophomoric sense of humor — but it’s hard to imagine it being made today.  Our modern time seems like a more brittle, more easily offended America, where colleges have speech codes, comedians are being censored on campus, and people often seem to be actively looking for ways to scale new heights of political correctness.  Perhaps the America of 1974, in the twilight of the ugly Vietnam War/Watergate era, was just more willing to enjoy a hearty laugh at the expense of racist townspeople and gassy cowboys.

So tonight, as Lili von Shtupp cavorts onstage with dancing Germans, Mongo punches a horse and later expresses feelings for Sheriff Bart, the ungrateful people of Rock Ridge list their preferences for different ethnic groups, and a brawl in cowboy movie spills onto the sound stage of a musical featuring prancing, tuxedo-clad dancers, I’ll be mindful of the audience, too.  How many of the people in attendance will laugh at one of the stereotype-bursting lines — and then look around with a guilty conscience for having breached the invisible wall of modern political correctness?